reading recap: march 2017

I had another prolific month of reading! It’s really nice to be back in a groove after so many blah months. I’m trying to catch up on books I’ve had forever and not buy new ones, and I’m doing okay with that, better than in the past. My audiobook reading has skyrocketed, though. Without a regular 8-to-5 I have tons of time to listen at home and on bus/subway rides. These ten books makes my 2017 total 27 already—more than halfway to my Goodreads goal of 50 for the year, so I may raise that soon enough!

  • Americanah … Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Stranger in the Woods (audio) … Michael Finkel, read by Mark Bramhall
  • When Breath Becomes Air … Paul Kalanithi
  • The Last One (win) … Alexandra Oliva
  • Psycho (audio) … Robert Bloch, read by Paul Michael Garcia
  • Brown Girl Dreaming (audio) … Jacqueline Woodson, read by author
  • Get in Trouble: Stories … Kelly Link
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (audio) … Ken Kesey, read by Tom Parker
  • Hidden Figures (ebook) … Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Mom & Me & Mom (audio) … Maya Angelou, read by author

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestWhen Breath Becomes Air, and The Stranger in the Woods were my favorites read in March. I loved Americanah, but I finished right before Adichie’s controversial interview comments came out, so I’m still sort of reconciling my feelings about it in retrospect. There were some really great stories in Get in Trouble, too, and Psycho was fabulous. I really wanted Hidden Figures to live up to all the grand hype, but for me it fell flat. The parts about the women themselves and their lives were excellent, but you have to wade through lots of textbook-like technical chapters that bored me. I still want to see the movie, though.

Okay. I think if I’m going to be getting through this volume of books (or close to it) each month, I’m going to have to get back into individual posts. It’ll be good for me, another project to keep me occupied!

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reading recap: february 2017

I had a busy February. We saw three awesome concerts (Periphery, Joe Satriani, and Guns N’ Roses), went to the Singapore Botanic Gardens, tried more new restaurants, saw some good movies (Lego BatmanMoonlight), and I read a lot. I think I might have hit a new personal record for number of books read in one month (especially the short month of the year!).

feb-recap-2017

Difficult Women — This collection of stories was captivating, tumultuous, distressing, and real. Gay’s writing is almost poetic and cuts deep. She presents women who are complex, emotional, damaged, and who persevered through tragedies. I loved it—read it in two days.  **favorite**

You Can’t Touch My Hair — I wish Phoebe Robinson was my friend. And she gets her wish for Michelle Obama to be her friend. Basically I wish Phoebe and Michelle and I were all friends. I loved how Phoebe uses unfiltered humor to tell stories from her life while discussing how they relate to race, gender, pop culture, and more. My favorite part might be the letters to her young niece at the end.  **favorite**

Another Day in the Death of America — Gary Younge picked a random day and examined the short lives of ten children and teenagers who were killed by guns on that day in the US. It puts each victim and their death in context of economic and familial situations, education, race, etc. It’s a powerful book in line with Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. My only quibble is that the author said this book is not about gun control, and while it’s true that he doesn’t delve into the politics of gun control, a book about ten children murdered by guns can’t entirely not be about that.

Freedom is a Constant Struggle — This is a very thought-provoking collection, if repetitive and in need of another round of edits. I’m not sure it’s the best one to start with if you’re unfamiliar with Davis. The email interviews weren’t engaging at all. I did appreciate Davis’s articulation in connecting struggles throughout the world, from the US to Palestine to Turkey to Africa. She’s a brilliant scholar-activist to whom we should pay heed, especially in these times. Her take on remaining optimistic and mass movements through community organizing uplifted me.

Blood at the Root — This is the true history of how more than 1,000 black citizens were driven out of Forsyth County, Georgia, starting in 1912 when three black men were accused of murdering a white woman. It’s a fascinating, horrifying, difficult read but important that we learn the truths of our country and not the sugar-coated, edited versions. I think I would have gotten more out of this one reading on paper instead of listening on audio. Still, the events of Blood at the Root especially sting in that we still experience this sort of racial cleansing today, be it “white flight,” gentrification, disproportionate incarceration rates, etc.

Wishful Drinking — I was standing in line for a concert while I read this short, irreverent book by the late, hilarious Carrie Fisher. It was a great book to cleanse my palate after three heavy, serious reads. Carrie rambled and went off on tangents at times, and I guess I was expecting more depth as far as her addictions went. I bet this is 100 times better on audio, but it worked pretty well as an ebook on my phone.

Fever Dream — I did like the unsettling sense of dread throughout this brief, creepy novel, but overall I feel neutral. This was an audio hold that came through, so maybe it was the wrong time for me for this one. Truthfully, I may need to read it again, and on paper instead of audio. (Or maybe not. I have a ton of other books to get to!)

