what happened

I’ve been waiting with bated breath for Hillary Clinton’s What Happened for months. It both met and exceeded my expectations, but in different ways than I thought it would. This is a hard book to review, so I’ll keep it brief. From the hardcover’s jacket:

For the first time, Hillary Rodham Clinton reveals what she was thinking and feeling during one of the most controversial and unpredictable presidential elections in history. Now free from the intense personal experience of becoming the first woman nominated for president by a major party in an election marked by rage, sexism, exhilarating highs and infuriating lows, stranger-than-fiction twists, Russian interference, and an opponent who broke all the rules. This is her most personal memoir yet.

If you’ve paid close enough attention, there aren’t necessarily new revelations in What Happened, but I did learn a few things I hadn’t read in the news before. In a no-nonsense manner, and sometimes with surprising dark humor, Clinton goes over all the factors that influenced this election: racism, anger, sexism and misogyny, economics, Russian involvement, voter suppression and disenfranchisement, and more, including taking blame and responsibility for issues in her campaign and in getting her messaging across. There were many fist-pumping, tear-jerking, expletive-yelling moments for me while reading What Happened. She has no fucks left to give and I am HERE for it. What I didn’t expect was how much of the book she devotes to her childhood, family, and friends. It was refreshing.

I read this memoir because I wanted to hear directly from the first woman to come within an eyelash of being president of the United States what her experience was running in the weirdest, least civilized, most shameful election ever. What were her thoughts and feelings being so abhorrently demonized and lied about and hated, and having to go through such a humiliating public defeat? I wanted her unique, informed, diplomatic, experienced perspective. She’s a brilliant, accomplished, dignified, professional, tenacious, courageous, caring woman that I personally find to be admirable and inspirational. She is an historic figure in American history—her nomination alone as well as her win of the popular vote is powerful and cannot be dismissed.

I cried during Clinton’s accepting of the nomination at the DNC. I cried when the results rolled in last November. I cried when she gave her concession speech. I cried while reading many parts of this book, and while much of it is infuriating, frustrating, and worrisome, I was ultimately left hopeful by the end. As Michelle Obama says, “When they go low, we go high.” And as Hillary herself says, “Don’t let the bastards get you down. Stay true to yourself and your values. Most of all, keep going.”

Read in September 2017.

mini-reviews: march trilogy, tears we cannot stop

Continuing my catch-up posts about excellent books on social justice, race relations, and civil rights…

I was captivated by Art Spiegelman’s Maus books when I first read them in middle school. While I was interested in learning about the Holocaust at the time, I’m pretty certain a “regular” book would have been too much for me. The graphic novel/memoir format was excellent at conveying serious subject matter to me then, and while I certainly can handle full-text books on heavy topics now, I was still pleased by and learned from John Lewis’s March graphic memoir trilogy. His life story (then, and still what he does for the country today) is an inspiration. In March, Lewis clearly connects critical events and people within and outside the Civil Rights Movement and the differences of varying social justice organizations of the 1950s and 60s. It was informative, hopeful, and inspiring… and also a little surreal and depressing reading this in January 2017. I hope young people are reading this now. [Read in January 2017.]

Michael Eric Dyson presents his argument for racial issues in the United States as a long-form sermon in Tears We Cannot Stop. This book could not be any more imperative for White America right now. Dyson speaks a lot of uncomfortable truths about race and the Black American experience, and we all really need to listen. Sadly, I’m afraid those who need these lessons the most will not pick up this book, but it’s an important piece anyway. Even just listening, learning, bearing witness, and acknowledging are beginning steps towards true advocacy for white allies. My one tiny criticism is that I believe there is much more to the election than just race, but there are (and will be) other books and articles one could read about all the factors that were in play. The audiobook (read by Dyson) is powerful and fantastic—I listened to the whole thing in one sitting. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

mini-reviews: brown girl dreaming, the hate u give

If you visit me here enough, you’ll know young adult lit is not really my jam. I have trouble with reading about teenage angst and melodrama, so I usually try to stay away from this genre. But in the last year I did end up listening to two good YA titles on audio:

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of her childhood told in verse. I may have missed out on something in the audio, as I think seeing verse written down on paper can be powerful and give you pause as to what you’re reading, but I did enjoy the poetic performance on audio (read by the author). Her vignettes about growing up black in the 1960s–70s in New York and South Carolina give a special perspective on Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, conveyed in beautifully rendered, accessible way for all ages. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

In Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr balances between two worlds: living in her poor neighborhood and attending her upscale prep school. One night she witnesses the murder of her unarmed friend Khalil by a policeman. Khalil’s killing makes national news, protesting and riots start, and Starr is the only one who can say what really happened that night. It’s a good book, perhaps just a little on the long side, but at times there were conversations and scenes where I think the overall theme of police brutality against black citizens ends up in the background behind a “black people vs. white people, us vs. them” debate. Racism IS real, rampant, and a national disgrace that needs to be fixed, absolutely. As a white person, this is a hard book to objectively review. I acknowledge I don’t face discrimination like this, I don’t live the black American experience, and I know I have ingrained negative biases I actively work hard abolish in my heart (which I expect to do every day the rest of my life). And absolutely I agree that black Americans are overwhelmingly the targets of the majority of racism (just look at our shameful, horrifying history), and police brutality and racism in general needs attention and solving. But… I don’t agree that some issues and conflicts during scenes in this particular book are quite so black and white (to use the idiom) as the author portrays. I enjoyed the fact that this YA isn’t all about feelings and romance, and really appreciated the important, timely subject matter of this story. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

mini-reviews: fire this time, we gon’ be alright, underground railroad

Three more books related to race issues that I read recently, two of which (The Fire This Time and We Gon’ Be Alright) were among my favorites from last year:

I will read anything and everything by Jesmyn Ward. She only wrote the introduction and one entry in The Fire This Time, but there is fantastic writing by all the authors, which include Carol Anderson, Claudia Rankine, and more. Everyone should read this book. Ward has compiled a thoughtful, powerful, and moving collection of essays and poems—sometimes autobiographical, all unique perspectives—on life and race in America today. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking, but also hopeful. I wish I had read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time first, but I will get to it someday for sure. [Read ebook in October 2016.]

Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright is another essential collection of essays to help understand why race relations in America remain so strained today. The pieces examine Ferguson, racism in higher education, the morphed definition of “diversity,” #OscarsSoWhite, growing up Asian American, Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, white flight, segregation in k-12 schools, the symbolism of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and more. The chapters focused on student protests in Missouri really hit home—he mentions an incident with then-UM President Tim Wolfe being approached by student protesters in Kansas City after a fundraiser gala. I was at the event working, but I didn’t witness the confrontation. It was a big deal—we had to plan ahead for his attendance and what might happen. I admire the protesters for their courage and resistance, and my colleagues who were there for keeping the peace and being respectful. Tim Wolfe, on the other hand, was ignorant, rude, and dismissive. Anyway, this is a timely, incisive, and impactful must-read. [Read in December 2016.]

And now for my unpopular opinion. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was by far one of the most hyped books of 2016, but unfortunately I didn’t find it engaging. It’s about a runaway slave and her journey to freedom, only Whitehead’s “railroad” here is a physical one with trains. I thought there would be more about the trains and railroad, like it would become magical realism, but it does not. I was so intrigued by the premise of this book, but the plot jumped from scene to scene and past to present too frenetically, or it slogged too slowly, and I had trouble connecting with the characters—they fell flat for me. The cheese stands alone, though, as The Underground Railroad has won numerous awards including the 2017 Pulitzer for Fiction. I think perhaps a non-fiction on this subject would have affected me more than an historical fiction. I had to force myself to finish. [Read ebook in September 2016.]

mini-reviews: ghettoside, blood at the root, another day

I’m watching the unfolding of events in the United States very carefully from here in Singapore. I feel helpless a lot of the time… I do what I can from here (emails to my representatives, mostly, and of course absentee voting) but one thing for certain that I can do is educate myself. In light of the current protests happening across the NFL lately, I thought this week it would be appropriate to catch up on reviewing related books I’ve recently read.

