Okay, I went slightly off-book (ha) this month– my sister graduated from college and I got married, so I’m not too bummed about being a little behind.
I ended up reading a lot this month, but two of the “scheduled” books are ironically behind schedule, along with a few others that I’d like to wrap up before I announce the books for next month. So this post will be the first of two parts, but you’ll get more reviews and multiple posts.
In Renaissance Venice, women are forbidden to practice medicine (or do much besides marry and bear children to further their families’ economic interests).
But Gabriella Mondini has followed in her father’s footsteps and become a physician with his mentorship. They had been co-writing a Book of Diseases when he abruptly leaves Venice, sending strange, rambling letters to Gabriella as he travels through Europe and into the Middle East.
After a decade without his sponsorship in the local physician’s guild, she is expelled because of her gender and sets off to find him and bring him back to Venice so that she can restore her career.
As she follows the journey laid out in his letters, she meets people who know him and adds local wisdom to the Book of Diseases as she travels.
“It’s not easy when I have to prove myself tenfold to be taken seriously as a young woman. Two faults in one. Every day now, I remind myself to bow to the unknown cause.
‘We worship at the same altar, my dear. Malady and death. The greatest teachers.’
‘And the patient herself.'”
I loved the premise of this book, but I couldn’t get into the story. The characters weren’t fully fleshed out and the writing was a strange, stilted mix of modern and stylized Renaissance wording.
I found myself continuously (and longingly) comparing The Book of Madness and Cures to Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin, which is very special to me. It’s a compelling forensic mystery set in medieval Cambridge.
Honestly, of the two, I’d recommend Mistress more. It’s also part of a series, all of which are genuinely incredible (mysterious, spooky, romantic, humorous, and feminist AF).
During the 1999 WTO Protests in Seattle, seven people are thrown together by circumstance. This fictional version of those real events changes– and potentially devastates– all of their lives. I am reluctant to say any more about this book. Just read it, please. It’s Sunil Yapa’s first book and it’s one of the most beautifully written and breathtaking stories I’ve ever read. Of the books I’ve read so far this year, this was the most surprising– I had high expectations and this went far beyond them.
“Look at how they come from the darkness of their homes, backs stiff, stretching and tying the bandannas tight, checking one another’s faces for an idea of what violence this day might bring. Look with him at these wet American faces, ordinary and beautiful, and tell me you don’t feel more than a little bit afraid.
They wanted to tear down the borders, to make a leap into a kind of love that would be like living inside a new human skin, wanted to dream themselves into a life they did not yet know. He heard them in the streets saying, ‘Another world is possible,’ and beneath his ribs broken and healed and twice broken and healed and thrice broken and healed, he shuddered and thought, God help us. We are mad with hope. Here we come.”
I was so eager to read this and I ended up not even finishing it. I probably could have tried harder. I really wanted to like it, but I didn’t. There’s nothing strictly wrong with it, per se, but I thought there would be more actionable ideas and fewer mini-meditations on stress reduction and self esteem. Those things are fine, just not what I’m looking for. Those might have come across better in audiobook form, so if I return to this, I’ll try that medium instead.
To reverse course after We, I decided to listen to something that was all action items and Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Executive Presence is definitely that.
Her thesis: part of the way to acquire power is to acquire gravitas– to appear competent and exude reliability– or at least not have your presentation impede your upward mobility. There were some shades of Lean In style bootstrapping philosophy here. The burden of proving worth is placed squarely on marginalized people (women, people of color, the LGBTQIA community, poor people, neuro-atypical people, anyone with a learning disability) and they have to “pass” by imitating those in power as much as possible. To Hewlett’s credit, she does call out those underlying power structures.
“In the battle between conformity and authenticity, you will eventually prevail, not perhaps as a brand new hire, but down the road, when you have some seniority. Get over the bar, establish your bona fides, win everyone’s faith and confidence, then make your own rules.”
Trigger warnings for The Book of Madness and Cures: Violence, sexual violence, misogyny
Trigger warnings for Mistress of the Art of Death: Violence, sexual violence, misogyny
Trigger warnings for Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist: Police violence