May 2021 Books

It’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, but it’s kind of a coincidence that I read several books from that community. We celebrate anyway!

New Books Read

HarperCollins India

Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian***
CW: suicide, substance abuse
I’ve had this book on hold at the library for weeks and I’m so glad I wasn’t disappointed. The book is a treat for those who are fascinated by stories of alchemy. What I particularly loved was that it was rooted in Indian mythology of alchemy and not in the Western canon. I also loved how the novel challenged perceptions about the history of Indian immigrants to the US (namely that it’s a recent phenomenon). I did think Neil, the protagonist, was a bit annoying, mostly just in how selfish he was, but I realize characters need to have flaws and he mostly overcomes it by the end. I’m still thinking about this scene near the end of the book that I won’t spoil, but it’s so euphoric and beautiful and the images were so strong.
3.5/5 gold bangles

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez***
CW: suicide attempt (not successful), suicidal ideation, death of a family member, anorexia, child abuse, sexual assault
I knew this book was going to be sad and it was. The premise is sad: Julia’s sister is killed in a car accident and she is left without her sister and with the weight of her parents’ expectations that she be a ‘perfect Mexican daughter’ like her sister. This is a coming-of-age story of a teenaged writer trying to find her voice and her place among her family and in the US as a child of undocumented immigrants. It reminded me a bit of The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (see February 2021 book blog), though I don’t think I liked it quite as much. As a character Julia is pretty angsty and abrasive, though she definitely has reason to be. Overall though, it was a hopeful and lovely book that I think a lot of teenagers probably need.
3.5/5 quinceañera dresses

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala ***
First book in a planned series
CW: indications of evidence planting and police intimidation, drug use, fatphobia, racism, domestic violence (this is the warning Manansala puts in the author’s note at the beginning of the book, specifically for Filipino readers)
This was my Book of the Month for April and it was so fun. It’s a cozy mystery and its good pacing keeps the pages turning and your mouth watering. The protagonist, Lila helps run her aunt’s Filipino restaurant, but then when Lila’s ex-boyfriend ends up dead from poisoning at her restaurant, she has to figure out who is framing her. I’m usually not much of a mystery reader, and the last mystery I read (see The Accidental Alchemist in the November 2020 blog) was not good. I liked that everything I complained about in that book was handled much better in this book: I cared about the characters and their backstories, I cared about solving the mystery, and the answer to the mystery was satisfying. I also liked that I wasn’t immediately able to guess the killer, but was able to put together the clues and arrive at the answer just a hair ahead of Lila. I also appreciated the nuance of the characters from Asian diasporas. I think it’s easy as a white person to lump together immigrants from all parts of Asia, so I liked the way Manansala explored the differences and similarities in experience of her Filipino, Korean, Indian, and Japanese characters. Left me hungry for more (more novels, and also more Filipino food).
4/5 plates of adobo

In the Kingdom of Men by Kim Barnes
Based on the title of this book, I did not have particularly high hopes that I would like it. I was pleasantly surprised! I want to say this book reminded me of the Awakening by Kate Chopin, but in the best possible way, as I didn’t actually like the Awakening that much. It follows a young couple in the 1960s that moves to Saudi Arabia to work at the Aramco oil drilling site. I really liked Barnes’s writing style and how she explored femininity and feminism through the lenses of two different patriarchal societies. I loved how the protagonist Gin evolves through the story to become a strong, independent, and self-actualized woman. I also liked that the ending wasn’t super predictable. I won’t spoil it, but it wasn’t the way I would have expected the story to end.
3.5/5 Arabian horses

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan***
CW: institutionalization and torture of disabled (and perceived disabled) people, child abuse, war and death
Weaving forward and backward through time, and through past lives, Tan creates a nuanced and rich novel. I loved the way the past lives of the characters paralleled their current lives. I didn’t think Olivia, the protagonist, was particularly likable at the beginning but she is an extremely human and believable character, which I commend Tan for, and she is more likable by the end. I loved the stories Kwan told and the descriptions of China. I also really appreciated Tan’s portrayal of sisterhood and family. Kwan and Olivia’s relationship was really nuanced and I loved the way it developed over the course of the novel.
3.5/5 snowy owls

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy***
CW: sexual assault, domestic violence, alcoholism, police brutality, incest
Roy’s writing is gorgeous. The tempo, the cadence, the sound, the way she uses metaphor and repetition. I also loved the way she built tension and a deep sense of dread throughout the novel by revealing the picture bit by bit and not in chronological order. But I will say, I didn’t love the plot or the characters. I feel like a lot of adult and literary fiction is just about miserable people doing miserable things and that was definitely the case here. My sister told me I wasn’t really going to like this one and she was right, but I’ll still say that the writing style is what kept me reading to the end.
3/5 spoiled puffs

