reading recap: april 2018

Wow, did I ever fall behind! My 8-year-old laptop died and I didn’t have a chance to replace it until recently. I’m in Wisconsin visiting friends and family now but will be catching up on my little reviews here when I can. For now, here are the books I read in April:

  • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark … Michelle McNamara
  • Darkness Visible (audio) … William Styron, read by author
  • In the Kingdom of Ice (audio) … Hampton Sides, read by Robert Petkoff
  • Heart Berries (ebook) … Terese Marie Mailhot
  • Educated (audio) … Tara Westover, read by Julia Whelan
  • Being Mortal (audio) … Atul Gawande, read by Robert Petkoff
  • The Lost City of the Monkey God (audio) … Douglas Preston, read by Bill Mumy
  • Instant Replay (audio) … Jerry Kramer with Dick Shaap, read by John Pruden
  • The Asshole Survival Guide (audio) … Robert I. Sutton, read by author

Another month of all non-fiction. My favorites were I’ll Be Gone in the Dark about the Golden State Killer, which was just made all the more fascinating since that monster was caught about a month after I finished reading this book, In the Kingdom of Ice about the U.S.S. Jeanneatte‘s doomed 1879 mission to the Arctic, and Jerry Kramer’s  Instant Replay, his behind-the-scenes diary of the Green Bay Packers’ historic 1967 season.

In other bookish news for me, I’ve also fell behind on my TBR Pile Challenge, but hopefully that won’t be too hard to get back into after this Wisconsin visit. More recaps and reviews here in the coming days!
monthly recap image

mini-reviews: heart berries and educated

These two striking memoirs were hyped up a lot earlier this year and for the most part, they’re interesting, worthwhile reads that met my expectations.

Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is brief, but packs an emotional punch. Through dreamy, poetic essays, she recounts her dysfunctional upbringing on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. She has two sons, she reconnects with her abusive father, she has tumultuous love affairs, she ends up hospitalized for PTSD and bipolar disorder. It’s an unsettling read about love, memory, pain, mental illness, abuse, and more. I struggled a little bit with her changes in tone—part of the prose is poetic, part stream-of-consciousness, sometimes affecting, sometimes stoic. This diminished the impact somewhat for me, but I still appreciated the sharp observation she makes here about race and privilege. It’s important for sure, I’m glad she lays it all out here especially as we need more literary voices from the indigenous community. Her writing can be incredible so I wouldn’t write her off in the future, but this memoir didn’t entirely jive for me as a reading experience. [Read ebook in April 2018.]

Educated by Tara Westover also came out in February this year, and it looked right up my alley. I’m always interested in reading about survivalists and off-the-grid living; I find it fascinating. And throw in an underdog story: the author discovers a deep love for learning and gets herself educated, despite the odds? Sign me up. It wasn’t the survivalist story I was expecting—the family has money, TV, phone—but it is an excellent portrayal of familial mental illness and abuse. I was confused as to how and where the family had money, and while her academic achievements are pretty incredible and unusual as I was reading it sort of seemed like she breezed through the traditional education system once she passed one test (ending up with advanced graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge). Here again is where memory can be tricky in a memoir. I would have liked more about her struggles adapting and adjusting to the traditional education system after no formal experiences. But maybe the book is actually less about her quest for an education than about growing up in a patriarchal, fundamentalist religious home and dealing with mental illness and abuse in the family. Educated would certainly be a great companion read to The Glass Castle. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

mini-reviews: the recovering and everything is horrible and wonderful

I had planned on reviewing these two later/separately, but they’re related in dealing with addiction, I just finished both so they’re fresh in my mind, and I had very different reactions to them.

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison was getting a lot of attention in the book world before its publication this year, and alcoholism is a subject that effects me, so I was very curious about this one. I was only able to read about half of it as an ebook before my borrowing period expired. I waited a couple weeks before it came through my Libby app on audio and finished it up that way. I agree with reviewers that it’s too long; maybe this is two books in one. I think Jamison’s writing style is excellent and raw—she acknowledges both her demons and her privilege as a white, middle-class, highly educated and acclaimed woman. But it had some repetition during her memoir sections that came across as somewhat indulgent. There’s also a lot going on here aside from recounting her own experience with alcoholism and journey towards sobriety: literary history (stories of famous addicts, mostly writers), socioeconomic and political commentary (addicts viewed/treated as criminals, etc.), vignettes of other “normal” alcoholics’ stories, as well as a history of AA. This is a tough one to review. I wonder if I would have liked it better if it was just her own memoir? If it was just on the topic of creativity and addition? It’s interesting and well written and very readable (if dense). Just know what you’re getting into when you pick this up. [Read ebook/listened to audiobook in April–May 2018.]

