Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, #2)Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Further adventures of the angry former spaceship and assorted imperial doings.

This was . . . unchallenging is the word a friend used, and it is exactly the right one. Like, this book kept presenting the most digestible, high-contrast depictions of inequity, and I kept waiting for the onion layers to peel back on it and . . . no . . . apparently the arc of justice bends towards the completely freaking obvious. Like, okay, slave labor by another name is, indeed, unjust. But positing that is not interesting to me as a reader and, more importantly, did not challenge any of the characters as they revolved neatly through this little social justice playlet. Which is part of what makes the book go, actually – there's something awful about how cartoonishly blatant the evil is here, and yet how many characters still can't see it and can't be taught to see it. But we spent so long talking at length about the obvious injustice of captive labor that we didn't seem to have time to delve into the more complex and insidious ways the power structure reinforces itself. The stuff that really gets people where they're rooted, because it's what they're rooted in.

Anyway. I'm selling this book short, to be honest. It has long, charming stretches of angry former spaceship who is baffled by these monkeys, and there are two contrasting subplots about identity that are extensions of how the first book dealt with the expanded self on multiple levels from the personal to the societal, and other stuff that I liked. But there was just something so primary color crayon about most of the sociological plot, and . . . eh.

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Foxglove Summer (Peter Grant, #5)Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So when the summary of this book came out – Peter goes to the countryside – I assumed it would be a monster-of-the-week book. And it is, though clearly also a lot of setup. Which is actually the salient feature of this book – it convinced me that Aaronovitch hasn't even put all his pieces on the board yet, let alone started moving them.

So anyway. Yes, this book suffers from a tragic deficit of Nightingale. And also a tragic deficit of London, a character in her own right. And yes, the ending is abrupt as hell. (And speaking of, apparently only the Waterstones edition has the short story epilogue? I can only assume to boost special edition sales. What is this dead tree bullshit, I ask you?)

But, Peter is still Peter. And there actually is enough architecture in the country for him to geek over. And the occasionally slow march of this book's rather obvious plot was interrupted, every fifty pages or so, by Peter wham breaking my heart out of nowhere. So yeah. Still worth it.

P.s. This book does present an obvious theory about the Faceless Man's identity/origins, which is so obvious I can only assume it's not true? We'll see.

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In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories (I Spy, collected)In From the Cold: The I Spy Stories by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three connected novellas about the British spy trying to get out of the game and settle down with his rightfully mistrustful ex, the American country doctor.

This audiobook narrator has an . . . interesting grasp of accents, let's just leave it at that. I mention that because this whole series is done in a fake accent, in the stylistic sense. Lanyon is playing around with some of the more obvious clichés of the spy genre: the love of classic literature, a hero with a quotation for every occasion and a complete inability to not take himself way too seriously, etc. And it all has that ring of the narrator's put-on accents – paper thin to the point where I'd just rather he . . . didn't.

Perfectly serviceable, though, if you want bite-sized chunks of angsty domesticity punctuated by brief bouts of violence.

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The Witch With No Name (The Hollows, #13)The Witch With No Name by Kim Harrison

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Welp. I stuck it out to the end. What do I win? Is the prize that I get back however many hours of my life I spent reading this series?

I kid! Mostly. This book qua book is kind of a disaster. It's indistinguishable from the last half dozen books, except that it has a "twenty five years later" epilogue to let you know that we're done. And it suffers from that worst of afflictions that a fantasy novel can contract: metaphysics. You know, the thing where the magic has become so high order that it all occurs within the mind or on a higher plane or whatever, and the writing about it becomes laughably bad.

But. This actually was a seminal text in the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre (no, it really was). And I feel a grim accomplishment for having stuck with it. Because if nothing else, this series and it's perpetual sameness was an annual measuring stick for me. I came to consciousness as a reviewer – which for me, is almost synonymous with coming to consciousness as a reader – over the run of this series. So would I like those hours back? Would I happily scrub my brain of the enumerable "I shouted" and "I sobbed" dialogue tags (seriously, Rachel shouts and she sobs, she never . . . y'know . . . talks). Yes I would. But I also wouldn't, because this series didn't really get smaller, I got bigger. So now I know.

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Magic Breaks (Kate Daniels, #7)Magic Breaks by Ilona Andrews

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this at the very end of pregnancy, which was just a few weeks ago but might as well be another country. But I remember enough to know I was deeply bored by this: battle, running, battle, shipping, battle, battle. The thing is, this series has a refreshing brutality. That's actually a compliment – the shit that happens to the heroine is genuinely frightening (without going instantly to rape!) and it's treated with the proper respect and gravity, with this cool understanding that you keep moving, even with your trauma. Except the problem is? The romance is cast as, like, a refuge from all that. The whole port in a storm, your back against mine sort of thing. Which is great! Right up my alley!