Books read for the Community Cats Podcast Blog

Animalkind by Ingrid Newkirk and Gene Stone
CW: graphic descriptions of violence against animals
Part 1 of Animalkind reads a bit like a very long list of fun facts about animals. If you’re already an animal lover and enjoy watching nature documentaries, or you’ve studied psychology, then much of the information won’t be particularly new or surprising. In part 2 of the book, the authors make the case for not using animals in medical testing, for clothing, for food, or as entertainment (as in circuses), emphasizing the cruelties of these industries. They include a rather exhaustive list of alternatives to using animals in these industries. Though I don’t doubt the cruelties chronicled in the book, I did feel that the way they chose to share these abuses sensationalized the violence, much like our 24 hour news cycle, which just desensitizes us to violence. The arguments for not using animals also seemed not to really consider the full complexity of many issues. In the discussion of clothing, synthetic fabrics are heralded as an alternative to animal-based products, but we shouldn’t pretend that these are without their problems. Both the production and even just the washing of polyester and acrylic fabrics create microplastics that usually end up in the ocean, ultimately still hurting animals, just fish instead of sheep. It has also been well documented that laborers in the textile industry are often exploited. In the discussion of food there was no acknowledgement that veganism is often inaccessible for people who live in food deserts or low-income areas. It also tends to be gentrified and elitist. Though the authors suggested many brands of vegan chocolate, no mention was made of the fact that most cocoa is harvested by exploited workers who are often children

While I absolutely agree with everything the authors are arguing, I found the book not nearly as compelling as Our Symphony With Animals, in which Dr. Ahktar (see September 2020 book blog) uses personal stories illustrating the human-animal bond to make a similar argument. I do like that Animalkind gives the reader a guide for what they can do personally to help animals in these industries (i.e. weaponizing your power as a consumer and a voter, advocacy, and more).
2.5/5 whale songs

Related: Read Staging Tourism by Jane C. Desmond for a nuanced discussion of why humans have always been fascinated by animal bodies and the exploitation that is animal tourism.

But First, Rumi by Chitra Ramaswami
CW: descriptions of cruelty toward animals
On the Community Cats Podcast, host Stacy always asks podcast guests how they first became passionate about cats. But First, Rumi is Ramaswami’s story. A quick read, the memoir documents how she met Rumi, a street cat who lived near her family’s home in Oman. Ramaswami began feeding the stray and he gradually wormed his way into her heart, as many of us will understand. Their story explores the deep human-animal bond and how saving an animal can be like saving yourself. Though she admits she was not much of a cat-person prior to meeting Rumi, Ramaswami fell in love with the Omani Mau and then became aware of the many problems facing animal welfare in Oman. She attempts to reconcile the kindness of the people with the cruelty she observes when it comes to the street cats. At the end of the book she also suggests ways to help the community cats in Oman and what can be done to promote kindness and compassion toward all animals.
3/5 Omani Maus

The Little Book of Boards by Erik Hanberg
Though I’m not on the board of any kind of nonprofit, I felt Hanberg’s book was a great primer for anyone who might want to be. He starts off with what a board does and what your duties are as a board member, which sounds simple but is very useful for those who have never served on or worked with the board of a nonprofit. The second part of the book is devoted to the duties of board leaders (committee chairs, board officers, and the board president). The book finishes off with an extensive appendix of resources including how to update bylaws, how to create an effective committee structure, how to recruit board members, and more. Hanberg’s book is slim and full of practical advice. I would say it’s definitely a good book to pick up if you’re thinking about joining the board of a small nonprofit. Hanberg also has other books for small nonprofits on social media (The Little Book of Likes) and fundraising (The Little Book of Gold).
3/5 nonprofits

Human-Animal Interaction: A Social Work Guide by Janet Hoy-Gerlach and Scott Wehman***
This is a good read for social workers, shelter workers, and veterinarians. The authors discuss how human-animal interaction can be integrated into social work practices to better meet the client where they are. They point to domestic violence situations where survivors might be unwilling to go to a shelter because of a pet, clients with suicidal thoughts who haven’t committed suicide because of the pet they care for, those who have lost a pet and are suffering from disenfranchised grief, and older clients who worry what will happen to their pet if they go to the hospital or die. Though pet owners know how important animal companions are in their lives, this is something that has not been fully explored within the realm of social work as far as the benefits as well as stressors that can come from pets, and the social supports that should be in place to help people and their pets thrive. The book is a great place for social workers who want to incorporate animal-based therapy and support for clients, as well as for shelter workers and veterinarians who want to take a more holistic approach to the care of both pets and clients.
3/5 animal companions

***This book is part of my Books for a Social Conscience series! Read Gold Diggers to learn more about the Indian American experience as well as Indian immigration history and Indian mythology. Read I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter to learn about the experience of undocumented immigrants and the difficulties of mental illness. Read Arsenic and Adobo for some diversity in the mystery genre, as well learning about the diversity of the Asian diaspora. Read The Hundred Secret Senses to learn more about colonialism in China as well as the Chinese-American immigrant experience. Read The God of Small Things to read a classic of Indian literature and to learn more about the caste system and the affects of colonialism in India. Read Human-Animal Interaction to grow your empathy for humans and animals and to learn how we can best support that symbiotic relationship with social change.
Reads marked as part of the Books for a Social Conscience series will regularly address topics like race and racism, colonialism and post-colonialism, LGBTQ+ experience, feminism, BIPOC experience, social and political issues, history, identity, class, disability experience, immigration, gun violence, poverty, colorism, environmentalism, and more! The goal of these books is to diversify the stories we’re reading, grow our empathy for those who are different from us, and amplify voices who are often silenced.

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