Not Your Father’s Ancient History

Do you like your historical biographies bold and unapologetic? Do you want to learn something new from a set of seemingly old and exhausted primary sources? Want to hear the tale of a person constrained by crushing societal forces, but striking out in an unconventional and incredibly effective way? Finally, are you o.k. with expletives and current cultural references while learning about the ancient world? If so, let me recommend to you the thrilling, fascinating, well researched and bitingly funny Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon. Read on to find out more.

If you haven’t heard of Agrippina before (technically Agrippina the Younger but, as Southon points out, the Romans were super unoriginal when it came to giving a child a name) you have probably run across some of her notorious relations. She was the granddaughter of the first emperor Augustus, the sister of the emperor Caligula (yes, that one!), the wife of the emperor Claudius, her own uncle (Ewww), and the mother of Nero (oh, my!).

So with an interesting pedigree like that, why haven’t you heard more about her? Well the elephant in the room when it comes to telling the story of a woman in the ancient world, and much of history alas, is who does the telling. The two primary surviving historical accounts of her time are written by two senators, Tacitus and Suetonius, roughly a hundred years later. Both had a major axe to grind when it came to the idea of a woman stepping out of her ‘proper’ role and, heaven forbid, wielding a little power for herself.

Southern does an excellent job of demonstrating how Agrippina only shows up in the historical record at all as a foil or reaction to a male protagonist. Because of this, there are huge gaps when it comes to trying to form a cohesive narrative of her life. Most historians look at the gaps and just give up on trying to tell her story at all. Not Sothern. Instead she embraces the ambiguity and speculation with gusto and produces a convincing and entertaining account.

It is really hard to do her style justice by just describing it, so I’ll just quote a great passage here concerning Agrippina’s mother, yet another Agrippina, and her return to Rome after her husband’s death:

Agrippina the Elder returned to Rome in 19CE with two symbolic middle fingers raised in Tiberius’s direction, while Tiberius sulked in his palace. The atmosphere went slowly downhill from here. But they were family, and – like Michael Bluth – the Julio-Claudians put family first. They couldn’t just avoid one another and get on with their lives, and Agrippina the Elder didn’t want that anyway. Agrippina the Elder wanted revenge.

So clearly this is not your father’s ancient history. But if you give this excellent history a chance, you will be thanking the gods that it isn’t when you finish.

Depression isn’t forever

Writing of a personal nature— sharing a part of my life, I take the risk of allowing myself to be exposed.

I grew up in a big family and as a kid I felt loved and secure, but once I got into my teens my world turned upside down. During those years music and books impacted me. The spellbinding music of the 60’s and 70’s coupled with books like Go Ask Alice, published anonymously in 1971, and I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, published in 1964, fueled my young easily-influenced brain, tightening the tentacles of darkness. I experienced a deep depression and was ripe for self-destruction. I considered thoughts of taking my life.

Sadly, there are many people (young, old and in between) who out of desperation view suicide as the only solution to their pain. Depression is a tough subject to discuss, yet it’s a conversation that cannot be ignored. Consider the character of Eleanor in Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The reader quickly discovers that Eleanor is not fine. She fastidiously maintains her Monday through Friday job keeping to herself, then on Friday night with equal purpose she stops off to pick-up a frozen pizza and 2 bottles of Vodka which she proceeds to drink over the weekend.

It is easier to discuss a complex character in a book than it is to admit you may be struggling with depression or suicide. It’s awkward, no one knows what to say, so often nothing is said at all — It is my sincere intent to open up the dialogue in hopes that lives may be saved. Indeed it is a hard subject to discuss because those who suffer feel stuck and weighed down by the stigma of shame.

Today more and more resources are becoming available, which is encouraging, because the truth is that mental illness comes in a multitude of manifestations, depression being one of them. I recently came across two books in the Library’s collection that offer insight and hope.

Just Peachy: Comics About Depression, Anxiety, Love, and Finding the Humor In Being Sad by Holly Chisholm is a great little book, a quick read and an outstanding example of the power of art as a tool for recovery.

If You Feel too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped for is a collection of personal essays by Jamie Tworkowski. The book evolved after he wrote an earlier story about helping a friend in her struggle with depression, drugs and self-injury. The piece was called “To Write Love on Her Arms.The piece went viral and the outcome led to the organization TWLOHA an internationally recognized leader in suicide prevention worldwide.

Grace June’s “Phil”

Last October my daughter-in-law, who bravely admits her own struggle with depression, received grant funding to develop a forum bringing light on the subject of suicide. She used the medium of photography to convey a message of hope and healing dubbing the project Survivor Series. The photo essay was compiled into a book of individuals who had either lost a loved one to suicide or had contemplated taking their own life.

