mini-reviews: fates and furies and before the fall

I’ve been so engrossed in non-fiction the last few months that I decided I should read some fiction that’s been on my shelf and neglected for far too long. I had really been looking forward to these two dramatic stories, only to end up somewhat disappointed in the end.

I read Lauren Groff‘s Arcadia a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so I was really excited to get Fates and Furies right when it came out. Of course and uncommonly, I set it on the shelf and promptly forgot about it. I wish I had added this to my TBR Pile Challenge! Unfortunately, Fates didn’t work for me as well as Arcadia. Fates is the story of Lotto and Mathilde, a couple who married spontaneously and faced challenges through their decades-long union, some typical and some extraordinary. I liked that the book was split in half and readers got to hear both “sides” of the story, first from Lotto and second from Mathilde. Groff is also a beautiful writer. Some of the prose is just stunning and a pleasure to take in. I think she’s very inventive and imaginative with her characters as well. As for those characters, I personally wasn’t crazy about them. Not that characters have to be likable for me to like the book. In this case, I guess I’m not really into stories of privileged elites right now, or of successful men carried by women. The names were just awful too, Lotto (short for Lancelot), Chollie?? Lotto and his sister call their mother “Muvva.” I thought at first Chollie and Muvva were just the accent of the narrator but nope. Ugh. Pretentious. Well they are pretentious characters. There is a composer character in the book whose portrayal I completely hated and wasn’t even a shred of close to realistic. I get that the book is supposed to sort of be Greek mythology but it was just too much for me. Mathilde had a very compelling story though, I really enjoyed her part and perspective, which is the “furies” second part of the book. I’m sure this kind of epic character-driven drama full of secrets is right up some readers’ alleys, just not mine. I’d still like to read more by Groff though! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

I ordered Before the Fall by Noah Hawley right after it was released because I’m a huge fan of the TV show Fargo, for which he is a producer. The premise is great: a private plane carrying eleven people—a Fox News-esque mogul, his family, and their security guard; a rich couple; the crew of 3; and an artist—crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard shortly after takeoff. 40-something artist Scott survives the crash, and rescues one of the children, the four-year-old son of the TV mogul. Everyone else perishes. The book alternates between Scott dealing with the event’s aftermath, being an unwilling hero figure in the spotlight, and backstories on each of the plane passengers. How did the plane crash when all systems checked out before takeoff? What happened? Why? Was there a conspiracy to take down these rich and powerful people aboard? Who exactly is this Scott guy, and why was he aboard? It starts off as a good mystery and survival story, and most of the characters are rendered well (except the women, sadly, are one-dimensional). The ending though… yeesh. Too convenient and I think won’t hold up well over time… it’s hard to say much without spoiling. Despite the lame ending, there are a lot of great ruminations here on hero worship, wealth, power, media consumption, art, and luck. [Read in June 2018.] ***Before the Fall is my fourth of twelve books for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

book club: homegoing

Anthony and my latest read for Best Friends International Book Club was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Bonus: Homegoing was also on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list. Edited from the book jacket:

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

WHY why why didn’t I read this right when I bought it, right when it came out? This is a BEAUTIFUL book. I was really fascinated by the subject matter so that’s why I originally picked it up, but I usually struggle with narratives that are set too far in the past. But Gyasi’s research for her debut novel is so extensive and her writing is so vivid that I became completely immersed within the first few pages. She managed to give three-dimensional life and personality to every character despite our only spending one chapter with each of them. Each chapter felt like its own short story but woven together created a rich, captivating tapestry.

I really enjoyed learning about Africa’s parallel timeline over the last 250 years to America’s (even if through a fictional novel). America’s past (and lots of its present…) is horrific and shameful regarding its treatment of its black citizens. But  Homegoing doesn’t play the “grass is greener” game. There’s turmoil in Africa’s past, too—wars, corruption, complicity in slavery (kidnapping and selling fellow Africans to British slave traders), cultural and social upheaval due to colonization and missionaries, ostracizing members of your own community, etc. No place, no country, no group of people on Earth is perfect. There are upsetting scenes throughout and Gyasi doesn’t sugarcoat, but does have a sensitive touch handling difficult material.