…Too bad the dude in question is obnoxious, clichéd, and boring. Ugh, with the very worst of the possessive animal behaviors thing. And I know, I know I keep harking on this, but werelion, guys.

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Abhorsen (Abhorsen, #3)Abhorsen by Garth Nix

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Talking about Lirael and Abhorsen together as they are in reality one book cut in half, probably to keep the length down for young adult readers (remember when we did that?). Two young people – an introverted and depressed magical librarian, and a prince trapped in familial expectations – find each other in order to battle an ancient evil.

These books reminded me of Fullmetal Alchemist (can't quite put my finger on it, but a similar sense of eerie morbidity around young people exercising power) and more strongly of Diana Wynne Jones (an unflinching, genuinely frightening story leavened with talking animal humor). Needless to say, I liked these books. They have a richness to them, which is a funny thing to say when I point out that they are incredibly economical with worldbuilding. Characters frequently pass back and forth over an ancient wall – staffed by military forces – which divides a magical kingdom from a nonmagical country (well, except when the north wind blows strongly). The book leans heavily on the wall and the divide, thematically, and the history of the wall is intimately tied up with the ultimate climax. But do we learn more than a few scraps about its construction? Nope. Nix has mastered that trick of creating magic and mystery in the blank spaces.

But mostly, I wanted to say that I will be thinking about the role of death in these books for a while. It's one of those universes where the true horror of death is not dying, but that you might come back. That changes the entire shape of the thing in complicated ways. Some of them remove drama from the story – at a certain point, various protagonists' miraculous survival or resurrection becomes expected – but it also adds a bit of strange mystery, a sense of the truly alien in the fantastic.

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Sabriel (Abhorsen,  #1)Sabriel by Garth Nix

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Young woman leaves boarding school to enter the mysterious kingdom of her birth in search of her missing necromancer (sort of) father.

So I'm, like, years late on this one, but a decade later, I would like to assure you all that you were totally right, this is a great series! This first book is a bit wandery in places – you can sort of see him figuring out what he's doing – but it has something. I think it's that this series makes a lot of the usual moves – talking cat, death of a trusted adult, etc. – but it does them with this . . . eeriness, I guess. Some books have a sense for the numinous; this book has a sense for that dart of cold that shoots down your spine.

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Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete GuidePregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide by Janet Walley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's a pregnancy and childbirth book that I liked! Pretty much unreservedly! And to be clear, that's the one pregnancy and childbirth book that I pretty much liked unreservedly. Thoughtful, thorough, relatively non-judgey as these things go, with a refreshing interest in this little thing called evidence-based medicine. Recommended.

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Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy PregnancyMayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy by Roger W. Harms

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More of a reference book than a cover-to-cover book. I was still in the market for a month-by-month book when I initially grabbed this. It's fine for that, if brief. The real value is in the "decision guides," alphabetical symptom index, and complications discussions.

Which raises an interesting question for me. Every time I opened this book to look up heartburn or carpel tunnel or whatever, I always snagged on the word "healthy" in the title. It's just such a meaningless word in this context. Particularly considering that this book is over a third discussion of complications. I just kept asking myself what an "unhealthy" pregnancy is supposed to be? Presumably that would be a pregnancy "less healthy" than the reader's.

This was on my mind because of the thing – you know the thing – where a baby is born and there's that haha funny ablest joke everyone makes about ten fingers and ten toes. "Gosh we had a baby and it's not disabled, woo!" "Healthy" is usually the code word for that, in the absence of the joke. Given that there was a tiny – but familially controversial – chance that Hogwart would be born disabled, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about this. What would we say about her in that case? She would have ten fingers and ten toes, but there are lots of people who would not be able to say that she was healthy. Which is bizarre to me, because I consider myself to be quite healthy, which is apparently a radical act seeing as I'm disabled. Ironically, I think both my partner and I consider me – the disabled one – to be more healthy than my partner – the cancer survivor. The one time I articulated this in passing to a medical professional, I got nothing but bafflement back.

Anyway. Ranging far afield here. My point is only that this book, like many others, is selling this word "healthy." Which is fine, until you start thinking about the word and it collapses to meaninglessness. And, under that, a lot of fear and ablism.

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Death by SilverDeath by Silver by Melissa Scott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alternate magical London, where old school friends the detective and the magician team up to solve a rather obvious murder, and resolve their mutual pining along the way.

