mini-reviews: fire shut up in my bones and drinking

I’m a big fan of memoirs, and this past year I’ve been reading some really excellent ones of all kinds of different lives. These two were powerful, personal, raw, and will stay with me a long time:

Charles M. Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones was a pick for my Best Friends International Book Club with Anthony earlier this year. In this memoir, Blow recounts his childhood not quite belonging in a rural small town in Louisiana, where slavery’s legacy still loomed large and violence was commonplace, as well his deep connection to his mother, and years of confusion and anguish following sexual abuse by a family member, and finally his escape from this life into college (where he endured brutal fraternity hazing) and, later, success as a journalist. Blow’s writing is expressive and I found his descriptions of places and scenes beautifully constructed. I was let down by the book’s blurb, which is a little misleading, but I was still certainly intrigued and hooked anyway, especially by his personal introspection and revelations about his sexual orientation. I thought the book ended abruptly—I would have loved to read more about his career path after college—but maybe that could be another book altogether. I find Blow to be an impassioned and eloquent writer, and this was a wonderful, insightful, inspiring memoir. [Read in February 2017.]

Caroline Knapp’s painful, honest memoir of her alcoholism and related struggles, Drinking: A Love Story, really touched me and made me take a deeper look at my own relationship with alcohol. Knapp was a successful journalist from an upper-class family, and also a functioning alcoholic for 20 years. She used alcohol to escape her daily realities and relationships, until personal crises and family issues force her to examine her lifestyle and quit drinking. She doesn’t glamorize her addiction—her downward spiral into alcoholism is chronicled in a clear way and you understand better how it can happen to anyone. She makes it clear that this is a disease, one that is possible to flow through families for generations. She has some interesting insights about her complicated relationships with her parents and partners. Though it can be a little repetitive at times and contains a few generalities about alcoholics, this was overall a great book. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

sing, unburied, sing

Jesmyn Ward has become one of my new favorite writers. Her work is eloquent and powerful, and she deserves all the awards and accolades she’s received lately for her latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Edited from Goodreads:

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When Michael, the white father of Leonie’s children, is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I initially had trouble getting into this book. I agree with some of the criticisms I’ve seen online—it’s a slow-moving burn, too much vomit (sorry, ever-so-mild spoiler), and I wasn’t entirely convinced of the ghosts until about halfway through. While an alternating first-person narrative doesn’t typically bother me, I found Jojo and Leonie’s voices a little too similar in tone. It too me far too long to get through; I started in October and didn’t read it at all in November (I was traveling… I barely read anything when visiting family!)

Ward’s esoteric, delicate writing as well as an excellent ending that made everything click for me ultimately made Sing, Unburied, Sing one of the best books I read this year. She builds tension describes situations and scenery so vividly you can easily become wrapped up in the story (at least, I did when I finally committed and settled into reading the rest of it this month). The characters were heartbreaking in their struggles and suffering, from Leonie’s addictions (to drugs and Michael) to Jojo’s protective instincts and loss of innocence, to Pop’s burdens as patriarch of this family and as an older Southern black man with his own personal demons. Ward powerfully illustrates many of America’s ills (specifically those that have historically and disproportionately effected black Americans)—poverty, parental neglect, disease, racism, incarceration, addiction, premature death, violence—with a multi-generational, mixed-race family in the deep South and a good dose of magical realism. It’s a Southern Gothic tragedy, one that is all too typical (ghosts notwithstanding) and familiar these days.

Read in December 2017.

mini-reviews: emperor of all maladies and when breath becomes air

Cancer is the worst. It fucking sucks. I can’t think of one person or one family it hasn’t profoundly effected, including me and mine. It’s a tender subject to me for sure, but I’m interested in absorbing information about it regardless. This year I finally swallowed my hesitation and read two books on cancer that I’ve had my eye on since they came out.

I’ve been wanting to read The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee for a long time, but I was nervous and intimidated to start this book, yes because it’s a chunkster, but also because I was afraid of the medical stuff going over my head and my heart breaking. But, despite some long-winded sections, I was riveted the whole way through. It’s a combination of history, science, politics, and actual patients’ stories, but very readable and engaging. The amount of research here is staggering, and Mukherjee leaves nothing out. I can’t say there are answers here, that’s not the book’s purpose. But I did gain a better understanding of this disease in general, its many iterations, and how it and our responses to it have evolved since its discovery. Cancer is frightening, but centuries-long war between humankind and cancer involves experimentation (some of it truly horrific in the early days), ingenuity, progress, failure, persistence, and hopefully, one day, a cure. [Read in June 2017.]