For the culmination of her yearlong project, she hosted an event inviting the community and those photographed for the project. Photos were on display with a brief synopsis of each story. A portion of the evening was an open mic in a second building where a poetry group kicked things off, followed by anyone who wanted to standing up and share their story.

The evening was successful and affirming for those in the infancy of their grief as well as for others who, like my husband who lost his brother 20 years ago, have been grieving for a much longer time. It also was a catalyst for change in the Spokane community. The exhibit is currently on display at the Spokane Public Library.

Next month my husband and daughter will team up with hundreds of people to walk through the night on the streets of San Francisco in the Out of Darkness Overnight. The walk serves to raise money and bring attention and support to our nation’s increasing number of suicide deaths.

Thank you for reading this blog. It takes courage and honesty to admit the need for help. We’re not meant to walk this life alone. If you want more information on suicide prevention, there are people who are trained to help at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Anxiety, Hell’s Angels and Haiku

It’s all there in Criminals: My Family’s Life on Both Sides of the Law by Robert Siegel.

What’s the key thing writers need the most? Raw material of course. Author Robert Anthony Siegel has a goldmine of raw material living in a New York City duplex with his parents, Stanley and Frances, and trying to make sense of his childhood.

Dad is a charismatic criminal defense attorney, bringing all kinds of questionable characters home. Young Robert accompanies his dad to Hell’s Angel’s clubhouse parties and dines with drug dealers and possible murderers.

Mom takes Robert to MoMA and the Whitney to show him paintings by Motherwell and Rothko, to counterbalance Dad’s lowbrow Brooklyn background and make sure there is art and culture in his life.

Complex doesn’t begin to describe Dad. The reason his clients love him is that he is an old-school lawyer, with a gift for story telling in front of the jury and throwing in Shakespeare quotes to boot. He rescues his clients time and time again. Dad’s depression is eased by lots of antidepressants, consuming huge quantities of food and spending money as fast as he gets it – even a duffel bag full of cash (a gift from a grateful client). His depression is especially intense after the DEA bring charges against him and he goes away to prison for a year.

Told in a personal essay style, this memoir is one you can’t put down. At first you feel like you’re careening around roads on the edge of a cliff, but the author’s skillful writing keeps you grounded, entertained and delighted right up to the book’s end. This is a reading experience like no other.

And where does the Haiku come in? Toward the end of the book Robert, who has spent years learning to speak Japanese and to learn about Japanese culture as a way of coping with his life, explains it best in the very touching chapter “Haiku For My Father.” As his father stumbles toward the end of his life, Siegel is reminded of the last haiku of Basho Matsuo, helping him make sense of not only his father’s life, but his own as well. Maybe it even explains the reader’s life also.

On the Road with David Sedaris

David Sedaris brings you into his life and adventures with his 9th and probably best book yet, Calypso.  The 21 stories and personal essays will amuse, shock and lead to an understanding of the family and brilliance of Sedaris.

He’ll take you to Tokyo where he and sister Amy buy absurd clothing (clown pants with suspenders, a trio of hats meant to be worn together) that ‘refuse to flatter.’

He’ll show you what he goes through in his attempt to make a wild fox his friend.

He’ll take you to the post-dinner dining room table of his youth where he and his 4 siblings would vie for their chance to either light their mom’s cigarette or tell her their daily story. Mom Sedaris would give helpful notes to each (“lose the part about the teacher….” or “cut to the chase here…”)

You’ll go with him on his Fitbit-induced walks from his countryside home in Sussex. By the time he works up to 60,000 steps a day, he’s sporting a grabber in one hand and a big garbage bag in the other. He imagines stories to go along with each piece of interesting garbage. Neighbors report to his long-suffering boyfriend, Hugh, such things as “We saw David in Arundel pick up a dead squirrel with his grabbers” or “We saw him outside Steyning rolling a tire down the side of the road.”

Hugh, seemingly in permanent eye-roll mode, has a lot to contend with when the rest of the Sedaris clan are around. And they’re around a lot after Sedaris buys a beach house off the coast of North Carolina. The vacation home, purposefully without any TV, gives Sedaris and his 90+ year old father Lou, brother (plus sister-in-law and niece) and four sisters a place to be together on holidays. The four sisters become three in the aftermath of the youngest one’s suicide. This fact is dealt with off and on throughout the book in the inimitable fashion of Sedaris.

Sedaris finds his always critical father has been replaced by a nicer more agreeable one. And while Sedaris admits it makes a better story to hang onto the cantankerous Dad he remembers from his youth, he still makes a good case for holding a grudge. David is the only one taken out of Dad’s will after a particularly spectacular argument.

Sedaris writes beautifully about the moment the two found common ground. “Just Listen,” his dad commands the 15 year-old, as he goes about playing John Coltrane’s ‘I wish I knew” and Betty Carter’s “Beware My Heart.”  I won’t spoil it for you by quoting the ending here. You’ll just have to read the book for yourself. And, when you get to page 141 and 142, you might want to que the music and JUST READ!

