6/30/17

Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson (REVIEW)

 

As I make my way through my goal of reading more diverse books, I've come across and read many that have to do with race relations in the United States. Piecing Me Together is no exception, and is perhaps (so far) one of the best that I've read which deals with this issue. Renée Watson delivers the subject with such honesty and youthful emotion that made this book impossible to put down. I read half of it in one sitting, and half in another. 

Piecing Me Together focuses on a young girl living in the Pacific Northwest named Jade. A black girl living with her single mother, and uncle in a low-income, fairly homogeneous neighborhood, she straddles different worlds between her home life and that at her private school in another area of town. Jade attends the school on scholarship because of her hard work and talent, but she struggles between resenting the assistance and trying to appreciate it. She doesn't want to be someones project. When she is offered an opportunity through a program at school that will provide her with a college scholarship, its both not what she wanted, and everything she needs at the same time (whether she knows this or not). 

In some ways Piecing Me Together reads like your average YA novel. In so many, many ways though, it is not. What I love about this book is how it not only tackles the issue of race on both micro and macro levels, but it also address other issues like poverty, body image, relationships and more. It is a book of layers and so many of the layers stood out to me. I found myself smiling and/or nodding my head as I read page after page of moments that resonated with me. The character of Jade is so profound even in her youthfulness. Piecing Me Together challenges the stereotype that with youth comes ignorance as Jade is wise beyond her years. 

This book should be a must read for adolescents, and really - for anyone. As an adult in my early thirties, I enjoyed the book very much. Piecing Me Together tackles the raw subject of race - one which pulses so intensely in our society right now, while also addressing issues that might seem far less consequential like body issues, misogyny, and even simply advocating for yourself and having self-confidence. Often these are identified as issues of adolescence but they are very much issues that linger with us throughout our lives, for some more than others, making this book a very valuable read. 

If you're looking for a book to fly through over your fourth of July vacation or on your next holiday getaway, give this one a try. Trust me - its worth it!

6/28/17

Budget Travels: St. Catharines & Welland Canal, Ontario Canada



Living in Western New York, sometimes I feel like there aren't many places to explore within a short distance. It's a wildly incorrect assumption and this summer, I've decided to try and explore the region in which I live a bit more. So naturally I started by going to visit my neighbors in the north, and took a trip to St. Catharines, Ontario Canada. ;)

Considering where I live, and the special relationship that exists and has existed for years between Canada and Western New York, it seems justifiable to include Ontario province in my adventure radius. I have always had wanderlust, but I often have my sights set on places far away. However, my bank account and my desires don't always align, so I decided that this summer would be the summer of budget friendly adventures! I thought it would be nice to try and document these excursions here on the blog, as I'm sure I'm not the only one who wants to travel without breaking the bank or really, let's be honest, being able to do so. I'm also excited to really explore places within my own neck of the woods (more or less) as I'm embarrassed to admit just how little I have experienced in my own region. So here's to a summer filled with adventures seeking to change that!

Anyway, back to my trip to St. Catharines... it's a city I've heard the name of over the years but my knowledge really ended there. I still feel like I haven't really been there if I'm honest, because the place we really went to check out was the Welland Canal and Lock 3 which is located in St. Catharines. I can't even explain where it started but a few weeks ago, I was reading about the history of the Welland Canal and it really is a fascinating story. Start with wikipedia (just remember, it's wikipedia!!) and check out some youtube videos too if you fancy. The history of the canal really is interesting. For those that don't know, the Welland canal was built to allow large ships (like huge ocean cargo ships) to navigate through the Great Lakes, from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie and onward. It is part of a larger pathway that allows these massive ships to come from the ocean all the way to the Great Lakes. To get these ships from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie isn't as simple as navigating a smaller seaway - it involves going from a lower lake to a higher lake. To achieve this, ships need to go through a series of locks which raise and lower the ships to allow them to navigate from one lake to another.





After reading all about the canal, I decided I wanted to go check it out for myself. There are locks in the WNY region, but I've never seen them in action, so my curiosity, coupled with the fact that I could pick up more of my favorite Canadian treats made the trip a must. St. Catharines is a perfect spot to experience the canal since there is also a museum - The St. Catharine's Museum, and they have a really great observation deck to watch the whole process of ships coming in and out (or up and down as they say).

The museum is free, and the parking is also free. It's a gorgeous spot and when we went to check it out, it was certainly an international hub. People come from all over the world to experience the canal! As someone with a degree in sociology, I felt my ethnographic research skills coming back as I took in all the different exchanges occurring around me from people who had traveled far and wide to visit this one particular place. I could have easily sat and people watched for awhile.