Paul Kalanithi was on track to being a successful neurosurgeon and married to the love of his life. When he was 36, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s account of transforming in an instant from doctor to terminal patient, from someone who has his whole life ahead of him to having virtually no future at all. He died while working on this book. My heart both broke and burst reading this. Kalanithi lays bare all his fears and frustrations about losing his career and facilities, his marriage and relationships with friends and family, and his impending mortality. It’s a deeply personal, raw, insightful, beautiful memoir. More than one passage moved me to tears, but this one especially will stay with me: “‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.” [Read in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: children, women, trouble, men without

I used to think I wasn’t much of a short story person, but in the last year I’ve read a good handful of collections of them, and even bought a few more! Short stories still aren’t my favorite type of literature, but I’m really starting to come around to them.

Alexander Weinstein imagines people getting by in a near-future world taken over by technological advances in his debut, Children of the New World, with often dangerous and frightening consequences, featuring pieces on robots, industry and commercialism, cloning, virtual reality, memory, and more. The stories are more speculative than straight-up science fiction. Weinstein takes our society and culture already addicted to technology and social media and pushes that obsession to numerous edges, from merely uncomfortable to utterly catastrophic. They make you think about your own use of and dependence on social media and technology, brainwashing and memory, and what it means to be human and present in the modern world. His writing is kind of quiet though, I didn’t feel like I was reading sensationalist warnings necessarily. My favorite stories include “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.” [Read in December 2016.]

I will read the hell out of anything and everything Roxane Gay writes, and I was so excited when her short story collection Difficult Women was released early this year. Gay’s writing is raw, affecting, and poetic. She presents women in her work who are complex, emotional, damaged, and have persevered through tragedy. I loved all the stories and had a hard time setting them down, but check out this incredibly prescient passage from “Noble Things:” “…there was anger and then there were petitions and then terrible decisions were made—demands for secession, refusals from Washington, rising tensions, a war to bring secession about, the wall erected, everything going to hell on only one side of the wall, dulling whatever victory was to be had. It all happened so fast, it hardly seemed real, until the war began and it was too real and then the war ended and nothing had been saved, which was always the case when foolish men made foolish, prideful decisions.” Written in 2014. [Read in February 2017.]

I bought Get in Trouble by Kelly Link right when it was released, after Margaret Atwood mentioned Link as an author she was currently enjoying during a Q&A portion of her lecture I attended in 2015. As with many short story collections, this was full of hits-or-misses… I’d say, for me, six of the nine stories were good. A few were too long, but a few others could have been longer. “The Summer People,” “Secret Identity,” “The Lesson,” and “Two Houses” were my favorites. I loved the weirdness and magical realism aspects, and Link’s sense of fun and pushing boundaries in her writing. [Read in March 2017.]

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women, his latest short story collection, was a nice read, although I think I enjoy Murakami in full-novel form better. His signature cat and magical realism elements are included here throughout. The stories have melancholic and somewhat surreal atmospheres, and the writing is beautiful, as usual, but I think I read this book at the wrong time in my life, during a period where I needed something more uplifting. That said, I liked “Drive My Car,” “Scheherezade,” “Kino,” and “Samsa in Love” the best. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: hidden figures and packing for mars

Early this year I finally got around to a couple of books on the subject of the history and mechanics of space travel that I’d been excited about. Even though I’m artsy fartsy by nature and vocation I still love learning about some science, especially when it involves kick-ass women!

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly features an excellent, important subject: the true-life story of the brilliant NASA mathematicians who did the calculations to send Americans to the moon in the 1960s were a team of black women. I loved the anecdotes about the women’s lives—who they were; their families; dealing with racial segregation in work, education, and neighborhoods, etc. But you have to slog through several chapters that have technical language and read like a textbook. I really struggled through these parts and ended up skimming a lot, which I should have resorted to in a 265–page book. I feel badly, because again I love the topic, but this is a case where the movie is actually better than the book. [Read ebook in March 2017.]

