Book Reviews, books

Checking out the Book: Feminist Edition

This edition of recent library reads is brought to you by strong lady protagonists and characters of color who are not messing around. Pediatricians, mothers, folk healers, mathematicians, and police officers–none of these ladies, real or fictional, are going to take your shit. Here are a few books by and about women I’ve enjoyed lately.

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Title

The Tenth Muse

Author

Catherine Chung

Format

Book

Review

As an Asian-American growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Katherine is an ambitious young woman torn between performing the role expected of her and one that allows her to pursue her passion for math (which I cannot directly relate to). When Katherine enrolls in Master’s and Doctoral programs, she is the only woman in her graduating classes and struggles to find acceptance.

Complicating matters is the revelation that Katherine’s parents have been keeping secrets about her identity, which has a surprising connection to WWII Germany. Accepting a role as a visiting researcher in Germany gives Katherine the opportunity to explore this relationship–though she will certainly learn some dark truths about her family and the mathematicians she idolizes. While the ending feels a bit rushed, Chung tells a unique story that seamlessly blends together themes of family, identity, and the weight of women’s decisions in a world very much tied to patriarchal values.

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Title

What the Eyes Don’t See

Author

Mona Hanna-Attisha

Format

eAudioboook

Review

The true story of a whistle blower in the Flint water crisis, Hanna-Attisha’s memoir is compelling in the way all tragedies are. A local pediatrician (who narrates her own book), Hanna-Attisha’s compassion for the children in her care is the force motivating everything she’s done. When she notices high levels of lead in the blood test results of many patients, she refuses to let it go until she’s done absolutely everything she can. But what can a pediatrician do to address crumbling infrastructure, intentional cost-cutting to the detriment of well-being, and governmental commitment to ignore or even cover up the crisis? Quite a lot, actually.

Connecting the story of the Flint water crisis to her experiences growing up as the child of Iraqi immigrants, Hanna-Attisha doesn’t shy away from bringing her personal life into the memoir. As a narrator, her passion for the subject and commitment to serving the families of Flint come through effectively. Though this book haunts my dreams and makes me hesitate whenever I turn on the faucet, it tells an important story and tells it well.

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Title

Sabrina & Corina

Author

Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Format

Book

Review

Not going to lie, I picked this one up for the cover, which gave me Frida Kahlo vibes in all of the best ways.

Fajardo-Anstine’s short stories are interested in themes surrounding family relationships: those between siblings, parents and children, large extended families. She explores the role of tradition, Latinx and Native American identities, and the roles of women in community and as individuals.

“Sisters” stands out as an especially heartbreaking tale, as Fajardo-Anstine sets up the events leading to a young woman losing her eyesight. Protagonist Doty lives with her sister in 1950s Colorado, but the two won’t be able to afford this arrangement forever. As the sisters go on a series of double dates, Doty feels the pressure for marriage even as she feels absolutely no attraction to her boyfriend. What options does a single Latinx woman have when she barely makes a living wage?

I also enjoyed the story “Remedies,” which details the brief but significant relationship between the narrator Clarisa and her half-brother. The titular remedies are those Clarisa’s great-grandmother uses to cure everything from a headache to the flu. However, these remedies cannot be used for the persistent head lice that afflict Clarisa and her half-brother Harrison, whom Great-Grandma despises. Clarisa’s unconventional mother works hard to maintain the relationship between the half-siblings, efforts that Clarisa most definitely does not appreciate.

To be honest, though, I can’t think of a single story that wasn’t well-crafted and interested in compelling themes and characters.

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Title

Girl Waits with Gun

Author

Amy Stewart

Format

eAudiobook

Review

Constance Kopp, eldest of three sisters who live on a farm in 1910s New Jersey, just wants one thing: for the factory owner who ran into their buggy with his car to pay the money he owes for repairs. Unfortunately, Henry Kaufman, the factory owner in question, is an entitled tool who is disinclined to entertaining the demands of women. Facing threats against her youngest sister, broken windows, and attempted arson (all to avoid a $50 fine), Constance remains steadfast in her commitment to seeing justice done.