Enjoyable, though lacking that special something. This made me think about genre. Which, believe me, is unusual – I have zero interest in the whole "but what does genre mean? Is it real?" thing. But here you have a blend of alternate history/fantasy with M/M romance. I started the summary above by writing "M/M" and then deleting it, because this is M/M in the literal sense, but not in the genre sense. Let me put this bluntly: there isn't enough erotica here for me to shelve it as M/M in the sense that I conceive of it in 2014.

What I mean is, this book reminds me of those times an author writes a book with a twist of fantasy or scifi, but because of which publishing house bought it and who the literary agent is, it gets packaged as "literature" and sold as "genre-bending" or what the fuck ever. All with the subliminal notion that yes, okay, this is using fantasy or scifi tropes, but it's not actually a fantasy novel, okay, it's better than that, it's actual literature. This book reminded me of that, except M/M is the thing it's not actually doing. By which I mean it dances up to the edges of the racier genre conventions, and then turns decorously away.

Not really fair, and I think what I'm seeing is the result of built in genre/marketing constraints rather than, say, authorial self-censorship. It's just funny, and a little uncomfortable, the way combining genres can make a work less effective or rich or nuanced, rather than more so.

Audio note: This production is by far the shoddiest I have ever encountered in commercial audio. I'm willing to bet they didn't bother with the final editing pass at all. There are skips, dropped words and sentences, repeats, background noise, you name it. Terrible.

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Woken Furies (Takeshi Kovacs, #3)Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Third in this loose trilogy about the soldier/mercenary/criminal re-sleeved into a new body, this time back on his home planet, and the revolutionary politics he stumbles into.

Disappointing. I enjoyed this trilogy because the scifi future it envisions – consciousness stored on neural stacks that can be installed in successive lab-grown bodies – allowed for discussions of cognition and agency and biology, which I dig. This book, though -- *shakes head*. This is an overlong "gritty" slog, and by "gritty" you can fill in lots of artistically dead women for the purpose of making the protagonist feel bad, and repeated violent set pieces with no purpose but to be violent. Honestly, this read like the shooting script of a blockbuster I would assiduously avoid ever seeing. Blech.

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Natural Childbirth the Bradley WayNatural Childbirth the Bradley Way by Susan McCutcheon-Rosegg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I usually don't fuss much about ratings. I do it by feel, generally as an afterthought, throwing in both my emotional reaction to something and a more analytical assessment of quality. This time I had to think hard about it, and I ended up averaging my 1 star and 5 star impulses.

The five stars is for being one of the first books I found to talk directly and candidly about unmedicated childbirth and how to think about it. I had an instinctive negative reaction to all the hypnobirthing stuff that got thrown at me early on – it's popular right now – and this book squarely confirmed my feeling that no, what I wanted was to engage squarely with labor, to use my brain every step of the way. This book talks about how to do that, and the discussion of particular emotional signposts was incredibly useful to me. I didn't even know what information I was craving – that no other source was talking about – until it was presented to me in this book. My labor didn't go sideways to crazytown until I hit 7 cm – until then I labored unmedicated, and it was this book I thought about while I swayed and breathed and thought my way through each contraction. (Well, it's worth adding that by unmedicated I mean no analgesia – I did have increasing amounts of Pitocin. And let me just say, doing augmented labor unmedicated is a different animal than this book contemplates). After 7 cm – well, that's a TLDR story for another time, but let me just say: 10 hours in transition. Enough said. At that point, this book became rather irrelevant.

Anyway. Enough about me. The one star stuff is everything else. The scare tactics about interventions, the manipulative and downright deceptive use of study results, the moralism and smugness, the sexism. This book hits every checkbox for what is fucked up about the natural childbirth movement. I am really glad I stuck with this book to get to the parts about actual labor, because like I said, they were absolutely invaluable. But man oh man, the opening and closing chapters are dire, guys.

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Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn, #1)Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Epic fantasy of the street urchin with great powers joins a thieving crew intent on overthrowing the evil empire variety. Y'know.

Entertaining in a juvenile and rather clumsy way. This series was sold to me as having a "really original" magic system. Uh . . . no. Some of the finer details – powers granted by digesting certain metals – might be unique, but when you come right down to it, this is the sort of writing about magic where I keep expecting a pop-up window in the middle of the text that says, "to activate this power, hold down the B button and push the joystick forward." I was also told this series is "philosophical," which is painfully not the case either. Well, unless you consider the investigation of such deep and interesting questions as, "Are all rich people evil or just some of them?" to be philosophical.

So it is nothing I was told, but still entertained me in a brainless sort of way.

