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: 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.]