Based on a true story, Stewart creates a fun adventure that is meticulously researched; not only are the initial events true, but many of the happenings in the novel are pulled straight from the headlines of the day. Constance went on to become one of the first female deputy sheriffs, and by all accounts was as tough as nails as she is in this telling. The narrator of the audiobook does an admirable job of giving each sister a distinct voice that reflects her character, as well as some memorable scruffy man voices.

What are you reading (or listening to)?

Header photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

Film Reviews

Checking out the Film: Halloween Edition

‘Tis the season to watch horror films for free from under a mountain of fleecy blankets. Is there any other way to watch a creepy movie? This is a special Halloween edition of Checking out the Film, short reviews of recent library check-outs.

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Title

Demon

Director

Marcin Wrona

Format

Streaming (Hoopla)

Review

Nothing’s more fun than a wedding, right? Wrong–in so many, many ways. Especially so when you’ve recently uncovered a body (and rapidly buried it again) on the plot of land where you’re building a house for your bride-to-be. Worse still when this land belongs to her family, so you have very literally discovered the skeletons they were hiding.

For Piotr, his wedding in small town Poland goes from bad to worse when the spirit of the deceased possesses him in this tale of a dybbuk from Jewish mythology. The concept works chillingly well as the spirit is that of a Jewish woman who mysteriously vanished from the village long ago in the late 1930s. This is very much a slow burn that could have used a bit more intrigue early on, but quite an original concept for a horror film.

Who Should Watch

People who can’t imagine anything worse than the last wedding they attended. It can always be worse.

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Title

Creature from the Black Lagoon

Director

Jack Arnold

Format

Streaming (Hoopla)

Review

It’s that time of the year for a holiday classic about a swimmer in a fish man costume. After scientists take a trip down the Amazon in search of wildlife there, they encroach on the natural habitat of a creature who hasn’t changed in thousands of years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creature is less than stoked when the humans hang around and chuck a few spears in its direction, though it’s quite ok with essential lady assistant Kay hanging around.

I’m going to be honest–to me, this doesn’t hold up as a horror classic. It’s not even campy or melodramatic enough to be entertaining. There are just endless shots of dudes swimming around underwater, which was probably quite advanced at the time, but isn’t visually thrilling in black and white. And for all of the classic posters of Kay being abducted by the creature, she’s in its clutches for less than a minute of this film’s run time. Is that an odd complaint about a film–not enough abduction? I do appreciate the aquatic take on Frankenstein here, and the early environmental messages.

Who Should Watch

Al Gore.

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Title

Child’s Play (2019)

Director

Lars Kievberg

Format

DVD

Review

In this 21st century update of the horror franchise, Chucky is a smart doll who controls electronics and learns from the world around him. Surely nothing could go wrong when a refurbished model of the doll sits through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and listens to pre-teen Andy talk about his hatred for his mom’s boyfriend…right? Aubrey Plaza, kindred spirit and horror star of my dreams, plays Andy’s mom, who has terrible taste in men and struggles to make ends meet. Her life is about to get much more difficult when Chucky develops a mind of his own.

While quite fun, this film feels like an extended episode of Goosebumps, but with more swearing. The concept for the update is a good one, but Chucky is never going to be as gleefully gory as in the days when he was the spirit of a serial killer trapped in the body of a doll. I honestly think some of the recent films in the Child’s Play franchise of old have been more entertaining in their willingness to embrace B-movie absurdity. Not a bad use of time, but not especially memorable.

Who Should Watch

People who can stomach a significant amount of violence against cats.

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Title

Hereditary

Director

Ari Aster

Format

Streaming (Kanopy)

Review

Following the death of her emotionally abusive mother, Annie’s life begins to unravel in unexpected ways. After a horrific accident, Annie’s worst nightmare comes true: she behaves more and more like her mother. Seeking to connect with the dead, Annie turns to a kindly member of her support group who claims to speak with her deceased grandson regularly. When she manages to communicate with spirits, it’s unclear whether Annie is experiencing an otherworldly power or the same delusions that tortured her mother.

As noted many times, Toni Collette gives a brilliant, genuinely chilling performance here; in fact, I don’t think you can fault any of the performances. The disturbing images and experiences of the characters match the film’s ambitious messages about the curse of genetics and family inheritance. Though I find the end to be a bit too clever in its attempt at a dramatic twist, the conclusion has a horrific sensation of inevitability. Truly one of the good ones.

