“Catfishing on CatNet” by Naomi Kritzer

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Recommended to me by: Marissa Lingen

This book is based on the short story Cat Pictures Please, which touches on serious issues but is basically lighthearted and positive.

The book, less so. Yes, there’s a benevolent AI (artificial intelligence) who loves cat pictures. There are delightfully depicted internet friendships, and in-person friendships. Some of the characters are non-binary, and (almost) everyone is respectful about pronouns.

There’s also an 11th grader whose mom moves them all the time to keep away from her stalker dad, and some just barely off-screen domestic violence. It all comes right in the end, and I’m glad the book addresses those topics. At the same time, it felt jarring to me to have these deadly serious issues juxtaposed with a lighthearted cat-picture-loving AI who can fix all the problems.

It’s well-written. Recommended if you don’t mind fictionalized, simplified domestic violence. For me it was too realistic to be fun but not realistic enough at the end of the book about how difficult it is to escape.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“shadow daughter” by harriet brown

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Subtitle: A Memoir of Estrangement

Recommended to me by: Body Impolitic

A powerful, lyrical book about Harriet Brown’s complicated relationship with her difficult mother, including estrangement, and about family estrangement in general. She describes her ambivalence and self-blame in the face of anecdotes demonstrating dramatic emotional abuse, as well as the long process of naming her own truth.

The book also covers estrangement in general, both the pressures against it and the reasons for it. She interviews and quotes from other people who have gone through estrangement, and researchers into the topic.

She brings in estranged parent forums with both clarity about their self-deception and defensiveness, and empathy as well. There is a sense of bending over backwards to be fair.

The lower case title and author name on the cover make me sad on Harriet Brown’s behalf. I wonder if they were her choice, or a marketer’s design.

I am fascinated by the way Harriet Brown continues to put a lot of effort into family relationships, despite the ruptures and judgements stemming from her estrangement with her mother. She skillfully navigates those tricky waters.

I read the book cover to cover in an evening. Highly recommended if you have had to walk away or strongly limit an important family relationship, or if you want to understand that process better.

More stories by Harriet Brown on her website.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Newcomers” by Helen Thorpe

book coverSubtitle: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom

Recommended to me by: My friend Linda K.

Helen Thorpe spent a year and a half observing and helping in an ELA (English Language Acquisition) class at South High School in Denver Colorado. Her journalist’s eye is both clear and compassionate as she watches a classroom of newly arrived teen refugees from around the world learn English basics.

I remember when ELA used to be called ESL, English as a Second Language, but it is an apt name change since some of these kids already speak three or four languages, and maybe read and write in three or four alphabets.

Both the school as a whole and the beginning ELA teacher Mr. Williams in particular are dedicated to welcoming kids from around the world and helping them succeed.

I was worried that the book would focus on the tragedy of young refugee lives, or look down on the kids, but the book celebrates them as strong, determined, resilient young people. Difficult circumstances and traumatic stories are described with a light touch, clearly and with compassion.

Helen Thorpe gets to know the kids by interacting with them in class (with the help of Google translate on their phones), interviewing them with hired translators, and visiting a few of them at home to talk with their parents. She also learns about the history of war and oppression that has caused these families (and some unaccompanied minors) to flee their homes, sometimes multiple times.

After the school year, she visits the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is still in crisis, and meets some relatives of one of the families she got to know.

The book was written in 2016. It shows both the dedication of the people who help refugees get oriented and settled in the US, and the worsening effect of Trump’s rhetoric on students who are harassed on city buses for wearing hijab or having dark skin. It ends with Trump’s election and the shock of knowing that refugees need help more than ever, but not having an incoming caseload because of Trump’s Muslim Ban.

Highly recommended! Learn about what refugees’ lives are really like, and how hard the lucky ones who make it into the US work to become established here, while enjoying getting to know this group of teens and the people around them.

Population Mountains – a way to visualize the population and surroundings of some of the cities the immigrants came from (not affiliated with the book).

Available at Powell’s Books.

“So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo

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Recommended to me by: Ijeoma Oluo’s twitter feed

Ijeomo Oluo is a writer, speaker, and editor at large at The Establishment. She is also a queer Black woman, the single mother of two boys. Her writing is kind, direct, and clear, with practical suggestions on how to talk about race and dismantle racism.

Through both personal anecdotes and statistics from research studies, she lays out what racism is, how it affects people of color, and what we can do about it.

First, she addresses some of the objections white people have to discussing racism at all. Just because white people don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. No, it’s not just about class. Yes, race affects how people are treated in a long-term targeted effort to use Black people’s labor and keep them from competing with white people. Racism is prejudice + systemic power. Calling a white person a cracker does not have the far reaching effects and historic resonance that calling a Black person the n-word does.

With care and clarity, she addresses privilege, intersectionality (don’t leave more marginalized groups behind), police brutality, affirmative action (yes it works, no it’s not a panacea, and sadly it’s being dismantled), school-to-prison pipeline (all kids deserve to be seen in a positive light), cultural appropriation, using the n-word (if you’re not Black, DON’T), touching Black people’s hair (DON’T), microaggressions (when and how to address them), model minorities (still racism), and taking action.

Carefully, at the end of the book, she addresses that we’re all racist (yes me, yes you) because we are all immersed in a racist culture. We can do our best to become aware of our racist thoughts and habits and change them. We are better prepared to have conversations about race with our friends of all races with Ijeoma Oluo’s explanations and detailed advice.

Highly recommended as a no-nonsense, compassionate guide to what white people need to know about racism. I imagine Black people would find it validating as well. Please read this book!