Sleeping Giants — I started Sleeping Giants with my husband but he lost interest about halfway through. The premise is intriguing, if not the most original ever. Too many of the characters left a bad taste in my mouth (the actors gave them condescending, snotty attitudes) for me to continue with the series.

Beasts of No Nation — I saw the Netflix film a few months ago and thought it was astounding. I was looking for a book to fill the “author your age” square for the Litsy Reading Challenge, and Uzodinma Iweala is just one month older than I am, but I would have been interested in reading this regardless. Nyambi Nyambi did a phenomenal job performing the young protagonist Agu on the audiobook. Even though Beasts is a fiction, nothing about this story is “fake” in the sense that this is the harrowing, scary reality for many boys in war-torn countries of seemingly endless conflict.  **favorite**

Fire Shut Up in My Bones — My friend Anthony and I decided to resurrect our little two-person book club (now international!) and chose Fire Shut Up in My Bones. I loved Charles Blow’s introspective, descriptive, and poetic writing. He really gives you an immersive picture of the world in which he grew up. He’s an impressive figure who overcame a childhood fraught with poverty, betrayals, and inner turmoil. I had a couple of expectations going in that weren’t met, which is actually totally fine… it’s hard to talk about this without spoilers. I think I was just mislead (likely by my own self) in what may or may not have happened to him to shape his life journey. Anyway, it’s a fantastic memoir.  **favorite**

OKAY! This is a long post; maybe I should go back to singular review posts?? How was your February for reading?

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reading recap: january 2017

I think I’m getting my stride back with reading now in 2017. I’m not participating in any creative reading challenges this year, just the Goodreads and 50 Book Pledge ones, which takes some (admittedly imaginary) pressure off. So far I set my goal at 50, but I’m hoping to get back up to around 60, closer to my normal yearly amount. Bad bookish news, though: my Kansas City Public Library account expired! I was hoping I had at least another six months, tears. I’ve been using it for ebooks and audiobooks through Overdrive, and it’s been great. I’ll get a new account at my local Wisconsin library on my next visit back, but still. I liked having one last connection to Kansas City. Sigh.

I had a good January for reading, and enjoyed all of these books:

jan-2017-recap

  • Born a Crime (ebook) … Trevor Noah
  • Packing for Mars … Mary Roach
  • Metallica: Back to the Front … Matt Taylor
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) … Margaret Atwood, read by Claire Danes
  • March, books 1–3 … John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Almost all non-fiction… one could make the joke that I read all non-fiction… (weeps). But The Handmaid’s Tale was my favorite book of the month. I read it once before, in early 2010, and loved it then. I’ve had a little celebrity crush on Claire Danes for years and years—she was my spirit animal in My So-Called Life—and hearing her read one of my all-time favorite books gave me life in this state of political unrest. Just a terrifying, disquieting book. I read once that Atwood based things in the book (women losing agency over their finances, property, eventually their own bodies) on real-life events throughout world history. I wanted to start it over again from the beginning right after finishing (and I just may listen to it again before the year is out).

I was so excited to also read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, an immigrant, when it came through my (last) library holds at the beginning of the year. It was a wonderful, sharp, insightful memoir to start of 2017. There were some utterly hilarious scenes, and I really admired his honesty about his relationships with his country and family, especially his mother. I loved his reflections on language and how that can effect interpersonal understanding and empathy. I only wish I had been able to listen to the audio version!

I’ve enjoyed a couple other Mary Roach books, and Packing for Mars was no exception. My husband got it as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago and recommended it to me this month. I realize now that it was another pertinent read for these times, with anti-science and anti-education mindsets becoming more rampant. RESIST!! But truly, Packing for Mars is signature Roach, making you feel as though you’re right alongside her as she investigates the “everything-you-want-to-know-but-are-too-embarrassed-to-ask” questions surrounding any given topic. Bonus: after I finished Nick and I visited the NASA: A Human Adventure exhibit currently on at the ArtScience Museum here in Singapore. It was a treat to see artifacts of the very things I’d just read about in person, including the space toilet!

The March graphic novel trilogy by John Lewis had been on my TBR for at least a few months now, but skyrocketed to the top thanks to events that took place on Twitter, you all know what I’m talking about. I snagged the only set at the Kinokuniya bookstore and devoured all three books in a matter of days. I usually struggle with graphic novels just in that I focus on the words so much I forget to take time absorbing the art too, but I made an effort to pay attention to both text and image and the experience really paid off. March is a very engaging work that clearly connects events and people through the civil rights movement of the 1960s via John Lewis’s involvement. I really hope young people are reading this right now.