Who Should Watch

People who have ever considered having children of their own. Rethink this IMMEDIATELY.

What horrors have you witnessed this month? Ideally on film, but feel free to share your truth.

Header photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Book Reviews, books

Checking out the Book: Done with You, Reality

As a librarian and bibliophile, I fully endorse supporting authors by purchasing their work. However, as an overly cautious and quite stingy person, I also wholly believe in checking out the book from the library first. Otherwise, if you’re anything like me, you will unconsciously put a LOT of pressure on a $20 or $30 book to be the next great novel rather than simply enjoying it (unless it was on the $2 bargain shelves). And you may or may not just let that book sit on the shelf anywhere from a year until the rest of your life.

As such, most of my recent reads are library books. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed lately–mostly because they offer an escape from our reality in some way.

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Title

The Downstairs Girl

Author

Stacey Lee

Format

Book

Review

I would have absolutely devoured this as a teen since it’s the stuff of which my dreams were made. Set in 1890s Atlanta, Lee tells the story of Jo Kuan, a Chinese-American teen with a talent for styling the hair and hats of many a Southern belle. When she loses her job without cause (aka racism), Jo is forced to work as a lady’s maid once again for , a particularly ill-tempered belle. However, Jo pursues her passions by secretly writing an advice column for a local paper, while seeking the truth about the identity of her parents, who left her in the care of the elderly (and aptly named) Old Gin.

I love Jo’s snarky humor in her advice column, as well as the many characters and stories intersecting here. There are certainly unlikeable characters aplenty, but Lee is reluctant to dismiss them or their concerns, peeling back their identities to reveal barriers created by race, nationality, poverty, gender, and sexual orientation (yes, even you, white Southern dudes of the 1800s).  I especially enjoy the relationships Jo shares with friends Robby and Noemi, whose experiences depict the lives of African-American workers in the Reconstruction South.

Recommended for…

My period drama lovers who enjoy social critique (so, like, all period drama lovers).

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Title

The Memoirs of Lady Trent

Author

Marie Brennan

Format

Book

Review

What’s your vision of the year 5658? Robots? Flying cars? A landscape devastated by climate change? Marie Brennan’s version of the future looks a lot more like the past than present, as reflected by the Victorian-inspired memoirs of naturalist and adventurer Isabella Camhurst. Fascinated by dragons at an early age, Isabella is off exploring the species in distant lands as soon as she can ditch the high society of a thinly veiled England (aka Scirland).

If this sounds cringey and insensitive re: colonialism, Brennan is very aware of England’s sordid past, and the misdeeds (i.e. genocide) of its explorers. She vividly brings to life the cultures represented here–West Africa, Polynesia, Eastern Europe–while her self-aware heroine recognizes her limits as a cultural observer.

Recommended for…

My period drama lovers who appreciate an escapist fantasy. And for my fellow readers reluctant to commit to a five book series, the lack of major cliffhangers makes this one easy to pick up for a book or two (or complete the series, as I’m planning to do).

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Title

Herakles

Author

Edouard Cour

Format

Graphic novel

Review

Just in case your only experience with the legend of Herakles is the Disney film, prepare to be disillusioned. Rather than a lesson in perseverance, the life of Herakles is yet another tale underscoring the degree to which mortals are merely the playthings of the gods. Through trial after trial, Herakles works to prove himself worthy of god status, but all he seems capable of is embroiling himself more deeply into trouble and invoking the wrath of the gods. I guess he gets a nice lion pelt out of all this, at least.

Herakles is often blindly vengeful and stupid, but it’s nevertheless difficult not to feel for him.  He seems to be so little in control of his life that you can’t really blame him for pursuing an endless series of trials in vain. That’s life, eh? No wonder the Abrahamic faiths took over from here…the legend of Herakles is too bleak even to come from the mind of Nietzsche.

Recommended for…

People sick to death of toxic masculinity. Also kids who have to take a course in the Classics and want to skip to the interesting bits.

What are you reading, library book or no?

