Mother Over Mind

Sometimes, motherhood defies logic.

Book Review: March, Books 1-3 — April 1, 2017

Book Review: March, Books 1-3

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FiveCups

I will confess to not knowing a whole lot about John Lewis, aside perhaps from the fact that he was involved in the Civil Rights movement, before this notorious tweet came out the Oval Office during Black History Month and just before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:

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He certainly wasn’t in my mind as an author, although the award-winning March trilogy (Top Shelf Productions, 49.99 USD) had been on my radar for a few years, since the first two books had been released while I was still working in a library. However, the fact that Donald Trump obviously had no idea who he was (he probably just googled to find out that Lewis is a Congressman from Georgia’s fifth district and applied the usual Trumpian insults) told me that I needed to educate myself, now, especially since I’d been reading to my kids about MLK and Rosa Parks, and his name had come up in some of what we’d read. This man led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and, as such, is the last living member of the Big Six leaders of the national march on Washington for jobs and freedom. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. This man is a giant among men. Our current president would do well to educate himself as well.

So, I requested the first book from the library, and I requested the second and third books as soon as I started the first one because it was so good. I honestly can’t say how much the graphic part of these graphic novels figure in to how compelling they are, because the story is just that incredible, but I do think that the scenes of violence against the peaceful civil rights protesters are more viscerally felt when there are images to go along with them. Nate Powell, the artist, has a gift for conveying gut-wrenching action and terrifying confusion:

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March: Book Three, pages 200-201. Brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Powell also conveys raw will and conviction overcoming fear of death using stark contrasts and shades of gray:

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March: Book Three, pages 202-203. After a brutal beating, Lewis gets up and walks to safety. He later spends days in the hospital with a head injury, but only after speaking at an emergency meeting of the assembled protesters and in front of television cameras.

Lewis starts out with his early life, as the son of sharecroppers, and as a child, he dreamed of being a preacher. He cared for the family’s chickens and developed an unusual attachment to them, going so far as to preach sermons to them. However, as a college student, he became involved in lunch counter sit-ins and quickly became a leader of the student civil rights movement, and though he graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary and earned a degree in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, he knew that the civil rights issue was the most important issue of his time and threw his full dedication behind it.

Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders. He spoke at the 1963 march on Washington, which led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He led the Mississippi Freedom Summer. He led the first attempted march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, along with Hosea Williams and was beaten, along with 600 other marchers, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was at the front of the second, successful march from Selma to Montgomery two weeks later – an event which directly led to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which made the literacy tests, essay questions, and other obstacles presented to African Americans registering to vote illegal. Reading a first-hand account of all these significant moments in history makes them far more real than the one paragraph that the civil rights movement was granted in my high school history textbook.

The books don’t gloss over the disagreements between the various civil rights groups (SNCC, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP; Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC; Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE; National Urban League, or NUL; Negro American Labor Council, or NALC; etc.), and it was enlightening to learn how many different opinions there were on how to go about protesting for the rights of African Americans. Issues such as whether or not violence should be used are fairly well-known; I have always thought of that as the biggest difference between MLK and Malcolm X, though Lewis makes it clear that there was mutual respect between them. However, even issues such as whether white people should be welcomed to participate in the movement, and in what capacity, also created rifts among the groups that shared a mutual goal.

One issue I find particularly important with regard to current events is intersectionality. Although the involvement of LGBT members is touched on with the mention of Bayard Rustin, and the virtual sidelining of African-American women in the movement is mentioned (despite their critical role in drawing attention to the violence committed against peaceful protesters – for instance, the testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer on her attempt to register to vote), Lewis does not dwell on these issues for more than a page or two. It’s understandable why he doesn’t; this is primarily his experience at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and there is plenty to discuss without further exploring these slights. The fact that they are even mentioned along with the infighting of the various civil rights groups is instructional for the current movement to ensure that rights earned with blood, sweat, tears – and lives – are not stripped away by an administration that gives far too much audience to white nationalists. Only by working together, with our brothers and sisters of different genders, races, sexual orientations, beliefs, and abilities, will we be able to preserve the rights already won and further build a road to true equality.

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Movie Review: Logan — March 19, 2017

Movie Review: Logan

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My husband and I went on a rare movie theater date last weekend, because the newest (and last) Wolverine movie was out, and we love us some Wolverine. Logan does not disappoint. Much has been made of its grittier tone and R rating – which, as my husband enjoyed pointing out, makes things far more realistic. When you have adamantium-grafted bone claws that come out of your knuckles when you get angry, along with crazy strength, you’re probably going to end up killing someone at some point. So, this Wolverine movie is more appropriately gory. We’re talking decapitations, fountains of blood, the works.

But, along with the gore, there are a lot more feelings in this Wolverine outing, versus previous movies. The anguish of Logan’s life is closer to the surface. Instead of brooding quietly, this Wolverine is more clearly about to break. To pay the bills, he works as a chauffeur while hiding out over the border in Mexico and caring for a senile Charles Xavier. The year is 2029. Logan is, himself, an old man. Hugh Jackman makes it clear from the first frame that  Wolverine is tired. Something – presumably the adamantium fused to his skeleton – is slowly poisoning him. He’s had enough bullsh*t from young punks, like the thugs who try to steal the tires off his limo. His patience is shot, and anyone who tries to damage his livelihood will see his adamantium-bound claws up close.

Enter the girl who bring backs his will to fight. A Latina woman, a former nurse at a medical research facility that is purportedly doing a childhood cancer study, but is in fact working on something far more sinister, dogs Wolverine and begs him to help her. He is the only one who can. He won’t hear her out, until she waves money in his face – enough to buy the Sunseeker he’s promised Charles, so they can live out their remaining days at sea. There is a girl, Laura. She is like you, she tells him, and Wolverine doesn’t really believe her, but money talks, and Laura needs to go to Canada, where she’ll be safe from the bad guys who want to kill her. They make arrangements. He comes to pick up her up, but the bad guys shove a wrench in their plans, as bad guys do, and Wolverine sees sweet little Laura backed into a corner and forced to fight. Laura is exactly as advertised.