Anthony pointed out some excellent quotes that illustrate how wonderfully Gyasi connects everything in the book: the countries, the family’s separate generations, and real history. As I’ve grown as a life-long learner, I’ve definitely noticed this looking back on my grade school education (which I do feel was excellent, but there’s so, so much missing from textbooks and curriculum, between factual events and different perspectives):

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.” (Yaw, to his students; 226–27)

I’m continuously sickened by the audacious privilege white people have enjoyed for centuries, in their feeling of entitlement to control everything and benefit, but are absolved from responsibility for any of the “bad stuff” resulting from their actions. These two quotes stood out to us:

“White men get a choice. They get to choose they job, choose they house. They get to make black babies, then disappear into thin air, like they wasn’t never there to begin with, like these black women they slept with or raped done laid on top of themselves and got pregnant. White men get to choose for black men too. Used to sell ’em; not they just send ’em to prison like they did my daddy, so that they can’t be with they kids. … Alls I can think is this ain’t the way it’s s’posed to be.” (Willie, to Sonny; 262)

Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? (Marcus; 289)

This last quote from page 289 continues, connecting the Great Migration to Harlem of the 1960s, to the “war on drugs” of the 1980s, to the Prison Industrial Complex… basically what you could learn all about in more detail in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (another excellent BFIBC pick). It’s just a very succinct look at how the racial disparity and discrimination in the U.S. didn’t just “happen.” The system has been purposefully designed and re-shaped along the way to continue to operate in this function, but behind a more palatable facade.

In addition to the snapshots of very real history placed in the context of this one family’s parallel journeys, the family itself is compelling. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which beyond being helpful to the reader, it also struck me how unfair it is that I get to see this family tree stretch back to the matriarch, Esi and Effia’s mother, but the current generation, at least Marcus, the twenty-first-century American, will never be able to trace his lineage back to her, no matter how much research he does. His family has been broken and separated far too many times to get the full, clear picture. And I was so heartbroken by this knowledge, and even more saddened and outraged knowing for a fact that this travesty happened to countless families in America during slavery. I can’t imagine the feeling of simply not knowing, of finding that at a certain point in the past, the path of your lineage just… vanishes. What does that do to your sense of identity? Reading Homegoing, both the America and Africa parts, I was reminded of articles of recent studies I’ve seen floating around online about how we carry trauma of our ancestors, close and distant, with us—it is psychologically transmitted across generations.

I loved this epic family saga, and I loved reading it with Anthony for our book club. Ok if I have one tiny complaint it’s that the ending is a little tidy but whatever, I still cried. Homegoing is one of the most affecting and thought-provoking pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in a long time. I can’t encourage readers enough to pick up this book.

We also discussed They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (I’ve read it, Anthony was almost finished) and both LOVED it, and decided on our next BFIBC pick: The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara. We’re on a fiction bender for book club lately!

Homegoing is my third of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read in March 2018.

the summer that melted everything

Another pick for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge! I’ve had  The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel on my shelf since it came out—even traveled to Singapore with me in the move. From the book jacket:

Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: The year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil. Sal seems to appear out of nowhere—a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings Sal home, where the Bliss family welcomes him, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town. When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome his self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperature, as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, some in the town, riled by the feverish heat, start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While members of the Bliss family wrestle with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.

I was initially drawn to this book by the title and cover. And the title sort of aptly describes how I feel in the perpetual Singapore heat—the never-ending summer that’s melting me. I was pretty excited seeing a mention of Wisconsin on page 7 (“But did you know that in Wisconsin, there is a lake, a wondrous lake, called Devil?”), and I love Devil’s Lake! It is beautiful and clean with wonderful hiking trails and camping. So, I figured this will be right up my alley. Even though it wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I did enjoy this debut novel. This is a Southern Gothic novel and it is dark, definitely not a feel-good, summery story, despite the title and cover art.

When I say it wasn’t what I was expecting, I mean that I thought there was a supernatural element to the book, that Sal really was the Devil. But he wasn’t. But actually no wait, was he? See, I’m still thinking about it after finishing. That’s always a good sign. More magical realism then, but the story was entirely real. I thought McDaniel did a great job of giving individual personalities and life to her characters, especially the Bliss family and Sal. I was captivated throughout, wondering what was going to happen by the end (because it’s pretty clear something major will happen).

I do have this in hardback, but I ended up listening to the audiobook on a whim since it was available. I really enjoy Mark Bramhall’s narration, but for this one it was a little too Southern for me—yes, ultimately this is a Southern Gothic story, but it was set in Ohio. I’m not sure why the accents were rendered as so deeply “South,” like an Alabaman or Georgian dialect. It’s very folksy and distracted me a bit.

