mini-reviews: children, women, trouble, men without

I used to think I wasn’t much of a short story person, but in the last year I’ve read a good handful of collections of them, and even bought a few more! Short stories still aren’t my favorite type of literature, but I’m really starting to come around to them.

Alexander Weinstein imagines people getting by in a near-future world taken over by technological advances in his debut, Children of the New World, with often dangerous and frightening consequences, featuring pieces on robots, industry and commercialism, cloning, virtual reality, memory, and more. The stories are more speculative than straight-up science fiction. Weinstein takes our society and culture already addicted to technology and social media and pushes that obsession to numerous edges, from merely uncomfortable to utterly catastrophic. They make you think about your own use of and dependence on social media and technology, brainwashing and memory, and what it means to be human and present in the modern world. His writing is kind of quiet though, I didn’t feel like I was reading sensationalist warnings necessarily. My favorite stories include “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.” [Read in December 2016.]

I will read the hell out of anything and everything Roxane Gay writes, and I was so excited when her short story collection Difficult Women was released early this year. Gay’s writing is raw, affecting, and poetic. She presents women in her work who are complex, emotional, damaged, and have persevered through tragedy. I loved all the stories and had a hard time setting them down, but check out this incredibly prescient passage from “Noble Things:” “…there was anger and then there were petitions and then terrible decisions were made—demands for secession, refusals from Washington, rising tensions, a war to bring secession about, the wall erected, everything going to hell on only one side of the wall, dulling whatever victory was to be had. It all happened so fast, it hardly seemed real, until the war began and it was too real and then the war ended and nothing had been saved, which was always the case when foolish men made foolish, prideful decisions.” Written in 2014. [Read in February 2017.]

I bought Get in Trouble by Kelly Link right when it was released, after Margaret Atwood mentioned Link as an author she was currently enjoying during a Q&A portion of her lecture I attended in 2015. As with many short story collections, this was full of hits-or-misses… I’d say, for me, six of the nine stories were good. A few were too long, but a few others could have been longer. “The Summer People,” “Secret Identity,” “The Lesson,” and “Two Houses” were my favorites. I loved the weirdness and magical realism aspects, and Link’s sense of fun and pushing boundaries in her writing. [Read in March 2017.]

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women, his latest short story collection, was a nice read, although I think I enjoy Murakami in full-novel form better. His signature cat and magical realism elements are included here throughout. The stories have melancholic and somewhat surreal atmospheres, and the writing is beautiful, as usual, but I think I read this book at the wrong time in my life, during a period where I needed something more uplifting. That said, I liked “Drive My Car,” “Scheherezade,” “Kino,” and “Samsa in Love” the best. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: jonestown, going clear, gravel, and no god

I’m not a religious person. I was loosely raised as Roman Catholic… but the normal kind where we only went to church on Easter, Christmas, and when Gramma was in town. I begrudgingly made it through all the rites (except marriage) and ironically now I’m pretty thrilled to be my niece’s godmother. I was that kid in catechism class that was asking rebellious questions like, “What about the women?” and “What about the Dead Sea Scrolls?” and “Why should we believe what a bunch of old white men wrote centuries after the fact?” I bet the teachers just LOVED me, haha! My mom was secretly proud. Honestly, looking back, I’m glad I went through it, however sour my attitude may have been. I participated in a longstanding family tradition, I thought critically, I learned there are options, and once I was confirmed no one can force me to go to church ever again.

Anyway, despite all that, I’m always interested in learning about different philosophies and belief systems. It’s a big part of life and the world, and I think it’s worth reading about even if I don’t want to be religious myself. Another part of religion is the cultish aspect, which I happen to find fascinating and terrifying, and in the last year I listened to a few audiobooks on the subject, as well as one incredible book on a legit religion.