In Everything is Horrible and WonderfulStephanie Wachs writes about her younger brother Harris Wittels: their upbringing and relationship, his drug addiction and untimely death at age 30 in 2015, and the aftermath of his death. He was a brilliant comedic mind who achieved notoriety as a writer and producer for Parks and Recreation and Comedy Bang Bang, as well as the person who recognized and coined the term “humblebrag.” This book, you guys. It’s more about a family’s experience with one member’s addiction than a straight-up biography of Harris, though it is a lovely tribute to him and his extraordinary life and accomplishments. I ugly-cried through the final chapters. I don’t think I’ve read anything before that so acutely describes the deep, fierce, singular bond between two close siblings. I completely identified with her feelings for her brother. I wouldn’t know who I am without him—being his sister is a huge part of my identity. I haven’t lost my sibling, but death certainly effects everyone and every family, so I understand the despondency and utter hell people go through when they lose a family member, especially when they are so young (we lost my cousin to a motorcycle accident when she was 19. It was horrible and still hurts.). But my brother… I’d be absolutely gutted. Your sibling is supposed to be your ultimate counterpart, your accomplice, your life-long partner in more ways than a parent, spouse, child, or friend ever could be. I’ve often said to my brother that we have more in common with each other on a molecular level than anyone else on the planet. He’s my soulmate. This book left me gutted. Wachs really takes you through what it feels like to love an addict with your whole being and all the worry, anger, fear, helplessness, and hope that goes along with that love, as well as the particular responsibility an older sister feels for a younger brother. She’s honest about her unrelenting grief and the utter nightmare she and her family have been through. I can’t recommend it enough; I’m sure it’ll be one of my top reads this year. [Read ebook in May 2018.]

mini-reviews: in the kingdom of ice and the lost city of the monkey god

I fell very behind on my book thoughts here due to some annoying computer issues! I’ve still been reading a lot, as well as my usual bass playing and drawing… just haven’t felt like trying to deal with this dilapidated, 8-year-old laptop much. A new laptop is definitely a top priority later this summer. But I’d like to get all caught up on my book posts before my five-week visit home next month! Here are a couple recent audiobooks about adventure and exploration I really enjoyed:

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides is another book I’ve been curious about for a while because I love adventure, exploration, and survival stories, but the length scared me off for too long. I’m happy I saw this become available on audio now and experienced it this way. I could barely put it on pause! The tragic 1879–1881 voyage of the USS Jeannette was truly “grand and terrible,” as the subtitle suggests. Set off originally on a mission to discover more about the polar arctic and prove or disprove some theories, like whether warm currents existed past the extensive ice barrier, this U.S. naval expedition quickly turned harrowing when the vessel was trapped in an ice pack and drifted for two years. The ice pack finally shifted and crushed the ship, leaving the crew stranded a thousand miles north of Siberia in uncharted icy territory. What followed was an epic attempt to save themselves by marching through this barren, mysterious part of the world. The descriptions of the deadly conditions and dangers they faced, from frostbite to unsteady ice to starvation, were palpable. The letters from one of the leaders’ wives gave this story a personal, human touch. The whole book left me breathless and rooting for them to make it out alive. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the outcome beforehand. I’ve added Dan Simmons’s The Terror to my list to read eventually now! [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

The Lost City of the Monkey God is my first read by Douglas Preston and it did not disappoint. Deep in Honduras’s Mosquitia jungle lies the ruins of the Lost City of the Monkey God, sometimes called the “White City.” It’s an ancient civilization that vanished around 1500, similar to the Maya, but unlike the Maya, this civilization has hardly been studied at all—the site is near impossible to find and physically reach. Preston was invited to join a 2012 Lost City expedition, which he chronicles in this book, along with extensive research about the history of the city, its legendary curse, and the aftermath of the trip. Indigenous tribes warn that visitors to the Lost City will be cursed and die. One man reportedly found the city in 1940, only to commit suicide shortly after his return—his knowledge and secrets about the site died with him. Curse of the Monkey God? Preston’s expedition included an expensive technology called lidar, which projects lasers to the jungle floor from an airplane or helicopter and bounces images back. Two sites were discovered with the lidar machine, but controversy surrounded its use in the archaeology and academic fields. The team had the most state-of-the-art technology and equipment, but still dealt with danger and discomfort, from insects to bad weather to poisonous snakes, specifically the terrifyingly deadly fer-de-lance snake. Later, the team discovers mysterious sores on their bodies… curse of the Monkey God?? Preston poses credible theories as to why this civilization collapsed and disappeared, from greedy leadership (ahem) to foreigners arriving and carrying disease. This book reminded me of Grann’s The Lost City of Z! [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

darkness visible

I put William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness on hold a long time ago on the library app and it just came through this week. I wasn’t really interested anymore, but it’s so short I decided to go ahead. Edited from Goodreads:

A work of great personal courage and a literary tour de force, this bestseller is Styron’s true account of his descent into a crippling and almost suicidal depression. Styron is perhaps the first writer to convey the full terror of depression’s psychic landscape, as well as the illuminating path to recovery.

I think I probably should have skipped this. It’s not bad per se, and I certainly acknowledge depression as a serious illness, something that is complex and different for everyone who experiences it. However… Styron’s language didn’t really reach me here. It felt too intellectual and not very emotionally raw. He described his illness in rational, cold terms. I just felt kind of alienated from him and what he was going through because his language came off as pretentious to me. I get that perhaps (likely), since depression is different for everyone, there may not be words all the time to adequately describe what one goes through. But Styron’s a writer and doing so here. I don’t know much about Styron’s life or personal beliefs, but—and this is just me how I’m feeling at this moment in history—I’m not sure I needed to hear about the suffering of a privileged white man at this time. I don’t doubt Styron’s depression and I empathize with him. But yeah. When I logged this as “read” on Goodreads, I noticed that Darkness Visible started as a lecture, which makes much more sense than as a full-on memoir, as stated in the subtitle. My interest was piqued with his mention of literary and artistic greats afflicted with depression—I’d be interested in reading more on that. Darkness Visible just wasn’t for me.

Listened to audiobook in April 2018.

i’ll be gone in the dark

I’d been really looking forward to reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara since I first heard about it. I’m sure this would have been on my radar anyway even if McNamara hadn’t been married to a celebrity. I bought it the week it was published, and it will definitely be one that I recommend all year to true crime fans. From the book’s jacket:

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers a unique snapshot of suburban West Coast America in the 1980s, and a chilling account of the wreckage left behind by a criminal mastermind. It is also a portrait of one woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth, three decades later, in spite of the cost.

I had a little trouble focusing at first on reading this book (my problem at the time, no fault of the author or subject) but I ended up having a cold last week and reading was about all I could concentrate on. I devoured the majority of this one laid up sick in bed in just a couple of days. I have an interest in true crime—read or seen documentaries on Zodiac, Jack the Ripper, etc.—how could I not have heard of this guy before?

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is meticulously researched and completely immersive—one tip or piece of evidence leads to multiple threads to follow, and just when you think “this is the guy, they’ve got him,” he’s eliminated. I had to keep reminding myself he’s still at large (right now, in 2018), is frightening in itself. Is he still alive? Dead? Imprisoned for something else, but hasn’t had his DNA sampled? He’d be in his mid–late 60s right now. Why did he abruptly stop his reign of terror in 1986? I’m just sickened by the depths of his diabolical actions. The victims and their loved ones deserve justice. After reading this book, I’m confident McNamara’s tireless efforts will have played no small part in his capture.

McNamara was not only a relentless researcher but also a gifted, natural writer. She invited you to experience her process, come along on her frequent trips to the crime scenes, and listen in on her conversations with the victims and professional investigators both past and present. I’m impressed and grateful for the dedication of these officers of the law tirelessly investigating this case, no matter how seemingly fruitless the past few decades. McNamara makes sure that every person is real to you, including the GSK. Her incredible skill at suspenseful writing is illustrated in the way she describes the GSK’s horrific crimes without fetishizing or sensationalizing. You absolutely sense her empathy for the victims and their families, even the investigators whose lives have been consumed by the case, and her intense desire for the GSK to be brought to justice. For McNamara, it became personal—less a writing assignment than a mission.

Michelle McNamara was a brilliant, passionate writer and I was totally swept up in the emotional rollercoaster of her hunt for the Golden State Killer. It’s a thrilling, fascinating, and frustrating read, knowing this monster hasn’t been caught, and so tragic that Michelle died midway through writing it, way too young. I teared up reading the end of her husband’s afterword, and her strong sense of resolve and determination rubbed off on me in her own epilogue to the book, “Letter to an Old Man.” I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is just a really excellent piece of narrative true crime journalism. I don’t usually like to predict so early in the year, but this might end up being one of my best reads of 2018.

Read in April 2018.