I’m had a lot of fun reading Packing for Mars,  recommended by my husband who is a big Mary Roach fan (and I turned him on to her books in the first place!). In this one, Roach delves deeply into the topic of the effect of space travel on the human body. What happens to your body when you don’t walk on the ground for a year? Can you have sex in space? How do you go to the bathroom? And other urgent inquiries along these lines, as well as the history of space travel in general, are investigated by Roach with her usual wit, charm, and down-to-earth (sorry) writing. She embarks on many on-ground simulations designed by NASA to test I wish I had read this back-to-back with The Martian; they’d make a great complementary pair. This made me want to go watch Apollo 13 and The Simpsons’ “Deep Space Homer” again soon! Some chapters dragged for me, but more were good, informative, and engaging. Mars wasn’t as good as Stiff (a new non-fiction classic, in my opinion), but it’s still a fun, interesting book. [Read in January 2017.]

mini-reviews: jonestown, going clear, gravel, and no god

I’m not a religious person. I was loosely raised as Roman Catholic… but the normal kind where we only went to church on Easter, Christmas, and when Gramma was in town. I begrudgingly made it through all the rites (except marriage) and ironically now I’m pretty thrilled to be my niece’s godmother. I was that kid in catechism class that was asking rebellious questions like, “What about the women?” and “What about the Dead Sea Scrolls?” and “Why should we believe what a bunch of old white men wrote centuries after the fact?” I bet the teachers just LOVED me, haha! My mom was secretly proud. Honestly, looking back, I’m glad I went through it, however sour my attitude may have been. I participated in a longstanding family tradition, I thought critically, I learned there are options, and once I was confirmed no one can force me to go to church ever again.

Anyway, despite all that, I’m always interested in learning about different philosophies and belief systems. It’s a big part of life and the world, and I think it’s worth reading about even if I don’t want to be religious myself. Another part of religion is the cultish aspect, which I happen to find fascinating and terrifying, and in the last year I listened to a few audiobooks on the subject, as well as one incredible book on a legit religion.

All I knew of the story of Jim Jones and his Jonestown settlement was “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” but I learned so much from Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Guinn does a great job chronicling Jones’s path from his early life in Indianapolis, family life, rise as cult leader, moving his base around until landing in Guyana, and his ultimate betrayal and abuse of his followers and its aftermath. I had no idea Jones started out as such a staunch supporter of civil rights… but oh how quickly greed for power and an inflated sense of self-importance can drive people to do evil things. This is a great look at the development of a narcissistic megalomaniac, and trying to understand how a person gets there and charms others to follow them. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

Another great book complementary to The Road to Jonestown is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Like Jim Jones, Ron L. Hubbard was a narcissistic leader with illusions of grandeur. Wright goes deep in laying out the entire history of Scientology, Hubbard’s and his successor David Miscavige’s lives, and how Hubbard’s science fiction musings and elaborate vetting system lured so many people into following him, including rich and famous Hollywood elites. And there’s so much more, like the secret goal of taking over the U.S. government. There are some shocking, abusive practices in Scientology, including possible brainwashing, slave-like living and working situations for followers, blacklisting and practically ruining the lives of former followers, and more. Just when you think this “religion” couldn’t get any crazier, it totally does. This is a long audiobook, but I was utterly transfixed throughout its 17 hours. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

Ruth Warnier was born into a polygamist cult, the 39th of her father’s 42 children. Her father was the founder of this particular sect, one which told women in order to get into heaven they must be one of many wives to a man and bear him as many children as possible. This patriarchal community blossomed in rural Mexico, where Ruth grew up in poverty-stricken conditions, as local authorities turned a blind eye to its unconventional practices. After Ruth’s father was murdered by his brother, her mother remarried a man who quickly became abusive to the children. Her book, The Sound of Gravel, relays the story of her family and upbringing. I was impressed with how even-keeled Warnier is in describing some of the horrors of her childhood—violent and sexual abuses at the hands of her stepfather, the family pulling welfare scams, and, while it’s clear her mother loved the children, her mother’s neglect and carelessness. It’s an inspiring, sad, raw story but told in an unsentimental way, and I wonder if that is a side effect of the psychological harm she had to endure. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

I really enjoyed the informative and accessible No god but God by Reza Aslan. I learned so much from this book. Aslan brings to life the intricate, sprawling history of Islam and expands on its current varieties as well as how it exists and relates in the world, including in the United States in this century. He offers a narrative of Muhammed the Profit’s life, as well as challenges the religion in all its iterations faces today. This subject is broad and deep, but Aslan’s prose kept it from becoming too technical, long-winded, or overwhelming (well, it might be a little dry in the beginning, but well worth it to muscle through). This is a fascinating, refreshing, and illuminating book, especially for a Westerner, since most of us have been told time and again that Muslims are to be feared and hated because of their “evil” religion teaching them to destroy America… sure whatever. No religion is perfect, and not that I subscribed to the Islam-hatred ever, but this book did open my eyes to the fact that Islam is not all that different from the actual, historical core values of Christianity (“peace, love, and understanding,” in a nutshell). Can’t we all just get along? [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]