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Deepest Well” by Nadine Burke Harris, MD

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Subtitle: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity

Recommended to me by: listening to Nadine Burke Harris’s TED talk

This is a skillful blend of memoir and scientific information about the effects of trauma, presented for the layperson. Nadine Burke Harris shares how as a newly licensed doctor she founded a pediatric clinic in Bayview, the poorest section of San Francisco with the most at-risk patients, and how that clinic came to focus on trauma as the underlying cause of a lot of medical issues, especially for children. Later she founded the Center for Youth Wellness, also in San Francisco.

She does not dwell on the effects of being a Black woman, but she does not skip over them either. She notes the benefits of networking with other women and offering each other support. While marginalization and racism contribute to people’s load of trauma, trauma is not only a “poor, Black issue.” Privilege does not exempt people from trauma or its long-term effects.

There is a strong correlation between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and health issues caused by the body’s ongoing stress response. The stress response can be buffered by strong relationships with caring adults.

Nadine Burke Harris developed a screening tool that asks a parent about the number of a child’s ACEs, but does not ask them to disclose the stories involved. She advocates for this screening tool to be used everywhere, just as infants are now universally screened for hypothyroid and jaundice.

The treatments for a body dysregulated by trauma are sleep, mental health, healthy relationships, exercise, nutrition, and meditation. Schools that help children regulate their nervous systems rather than punishing them for “acting out” enjoy both a more peaceful atmosphere and higher success rates by every measure.

(While screening is catching on in medical offices, I hear from nurses that treatment is catching on less quickly, leaving them in the frustrating position of knowing that people’s issues are caused by trauma, but not having the time and resources to help them.)

Highly recommended both for the information about the effects on trauma, and the memoir of a groundbreaking scientist and doctor who is radically improving how we care for both children and adults affected by trauma.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“A Safe Place for Pearl” by Ani Rose Whaleswan

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Recommended to me by: Ani Rose Whaleswan. I’ve known the author for a long time online, and I contributed an essay to her collection We Have Come Far.

“A Safe Place for Pearl” is a gentle offering of artwork, dreams, and narration, full of hope and inner resources. When there is no human support available, Nature and Spirit step in to support a child going through hard times. (The hard times are not described.) The remembering adult is supported as well. This book powerfully answers the question, “How did you survive? What helped you through?”

Recommended as support for looking inside and trusting what supports you, even if it is not visible to others.

Available at Amazon.

“The Night Child” by Anna Quinn

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Recommended to me by: Katherine Macomber Millman

A powerful, heartbreaking book about a woman slowly remembering and coming to terms with the childhood abuse she endured.

It reminded me of Susan Palwick’s “Flying In Place” in the way her pain is visible to the people around her, and she receives a lot of skilled, kind help. For many people, the process is less visible and they receive less assistance.

Anna Quinn has skillfully fictionalized her memoir, with lots of present-time sensory details to balance the horror of remembered abuse. The focus is on recovery, not the abuse itself.

Highly recommended if you want to read about an emotionally intense healing process which clearly shows the lasting harm done by abuse and the hard work it takes to recover.

Anna Quinn’s blog post When Your Memoir Wants To Be A Novel

Available at Powell’s Books.

“8” by Amy Fusselman

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Recommended to me by: a client

This is a book about healing, rather than a book about trauma.

Amy Fusselman layers incidents with “her pedophile” among meditations about the nature of time, parenting, relationships, healing, bodywork, therapy, New York City cab rides, and writing in a coffee shop when celebrities walk by. She loops among the topics gracefully, like the figure skater she was as a girl.

Recommended for one person’s perspective on the effects of childhood sexual abuse, putting it in its (admittedly important) place among the rest of the events in a life. Recommended for touching on the topic of abuse forthrightly, and then going on to something else, rather than sinking into it more and more deeply. This is how healing works.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Death Without Denial Grief Without Apology” by Barbara K. Roberts

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Subtitle: A Guide for Facing Death and Loss

This is a loving clear-eyed unflinchingly personal look at terminal illness, death, and grief by Oregon’s former governor Barbara Roberts. Her husband Frank Roberts died of cancer during her governorship. From the introduction:

I hope for a culture of loving openness in every medical office, hospital room, health care clinic, and emergency room where news of life’s limitations and death’s impending arrival are discussed openly and compassionately. People who are dying and their families and loved ones must be prepared to create such a culture for themselves.

Frank was a state senator during his last year, and there are some mentions of both of their political work in their choice to keep his terminal illness private for some time. I can only imagine the strength it took to continue to govern through illness and grief.

She tells the story of his diagnosis, their decision process together, their choice of hospice rather than further treatment, his quiet death, and her grief afterward. Emotions are included, but the story is calmly told. She shares the practical steps of planning for death. She talks openly about her own and others’ private rituals of grief, such as bringing flowers to a recently dead wife on an anniversary, or talking to the urn containing Frank’s ashes.

Highly recommended!

Wikipedia page about Oregon Democratic governor Barbara Roberts. Her term was from 1991-1995. She was the first woman Oregon governor. The second was just elected in 2016, our current governor Kate Brown.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Flying in Place” by Susan Palwick

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A twelve-year-old girl is being abused by her father, and is ultimately rescued by their next door neighbors. Her older sister had died, and at the end of the book, the neighbor says, “No one can help her. That’s what being dead means.”

Susan Palwick’s blog title is Rickety Contrivances of Doing Good. That does describe this book’s satisfying rescue, and at the same time, the book realistically portrays gaslighting and abuse and the necessary mechanisms for survival.

I’ve had the book long enough that I don’t remember how I first came across it. I went back to it looking for that quote. Highly recommended, if you don’t mind crying at the end.

Available at Powell’s Books.