At its heart, Logan is a Western road movie, with mutants. This is no great secret or revelation; the filmmakers obviously had fun playing with common Western tropes. At one point, the characters watch the movie Shane, which makes it almost too clear where the movie is going. During the *road* part of the road movie, the characters encounter a horse trailer that has been run off the interstate, leading the to the escape of the horses. Charles urges Logan to stop and help. “Someone will come along,” Logan assures him. “Someone has,” Charles reiterates. So, they help, and, as happens in most Western movies, the indebted family – innocent, hard-working types – invite the road-weary trio to their home for  a bite of dinner and a rest.

It thrilled me more than a little bit that these innocent, hard-working types were a wholesome, African American family by the name of Munson: a handsome father, a lovely, intelligent mother (who seems to have a much better read on the travelers than her trusting husband), and a disciplined, if slightly rebellious, teenage son. Black cowboys were absolutely a thing in the Old West, but we don’t expect to see them in a movie that takes place in 2029, so kudos for the subversion of stereotypes. Anyway, Logan is quick to turn down their offer, but Charles insists that they accept.

*SPOILER ALERT* I’m going to talk about what happens next in the movie, and the end, and everything else, so if you haven’t seen it yet, seriously, stop reading.

*I’m not kidding*

*Okay, you were warned*

I was a little upset with Charles at this point. Clearly, he knows by now, having been in all the X-Men movies in one timeline or another, played by one actor (or computer graphic) or another, that innocent bystanders who help Wolverine are rarely safe. He has already seen the types of people who are after Laura. But it has been years since Charles slept in a real house with a real family, and his yearning for that feeling overrules his better judgment. So, in the end, they accept the invitation. I felt even more nervous for the survival of this beautiful family, given their race. And, if you’ve seen the movie, you know

*Seriously, people, last warning*

I was right to be nervous. Charles wakes up in a bed, in a house, to Logan’s form standing over him and explains that this feeling – of being in a family – this is why he insisted they spend the night with the Munson family. The form lays a hand on Charles’ shoulder – and then the claws come out and slice through ailing Professor X. Here’s an interesting surprise (but only if you haven’t followed Logan’s story in the comic books). Laura, known as X-23 in the lab, is not the only mutant created using Logan’s DNA. There is also X-24, a younger, ragy-er clone of Logan.

Even in the everybody-comes-back-to-life world of comic books (and Professor X has, in both the comics and the movies), already-frail 90-year-olds in the middle of a cornfield with zero medical supplies do not come back from adamantium claws through the chest. We know Professor X is doomed the minute we hear that *snikt* ring through the attic. Naturally, Wolverine battles his younger, meaner (“soulless,” as described by the rep from the medical research company, I believe) self – and this part of the epic battle, I can get behind. Logan is battling his own rage, his own bad intentions, his own past misdeeds, in favor of defending Laura, his (lab-created) offspring – a more innocent version of himself. This is his shot at redemption. Comic book characters battling their own evil twins has been done to death, but Wolverine has such a rich blend of violence and redemption in his past – mixed with the promise of living on through Laura, if he can save her from the evil version of himself –  that rarely has it been more fitting.

However fitting the Wolverine-on-Wolverine action is, I am wrecked with the rest of the farmhouse battle. Why does the Munson family have to die? One review (warning, obviously: spoilers) I read said that this part felt “manufactured.” I think that’s the best way to put it. Wouldn’t it have been sufficient to leave the Munsons bloodied and beaten, and pissed that these strangers led the devil to their doorstep? I would have been delighted if the film had proven me wrong, but I knew as soon as Charles talked Logan in to going to their house, that this family was as good as dead. X-24 and the Reavers make their way through the Munson family like a hot knife through butter, and for what? They’re just more innocent bystanders who die because they were being nice.

Charles Xavier, reduced to a shell of his former self and dying, helplessly, in bed, seems more fitting for this movie. He remembers, just before X-24 slices and dices him, what happened to make Logan smuggle him over the border to live in a junkyard. Charles has been suffering from seizures, and with a brain like his, a seizure is practically a miniature Hiroshima. Dozens of lives were lost in a mysterious incident in Westchester – which is the canonical location of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. This may explain why we don’t see Storm, Rogue, Cyclops, Beast, or any of the other original X-Men (though the newer X-Men movies have retconned the timeline so much that I can’t keep track of who’s supposed to have been around anyway). Charles knows he didn’t deserve to have one more night of peace, or a comfortable bed, and he remembers why Logan’s rage is so close to the surface these days. And then he dies, thinking that Logan has killed him because he could not forgive him. Oh, the feels. This scene was so overwhelming with emotion that I have to say the filmmakers did excellent work. Charles Xavier was such a powerful man in his prime, but having him die, and ultimately cause the death of some innocent bystanders because he was too selfish to put their safety above his comfort – this shows that old age and infirmity have mostly reduced him to being a regular old human, instead of practically a god. In Westerns, the heroes are always flawed, so I suppose Charles had to be taken down a few pegs to fit the archetype.

With the Munsons and Xavier dead, all that’s left is for Logan to take Laura to the pre-arranged meeting place. The other children from the medical research facility are meeting up in North Dakota, where they will cross the border into Canada to a place called Eden, where the other remaining mutants are supposedly gathering. The coordinates for their meeting appeared in an X-Men comic – oh, yes, they have X-Men comics in the X-Men universe, which is a nice little bit of metatextuality – which leads Logan to doubt their reliability. Still, though, he drives. And when he becomes too weak, from his preexisting condition and his injuries from X-24, Laura takes over. Wonder of wonders, the other children have made it. They treat Logan’s injuries and give him a serum developed at the facility to help him heal faster and be stronger. While he is sleeping, they trim his beard and hair so he looks like he does in the comic books (and earlier X-Men movies). They ask him to come with them to Eden, but he refuses. This is a Western; the hero always rides off into the sunset (or dies) at the end, because he is too impure from the necessary violence he used to rescue the townsfolk.