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Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy, #1)Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Four women – a psychologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor – are sent into the mysterious Area X to investigate after the failure of eleven other expeditions. Shit gets weird.

Yeah, I just don't dig Weird as a genre, with the notable exception of Kelly Link. This book is all about what the Weird is about – infiltrating consciousness with inexplicable but somehow still meaningful memes – and I just . . . don't . . . care. Our narrator has been stripped of her name and parts of her identity; the book explores her personal isolation as it tells an entirely unresolved and unexplained story of the powers running wild in Area X, and how they eat people alive and transform them. All the expected moves are here: you've got your sudden deaths, your forebodingly inexplicable writings on the wall, your encounters with the still living but altered remains of former colleagues, etc. I don't know, for a genre so intent on the operation of the strange on the consciousness, the Weird is just so damn obvious.

I don't even need an explanation – the Weird can supply one or it can't, in my experience, because the explanation is largely irrelevant to the project of Weird. Which is, you know . . . being weird. This book doesn't supply a single explanation. There are two others in the trilogy that might, but . . . eh.

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The Dickens With LoveThe Dickens With Love by Josh Lanyon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

M/M Christmas novella about the antiquarian book dealer with a tragical past and the British professor selling a lost Dickens book. Cute, with all the expected grace notes – deception, misunderstanding, self-hatred, the sort of resolution where everything works out because people just spontaneously decide to trust each other. So, you know, fine.

But man oh man, don't read Josh Lanyon for the porn. Don't get me wrong, at his best (which this is not) he's totally worth the investment for the depth of character and emotional range. But there's something so very dated about his style of sex scene -- the writing gives me intense nostalgia for late 90's fanfic, back when everyone was still scared of using the word 'penis.' And by dated, I mean hilarious.

That pump and pull was like a hammer striking the golden frame of angel wings, pounding them into shining, glinting pennants. Perspiration sheened our bodies, and our breath grew harsher as we bent our backs and worked this forge. And then the wings began to beat, trying to take flight, moving faster and faster, and we seemed to lift right off the ground, right off the pillows and bedding and hang there, transfixed as warm white halle freakin lujah surged through.


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Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in AmericaCollision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America by Dan Balz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I will be sitting out the midterms this year, so I wanted a hit of wonkiness to tide me over, and here it is. You already know if you'll like this sort of thing, so I'll confine myself to saying that this is well-organized and interesting from a trade of elections perspective, but far less gossipy than the casual reader seems to want. I liked it.

Some observations: this book offers an excellent overview of what the Obama for America internet operation was doing and how it worked – I was particularly interested in getting a few more details on the Facebook utilization and how the tools worked to suggest that, e.g., rather than sharing this campaign video with your entire feed, why not send it to Facebook friends X and Y, undecided voters in Florida that you seem to know well. For me, the most interesting aspect of that part of the campaign is the strides made in deciding who not to contact. I'm a swing-state resident and a political donor (though not to presidential campaigns because that is a total waste of my money) and I was contacted by OFA multiple times in 2008. In 2012, I was not contacted at all because, presumably, the OFA algorithm determined correctly that I was a sure thing and did not require the use of resources. Works for me. The only annoying thing about that is I suspect it will only increase the romance of the "independent" voter in the popular consciousness. Note: these people do not actually exist. You can almost always tell what a supposedly "independent" voter is going to do, except in a very small slice of the population. It just so happens that small slice is increasingly valuable these days. But you get a full third of Americans claiming to be independent voters because it sounds sexy and independent-minded, when actually it's a giant self-deception. But a lot of these people actually like being courted by campaigns, which is utterly baffling to me, and with more and more campaign resources being precisely targeted to them, I guess they're welcome to enjoy the fruits of the massive money machine they continually bitch about.

Also, I am increasingly suspicious of the Romney campaign's post election "couldn't be done" narrative. I mean, don't get me wrong, I thought with 95% confidence Obama was going to win by the spring, and so did anyone else who knew what they were looking at, and that was without the series of lucky breaks he got in the summer and fall. But no race is unwinnable, and this idea that the Romney campaign was irretrievably outclassed from day one, particularly on the electronic and ground operations, seems self-serving. "Oh woe is us, they built better software than we did, if only we'd known we would have given up in June." Yeah, whatever, dudes. You lost. Suck it up and figure out where you lost it (early and organizationally) and stop acting like you bore no responsibility whatsoever.

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The March of Folly: From Troy to VietnamThe March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A collection of pieces exploring terrible policy, and specifically policy counter to the actors's interests. Appealing in concept, but lacking that put together incisiveness of Tuchman at her best. She can talk about the ruinous behavior of the Renaissance Popes and Britain's blinkered inability to correctly handle the American colonies with her usual detail and erudition, but this book lacks cohesion, or a real message other than institutional idiocy: weird, eh?

