mini-reviews: born a crime, you can’t touch my hair, and awkward thoughts

This year I read three wonderful new memoirs by comedians that are not to be missed:

My only regret with reading Trevor Noah’s brilliant memoir Born a Crime is that I didn’t have it on audio. I really enjoyed this book, especially his thoughts on the power of language and the ramifications of apartheid on the ground level. Noah was raised by his single black mother in apartheid South Africa, only seeing his white Swiss father sparingly throughout his childhood and then not at all for many years. His stories are at times hilarious, touching, and harrowing, and throughout the book he expertly balances gravity and humor. His mother is AMAZING. [Read ebook in January 2017.]

I want Phoebe Robinson to be my friend the way Phoebe wants Michelle Obama to be her friend. I want Phoebe, Michelle, and I to all be friends. I loved this book and it was well worth the wait for audio (read by the author). You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of hilarious, poignant, and sharp essays that tackle race, growing up, gender, pop culture, and more. The relentless pop culture references and her own unique vernacular can get somewhat tiresome, but I think it probably still works better on audio than read on paper. The chapters about hair (of course), the letter to the future female POTUS, and her letters to her niece were the best for me. The guest entries from Jessica Williams and John Hodgman were brilliant too. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

To be honest, all I knew of W. Kamau Bell before reading The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell was his name and that he is a comedian; I had never heard any of his comedy or shows. But that didn’t matter because I loved this book! It’s full of funny, observant, interesting, even moving essays on his work, his interracial marriage and raising mixed-race daughters, race, being an ally to women and LGBTQ+ in show business and life, and more. There were things I related to (being a lazy kid, getting excited about random things) and lots of things I learned from his life experience. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

mini-reviews: bury my heart and killer moon

I’m a day late, but I thought this “holiday” (it’s awesome and amazing that this is being reclaimed as Indigenous Peoples’ Day by more and more cities and states!) is a good time to share my thoughts on two excellent books I recently read about Native American Indian history:

I’ve had Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on my TBR list forever. I really wonder why this wasn’t in my high school history curriculum (along with Zinn’s A People’s History…). Bury My Heart is a dark but necessary piece of United States history that tells the truth about how this country was built on greed, slaughter, and oppression rather than Christian values and a desire for independence as is so often taught in school. Bury My Heart outlines the systematic decimation of Native Americans from the day Europeans landed through the nineteenth century. Time and again the Native Americans were tricked, threatened, robbed, and massacred, yet they still compromised with white men to avoid war. By the time they did fight, it was too little, too late. Bury My Heart is long and dense, but gripping. This is our shameful, racist story of genocide and crimes against humanity, and should be required reading for every American. This is one of the best books I read in 2016, and I regret not reading it earlier. This horrific era (and the events in Flowers of the Killer Moon) are closer to us and our time than we’d like to think. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2016.]

David Grann is a master of well-researched narrative non-fiction, and Killers of the Flower Moon ranks right up there with The Lost City of Z for me. This book starts as a true-crime murder mystery: in the 1920s, residents of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma begin to be killed off, an event called “The Reign of Terror.” This is after the Osage people profited from inhabiting oil-rich land… which they were forced onto from their native lands decades earlier. Local and federal government agencies found ways to take advantage of these riches (and take money out of the hands of these citizens) by manipulating laws and policies so that the Osage weren’t deemed fit to handle their own money. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was brand new, and this was its first big homicide investigation. Using this one case as his example, Grann deftly exposes the racist, deceitful, and shameful tactics used not only by individuals but by institutions of government and law enforcement to further exploit and oppress Native Americans after where Bury My Heart leaves off. This was just shy of a century ago; why haven’t I heard about it before? This book is full of secrets, twists, and layer upon layer of disgusting corruption. It’s another engrossing piece of must-read American history. [Listened to audiobook in August 2017.]

mini-reviews: station eleven and the last one

I bought Station Eleven right after it came out, and of COURSE I didn’t read it until two years later. Somehow it survived my Great Purge of Stuff of 2016 in the overseas move, and I finally read it last fall. Coincidentally, I won a copy of The Last One from a Goodreads giveaway right before moving too.These two post-apocalyptic literary books are often compared, and rightly so.

I had to work a bit to get into Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and unfortunately (for me) I only got a little ways in before I had to put it down for the move, but when I finally picked it up again I flew through it. After a lethal virus sweeps the globe, a group of actors, musicians, and artists travel the decimated Great Lakes region performing plays and concerts to the few inhabitants left in the towns they pass through. There were a few odd things (like the dearth of guns/ammo and books in America after almost all of its citizens are wiped out… wouldn’t there be an abundance of these things?) but these minor anachronisms don’t detract from the story. I really enjoyed this thoughtful and imaginative speculative fiction novel. It shifts timelines, giving you a glimpse of living through a societal collapse instead of just showing you the aftermath. Thus, rather than being strictly about survival during and after a global epidemic, the story is more about beauty, nature, music, art, literature, and culture surviving. It’s about humanity and connection. Station Eleven was one of my favorite reads of 2016. [Read in September 2016.]