Header photo by Devon Divine on Unsplash

Film Reviews

Checking out the Film: Two Dramas, One Comedy

When it comes to movie going, it’s impossible to ignore the degree to which I am a cheapskate (bottled water and M&Ms tucked into a jacket pocket for LIFE) and am easily annoyed by people. It doesn’t help that, inevitably, there’s at least one fuckhead in the theater who thinks they can subtly check their messages on a bright screen in an almost COMPLETELY dark room. And I love a children’s movie, but apparently it’s “rude” and “harsh” to shush children who won’t stay quiet or keep their feet to themselves.

As a result, much of my movie viewing tends to be at home on DVD rented from the public library (though I do love a matinee on a day off). I may be behind on the latest releases, but I do get to see them without too much of a wait, and with no cost (and don’t give me that shit about paying for your public library with taxes as about .000000000000005% of your taxes actually fund the library).

Here are a few library loans I’ve watched recently.

Movie poster for the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Title

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Summary

A man struggles to preserve the Victorian-style home his grandfather built in a now gentrified part of San Francisco.

Review

Lifelong San Fran resident Jimmie has never given up on caring for the exterior of the Victorian-style home built by his grandfather–despite the fact that his family no longer owns the house. The owners of the property are a retired white couple, more or less the only people who can afford to live in the neighborhood now.

After the death of a relative, the couple abruptly leaves the house, and Jimmie moves into the home with bestie Mont. The two plan to officially reclaim the home through legal means, even as Jimmie learns family secrets that make him question so much he’s taken for granted.

This is an incredibly heartwrenching film, but it doesn’t feel like a downer (not all of the time, anyway). Gentrification, racism, and identity are major themes here, and Jimmie can never seem to catch a break in either the black or white communities. Meanwhile, the warm friendship between Jimmie and Mont really grounds the film in family and community support.

Who Should Watch

Everyone. Especially rich people.

Movie poster for the film Booksmart

Title

Booksmart

Summary

High school overachiever Molly and her bestie Amy realize while they’ve been out feeling superior about themselves and their future success, their classmates have all been living in the moment…while still earning spots at Ivy Leagues. To prove how much fun they can be, Molly and Amy decide to attend the last big party of the year–and of course things do not go as expected.

Review

I’m absolutely in love with Beanie Feldstein, and her character here is kind of insufferable but so real. As overachieving nerds, what do we have in high school if not the opportunity to feel smug about how great our lives will be in the future? Especially given that the present was pretty fucking depressing.

This is such a fun comedy, but it certainly sent me on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. It’s a sweet reflection that absolutely does not make you want to re-live high school, but makes you remember those close friendships that have lasted (or haven’t), and the joy and horror of being around your bestie constantly. The film avoids the mean girl trope, instead portraying its characters, all of whom are so young and have sooooooooooooo much to learn, with tenderness and compassion.

Who Should Watch

Everyone. Especially people who don’t “get” feminism.

Movie poster for the film The Public

Title

The Public

Summary

A librarian stands with a group of homeless patrons who refuse to leave the public library (in Cincinnati, Ohio!) on a bitterly cold night.

Review

I wanted to like this one so much more; not only does it celebrate librarianship as it exists today–dealing with drug overdoses, homelessness, and naked people in the building–but it was also filmed in the downtown branch of the Cincy public library. As a librarian who hails from southwestern Ohio, this should be the stuff of which my dreams are made.

However, I found myself getting annoyed with the dogmatic message, lengthy run time, and lack of women in a film ABOUT a profession predominately made up of women. I feel this would have been more compelling as a documentary (as in the Dayton-set American Factory), but admittedly even I haven’t watched the 3 1/2 hour documentary about the NYPL (yet–but ok, probably ever).

Who Should Watch

People who don’t understand why libraries exist. (It’s cool, librarians–you don’t have to take one for the team and sacrifice two hours of your life here.)

What are you watching? And if it’s your phone screen in a darkened theater during a non-emergency situation, please get OUT.

Header photo by Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

Life Rants

Forever a Loan: Reflections on Higher Ed and Debt

As a librarian in higher ed, the cost of college has been on my mind a lot lately.  In his Netflix series Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj recently did a really great episode about the awful business of student loans and those who profit from them.