Finally, for some much needed mental catharsis, I read through Metallica: Back to the Front, the authorized story of the Master of Puppets album and subsequent tour, as prep for the band’s concert here in Singapore on January 22. I listened to (almost) the whole discography as I read, which really enhanced the experience. This book is obviously a must-own for any die-hard fan, but I think even casual fans and listeners would really appreciate this round-table style recounting and images of the band starting up, the making of its first three albums, and the epic (and ultimately tragic) tour of 1986. Besides the history, this is a beautiful tribute to the band’s unforgettable late bassist Cliff Burton.

Looking ahead, I’d like to read Duff McKagan’s It’s So Easy and Other Lies before we see Guns N’ Roses on February 25 here, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis, Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips, You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson, and Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. I’m already almost finished with Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, which I simply haven’t been able to put down. We’ll see what I can get through!
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spectacle

I’m always intrigued by harrowing, unbelievable true-life stories, and have really been in a non-fiction groove lately, so Spectacle by Pamela Newkirk is a book that fit the bill. From Goodreads:

In 1904, Ota Benga, a young Congolese “pygmy”—a person of petite stature—arrived from central Africa and was featured in an anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, the New York Zoological Gardens displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, 4-foot-11-inch tall man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe. Spectacle explores the circumstances of Ota Benga’s captivity, the international controversy it inspired, and his efforts to adjust to American life. It also reveals why, decades later, the man most responsible for his exploitation would be hailed as his friend and savior, while those who truly fought for Ota have been banished to the shadows of history. Using primary historical documents, Pamela Newkirk traces Ota’s tragic life, from Africa to St. Louis to New York, and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his short life.

The first parts of Spectacle lived up to its subtitle—astonishing. I was blown away by how brazen the Americans were in their arrogance and sense of authority over this fellow human being. The blatant lack of humanity reflected in the horrific conditions Ota Benga faced in captivity—no one deserves this shameful treatment, especially from another person. Who was really “barbaric” here? I felt so sad for Ota Benga, even at the end when he was “free” but having a life where he didn’t really belong anywhere, not in Africa or America.

I thought Newkirk does a good job putting the story of Ota Benga’s captivity into social and historical contexts of racial prejudice in the United States. It makes you think about how we treat other people today in 2015—we might not put someone in a zoo, but we do humiliate others, force them to do things or be in the public spotlight against their will, media consumption of private matters (celebrities, politicians), children on reality TV, etc. And look at our incarceration rates, too.

However, as fascinating as Spectacle‘s premise and topic was, the writing was somewhat dry and at times it was hard to stay engaged with the audiobook. Often I felt Spectacle was more about Samuel P. Verner, the scheming man who captured Ota Benga, instead of Ota Benga himself. That said, these are pretty minor quibbles—this is absolutely an important piece of social American history we need to acknowledge. If you enjoyed books like Devil in the White City and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks this would be up your alley, too.

Listened to audiobook from June 29 to July 3, 2015.

we need new names

Onward with my ebook challenge! Book no. 4 is We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. Edited from Goodreads:

Darling is only ten years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad. But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few.

I read through this quickly over a weekend, so it perhaps didn’t quite have the greatest impact on me?? The difficulties and suffering that do exist in this book just didn’t resonate with me as much as I would have expected. I had a little trouble with the vocabulary (neighborhoods in the Zimbabwe town called “Budapest” and “Paradise” tripped me up at first, stuff like that). It could be the short story vibe of this one—while not really a short story collection, many of the chapters could be stand-alone and overall it felt like several events linked together rather than one long narrative. That’s just me though, short stories aren’t exactly my thing. Still a good read, though, and I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Bulawayo’s characters feel very real, at least some of them do, and for sure Darling is a dynamic and interesting character. Darling, at just 10 years old, is opinionated and funny, with a toughness right off the bat that has you rooting for her all the way through the book, and you witness her growth in how her voice distinctively changes as a teenager in the States. The first half was raw and gritty and heartbreaking, but the second half, when Darling is older in America, really drives the points home of “different similarities” between coming of age in Africa vs. the United States. Despite the tragedy and horrors they faced in Zimbabwe as children, they are still hopeful and dream of better futures for themselves.

We Need New Names might have a few too many elements in it—immigration, culture shock, coming of age, world relations, poverty, etc.—but Bulawayo does tie them together in a meaningful, cohesive way, and creatively through the eyes of Darling.

We Need New Names is my fourth of twelve books read for my Ebook Challenge.

Read from June 19 to 22, 2015.