Alexandra Oliva shows she is a promising, creative writer with her debut novel, The Last One. During the filming of a survival reality TV show, a pandemic killed off much of the population. The show’s contestants have been cut off from the outside world and don’t know what’s happened. One person, a woman known as Zoo, who continues believing she’s in a game rather than an apocalypse. Zoo wasn’t as kick ass as I wanted her to be and I think the book is a bit long and winding overall. I also kind of wish I (as reader) hadn’t known that the corpses, danger, and devastation Zoo comes across were real—it left me frustrated that I knew and she didn’t, having to witness her behavior based on being in the dark. But I liked the book in general. It’s thought provoking regarding the portrayal of reality in media (how much of reality TV is real?) and how it can shape your perception of people, the world, etc. I think it’s worth a read if you like post-apocalyptic stories. [Read/listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything—an actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight. It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants—they just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is an excellent companion piece to Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear. Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)—finding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer. This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed—a blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]

mini-reviews: black earth and on tyranny

In the last year, I ended up reading two books by Timothy Snyder. One is a couple years old, one is brand new, and both are terrifyingly pertinent to what the United States is going through right now.

Black Earth is a dense and extensive look at the Holocaust, but is told not only as an historical account but also as a warning that the past isn’t so unrepeatable as we may think. Snyder delves into how the Holocaust began—as a dark idea within Hitler’s mind—and each step Hitler took towards attempting to achieve his vision. Military strategies, individual heroes, the dangers of statelessness, and of course the horrors of mass human slaughter are all examined here. Snyder’s warning comes as a conclusion that we in early-twenty-first-century America are facing similar ecological and ideological issues that Europe did in the early twentieth century, and missing the lessons of the Holocaust has endangered our national and global futures. We’re not as removed from Hitler’s supposedly incomprehensible world as we want to believe. It’s a bleak read, but necessary. [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

On Tyranny was released in March this year, hot on the heels of the inauguration. It’s a slim volume of twenty ways to defy fascism, the dismantling of democracy, and an authoritarian governmental takeover, citing historical (mostly European) examples from the twentieth century. It doesn’t go into great depth the way Black Earth does—it reads more like daily devotionals or meditations. But still, On Tyranny does serve as a reminder that there are ways to fight back. Some lessons included are refusing to normalize the situation, defending institutions, doing your homework when it comes to information, opposing a one-party state, paying close attention to words, believing in and defending the truth, reading, refusing to obey in advance, and making human connections. This is another excellent addition to the abundant response resisting this administration and time in U.S. history. [Read in April 2017.]

mini-reviews: borne and made for love

Like I said in my previous post, I have been craving some good fiction recently. Here are two fantastically weird books I read in the last couple months fit the bill and will rank highly when I look back at everything I read this year! I read great books by both of these authors before and was really excited for their new ones.

In Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, Rachel is a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic city in the near future. She holes up in an abandoned apartment building with a mysterious guy named Wick, who worked for a biotech company in town that may or may not have something to do with ruining the city. One day scavenging, Rachel picks up Borne, an amorphous, living creature she raises and teaches like a child, but we’re not sure of Borne’s origins or real purpose. Meanwhile, there is a humongous building-sized grizzly bear named Mord that flies (no wings) above and terrorizes the city. What. Am. I. Reading. I loved it—it was suspenseful and immersive, strange and compelling. Just like in Annihilation and his Southern Reach Triology, VanderMeer is the king of weird world building and psychologically eerie style. I had absolutely no idea where the plot was going and it was awesome. [Read in Aug. 2017.]

I was so excited for Made for Love by Alissa Nutting after reading her salacious book Tampa a few years ago. In Made for Love, Hazel leaves her tech mogul husband Byron after his inventions become too invasive. She stays with her aging father and his newly acquired life-like sex doll at his trailer-park retirement home, while trying to dodge Byron’s seemingly never-ending reach. Meanwhile, a second story line takes place involving a con man (think Sawyer from Lost) who is in love with dolphins. How will these people all intersect in the end? It sounds crazy and ridiculous but still makes total sense as you’re reading. I laughed out loud many times! I love Nutting’s absurdist but still kind of matter-of-fact style. This was a brilliant and imaginative story from Nutting and I was entertained and satisfied from start to finish. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]