Naturally, the Reavers have picked up the trail and are on the way to intercept the children before they cross the border, and Wolverine, realizing this, downs the remaining serum and takes off after the bad guys. What a gift this is, in the last Wolverine movie: Wolverine, for a minute or two, is (to borrow from the MCU) hulked out and unstoppable – and even his haircut harkens to his glory days. Gone, for a moment, is the weight of all the harm he has caused in his life. For now, he is simply unleashed to fight for the lives of innocents. We are treated to another tag-team fight with X-23 (Laura), which also deserves a mention. In the beginning of the movie, about half a second after Logan learns that her Mexican nurse and Charles are both right – Laura really is just like him – Logan is forced to fight off the Reavers with her. No (or virtually no) words are exchanged between them – they work together seamlessly. She launches herself off his back at the bad guys. She throws him a pipe to take someone out. He knows she can take care of herself, so he’s fine with driving off with Laura clinging to the top of his limo. There’s more of that in the final fight, only now, briefly, Logan is fully Wolverine again. It’s great fun.

And then, just like that, it’s over. The serum wears off, and X-24 has dealt Logan a critical blow that we know he won’t be coming back from. Laura finishes X-24 off with the adamantium bullet Logan was saving to kill himself with – the symbolism here is so plain it’s almost painful. Logan and Laura share a final moment that  promises to squeeze any remaining tears out your eyes (which is just happened to me, simply from remembering it). The children hold a funeral for him before continuing to Canada, and, we hope, safety. I have to say, the political timeliness of this journey is overwhelming. The children’s very existence is illegal – as messed up as the world is in 2029, creating human clones with mutant powers is still very much illegal. And so, these literally illegal children journey from their birthplace in MEXICO, into the United States, where they face endless persecution and constant threat of death. Therefore, they continue on their way to Canada, where actual freedom beckons. For the United States, for them anyway, is no longer the land of the free. That mantle now belongs to Canada – as we are now seeing in the real world, where illegal immigrants now cross from the US into Canada to escape imprisonment and deportation. The X-Men have always been an allegory for marginalized groups, and that is no less true in Logan.

Part of me really wanted to see some adamantium claws punching up through the ground where the kids laid Logan to rest in a post-credits scene, but this is not that kind of X-Men movie, for all its parallels to X-Men (2000). (Logan finds young female mutant in need of help, reluctantly assists her in reaching safety, then ups the hero ante in the third act, mortality be damned – the story arc is virtually identical). The campiness and middle-claw jokes belong in a younger mutant’s story. Hopefully, we will see those again with a movie featuring Laura. But, for now, Wolverine as we know him can rest in peace.

 

On Preexisting Conditions — February 1, 2017

On Preexisting Conditions

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I have a preexisting condition. Two of them, actually. I am, additionally, a cancer survivor. So, if you’ve ever had to use health insurance to pay for anything more than a few hundred bucks, you can imagine how happy I was when the Affordable Care Act passed. At the time, I was employed by a medium-sized library system and had okay-but-not-great insurance provided by my employer – which was a vast improvement over where I had been just a few years prior.

At age 24, I had aged off of my parents’ insurance. I was a grad student at the time, taking a full course load and teaching freshman English, so my parents shopped around for insurance a little bit on my behalf. They talked to their insurance agent (they still have one of those), who told them I basically had zero options. The insurance companies he scoped out wouldn’t take me because of my pre-existing conditions. My only option, really, was COBRA, which with my dad’s insurance cost over $500 a month. I was a graduate student with an assistantship, no other job, no extra time to take on another job, and $500 was over half of my monthly budget; I might have been able to pay my rent with the rest of my budget, but that would have been it. No food for me, let alone electricity or running water. But, because my parents are great, they paid for my health insurance so I could finish my graduate classes.

I should add an aside here. Lost of people go without insurance coverage. More of them did then, in 2004, but some still do now. The thing about going without insurance back then was that if I had a gap in my coverage, then when I did get insurance again (through an employer, obviously, because that was my only option, unless I married for insurance – and trust me, the thought did cross my mind), my pre-existing conditions wouldn’t be covered immediately. The longest I had heard of insurance companies making you wait to cover your pre-existing conditions was a year. But, consider that: a full year of paying an insurance premium with no help with the out-of-pocket cost of my medications, which were at the time $150 – $200. So, basically, paying that insurance premium would only help me if I became sick with something new for that year. But I would have to do it if I ever wanted to be insured again, because insurance companies exist to make profits, and the people in charge of them seem to get greedier every year.

So, anyway, I had insurance through COBRA, and thank goodness, too, because six months after I aged off of my parents’ plan, I got a cancer diagnosis. The nurse practitioner in my gynecologist’s office caught it early (which should spawn another post on one of the MANY, MANY reasons we need affordable gynecological care for women at places like Planned Parenthood) and it was removed fairly easily. I only had to go through radiation – no chemo. But, still – the treatment cost thousands of dollars, even with insurance. I had follow-up MRIs and PET scans for years.

Now, while all of this was going on, I was pulling out my insurance card a lot. And I remember seeing, in small print on at the bottom of the back of the card, a line that said my lifetime limit for care was (say it in Dr. Evil’s voice) one million dollars!

Now, one million dollars is a lot. But how much would it be, really, if my awesome surgeon hadn’t gotten all the cancer on the first try? Or if my cancer came back but wasn’t detected as quickly as it was the first time? Or if, say, I developed yet another chronic illness that required even more expensive medication to control?

Here’s another thing about my cancer. I had thyroid cancer, which, on the up side (if there is a plus side to cancer) is one of the most treatable forms. People still die from it, sure, but the survival rate for stage I is nearly 100% (of course, once you get to stage IV, it’s under 30%, but like I said, my nurse practitioner caught it super early). On the down side, having the cancer surgically removed meant having my entire thyroid removed, which spurred hypothyroidism – which is controlled by medication that I will take for the rest of my life. However, the radiation I had to have a few months later required me to go off my thyroid medication, which caused a state of hypothyroidism – which led to symptoms of depression and anxiety.

So now imagine looking at that $1 million lifetime limit while being clinically depressed. Imagine finding out, hypothetically, that your cancer did come back and further treatment was needed, adding up to hundreds of thousands of dollars – maybe even up to a million. Consider the impact all those doctor visits, hospital stays, and financial strain would have on your family and friends. Things get pretty grim pretty fast when you let yourself fall down that rabbit hole. You imagine your parents selling your family home to pay your medical bills (I didn’t know who Joe Biden was at that point in my life, but he nearly reached that point when his son Beau was fighting cancer). Depression is a bitch. It will tell you that you are not worth all that strife. So, the only logical conclusion I came up with when those thoughts entered my mind was that I would have to make sure I didn’t live long enough to see any of that come to pass.