What to Read While You Wait for Becoming

As of this writing I’m number 28 in a holds queue of 38 for the most-requested book right now at EPL. Don’t worry–I’m not here to complain! I do believe that good things come to those who wait. But I also believe that waiting shouldn’t be boring. I want to share with you some other rad books out there that those of us waiting for Michelle Obama’s Becoming can read while we wait patiently somewhat patiently kinda impatiently–okay, totally impatiently but at least we’ll have fab reading material in line! There’s quite a mix of books and audio here, certain to help keep you busy and keep you satisfied while you wait just a teeny tiny bit longer for your copy to come in.

Audio that lets us listen to Michelle
First of all, if you would rather have Michelle read her book Becoming to you, you should get yourself in the holds queue for that. But while you wait you can still hear Michelle and other First Ladies give important speeches by listening to Great Speeches by First Ladies of the United States. In addition to Michelle you’ll also hear Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Laura Bush, and many more. There’s also Ibeyi’s Ash, in particular the track No Man is Big Enough for My Arms, which features clips from Michelle Obama’s speeches.

Two amazing books packed with photos of Michelle
Michelle Obama is one of my style icons. Not only does she always appear stylish and put together, but she often wears affordable, off-the-rack items that regular Janes like me can pick up. Chasing Light and the children’s adaptation Reach Higher are compilations of photos of Michelle taken by former official White House photographer Amanda Lucidon. You’ll catch Michelle tobogganing in China with a Secret Service agent, taking a selfie with a member of the armed forces, greeting heads of state (sometimes with her dogs Bo and Sunny), and harvesting vegetables from the White House Kitchen Garden. Yes, I’m inspired by her style, but I also love seeing how active and engaged she is with folks of all ages and from all walks of life.
   

Books that tell us more about Michelle
Biographies are popular, and as such we’ve got plenty stocked on the shelves to satisfy your need to know more about Michelle. Try one of these books that delve deep into her background, family history, and home life. You’ll also find books where other people talk about why they admire Michelle, and those are worth a read, too.

 

 

 

 

Books that show us how to be a leader
Want to be more like Michelle? One of my favorite types of books to read are books on leadership, especially ones that focus up on how leadership challenges can be very different for women and non-binary folks. These books each take a different track but all of them show you a way to grow your leadership skills and be the boss. There are also stories of women who succeeded despite the odds, and they inspire me every bit as much as Michelle Obama does.
      

One very special bonus book
When I’m missing someone my heart hurts. Like, really badly hurts. One remedy for heartache (even the good kind) is to curl up with a book that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. For me there’s no better pairing than the characters Heart and Brain, and Heart and Brain: Gut Instincts by Nick Seluk of The Awkward Yeti is one of the best compilations. Brain is the pragmatic character, the one who remembers deadlines and obligations. Heart, by contrast, is all about living in the moment and enjoying life. Together they bring together the qualities of common sense and empathy that I respect Michelle Obama for having in great quantity.

So what do you think? Can you get by a little while longer in the holds queue? I know I’ve got a full TBR and while I still very much want to read Becoming, I feel better knowing I have other satisfying reads to occupy my time in line.

Reading in the Spirit of Amelia Bloomer

Working in a library is more than just knowing how to check out books, finding accurate information on any given topic, and embracing a strong love of books and reading (the better to help you find your next great read, my dear!). For some of us, library work is life work. We’re committed to libraries so much that we join local and national library associations, serve on committees, run for and hold office, and read peer-reviewed journals to keep up with industry best practices and the latest research from the field.

We also create book awards and reading lists to honor the spirit and values of trailblazers and progressive thinkers.

One library group I’ve joined is the Social Responsibilities Round Table which is a part of the American Library Association. While I’ve been an ALA member for 13 years, I didn’t join SRRT until recently. As libraries have grown to fill more roles in the community outside of providing reading and research material, organizations like SRRT provide guidance as we respond to social issues at the library. While it’s true my work here at the library is done from behind the scenes, I am always looking for ways to increase my awareness of issues important to our community so I can do a better job connecting readers with resources.

This is a long way of telling you the Feminist Task Force, part of SRRT, is made up of a ton of rad library professionals doing life work. FTF accepts nominations every year for the Amelia Bloomer List. As Jennifer Croll describes in Bad Girls of Fashion, Amelia Bloomer was the editor of the first newspaper for women [The Lily (1849-1853)], was a strong advocate for women’s rights, and saw pants as a feminist statement. Ever heard of bloomers? Yup, named after Amelia since she promoted them in The Lily.