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The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister, #1)The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

He's a duke with a rather obnoxious case of the privilege guilts. She's an apparently timid young lady whose tragic past, for once, has nothing to do with illegitimate children. They do exactly what you think they are going to do.

A lot of my friends rave about Courtney Milan. I thought this book was okay, if not spectacular (the duke's aforesaid angst about the terribleness of being so wealthy and powerful grated on my nerves, but ymmv). And I really think a book with a reference to war in the title and a setup promising a competition should have . . . you know . . . more competition. But that's just me being disgruntled because I love romances where the leads spend the whole time attempting to best each other, and this said it was that but really was not.

But what I meant to say is, the entire book was saved by the wedding night sex. Which, first time through, was terrible. Ahahaha, I love it. And our heroine is flat out like, "no, you totally did that wrong, that can't be it." The whole book was worth that.

Not sure where to jump to next in her catalog – thoughts?

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EchopraxiaEchopraxia by Peter Watts

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Follows Blindsight, which was that hard scifi first encounter space horror novel arguing – rather revolutionarily at the time, less so now – that consciousness (the singular I self) is an evolutionary mistake, and a costly one.

Blindsight was interesting as hell; this book less so. As Watts himself says in the end matter, "Echopraxia is to autonomy as blindsight is to consciousness" (and if you can follow that, you are officially his target audience). He's referring to the conditions, but of course it also applies to the books. Watts himself admits that the examination of autonomy in an age of neuro programming isn't terribly interesting. It's not, particularly compared to Blindsight's genuinely mind-expanding concepts.

And what this book is doing, I don't think it does terribly well. It's what Watts calls "faith-based hard SF" – a future which posits that certain types of advancements in physics require a return to religious frameworks and a melding with science. Watts has some interesting tidbits in his notes (the notes being my favorite part of any Watts book) about what religious belief does to the brain. Makes it better at pattern-matching, for one. Which is interesting and all, but I never thought this faith/science meld went beyond some suggestive imagery (hive-minded monks speaking science revelations in tongues) and a lot of wordplay about God. It just didn't . . . well, honestly. It just didn't ever make more than "that's a nice party trick" sense.

Still. Being able to identify God as a virus running in a universe ruled by a digital physics model is fun. And I give points for the effort here, and the endeavor. It just ain't Blindsight.

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Labor Day: Birth Stories for the Twenty-first Century: Thirty Artful, Unvarnished, Hilarious, Harrowing, Totally True TalesLabor Day: Birth Stories for the Twenty-first Century: Thirty Artful, Unvarnished, Hilarious, Harrowing, Totally True Tales by Eleanor Henderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For context, I should note that my response to this collection probably has a lot to do with the fact that I read two-thirds of it while repeatedly slamming my head into the emotional brick wall that is a stubborn breech baby. So in one respect, this collection was helpful because pretty much any group of birth stories, in the aggregate, will be all about how this shit doesn't go to plan. It just doesn't. It is peripherally comforting to remember that, as one's plans crumble around one's ears.

On the other hand. This is a collection of stories of singleton births and twin births; births in the hospital, at home, the birth center, the car; births after miscarriage; births after infertility; births of well babies and sick babies and at least one dead baby; complicated births and easy births; medically mismanaged births; traumatic births; beautiful births. That sounds like it covers a lot of ground, and it does. But for all that, there's a . . . sameness here. And I don't mean that this collection has put its finger on the concerns and experiences of America's gestators. More like this collection has put its finger on the concerns and experiences of well-educated, well-informed, married, intentionally pregnant women writers of New York Times notable books who seek out midwifery care and who have caesarians at a noticeably lower rate than the norm, which is to be expected as an artifact of economic/access privilege. I mean, some of that describes me, too, and yet this collection didn't truly speak to me, didn't reach me while I'm wrestling with this thing that is happening to me, which it should have.

I don't know. Maybe it's not the fault of this book. Maybe it isn't just that the experiences of women who write New York Times notable books (most of which I suspect I would loathe – the books, not the women) are so similar in essence, even while being different in facts. Maybe it's birth stories themselves. Maybe they are like relating a dream: so personal and vital to the teller, but rather strange and impenetrable to the listener, because that's just how it is with an experience so profound.

Or maybe it's me. Maybe this memo from the universe I am taking right now -- let go, you are not in charge here, there is no amount of smart that will fix this, let go -- maybe I still need to hear it a few dozen more times before I can hear anything else.

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