This was nearly twelve years ago. Obviously, things turned out okay for me. One little round of radiation was all it took, and after a decade of monitoring by an endocrinologist, I now have my bloodwork and monitoring done by my GP. I have an amazing family and wonderful friends who talked me through the rough patches (this was before cell phones offered unlimited minutes, so I racked up lots of overages). I got at least a hundred cards in the mail. Friends sent me fun things. Two of my friends from college, also poor graduate students, got together and bought me a purple feather boa. I still have it.

Very few people know the full story here. I rarely talk about it. I am telling it now so that you understand that not everyone who relies on the ACA is jobless and living on welfare. Most aren’t. Many who rely on the ACA’s protections don’t even have insurance they got on the Marketplace. But the difficulty of not having access to insurance forever changed the trajectory of my life. Don’t get me wrong – I love my life. But in my early twenties, my plan was to finish my master’s degree and possibly work as an adjunct before going on for a PhD. Adjunct professors generally often don’t get full benefits, especially not health care, and they especially didn’t in 2005. I could only stay on COBRA for maybe three and up to a maximum of five years, and like I said, it was darn expensive. I happened upon a job working as a florist in a grocery store and took it not because it was something I wanted to do, but rather because it was a job that would let me qualify for benefits after I had been working there for a year (thank you, UFCW). At the time, it was the best option I had.

Fortunately, I found a job in a public library system before that year was up and ended up with a much more rewarding full-time job with benefits. A couple years later, someone named Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President and ran on a platform that included health care reform. My (now) husband and I campaigned for him. A couple years after that, the legislation that really would have helped me in 2005 was enacted, and I stopped worrying so much about what might happen if I lost my job (which was a distinct possibility in 2009, before the ACA, when Ohio severely cut library funding and many of my colleagues were laid off). I got married and had babies. Both my pregnancies were high risk, but I got all the care I needed, thanks to the ACA. I honestly thought all my worries about being financially devastated because of the high cost of my health care was over.

At the moment, I feel like I’m stuck back in 2005 all over again.

On Bad Moms and Kristen Bell’s Hair — January 1, 2017

On Bad Moms and Kristen Bell’s Hair

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The most realistic Hollywood hairstyle ever.

Unlike most of the moms I know, I just watched Bad Moms for the first time today. I have wanted to see it since it came out, but the thing about marketing movies to moms is that moms often have a hard time getting out to go see them in the theater. So, as part of our extremely low-key New Year’s celebration, my husband and I dropped our boys off with my parents (thanks, Mom and Dad), went to go see Rogue One in the theater (which should be a separate post, after I fully process my feelings about it), and stopped to pick up snacks and Bad Moms on the way home because we went to the cheap theater for our Star Wars fix and we wanted to kick 2017 off with some humor because God only knows we needed it. Bad Moms did not disappoint.

Now, I love me some Kristen Bell. I loved her in Veronica Mars, which I only discovered years after the show stopped airing when I mainlined the dvds while my firstborn was still young enough that I could sit around and watch “grown-up” television while he played on the floor (when I wasn’t working). I loved her in Frozen. I love that she’s real about her marriage and the struggles of motherhood, and I freaking adored her in Bad Moms. Her character is basically me, but with a really shitty husband. Kiki is neurotic. She loves her kids, but they are driving her nuts. She’s reserved. Until she bonds with someone who gets her, however, and maybe gets a couple drinks in her – then she jumps into excited squirrel mode. I have been compared to squirrels since I was in second grade. Squirrels are my spirit animal, and they are Kiki’s as well.

The most random but refreshing thing I picked up on in Bad Moms, from the first frame Kristen Bell appears in, is that her hair was not styled. Or, rather, it was styled to look like she had simply stepped out of the shower and maybe run a comb through to part it. She also wore makeup to make it look like she wasn’t wearing makeup. She’s Kristen Bell, so she still looks gorgeous, obviously, but the fact that her hair hung in limp, slightly wavy clumps spoke to me in ways no actress’s hairstyle has ever spoken to me before. This was REAL. Kiki, her character in Bad Moms, has four young children. The youngest two are twins who still ride in a double stroller. Moms with small children do not blow out their hair every day, unless they have stay-at-home spouses, nannies, or are characters in Hollywood movies or television shows. This is a reality I have understood since my first week home from the hospital with my first child. Five years later, I’ve had a total of maybe ten haircuts since then and have worn my hair in a ponytail approximately 70% of the time. “Styling” my hair mostly consists of washing it (which happens twice a week in a good week) and allowing it to dry completely before putting it in a ponytail so I don’t have a rubber band indentation around the back of it until I wash it again. If I’m feeling fancy, I blow dry it in between answering questions and pouring milk and try to see how many days I can leave it down while doing nothing to it before it starts to look like hell. I think my record is four days. However, my definition of “looking like hell” has probably shifted in the last five years, too.

(*******spoiler*******)

What impressed me even more than this realistic hairstyle on Bell is the fact that it remained consistent. I think she styled her hair the night that she and her posse (consisting of Mila Kunis as Amy and Kathryn Hahn as Karla) set out to get the recently-separated Amy laid. Aside from that, Kiki’s hair is only styled again at the very end of the movie when Kiki’s husband has become aware that, yes, he needs to pull his weight as a parent. Clearly, he has helped her get the older kids off to school this morning, so *surprise* Kiki has blow-dryed her hair, and it looks even more fabulous.

I know this is a silly thing, but it’s incredible how such a small gesture in a movie about taking the pressure off of moms to be perfect can go so far to driving the point home. I feel better about myself when my hair is at least a little styled, but I also know better than to put too much importance on such a trivial thing. Many days, the ten minutes I would spend with a blow dryer can be spent on more important things, so that’s that. And this is the first Hollywood movie I’ve seen that actually gets that and practices what it’s (hilariously) preaching.