Watching the ships is a fascinating experience and honestly, in some ways I find it hard to describe. I still don't fully understand how exactly it all works!! I was so mystified by the process that at times I just had to appreciate the ingenuity of it all. We got to watch a ship going down through the canal, and up. I could see spending even more time traveling along the canal to see ships pass through other locks as well.

A great part of the museum is that they post what ships are coming through and at what times, so it helps to plan your trip in order to catch them as they go through Lock 3. You can also call for the information - the number is on their site.

If you do go to Lock 3 in St. Catharines, do also take a walk around inside the museum. They have interesting historical artifacts from the history of St. Catharines and the region as a whole - including from the Underground Railroad, WWI, and WW2. 

If you live in the WNY region, and have not experienced the canal or see the big ocean liners coming through the locks, I encourage you to take the short trip north to experience it. It's free, you can pick up some Cadbury, grab some poutine and enjoy a *real* authentic Timmy's. What have you got to lose, eh?

6/23/17

Here Comes the Sun: Five Sunscreens Put To The Test

I will admit that I haven't always been that great about making sure to apply sunscreen. I used to go to the beach and crave a tan - something my Italian/German skin seemed conflicted about. I have sensitive skin though and any little thing can cause me a world of discomfort. Too much wind, too much cold, too much sun, abrasive products, complex chemicals, the wrong foods...I've learned over the years that my skin is cranky and while I still don't have a perfect system down, I have adopted the routine of putting on sunscreen, *nearly* every single day.

I started really giving my skincare routine and habits an overhaul a few months ago and when I started, I picked up a few new sunscreen products to use. Then, if I'm honest, I cleaned out my health & beauty hoard and found two that I already had. Oops... >_< So, since then, I have been putting them all to the test. Four different sunscreens over the course of a few months. I thought it might be helpful for others if I gave them all some scrutiny here on the blog. If I can encourage anyone else to start using sunscreen on a daily basis that would be wonderful!

 

I'll start off with the ones I picked up most recently, the first of which is the La Roche Posay Anthelios 50 Mineral Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid. Oy. Long name!What I like about this is that it's super lightweight and has a nice high SPF. It's also good for sensitive skin. It didn't piss off my skin in any significant ways, but I will say that I found it to be a bit drying. It's also the most expensive of the products I have been testing. I would perhaps overlook the price, if it weren't for the fact that I later learned La Roche Posay is *not* a cruelty free brand. So once this product is gone, I won't be repurchasing. For this reason alone, I cannot recommend this product.

 

Next up is the Jason Sun Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 Broad Spectrum. I like that this brand is cruelty-free and the size of the bottle makes it quite an affordable product. However, it is thicker than hell and I found that it did not work into my skin as easily as other products I've been trying. Due to the consistency, this is another that I would not re-purchase.

 

Now on to the two I already had. The first of which is the Kiss My Face Face & Neck Face Factor 30. This is in many ways, your standard sunscreen. It smells like sunscreen - but I don't think its too strong and I don't really mind the smell of sunscreen anyways. I think since it makes me think of summer, I kind of enjoy it actually. It's decently priced and cruelty free. I found it to feel fairly lightweight on my skin, but it took a minute or so to really sink in. I would repurchase this one, but I'm unsure as to whether I really find it necessary to have a separate body / face sunscreen. I also wish the SPF was higher.

 

Last up is the Alba Botanica Very Emollient Sunblock Natural Protection with Organic Lavender. This one is also cruelty free, so it passes the test there. It also has a higher SPF - the second highest of the bunch at 45. I found that it goes on nice and smooth, and that it absorbs well, although when I ran from my car into a store the other day in the rain, I had little white spots on my arm afterward. No big though, I just rubbed it back in. I'm just glad I noticed and didn't look too crazy! My favorite feature of this product though, is the smell. The lavender is AMAZING. It's just the right kind of lavender. To me, not all lavender smells the same and there are some NASTY ones out there, but this one smells soooo good. Out of the four sunscreens I tried, this one is definitely the WINNER! It's affordable, with a high SPF and it works great. Plus, it smells amazing!!

I truly hope that this post inspires you all to grab some sunscreen and add it to your daily routine if it isn't already. :)


6/19/17

When Dimple Met Rishi By Sandhya Menon (REVIEW)

 

I can enjoy a young adult novel anytime, but there's something about a YA novel as a summer read that just feels right. They're often lighter reads (at least compared to the political books I frequently pick up), and they're a nice break from the heavier books and text book readings that often fill my time. When Dimple Met Rishi caught my eye because it was not just a YA novel, but it also fit into my desire to read more diverse books. It follows a girl named Dimple, and a boy named Rishi, both children of traditional Indian families living in America. Their parents want their children to be thinking about marriage, despite only being 18. While Rishi wants to satisfy the traditions his family finds so important, Dimple seeks out a life lived on her own terms. She has dreams of making a name for herself as a woman in technology. Dimple does not have dreams that involve domesticity or "finding the Ideal Indian Husband, like her mother seems to see as the most important goal.