I said this wasn’t what I expected, but it ended up being more. McDaniel incorporates social issues that were (and are still) super relevant—racism, homophobia—which gave Summer a depth I didn’t see coming. And classic, good-vs-evil kind of parables. Even though the premise of the actual devil accepting an invitation may seem out there, the rest of the story was sadly and upsettingly believable. While the plot is dark and unsettling, it’s also a novel about acceptance and love. I’m glad I finally got to it!

The Summer that Melted Everything is my second of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

monthly recap image

dark money

My first book for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge! I bought Dark Money by Jane Mayer right after the 2016 election, but put it off for the usual, dumb, distracted reasons. Edited from the back of the book:

The U.S. is one of the largest democracies in the world—or is it? America is experiencing an age of profound economic inequality. Employee protections have been decimated, and state welfare is virtually non-existent, while hedge fund billionaires are grossly under-taxed and big businesses make astounding profits at the expense of the environment and of their workers. How did this come about, and who were the driving forces behind it?

I’m not religious, but if I was ever asked, I’d say that the absolute worst of the seven deadly sins is greed. I’m just so infuriated that my country has basically become a plutocracy. I knew some of the basics before reading this, but I had no idea the sheer depth to which this shady network goes. The devastation this small faction of billionaires has inflicted on America is staggering, and I’m worried for the future.

This is the Libertarian Party platform David Koch ran for public office on in 1980:

It called for the repeal of all campaign-finance laws and the abolition of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). It also favored the abolition of all government health-care programs, including Medicaid and Medicare. It attacked Social Security as “virtually bankrupt” and called for its abolition, too. The Libertarians also opposed all income and corporate taxes, including capital gains taxes, and called for an end to the prosecution of tax evaders. Their platform called for the abolition too of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, and the CIA, among other government agencies. It demanded the abolition of “any laws” impeding employment—by which it meant minimum wage and child labor laws. And it targeted public schools for abolition too, along with what it termed the “compulsory” education of children. The Libertarians also wanted to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seat belt laws, and all forms of welfare for the poor. The platform was, in short, an effort to repeal virtually every major political reform passed during the twentieth century. In the view of the Kochs and other members of the Libertarian Party, government should be reduced to a skeletal function: the protection of individual and property rights. (pg. 57–58)

Sounds like complete and utter chaos to me. That would clearly result in two classes: the ultra-rich and the rest of us impoverished and starving in a destitute wasteland. It would be catastrophic if their ideologies and policies were enacted as real legislation, right? They lost the election badly that year (receiving 1% of the vote), but Jane Mayer goes on:

The Kochs were not alone. … they got valuable reinforcement from a small cadre of like-minded wealthy conservative families … Philanthropy, with its guarantees of anonymity, became their chosen instrument. But their goal was patently political: to undo not just Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era, too. (pg. 59)

Terrifying. Almost 40 years later, it’s unfortunately working. Look at how conservatives and Republicans have attacked democracy and its institutions, intellect and knowledge, culture and the arts and humanities, diversity and anyone who is “other” than cishet white male… the list goes on. An entire swath of Americans have been convinced to stand by the GOP, no matter how deceitful, disloyal, corrupt.

One of the book’s sections that blew me away most was about how the Koch Brothers and their friends have spent countless millions of dollars fighting the factual reality of climate change/global warming. Skeptical scientists are hired to make vague or misleading statements to the public, and Republicans spout lies about climate change, that the average American will lose their jobs and way of life if we do anything to combat climate change. The audacity of the lies is mind-boggling, and so is how easily and quickly Americans fall for the lies.

I already knew much of Congress and many politicians at the local level have been corrupted by dark money from the Kochs and their ilk. I became aware of that especially during the gubernatorial election of Scott Walker and his raping and pillaging of my home state, Wisconsin, and also watching the collapse of Kansas’s economy under its failure of a governor, Sam Brownback. But what I didn’t realize until reading this book is how they’ve infiltrated our education system at every level. Here’s what happened in North Carolina when a conservative Republican majority, bought-and-sold by radical libertarians, took over:

They authorized vouchers for private schools while putting the public school budget in a vise … eliminated teachers’ assistants and reduced teacher pay … abolished incentives for teachers to earn higher degrees and reduced funding for a successful program for at-risk preschoolers. Voters had overwhelmingly preferred to avoid these cuts by extending a temporary one-penny sales tax to sustain educational funding, but the legislators, many of whom had signed a no-tax pledge promoted by Americans for Prosperity, made the cuts anyway.