Thank You, Carrie Fisher — December 29, 2016

Thank You, Carrie Fisher

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I  remember catching scenes from A New Hope at an early age, even if I didn’t see the entire movie or the rest of the Star Wars trilogy until years later. The images of a defiant Leia in her prison cell, impervious to threats from the scary, asthmatic man in the black helmet, and then a bold Leia taking over her own bungled rescue, are among my earliest cinematic memories that don’t involve Disney animation or Care Bears.
There weren’t that many female badasses (or females, period) for little girls to look up to in the 1980s. She-Ra was great in theory, but compared to He-Man, she was downright lame. The Bionic Woman aired in syndication, but not half as much as The Six Million Dollar Man. There were only token female characters in the shows I really liked, such as Thundercats and Voltron. Knight Rider aired in syndication after school, and I was a devoted fan, but the only women on the show appeared intermittently as love interests for David Hasselhoff. As a budding eight-year-old feminist, this was not the kind of female character with whom I identified.But that image of Leia grabbing Luke’s blaster and taking charge stayed in the back of my mind.
My boys are five and three, and there are female characters in all of their favorite shows. The playing field still isn’t level (“Dinotrux” has just a token female in Skya; the female characters in “Octonauts” are a photojournalist and an engineer, but Dashi and Tweak are rarely directly involved in rescues; Sky from “PAW Patrol” was the lone female until Everest was thrown in as a second string pup), and I have had to correct some ideas about gender roles that my oldest brought home from preschool (“girls can’t drive trucks”). However, the fact that a show about an African American girl whose mom is a doctor and whose dad makes her lunch (a) exists and (b) is something they enjoy watching is something that gives me a great deal of hope for their generation. And that’s just one example that hits me right in the intersectional feels; preschoolers also have “Sheriff Cali” and “Dora the Explorer” that feature female lead characters in roles that would have been considered “masculine” a couple of generations ago. “Peg + Cat” and “Sarah & Duck” also feature female title characters, and these four, plus the obvious “Doc McStuffins” are just shows my kids have watched in the past week.
As my boys grow up, I look forward to introducing them to series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games that feature strong female characters that I embraced so enthusiastically as an adult. However, their first encounter with Hermione and Katniss is likely to be far less surprising and life-altering for them – not because they are boys, but because they have grown up in a different world where kickass female characters are an expected part of the media they are exposed to – not an exception. Frozen is one of our favorite movies, and it features two princesses who don’t wait around for princes to save them. Big Hero Six is another favorite, and that features not one but two female engineering students-turned-superheroes. My boys can recognize the theme song from Star Trek: Voyager because I’m working my way through the series, and they know who the captain is on the ship, even if they don’t know her name is Janeway.
They have only recently started to get into Star Wars, thanks to a shared interest in robots and the heavy marketing of BB-8 and R2-D2 last year with the release of The Force Awakens. They watched the beginning of the aforementioned movie with their father and saw Rey fight off Storm Troopers and pilot a decrepit Millennium Falcon to safety. We watched A New Hope together for the first time last night, in honor of Carrie Fisher, and I was struck not only by the fresh perspective of seeing a movie I have seen well over a dozen times through their eyes, but also by the fact that Princess Leia, while undeniably awesome, is not a novel character to them. They have already seen Elsa, Anna, Merida, Honey Lemon, Go Go, Officer Hopps, and Astrid. Leia will never be the revelation for this generation that she was for my generation. She’s an outdated Rey who (unfortunately) never really got to handle a lightsaber on-screen. And while the idea that my boys won’t ever appreciate her as an original badass the way I do makes me a little sad, the idea that she will be just one of a pantheon of Hermiones and Janeways also makes me really excited about the conversations we will have regarding these characters and the ones we haven’t yet encountered because my boys’ generation will invent them.
And yet, Carrie Fisher wasn’t just Princess Leia. She had other roles in Hollywood movies, but she was also an extremely talented writer of not just novels and memoirs (most of which, last I checked, were sold out on Amazon). She was also a well-known script doctor. We have her to thank for Hook and Sister Act being as good as they were, among others. And her wit was razor sharp – largely because she wasn’t afraid to talk about hard things, like bipolar disorder, which she suffered from for most of her life, and drug abuse, which came about in an attempt to self-medicate. She talked about her difficulties so that others wouldn’t feel they had to suffer in silence. One of the best soundbites from her that’s been playing on NPR  in the last 36 hours is this:
“I think I do overshare,” Fisher says. “It’s my way of trying to understand myself. … It creates community when you talk about private things.”
So thank you, Carrie Fisher, for playing (and being) the smart, powerful princess who captured the imagination of a generation. Thank you for wearing the metal bikini and then speaking out against objectification and body-shaming. Thank you for playing your pivotal character again, nearly forty years later, in the body and with the attitude that came from living an eventful life in the spotlight. Thank you for being open and honest about mental illness so that others who suffer from it can feel a little less stigmatized and so that those of us who don’t can understand some of our friends a little bit better. Rest in peace, and may the force be with you.
Book Review: V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd — December 19, 2016

Book Review: V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

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ThreeCups

It has been years since I sat through the entire movie V for Vendetta. However, it holds a special place in my heart because my husband and I went to see it (along with many other movies, granted) in the theater during the first year we were dating, and he always (adorably) referred to it as “V is for Vendetta,” as if it were a segment on Sesame Street. I also, naturally, fancy the revolutionary themes in the movie, along with the special effects eye candy and general badassery (much of it by a woman, no less – take my money, Wachowski siblings). It also introduced my husband to the concept of eggy in a basket, which we’ve enjoyed for breakfast on many occasions in the last decade.

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The first eggy in a basket my husband ever made. He gave it to me. *swoon*

Back in 2006, I hadn’t read many graphic novels. I’d been assigned a few for graduate classes and enjoyed them quite a bit – Transmetropolitan among them – but I didn’t really get into the reading them until a couple years into my library gig. I knew V for Vendentta was a famous graphic novel, and I’ve intended to read it ever since seeing the movie (though I usually try to read the book first, if I know anything about it at all – in this case, I think V was just the most promising movie in the theater that week). Like Parable of the Sower, though, it’s fitting that I didn’t get around to actually reading V for Vendetta until after the 2016 election – and finish it on the day that Donald Trump will (presumably) be officially elected by the Electoral College. In about 13 minutes. Damn.