When Dimple enrolls at a coding/technology summer camp on a local college campus, what she doesn't know is that she is to meet Rishi, who has been sent to camp with another mission in mind: marrying Dimple. Rishi doesn't seem to mind the idea of the arranged marriage their parents are hoping will happen, but upon meeting Dimple, he is in for a rude awakening.

Dimple wants no part of such archaic traditions and at first loathes Rishi - a stranger who is thrust into her life. Although, as the book progresses, we watch as hate and annoyance, evolves and blossoms into a true, and unexpected romance. Following Dimple and Rishi's journey pulls the reader in deeply as the frustration, love and fascination seem to seep from the pages. We watch as the characters challenge each other to see beyond their assumptions and own personal beliefs, and to really understand the differences between us, and the choices we make, in a way that turns them into better people. Both Dimple and Rishi encourage each other to be better versions of themselves through their love for each other.

There were parts of their story which I found to be predictable - in a way, it follows a romantic formula of sorts - intertwining love and conflict together.  But I wouldn't classify that necessarily as a negative, it's just merely a fact. I think a level of predictability is inevitable if you spend a lot of time in the same genre, just like how I can often guess the suspects on an episode of SVU or NCIS after watching for so many years. ;)

It caught me by surprise in other ways though... like how much the story grabbed me. I will admit that I teared up a few times while reading. Maybe it was my hormones. or maybe it was simply the story - but either way it got me emotional.

Being a diverse book, with diverse characters, there were some times in which I felt a bit confused. Such as when the author wrote in different languages without translation. I suppose in a way, the point of a diverse book is to expose you to different people and cultures, but I feel like some parts of the book were unfortunately lost for me because I did not understand them. It wasn't enough to ruin the story though - but for me, it did cause some snags.

My only other complaint for When Dimple Met Rishi, is that there isn't a sequel. I want to know what happens next in the lives of Dimple and Rishi - whom are left at the end of the book about to start their freshman year in college. The characters pulled me in and I would definitely follow them further. I think that Sandhya Menon did an excellent job at creating a world that envelopes the reader - pulling them into the story entirely. I feel like I am now invested deeply in the success of these characters and would welcome a continuation of the story any time!

I'd love to know your thoughts on When Dimple Met Rishi if you read it - feel free to share them in the comments!


6/16/17

American Street - Ibi Zoboi (REVIEW)

 

Some books seem to take us on intense and emotional roller coaster rides with the stories they tell.  Ibi Zoboi does this with American Street, which tells the story of a young Haitian immigrant navigating her way through dealing with a family that is as foreign to her as the city in which she ends up: Detroit. She does this alone as her mother is detained by ICE.

This is a book that I had wanted to read as I have been seeking out stories that were more diverse, and being a YA novel also drew me in. I think people often overlook YA as being only for a certain age, but they often offer stories that are intense, complicated and far more dynamic than many might guess or expect. American Street is a perfect example of this. Zoboi does a beautiful job of weaving together these complex characters and the memories and experiences that exist among them. While there is pain - physical, emotional, mental... there is also family and support, romance and laughter. As we follow Fabiola, we learn more about her past, and that of her aunt and cousins in Detroit. We follow these characters on a ride that brings with it hope and hurt in a way that keeps the reader intensely engaged.

It was difficult to put down this book. It reads easily from beginning to end and I would be lying if I said it didn't make me tear up on multiple occasions. The heartbreak that just seems to leak off the page from Fabiola being separated from her mother is strong. The book also tackles a variety of issues that would be impossible to not engage readers - the violence of our inner cities, drugs, gun violence and domestic violence for example. This book addresses topics that continue to be hot topics within our society.

American Street might be labeled as a Young Adult novel, but it truly is for everyone. I definitely look forward to whatever else Zoboi might have in store for us and I will certainly keep her on my radar. It is not the sappy, teenage angst, romance novel that many might think of when they head "YA", but is instead a deep and thought provoking book that will pull on your heart strings whether you like it or not. It does so in a good way though. Trust me.

6/8/17

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate (REVIEW)


I'm a sucker for a good memoir, and I'm also interested in politics (albeit its a subject matter that often fills me with rage, but nonetheless...), so generally speaking, I enjoy a good political memoir style book because it blends both together. I haven't read any of Al Franken's previous books, but having paid attention to him over the years through his work in the Senate, and knowing of his SNL history, when I heard about his newest book Giant of the Senate, I figured it was a good place to start.