All I knew of the story of Jim Jones and his Jonestown settlement was “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” but I learned so much from Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Guinn does a great job chronicling Jones’s path from his early life in Indianapolis, family life, rise as cult leader, moving his base around until landing in Guyana, and his ultimate betrayal and abuse of his followers and its aftermath. I had no idea Jones started out as such a staunch supporter of civil rights… but oh how quickly greed for power and an inflated sense of self-importance can drive people to do evil things. This is a great look at the development of a narcissistic megalomaniac, and trying to understand how a person gets there and charms others to follow them. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

Another great book complementary to The Road to Jonestown is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Like Jim Jones, Ron L. Hubbard was a narcissistic leader with illusions of grandeur. Wright goes deep in laying out the entire history of Scientology, Hubbard’s and his successor David Miscavige’s lives, and how Hubbard’s science fiction musings and elaborate vetting system lured so many people into following him, including rich and famous Hollywood elites. And there’s so much more, like the secret goal of taking over the U.S. government. There are some shocking, abusive practices in Scientology, including possible brainwashing, slave-like living and working situations for followers, blacklisting and practically ruining the lives of former followers, and more. Just when you think this “religion” couldn’t get any crazier, it totally does. This is a long audiobook, but I was utterly transfixed throughout its 17 hours. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

Ruth Warnier was born into a polygamist cult, the 39th of her father’s 42 children. Her father was the founder of this particular sect, one which told women in order to get into heaven they must be one of many wives to a man and bear him as many children as possible. This patriarchal community blossomed in rural Mexico, where Ruth grew up in poverty-stricken conditions, as local authorities turned a blind eye to its unconventional practices. After Ruth’s father was murdered by his brother, her mother remarried a man who quickly became abusive to the children. Her book, The Sound of Gravel, relays the story of her family and upbringing. I was impressed with how even-keeled Warnier is in describing some of the horrors of her childhood—violent and sexual abuses at the hands of her stepfather, the family pulling welfare scams, and, while it’s clear her mother loved the children, her mother’s neglect and carelessness. It’s an inspiring, sad, raw story but told in an unsentimental way, and I wonder if that is a side effect of the psychological harm she had to endure. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

I really enjoyed the informative and accessible No god but God by Reza Aslan. I learned so much from this book. Aslan brings to life the intricate, sprawling history of Islam and expands on its current varieties as well as how it exists and relates in the world, including in the United States in this century. He offers a narrative of Muhammed the Profit’s life, as well as challenges the religion in all its iterations faces today. This subject is broad and deep, but Aslan’s prose kept it from becoming too technical, long-winded, or overwhelming (well, it might be a little dry in the beginning, but well worth it to muscle through). This is a fascinating, refreshing, and illuminating book, especially for a Westerner, since most of us have been told time and again that Muslims are to be feared and hated because of their “evil” religion teaching them to destroy America… sure whatever. No religion is perfect, and not that I subscribed to the Islam-hatred ever, but this book did open my eyes to the fact that Islam is not all that different from the actual, historical core values of Christianity (“peace, love, and understanding,” in a nutshell). Can’t we all just get along? [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

reading recap: november 2017

I had a wonderful “vacation”… from my semi-permanent “vacation”… in Wisconsin the whole month of November! I spent a lot of time with family and friends, drove all over the Midwest and Wisconsin, saw some great shows (and not-so-great Packer games), and was just reminded yet again how much I love it there and it’s where I truly belong. Sigh. Anyway, as usual on my trips, I didn’t read much, so here’s a monthly recap and mini-reviews post all in one!