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This is literally from the second page, as the Voice of Fate is spreading its propaganda throughout London. Barf.

Anyway, the book itself. As V for Vendetta (DC Comics, 19.99 USD) opens,  it is November 5, 1997 (a “futuristic” 1997, as was written in the early 1980s). The Voice of Fate, a propaganda tool of the reigning party, is broadcasting throughout London as a young girl (sixteen, we later learn) is gussying herself up for something – but she looks quite despondent, as if she is applying makeup for her own funeral. Several frames later, it becomes clear that she was doing just that, in a way, but a masked figure in a cape swoops in to rescue her from rape and murder (and kills those who intended her harm). The masked figure later introduces himself as simply V. The girl, Evie, stays with him in his home, the Shadow Gallery, where he keeps books, movies, artwork, music, and other bits of culture that have long been forgotten since the fascists took over after the fallout from nuclear war.

V is systematically taking out a select group of officials as part of what seems like a personal vendetta. In reality, though, it’s just a cover for his much larger plan to overthrow the fascists and institute anarchy. “Anarchy,” V tells Evie, ” wears two faces, both creator and destroyer. Thus destroyers topple empires; make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world.” Evie finds his methods repulsive, even if she respects his goals; she doesn’t want to kill anyone. She provides a foil by which the reader can contrast V; V is complex, deranged, calculating, and utterly brilliant. An anti-hero in the vein of Spider Jerusalem and Tyler Durden (though, to be fair, he predates them both by over a decade), he has judged himself to be unworthy of the better world he wishes to create. It’s clear from the first chapter where the story is headed, but the (anti-) hero is such an enigma that I felt compelled to keep reading if only to find out more of what made V the way he is.

Despite my difficulty with the second act, that is. The problem with fascists is that they all look the same: straight white men in trench coats. Naturally. The second act fleshes out the secondary characters (most of them fighting for power within the party), and while there are some compelling story lines for them there, I had so much difficulty keeping them straight that I just gave up after a while and resigned myself to thinking of them as “one of the two guys who is sleeping with that one woman” and “the younger guy who took over after that paunchy guy got killed” and so on. I have been known to take notes about characters when reading books with a large cast – and even map out their relationships to each other – but I never bother with that when reading graphic novels because I usually get through them in a day, maybe two. The only diversity among the fascists is their BMI, and that tripped me up, I must admit. Much of that also has to do with the artistic style of 1980s comics and the very limited color palette – which I’ll attribute partly to the noir tone of the art and partly to cost-saving measures. I’ll no doubt absorb more of the subplots on a second reading in a year or two, especially if I remember to take notes.

All of that withstanding, this is one of those graphic novels that anyone who’s interested in graphic novels – or dystopian fiction, or political fiction, or post-apocalyptic fiction – should read. It’s nearly as old as I am, and it takes place almost two decades in the past at this point, but it holds up incredibly well, all things considered. Comparisons between it and Orwell’s 1984 are inevitable, I suppose (and it’s been at least 15 years since I last picked up 1984), but Moore’s vision of the “future” is more chilling, despite the cloak-and-dagger stuff. The descent into (essentially) martial law was somewhat gradual, and seemed justified, and within a decade, no one remembered anything different. The public as a whole has a very short attention span and only a slightly longer memory – just look at recent political events.

(Note: I intend to update this post after re-watching the movie – hopefully this week. In that update, as a note to self, I intend to contrast the book’s focus on anarchy as V’s goal with the movie’s – if I remember correctly – focus on liberty as V’s goal.)

Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler — December 18, 2016

Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

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FourCups

Parable of the Sower (Grand Central Publishing, 15.00 USD)  has been near the top of my TBR list since at least 2004. Funny, then, that I didn’t come across a nearly-perfect first edition (it was first published in 1993) in my favorite used book store until this year – the year Donald Trump was elected president – and add it to my Book Riot reading challenge under “Dystopian or Post-Apocalyptic Novel” and also “First Book in a Series by a Person of Color” (it’s getting down to crunch time, so I’m doubling up where possible).

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(Image credit: The Bookloft)

Lauren Oya Olamina is fifteen years old at the start of her story. The year is 2024. She lives with her father, stepmother, and younger brothers in their walled community near L.A.. Her father is a Baptist minister who teaches at a nearby university. He is also the center of Lauren’s universe, even though she doesn’t believe in her father’s God anymore; she just goes through the motions (such as baptism) to please him. While she goes through the motions of her father’s religion, she is developing her own, called Earthseed, in her journal.

Lauren suffers from hyperempathy syndrome, which causes her to feel the pain – or pleasure – of those around her. If she can see it, she feels it. Killing someone can cause her to black out in agony – not the best kind of empathy to share in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Going outside the walls of her community is rare but becomes necessary when “paints” – addled psychopaths addicted to the street drug “pyro,” which makes watching fire more pleasurable than sex – burn down her community and murder her family. Lauren has been certain that the safety of her enclave was coming to an end for some time, and has prepared for a hasty departure with supplies and money squirreled away. Still, when the time comes, she is only 18, and she is alone.

To survive, Lauren bands together with two other former members of her enclave. The three help some of the more vulnerable fellow travelers they encounter during their journey and slowly make their way toward Canada, in hopes of finding safety.  Although Lauren keeps it mostly to herself, she hopes that her growing migratory community can eventually settle down and start the first Earthseed community.

Although the story took place over 30 years in the future when it was written, reading it in 2016 makes the events seem less far-fetched than they may have seemed in 1993. No specific event is identified for the dystopian society Lauren lives in, but global warming, racial tensions, and unchecked corporate greed have all all clearly contributed to society’s demise. Slavery has returned in a big way with factories paying workers not with cash but with company scrip, which was accepted only at the company store. Rent is charged for the pitiful shacks the workers live in, and workers never quite make enough money to live, so they become indebted to the company. New legislation is said to exist allowing the companies to force these indebted slaves to work overtime to clear their debts, but no one can say for sure if it’s real or made up by the drivers who work for the companies.