Because my student loan payments are set to increase another $50/month soon, I do admit my feelings of anxiety and resentment are amplified just thinking about it. And it does make me sad that I may not be able to buy a house or feel confident that I can retire comfortably in part because of student loans (and partly because our world is so fucked).  It’s frustrating (not to mention unsustainable) that it’s become accepted and expected to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans for an education.  It holds back progress in so many ways when talented, passionate graduates have trouble making a living wage or even finding a job at all–not to mention sending an incredibly damaging message about who deserves to learn and succeed in our world.

I have a friend on another social media platform who regularly rants about how people who can’t afford college shouldn’t take out loans, and it drives me up the wall.  To give you some context, this is also a person who says fat people should be kicked off of health insurance to make it more affordable for everyone else…

And I absolutely urge people taking out private loans to consider how unforgiving debt collectors are in that arena—the government as a lender is bad enough, yet it doesn’t engage in some of the more extreme practices of predatory private lenders.

It’s helped me immensely to think about student loans as medicine; like all meds, there will be side effects, but sometimes you need to take them.  Even with the cost and the side effects, ask yourself what you gain by taking them, and whether those benefits outweigh the negative consequences.

kyle-glenn-350542-unsplash
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

I do find it frustrating that 5 years after earning my master’s degree, I still don’t have a long-term contract.  I’m not sure what I’m doing after July of this year.  But I love the profession of librarianship, and I love the number of thoughtful, caring, social justice-oriented colleagues I’ve met.  I should have perhaps waited to have more experience before pursuing my master’s degree, and I don’t love the amount of money it cost me.  But I do love this profession, and I love the path that earning my master’s degree has led me on.  I know librarians are stereotyped as joyless authorities who demand complete silence—and I’ll be honest, we generally do like rules.  However, just mention banning a book or the profession’s problem with race or demonstrators protesting drag queen story hour and you’ll see there is a solid foundation of strong convictions behind the work we do.

I have seen the emotional and financial burden student loans have placed on current students, and I bitterly regret that.  And college isn’t for everyone, and it shouldn’t be expected that everyone attend college–though this is really a problem with the fucked up ways that we value different kinds of work.

But honestly telling people not to pursue college because they can’t afford it is another way of saying “I have very much bought into our current social order and am committed to maintaining it.”  The problem is not with the students taking out loans—it’s with the entire higher ed system and the business of student loans now inseparable from everyday college functions.  And, more broadly, it’s a problem with a capitalist society that commodifies education and undervalues the work of the public service sectors.

I do wish I could be more financially stable, even as I acknowledge I enjoy an amount of financial stability that places me in an extremely privileged position.  And there’s a lot of BS in higher ed, I fully recognize that.  But I would never work on Wall Street or as a part of the military industrial complex or in any number of jobs that benefit a small group of people while actively making the world a worse place for everyone else.  I wouldn’t change where I am or how I’ve gotten here.  And it will be people who push the boundaries, who reach for things that they cannot afford, that were never meant for them—they will be the ones to show that they are not wrong, that they do not need to change, but it’s the world around them that needs to change so it can catch up to them.

That being said–sign me the fuck up for free college if I ever live to see it happen.

Header image by Good Free Photos on Unsplash
Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Party Girl, or: Librarianing Too Hard

Ah, librarianship.  My glamorous profession, full of neatly ordered shelves of books, incredibly vague reference questions, and…parties with stripper cops?  Obviously it’s free for all month on the blog, and obviously we’re rounding out the month with a modern library classic.

The Film:

Party Girl

The Premise:

’90s New York party girl Mary’s eyes are opened up to the exciting world of librarianship after a run-in with the law.

The Ramble:

After being arrested on multiple counts related to the club she’s running out of her New York apartment, Mary relies on her godmother, Judy, to bail her out.  Judy, who witnessed the shenanigans of both mother and daughter, is taking no nonsense.  To earn some cash (and pay Judy back for bail), Mary begins working with her godmother, a librarian.

A young woman sorts through cards in a library card catalog as two other women observe.