But I’m not here to talk about pants. I’m here to talk about books. To be considered for the Amelia Bloomer List the book has to have significant feminist content, be developmentally appropriate for/appealing to young readers, and be well-written/ illustrated.

Welcome to my wheelhouse!

The Amelia Bloomer Project has started sharing the nominations for the 2019 list and I want to highlight some of my favorites. If you click the book jacket it’ll take you to the online catalog where you can access more information about each book and place a hold.

  

  

  

So there you have it: a robust book list you’d never heard of before that just made your TBR cast a shadow. Let me know in the comments which books you’ve read or want to read and let’s keep the conversation going. For feminism!

The Work of Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is one of my heroes. I first discovered her short fiction on a trip to Portland while I was browsing in Powell’s Books. Difficult Women was the first book I read and I was both entranced and awed by her writing. She did not become my hero until I saw her interviewed by Trevor Noah about the publication of her book Hunger. 

Today, I want to honor all of the books written by Roxane Gay. The title of this post definitely refers to the body of writing Roxane Gay has created, but it also refers to the emotional work that is required when reading either her fiction or nonfiction. I have also included a quote from Gay before each book description to give you an idea of her voice and her politics.

difficult

Difficult Women

I think women are oftentimes termed ‘difficult’ when we want too much, when we ask for too much, when we think too highly of ourselves, or have any kind of standards…I wanted to play with this idea that women are difficult, when in reality it’s generally the people around them who are the difficult ones.

Gay’s quote about Difficult Women captures the essence of this short story collection. The stories explore a range of different women’s experiences. There is loss, unthinkable abuse, and complicated relationships and marriages. Not only are the stories about a range of experiences, but the characters in each story stand out individually. There are two inseparable twin sisters, a grief stricken mother, a stripper, a wealthy suburban housewife, and an engineer. This beautifully written collection makes you look, even when you don’t want to, at the realities and experiences of a wide cross section of women.

ayiti

Ayiti

The waters did not run deep. It was just a border between two geographies of grief.

This compact collection was Gay’s writing debut and is comprised of what I would think of as short shorts. The stories explore a range of experiences about Haitians in their native Haiti and the diaspora experience. The subjects of the stories are varied and even though the collection is compact, it is powerful in its succinctness.

wakanda

Black Panther: World of Wakanda

I didn’t realize I would be the first Black woman writer at Marvel. It is overwhelming and also pretty frustrating because this is 2016 and there are many Black women and other Women of Color who are working in comics. I cannot think about the hype. I just cannot. It’s too much pressure. I’m focusing on what I’ve been asked to do, which is to tell the story of the Dora Milaje.

Gay co-wrote the first book in this series with Ta-Nehisi Coates and it takes place in the kingdom of Wakanda. It is a love story about two Midnight Angels, Ayo and Aneka. The two women have both been recruited to be a part of the Dora Milaje, a prestigious cadre of soldiers trained to defend the crown of Wakanda. The kingdom desperately needs their help and Ayo and Aneka must figure out how to balance the kingdom’s needs and the love they have for each other.

untamed

An Untamed State

There are three Haitis—the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew.

An Untamed State is Roxane Gay’s debut novel and it tells the story of Mireille Duval Jameson, a successful attorney in Miami and the daughter of one of Haiti’s wealthiest men. Her life appears to be perfect until the day she is kidnapped by a violent group of men while vacationing in Port au Prince. Mireille assumes her father will quickly pay ransom, but instead he is resistant to this idea. Mireille endures unthinkable violence while being held captive. Her perfect life from the past is juxtaposed with her brutal existence in the present day and she struggles to get back to the person she once was.

bad feminist

Bad Feminist

No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism.

This New York Times bestseller is a collection of essays spanning a wide range of topics that include politics and feminism. Gay writes about these subjects in relation to herself with humor and clarity.

hunger

Hunger: A Memoir of my Body

This is what most girls are taught — that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.

In Hunger, Gay shares the horrific sexual trauma she experienced at age twelve and how it changed the trajectory of her life and her relationship to her body. The courage it took to write this book is unimaginable. She gave and continues to give many female survivors of sexual abuse a gift, reminding them that they are not alone on their journey to recovery.

dispatches

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture

We have spent countless hours focused on manners, education, the perils of drugs. We teach them about stranger-danger and making good choices. But recently I’ve become aware that we must speak to our children about boundaries between the sexes. And what it means to not be a danger to someone else. To that end, we are making an effort to teach our sons about affirmative consent. We explain that the onus is on them to explicitly ask if their partner consents. And we tell them that a shrug or a smile or a sigh won’t suffice. They have to hear yes.

This timely collection of first person essays was selected and compiled by Gay and includes an introduction that she wrote. The essays address many topics and personal experiences related to what it is like to live in a rape culture. The contributors to this collection include established writers, never before published writers, men and women, and queer and transgender individuals.