It has been too long since I had any nice, day-long drives all to myself, and I downloaded two for my drives in November back home. First up was Michael Finkel’s True Story, a non-fiction about his disgraceful fabrication in his The New York Times story about child slavery in Africa’s cocoa colonies, which resulted in his embarrassing firing. But then, he discovers an American man in Mexico, Christian Longo, has stolen his (Finkel’s) identity in order to escape suspicion of the murder of his entire family. It was an interesting listen, especially the dialogues and cat-and-mouse interplay between these two narcissists and how they are sort of similar (the different levels of gravity to their separate errors notwithstanding). Fans of true crime will like it. I think Finkel may have redeemed himself… if not with True Story, then perhaps with his recent The Stranger in the Woods (review coming soon!). I fell asleep when I tried to watch the movie, so I’m going to give it another try soon. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich chronicles the medical and personal histories of Henry Gustave Molaison, the eponymous patient referred to by his initials in medical research to protect his identity, and whose status as H.M. revolutionized our understanding of the brain. After a serious bike accident when he was a child, Henry later developed seizures as a teen. After drugs and other standard treatments didn’t work, Dr. William Beecher gave Henry, then 27 in 1953, a lobotomy, after which his behavior and memory drastically changed, transforming him into the prime human test subject for brain study. This book also covers Beecher’s life and career and the history and controversy of lobotomy procedures. I learned a lot about the brain, memory, and lobotomies from Patient H.M.—it’s easy to understand with minimal technical medical jargon—and the lives of Henry and Beecher were equally sad, shocking, and fascinating. Like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, treatment and understanding of patients in mental health facilities of the 1950s was horrific, and the human rights issues surrounding Henry’s situation are staggering. It’s an eye-opening look for non-medical and non-sciencey people like me at the sometimes uncomfortable and ugly side of medical progress. Sometimes Dittrich goes off on familial tangents (Dr. Beecher was his grandfather), but overall this is an awesome book in the vein of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

This might seem strange to include with a couple of non-fictions, or to review at all, but I did read it cover-to-cover last month! I bought Girl Power: 5-Minute Stories as a gift for my 3-year-old niece, for her baptism in Madison last month. It is a collection of ten short, newer children’s stories focusing on smart, fearless, determined, interesting, fun girls. It caught my eye because I wanted to get my niece the first story as its stand-alone book version, I Like Myself, but this collection was an even better choice. I also enjoyed Flora’s Very Windy DayPrincess in TrainingElla Sarah Gets Dressed, and Wow, It Sure is Good to Be You! I identified with some of these stories, of course, and wished I had these growing up! I loved how diverse the collection is, too, with girls of different ethnicities, ages, families, adventures, and more. [Read in November 2017.]

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reading recap: october 2017

I know I say this every month, but wow this year has flown by. Again, again, again almost all my reads were on audio. What can I say, I like to be told a story while I’m drawing.

  • How to Win at Feminism … Reductress
  • A Colony in a Nation … Chris Hayes
  • The Awkward Thoughts of… (audio) … W. Kamau Bell, read by author
  • I Know I Am, But What Are You? (audio) … Samantha Bee, read by author
  • Chernobyl 01:23:40 (audio) … Andrew Leatherbarrow, read by Michael Page
  • Black Mass (audio) … Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, read by various
  • Bitch Planet, Book Two … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro
  • The Secret History (audio) … Donna Tartt, read by author
  • Dear Ijeawele (audio) … Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, read by January LaVoy
  • It’s Up to the Women (audio) … Eleanor Roosevelt, read by Suzanne Toren
  • The New Jim Crow … Michelle Alexander
  • The Iceman (audio) … Anthony Bruno, read by Bronson Pinchot

I am proud of myself sticking pretty well to my goal of catching up on blog posts. I’m saving my review of The New Jim CrowBitch Planet 2, and A Colony in a Nation until after I meet up with Anthony, my fellow reader and partner in crime in our Best Friends International Book Club, to discuss in person in a couple of weeks.

My favorites of the month were definitely The New Jim CrowA Colony in a Nation, and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. I really enjoyed getting back into mafia books with Black Mass and The Iceman.

Next month I’m going back home to the States for a visit, and I’ll be bringing with me on paperback The Glass Castle and Killing Pablo. I have a books on my Libby app, True Story and Patient H.M. (audio) and Katy Tur’s new one Unbelievable (ebook). I’m also bringing home What Happened for my mom to read. And I’ve downloaded Stranger Things season 2 and a bunch of other videos to my iPad Netflix app. Why am I always so concerned I’ll be lacking in entertainment choices on flights and trips?? LOL!