Lauren can’t remember a time when towns and cities existed without walls, when average citizens owned cars, or when strung-out addicts weren’t a fixture at every street corner. Even as a fifteen-year-old, she’s not convinced the world she knows will ever get better, so she reads all she can while she can, knowing full well that when she has to leave the safety of her walled city, she won’t be able to take all the books with her. 

This leads to the only part of Butler’s chilling vision that this modern-day reader struggled with: technology. Obviously, the book was written in 1993, a time when most households didn’t have computers and most people didn’t have personal email, let alone internet access. However, the internet as we know it was in its infancy. Butler probably couldn’t have predicted the way it would take over our lives, or the way smartphones would put most of the world’s collective knowledge at our fingertips by 2016. Still, as amazing as these advances are, the recent inundation of fake news in social media demonstrates how this incredible network of data could lead to war, chaos, and implosion of society as we know it – or at least to the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps, in Butler’s universe, the internet age did arrive – but rampant corruption saw the need to roll back government transparency and data networks were disabled to keep the proletariat in the dark about minor details such as labor laws. This is the only stumbling block I encountered in terms of willing suspension of disbelief; otherwise, I had no issue believing that Butler’s harrowing vision of the future is a mere nine years away.

I’ve read a few of Butler’s works, and one thing I admire about her writing is her ability to float racial tension near the surface of the narrative – it’s always there, though it’s often understated – without constantly addressing it. For instance, Lauren’s last name, Olamina, is an African name that her father adopted in the 1960s along with many African Americans. This significance of her name is not mentioned – in fact, her name is hardly mentioned at all – until she meets a fellow African American traveler with the last name of Bankole, who is of her father’s generation and also chose a Yoruba last name. This coincidence instantly bonds Lauren and the newcomer and also ties the racism in the futuristic present of the novel with its historical roots in reality. Entire chapters go by without race being addressed within the group of travelers, even though the original three from Lauren’s enclave are two black women and one white man, and they plan out how to present themselves to the world to incite the least trouble: Lauren cuts her hair and dresses as a man so that she and Zahra, the other black woman, can be a couple and Harry, the white man, can be their white friend. Mixed-race couples still receive a lot of unwanted attention in 2027, and that’s what Harry and Zahra are.

Still, that fact is left alone until a discussion of employment opportunities near the end of the book brings that tension front and center again. The group has grown, but Harry is still the only white man – a fact that I had forgotten in the events of the story. Someone mentions that he could get a job as a driver of the indebted slaves for one of the big corporations. He is horrified and asks if anyone really thinks he could do that. The implication, of course, is that Harry would be the only person in the group “qualified” to take such a position.

At the beginning of each chapter is a passage from Earthseed. These passages express the basic tenet of Earthseed that God is Change, and the followers of Earthseed must learn to shape Change to suit their needs over time. The followers must be proactive; they are their own salvation. Lauren and her new followers spend half the book doing just that; perhaps this is the reason I waited 12+ years to read Parable of the Sower. This year was, finally, the right time to do so.

Catching Up — December 15, 2016

Catching Up

Oh, my poor, neglected blog. This has become more about book reviews than about mothering, but that’s okay. Mothering is my life 24/7. Reading is an escape I get for a few hours a week, if I’m lucky. I guess dwelling on my escapist hobby is more exciting than dwelling on wiping butts and giving time outs. Go figure.

Anyway, my hard drive died in July. My husband finally got around to getting me a new one and installing it in…November? I used to take care of these things myself, but it makes so much more sense to let someone who’s completely overqualified do it than try to google disk reviews on my phone while keeping two kids alive – let alone install the thing with two boogery kids looking on. I know. Being married has made me soft.

I’ve been reading all along, but not keeping up with reviews, and a few books I’ve read will likely fall through the cracks, but I’ll see what I can do. I’ve backdated things I wrote before the Great Disk Fail of 2016 but didn’t edit and publish. I’ll continue to do that with anything I manage to catch up on (such as Fresh off the Boat by Eddie Huang – if I never review it, it is excellent and highly recommended, although reading it will make you realize how much ABC rounded off the rough edges to create Eddie the television character, not to mention his father). Stay tuned.

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling — September 15, 2016

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling

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FiveCups

Did I (okay, my husband) purchase the most anticipated book of 2016 on the day it was released? Yes. Did that day also happen to be our anniversary? Yes. Did we plan to get married on Harry Potter’s birthday? No, but it sure worked out well, because the boys were staying with my parents and we could randomly drive to a book store to purchase it. Did I wander around the book store, cradling it like a new baby? Maybe.

In spite of all my excitement about this release (a new chapter in the Harry Potter universe! A play! About Harry Potter’s offspring!), I kept my expectations low. Obviously, Rowling has little more to do with Harry/Ron/Hermione/Ginny. Their story is told. They are now boring thirty-somethings with jobs and kids (just like me! Well, at least the kids part). Their kids, though. Their kids are now at Hogwarts. I was almost as excited about seeing what Rowling did with the story as I was about reading the actual thing. Who would the villain be? How would the original gang be involved? I devoured this play in an afternoon (there is a ton of white space, after all) in between breaking up sibling squabbles. My parenting game was not strong that day.

I don’t want to give much away. With that said, I can’t write about the play without giving something away, so fair warning. If you’re attempting to avoid all spoilers like I did, maybe come back after reading the play (or, better yet, seeing it performed).

The premise was, I will admit, a tad disappointing. On the other hand, I understand why Rowling did what she did. When you’ve spent seven novels with three key players fighting one heinous villain, you can’t really switch to a totally new villain/conflict when you decide to do an unexpected bonus text. Time travel is always feels a little deus ex machina to me, whether it’s used for resolution or providing a central conflict, unless you’re The Doctor. With that said, the devices used for it were well-established canon, and a new player (offspring!) was involved in the conflict. I applaud Rowling for coming up with a conflict that both expands the Potterverse and stays true to the world building she’s already done.