North Carolina’s esteemed state university system also took a hit. … dug up professors’ voting records in an effort to prove political bias. … imposed severe cuts that were projected to cause tuition hikes, faculty layoffs, and fewer scholarships, even though the state’s constitution required that higher education be made “as free as practical” to all residents.

“It’s sad and blatant,” said Cat Warren, an English professor at North Carolina State. [Art] Pope, [NC retail magnate and a friend of the Kochs], she said, “succeeds in getting higher education defunded, and then uses those cutbacks as a way to increase leverage and influence over course content.” (pgs. 340–341)

And influencing course content not only in higher education but in grade school and high school as well. I feel pretty good about my public school education, but as an adult and life-long learner I’m shocked at some of the realities of America’s history that were left out or glossed over in my classes during my formative years. I hate thinking about how generations of Americans have been unwittingly indoctrinated to a business-first philosophy that actively demonizes social programs and the roles of government.

All of this comes back to greed for me. I will never understand how these people with more money than they and their children and children’s children could ever spend in their lifetimes, more money than average Americans could ever dream of let alone earn in a million lifetimes… why do these people think they need more money? Their money is buying political power, which they bend to their will so they can amass more money. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I don’t get it. Don’t they know that when everyone does better, everyone does better? What’s going to happen when the 99% and 99.9% and 99.99% have all died off and they are alone with their riches. Who will do the real-world work they refuse to do: clean, cook, build? Don’t they know that money doesn’t buy happiness? How would they know, though, when most of these billionaires buying political power were born into their riches. They simply don’t care. They just want more, they want it all. The pure GREED. It’s breathtaking.

You know what, fuck the Kochs. Fuck their greedy billionaire cronies. Fuck Mitch McConnell. Fuck Paul Ryan. Fuck the greedy members of Congress and local politicians who accept dark, dirty money and selling out their constituents and all Americans. Fuck radical libertarians. Fuck them for duping enough Americans into buying their selfish ideologies and into voting against their own interests. Fuck them for their systematic efforts to ruin our democracy, government, and society for their own outstandingly greedy benefit. I hope against hope that the pendulum will swing back to the left (even center-left, where most Americans’ ideologies lie) sooner rather than later.

While this is all very depressing and has left me even more livid than I ever thought I could be, I’m also encouraged by the protests and acts of resistance around the country since the election. Research. Read. Listen. Don’t take political ads at face-value. Don’t take anything on the internet at face-value. Have an open mind. Be critical. Question. Show up. VOTE in every local election—that’s where this dark money is having the most, harshest impact—not just once every four years.

We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.
—Louis Brandeis (epigraph)

Dark Money is my first of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Listened to audiobook in January–February 2018.

tbr pile challenge 2018

I’m excited to join the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge next year! Host Adam of Roof Beam Reader is reviving the challenge after a two-year hiatus. I tried it in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and hilariously failed each time. I went on a bit of a book-buying bender in 2016, so this will (hopefully) be the perfect project for me in 2018.

The rules are pretty simple, just read 12 books that have been on your TBR for more than a year within the 2018 calendar year. So that means no books published on or after January 1, 2017 are eligible. You can have two alternates in case something from your main list is a DNF for you.

As I finish the books I’ll write a review post here on the blog, and then check them off and add the review post links on my master list page under the Book Challenges tab in the menu here.

Before the Fall … Noah Hawley (2016)
Buried in the Sky … Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan (2012)
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation … Michael Pollan (2013)
Dark Money … Jane Mayer (2016)
Dead Wake … Erik Larson (2015)
Homegoing … Yaa Gyasi (2016)
The Mothers … Britt Bennett (2016)
No Country … Kalyan Ray (2014)
Sugarbread … Balli Kaur Jaswal (2016)
The Summer that Melted Everything … Tiffany McDaniel (2016)
White Line Fever … Lemmy Kilmister with Janiss Garza (2002)
The Wonder … Emma Donoghue (2016)

Alternates
Pushout … Monique Morris (2016)
Snowing in Bali … Kathryn Bonella (2012)