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the iceman

As you know if you read me here, I’m fascinated by American mafia culture. Right now, I’m working on a drawing of Paulie and Chrissy from The Sopranos. I thought Anthony Bruno’s The Iceman would be a perfect companion to listen to while I work, and it was! From Goodreads:

At home, Richard Kuklinski was a dedicated suburban family man; on the street, he was the Iceman, a professional hit man and lethal scam artist, a man so heartless he kept one of his victims frozen for over two years to disguise the time of death. His personal body count was over one hundred, but the police couldn’t touch him. Then undercover agent Dominick Polifrone posed as a mobster and began a deadly game of cat and mouse. The Iceman chronicles Kuklinski’s grisly career and exposes his murderous double life.

Kuklinski had a terrible, abusive childhood, the violence of which obviously followed him into adulthood. This book doesn’t cover it (and I’m no doctor), but he must have had some sort of untreated mental illness, too, from the descriptions of his wild mood swings; his wife said she never knew when he’d fly into a random fit of rage. I found it interesting that Kuklinski wasn’t like other mob guys you hear about—he was not a womanizer, he didn’t dabble in drugs or gambling. His killings were gruesome and horrifying, and the sheer impassivity he displayed regarding his actions and taking another human life is chilling.

The Iceman definitely scratched my perpetual true-crime itch for the time being. I thought about reading Philip Carlo’s book on Kuklinski, also titled The Ice Man but after his lackluster writing in The Butcher, I think I’ll just stay with Bruno’s book. This was a fast-paced, engaging read, even if at times towards the end some information was repeated. I think I have seen the 2012 film starring Michael Shannon (I’d have to see it again…) and now I definitely want to watch The Iceman Tapes documentary, where Kuklinski himself is interviewed on film.

Listened to audiobook in October 2017.

mini-reviews: bailed! lincoln, spaceman, game of thrones

I thought talking about a few books I DNF’d would be a fun change! Here are three books I bailed on in the last year.

I got about an hour into the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders before ditching it. Yeah, not for me. I borrowed this one from the library to see what the hype was about and I couldn’t get into it. I think with Lincoln, there are so many characters, so many different voices, living and dead, and it doesn’t read like narrative fiction—it’s almost like a play—that it was way too confusing on audio. I’ve heard that Lincoln is better on paper, but I don’t think I’m going to try a different format, though. I wasn’t crazy about Saunders’s Tenth of December either, though I did finish that one (wasn’t bad, just, again, not for me). And of course, now Lincoln has won the Booker Prize! The cheese stands alone, I guess. [Bailed in March 2017.]

I got halfway through Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia. I really tried—I had this as a borrow from the library on ebook! I’m the worst at reading ebooks! I was really disappointed to quit because I thought this was extremely interesting premise: Czech orphan grows up to be his country’s first astronaut, is assigned a dangerous mission to Venus, upon which he encounters a strange and mysterious giant spider with human features on his ship. Is this spider real; is it an alien? Or is it his imagination? Jakub’s personal history and relationships, as well Czech political history, dominate this book. I guess I was expecting more of an adventure story than philosophical novel about myriad topics… none of which were a giant, possibly imaginary space spider. Sadly, reading this just started feeling like a chore. [Bailed in April 2017.]

Sigh, A Game of Thrones. I love the show and I’m all caught up on it there. George R. R. Martin‘s masterpiece series is SO hyped and SO revered. I thought I’d give it a shot between seasons of the show. Again, I had this on ebook from the library and I really gave it a chance. 177 pages into this first book and I was bored to tears. The writing is just godawful, pure shit. Am I alone here? Maybe this will be my unpopular opinion of the month! [Bailed in December 2016.]