Seeing so many second-string characters – or at least getting a passing mention of them as adults – was by itself worth the price of admission. Neville Longbottom is an accomplished professor at Hogwarts, for instance. Draco Malfoy is still kind of an ass, but fatherhood has softened him. The untimely death of his wife, however, has hardened him back up somewhat. Still, his greatest concern is for his son, Scorpius, who befriends Harry’s son, Albus. In addition to their unfortunate names, the boys share their house assignment (Slytherin), a certain outcast status (Albus is the younger son of the great Harry Potter and doesn’t seem half as accomplished as his big brother, let alone his father) and soon become inseparable, despite their families’ misgivings. As out of character as it seemed for him, as a reader, it was refreshing to see Harry Potter judge someone based on his parentage alone simply because he’s an overprotective father like everyone else (including Draco). Harry Potter may be The Boy Who Lived, and he may have saved the world from Voldemort, but he still makes mistakes.

In spite of his perceived shortcomings, Albus (with Scorpius’ help) undertakes an ill-advised but noble mission to prove something to himself and to his father, but also to ease the suffering of another person. Naturally, things go awry, he discovers that things are not as they seem, and the plot really gets exciting. So exciting, in fact, that it requires Draco to team up with Harry and Company. One of my misgivings about a Harry Potter play was that Rowling’s style would be lost in the absence of exposition. It’s not. Even though she had cowriters (presumably because this is her first published play), she still shines through in the stage directions from time to time. Example:

DRACO: Then it’s a negligence I too should should face.

Draco walks up to the stage and stands beside GINNY. This is almost a Spartacus moment. There are gasps.

I think the stage directions remind me more of Rowling on Twitter than in the original seven Harry Potter Books (she’s cheekier on Twitter), but her voice does come through. And, God, I’ve missed it. I have yet to read the mysteries she published in recent years. I’m almost afraid the magic of Harry Potter will be tarnished, a bit, if I read her voice telling a story about something as mundane as a murder instead of as magical as Hogwarts. I’ll get over it, though. In the meantime, I may have to finally read Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And then go see the movie.

Book Review: What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty — July 10, 2016

Book Review: What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

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FiveCups

I sometimes think about myself in my mid-twenties and how naive I was about many things. While I’ve experienced unpleasant/embarassing/painful things in life, and learned hard lessons, all of it has made me who I am and led to the beautiful family I have today. I have very few regrets about things I’ve done in the past. But what if I woke up one day to a life that wasn’t so idyllic and no sense of how it got that way?

In the first chapter of What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (Berkley Books, 16.00 USD), its main character, Alice, experiences some strange dream sequences and wakes up surrounded by paramedics. Apparently, she has fainted at the gym (she goes to the gym?!) and bumped her head. She tells the paramedics that she’s pregnant. They tell her not to worry. They ask how old she is; she replies that she’s 29. A friend with her at the gym tells her she just got an invitation to Alice’s 40th birthday party.

Alice has forgotten the last 10 years of her life. She isn’t pregnant; the baby she remembers being pregnant with is now 10 years old, and she has two other children as well. The husband she adores does not live with her anymore, and they are in the middle of a divorce settlement; apparently, she is even dating someone else. She is many pounds thinner and far more fit than she remembers. She and her sister have drifted apart, she is in charge of practically every event at her children’s school that requires parent volunteers, and someone named Gina was apparently very important but isn’t anymore, for unknown reasons that no one wants to discuss with her.

I read this book for the book club I recently joined (and it’s awesome to be part of a book club again – that’s something I’ve missed immensely since we moved), but because it deals with amnesia, I’m counting it toward the “Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness” part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge for 2016. It’s a two-fer!

Although she quickly accepts that it is 2008, not 1998 (she does make a point to ask about Y2K), everything from Alice’s current life seems either ridiculous or frivolous. How can she be divorcing her husband? Why does she pay a personal trainer $150 a session to tell her how to work out? Why are her children involved in so many activities (several of which they clearly hate)?  Her memories are gone, but her muscle memory remains; she can type in passwords for accounts she’s completely unfamiliar with, running (which she has no memory of ever enjoying) is oddly soothing, and she somehow seems to be social at parties – despite being painfully shy all her life. The author does an outstanding job of making Alice’s amnesia believable, and as a result, the reader feels as confused as Alice does.

Even as Alice feels her life has somehow taken a wrong turn in the last 10 years and is desperately trying to sort out what happened, the lives of her sister, mother, and adoptive grandmother are moving along, for better or worse. The subplots involving these three characters are nearly as interesting as Alice’s. Her sister, Elisabeth, and mother, Barb, have both married surprising men, and Elisabeth is undergoing fertility treatments, which are slowly making her lose her mind. Alice’s adoptive grandmother, Frannie, is reluctantly being courted by an older gentleman in her retirement community. Part of the narrative is told through Elisabeth’s journal entries for her psychiatrist (whom she sees because of the grief of infertility), and part of it is told through Frannie’s letters to her former fiance. These epistolary entries provide a nice balance with the third-person narration that stays very close to Alice and therefore seems a tad unreliable, since Alice spends several pages convinced that it’s 1998, not 2008.

Losing ten years of memories gives Alice the rare gift of perspective on all of her relationships. It seems, to her and her entire family, that Alice has become a bit of a bitch. As some of her memories begin to return, it’s clear that things are far more complicated than just Alice changing for the worse, but with ten-year-old (and older) memories suddenly fresh in her mind and untarnished by the memories she’s forgotten, Alice becomes newly aware of what matters to her and fiercely determined to get it back.

***Minor spoilers***

Her impending divorce from her husband, Nick, is understandably Alice’s greatest point of confusion and grief. Although he sets aside his bristly attitude toward her once it’s clear she doesn’t know why they’re divorcing, he assures her that once she does get her memories back, she’ll still want a divorce. They even bet $20 on it.

I became incredibly invested in all the characters, but while I obviously wanted Nick and Alice to get back together, the author did not villainize Alice’s boyfriend or the mysterious Gina, even though Alice’s reaction to both of them was suspicion and a certain amount of contempt upon first learning of their existence – after all, both of them were somehow involved with the fact that she and her husband were not together anymore. Yet, neither one was actually a negative force in Alice’s life. It would have been a cop-out for the author to simply throw a couple of bad apples into Alice’s life to force her from Nick, and then for Alice to realize, with the benefit of losing ten years of memories, that she doesn’t want or need either of them. This is not the case here, and the complexity of her current situation, and the mystery of how she got there, made this book hard to put down.