Giant of the Senate blends together stories from Franken's life, with his views on politics, namely our current state of affairs. He recounts his experiences from childhood and through his SNL days, as well as his radio work with Air America, and his first steps into the political activism pool. He shares the journey that he embarked on with his first political campaign, and the experiences that have resulted from becoming a US senator in 2009.

I appreciated reading Franken's perspective on different issues and found that in many ways we were on the same page. I especially enjoyed how he discussed the issue of delivery reform in regard to healthcare and honestly, found it refreshing to hear someone actually address these types of issues within health care not only has problems, but really as merely existing. Personally, I feel like many view health care without considering the many ways in which the costs are inflated and manipulated and there are a million lobbyists and you know, things like Big Pharma that don't want us to dive too deeply into the matter. It was nice to hear someone touch on the issue, no matter how briefly.

I also liked the way that Franken suggested that trump had violated so many norms within our society. I find this to be both a frustrating, and yet fascinating topic. I find it interesting to examine the norms within society (ours or others), and how they shift and evolve over time. trump however, basically said to hell with it, and disregarded them in a way that makes me wonder if he was/is even aware of what the norms within our society might include.

Giant of the Senate was a nice blend of political reality and personal experience in my opinion and I truly enjoyed reading it. There might have been some points that lagged a bit for me, but in all honestly, I find that often happens with political books. Sometimes my brain simply feels overloaded. In general though, the book flew by. Franken's sarcastic humor certainly helped it along. I certainly enjoyed his picking on Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the idiot brigade. ;) His humor made for a refreshing read from the political genre. Especially considering that we live in a world where laughter has become quite the high priced commodity.

6/6/17

Golden Memoirs: Reading the Books of The Golden Girls




I'm a huge fan of The Golden Girls. I watch it nearly every single night. I find the show to be wildly relevant even 24 years after it last aired. I wrote about the show during my undergrad because I found it to be such a wonderful example of a variety of different social issues. I also appreciate how it represents a less than traditional household composition. The show makes me laugh even if its an episode I've seen twenty times before, but I can also pick it apart and nerd out on it. There's just so much to analyze!

I wanted to further my knowledge of the cast members I have grown so accustomed to seeing on a nightly basis, so I decided to check out some of the books they have published. I ended up reading Estelle Getty's book, Rue McClanahan's and one of Betty Whites. Unfortunately Bea Arthur never wrote a book and there aren't any unofficial biographies to be had (that I know of, anyway!). I've learned over the years that I quite enjoy reading biographies/memoirs so it was fitting to read theirs.

The first one I read was Estelle Getty's If I Knew Then What I Know Now...So What? All three books are dated of course, and were written during/following the success of The Golden Girls, so it's important to keep that in mind and it actually makes for an interesting read in my opinion. It's sort of like traveling back in time, or opening a time capsule and I found it enjoyable to step back into the past. Estelle plays perhaps the most popular and well known character on the show: Sophia Petrillo. While much of the zingers written on the show come from the writers, that same humor is evident in Estelle herself. Reading her book was a quick and enjoyable read and I would certainly give it a thumbs up. It's difficult to read the book and not think of Sophia, but regardless, the book is full of laughs. I also learned quite a bit about Estelle Getty and she truly led a fascinating and action filled life.

The next book I tackled was Rue McClanahan's My First Five Husbands and the Ones That Got Away. I honestly found this book to drag quite a bit in the beginning, but once I got into it, things got a bit better. It's not that it was a boring book to read - having an interest in the actors kept me engaged enough, but it was just so action packed with names, dates and places and sometimes I felt that McClanahan drifted from one person or topic to another. After giving it some time, things started to go more smoothly and I enjoyed learning more about the woman I personally only knew as Blanche. There is always so much more to an actor than just one of their characters and Rue had really been everywhere, and seen it all. It was fascinating to enter into her world for a bit.

Lastly, I read a book by Betty White. Betty has quite a few books under her belt and I really felt overwhelmed trying to choose just one to start from. I ended up going for Here We Go Again, which chronicles her personal life and her career in television stretching a bit past The Golden Girls. All of the women involved with the show led such interesting lives both personally, and in show business, it is amazing to read their stories. Betty's love for animals (and Rue's for that matter) hits a soft spot with me as a fellow Animal lover and I loved all the photos Betty included in her book - I think more photos would have actually been nice in the other two books. Betty White is the lone surviving Golden Girl and I found myself often wondering what her life is like now and what stories she would tell if she were to write another book.

I enjoyed reading all three memoirs and I would definitely pick up another of Betty White's books...I'm just not sure which to pick up next! If you're a Golden Girls fan, then I encourage you to get to know the actors who took on these unforgettable roles! They're all worthwhile reads and I can't pick a favorite!