Though Mary hates the job and is scorned by her coworkers, she is stubbornly determined to prove to Judy that she can follow through.  In the evenings, Mary is still keeping up her party girl reputation and is working to get her DJ roommate Leo connected with a promoter.  Meanwhile, her ex Nigel (Liev Schreiber???) is trying to win her back, and gay bff Derrick is determined to track down his one night stand dreamboat, Karl.

As Judy tries to bond with Mary by inviting her to dinner, Mary is more concerned about meeting up with falafel cart owner and aspiring teacher Mustafa.  However, after a fight with her godmother, Mary forgets all about her date, opting instead to get shit-faced and conquer the Dewey Decimal System once and for all.

A young woman in a green plaid skirt-suit walks alongside a man pushing a falafel cart.

After a few days and some extensive research help, Mustafa forgives Mary for standing him up.  When things heat up in the stacks, Mary forgets to lock up the library properly, and some out-of-print books are destroyed by rain.  Judy, also ticked off about the sex in the library thing and tangentially going on a rant about literacy, decides this is the last straw and fires Mary.  Add to this an eviction notice, and Mary has hit a decidedly low point.

A woman dressed elegantly with a 1920s vibe holds a glass of champagne, sitting next to a man in '90s polo shirt plus corduroy blazer.

Deciding to do what she knows best, Mary throws a massive party (which has a rather cringey Middle Eastern theme).  This seems to be a sign that Mary should embrace her reputation as a party girl and become a promoter, but she’s still haunted by visions of Melvil Dewey.

Is it possible for this party girl to become a librarian and keep dancing ’til the dawn?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

I’m torn between a 3.5 and a 4 rating–because this film appreciates librarianship and all of the different paths people take to the profession, I’m rounding up.  Mary is anything but the stereotypical librarian, and this is a strength; she applies the Dewey Decimal System to Leo’s records and takes a creative approach to answering reference questions.  Also Judy’s rant about the undervaluing of the library field and Dewey’s misogyny is so on-brand for librarians.

Beyond librarianship, we must absolutely acknowledge the incredible style of Parker Posey’s character here.  While her fashion sense takes a lot of cues from the ’90s, her bold style is in its own category.  I’m really obsessed with a green skirt suit that makes a couple of appearances.

There are some ways this film hasn’t aged well:  Mary has some weird fetish-y Middle Eastern fantasies, and she throws the f word around a couple of times–the one that is a horrible slur.  But honestly, while this is very much a slice of life of ’90s New York, it has a freshness that makes it feel quite recent.  Mary is a more complex character than we’re initially led to believe, inhabiting identities in disparate places in a way that few female characters in film can even 20+ years later.  And this film was so ahead of the game when it comes to falafel and chickpea-based foods in general.  I approve.

Would my gorgeous blog wife party with this one or find a falafel truck elsewhere?  Find out in her review here!

Blogging University, Writing

Writing 101: Things I’m Learning

I prefer to think of this list as Things I’m Learning instead of the Things I’ve Learned list today’s prompt suggests. It’s a work in progress; I don’t think there’s anything I know for certain as undisputed fact.

Things I’m Learning (in no particular order):

  1. Lebanese food is amazing. Will work for falafel.
  2. You never reach a point where you feel grown up and successful and have your life together. I didn’t believe adults about this for a long time because I didn’t want it to be true, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
  3. Etsy and Kickstarter are evil places where at least 60% of my paycheck goes.
  4. It’s okay to feel like a shit show. It’s okay to be a shit show. It’s okay to be everything you are.
  5. I miss being in school. If you’re currently in school, feel free to throw an encyclopedia at me because if my grad school self ever found out, she would do the same thing.
  6. Teleportation is probably never going to happen in my lifetime, if ever.
  7. Doing domestic work can be therapy. Also eating chocolate and binge-watching period dramas. I’m sure you can imagine which of these two things makes me feel better about myself.
  8. It has been a rollercoaster of love, hate, and apathy, but I’m really glad I’m in the library profession. Your library does a lot more for you than you may realize. 😉
  9. Other people being awful to you has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. I know variations of this quote have been a meme since before the days of Facebook, but I love it and need to remind myself of this almost daily.
  10. It’s really hard to teach a kitten to high-five.

 

May you never stop learning!