Ghettoside is about the murder of a young black man in L.A., who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who also happened to be the son of a policeman who lived where he patrolled, as well as the detectives who were assigned to this case. Beyond this central story, there is also examination of gang-related violence and killings in South-central L.A. and societal failures for these communities. I liked Jill Leovy‘s attention to detail and thorough reporting, but I felt there was too much focus on the white detectives and their value and roles, and not enough from the perspectives of the members of the black communities this violence effects. But the overall message certainly is that Black Lives Matter and tries to offer possible solutions to reducing and solving gang-related murders. [Listened to audiobook in August 2016.]

In 1912, three young black men were accused of raping and murdering a white woman in Forsyth County, Georgia. This launched the rise of a group of white supremacist terrorists prowling the county and the systematic removal of black families there, using tactics that were forceful, intimidating, outright inhumane and violent, and often outrageously “legal” thanks to white elitist legislators in the state. Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root is a fascinating, gripping, and often personal book that details the shameful, unjust racial cleansing that plagued this particular county, but is required reading in order to understand how this kind of homegrown terrorism continues to effect and shape our nation’s racial climate today. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Another Day in the Death of America provides an outsider’s view of how normalized gun violence has become in the United States, as the author, Gary Younge, is from the U.K. Being black and new to the U.S., he became alarmed by how he had to change raising his children to be prepared in our dangerous society here. He chose a random date and examines the tragic deaths of ten children by guns on that date. Ranging in age from nine to nineteen, most of these kids were black, but all were boys from low-income communities. Some were gang-related killings, some were just two kids messing around unsupervised. I agree with Younge’s argument on the urgent need for strict gun regulations, but I wish he hadn’t insisted in the opening that this book is not meant to be a political statement. That’s my only criticism. Gun availability, use, and regulations have all been heavily politicized, there’s no way a book like this isn’t political. And the problem is deeper than just gun regulations—it’s economics, media, and popular culture, too. This book is difficult to read at times, but important in that it is a potent reminder that there are real people—real, individual children and families—who are victims of of this insane, rampant gun violence EVERY DAY. It’s critical to not become desensitized. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

difficult men

I recently started re-watching The Sopranos, one of my all-time most favorite shows ever, which compelled me to borrow Difficult Men by Brett Martin from my library on audio. I remember seeing it make the blog rounds a few years ago. Edited from Goodreads:

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom.This revolution happened at the hands of a new breed of auteur: the all-powerful writer-show runner.

Combining deep reportage with cultural analysis and historical context, Brett Martin takes us behind the scenes of our favorite shows, delivering never-before-heard story after story and revealing how cable TV has distinguished itself dramatically from the networks, emerging from the shadow of film to become a truly significant and influential part of our culture.

Difficult Men definitely lets you know what it’s all about with its title, but I still wanted something a little different that what Martin delivered. I think I wanted more about the complex characters of Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Don Draper (Mad Men), and Walter White (Breaking Bad)  themselves and their cultural impact. Difficult Men is mostly about David Chase and behind the scenes of The Sopranos, which of course I enjoyed learning about, as well as how James Gandolfini handled (or rather, struggled with) his iconic role. I guess I expected a broader look at what Martin calls the “Third Golden Age of Television.” Martin gives short shrift to regular network shows (no love for Lost?? I loved that show) and you don’t read much about women in the business here (well, that could and should be a whole book unto itself).

The process from writing to production was really interesting, as well as how the show runners were given freedom to see their vision through and push the boundaries of televised storytelling thanks to the development of the 60-minute episode and 10–13 episodes-per-season format. It’s worth a read if you want to know more about the background of The Sopranos for sure, and some background on a few other revered cable dramas.

Listened to audiobook in August 2017.