mini-reviews: heart berries and educated

These two striking memoirs were hyped up a lot earlier this year and for the most part, they’re interesting, worthwhile reads that met my expectations.

Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is brief, but packs an emotional punch. Through dreamy, poetic essays, she recounts her dysfunctional upbringing on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. She has two sons, she reconnects with her abusive father, she has tumultuous love affairs, she ends up hospitalized for PTSD and bipolar disorder. It’s an unsettling read about love, memory, pain, mental illness, abuse, and more. I struggled a little bit with her changes in tone—part of the prose is poetic, part stream-of-consciousness, sometimes affecting, sometimes stoic. This diminished the impact somewhat for me, but I still appreciated the sharp observation she makes here about race and privilege. It’s important for sure, I’m glad she lays it all out here especially as we need more literary voices from the indigenous community. Her writing can be incredible so I wouldn’t write her off in the future, but this memoir didn’t entirely jive for me as a reading experience. [Read ebook in April 2018.]

Educated by Tara Westover also came out in February this year, and it looked right up my alley. I’m always interested in reading about survivalists and off-the-grid living; I find it fascinating. And throw in an underdog story: the author discovers a deep love for learning and gets herself educated, despite the odds? Sign me up. It wasn’t the survivalist story I was expecting—the family has money, TV, phone—but it is an excellent portrayal of familial mental illness and abuse. I was confused as to how and where the family had money, and while her academic achievements are pretty incredible and unusual as I was reading it sort of seemed like she breezed through the traditional education system once she passed one test (ending up with advanced graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge). Here again is where memory can be tricky in a memoir. I would have liked more about her struggles adapting and adjusting to the traditional education system after no formal experiences. But maybe the book is actually less about her quest for an education than about growing up in a patriarchal, fundamentalist religious home and dealing with mental illness and abuse in the family. Educated would certainly be a great companion read to The Glass Castle. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

mini-reviews: the recovering and everything is horrible and wonderful

I had planned on reviewing these two later/separately, but they’re related in dealing with addiction, I just finished both so they’re fresh in my mind, and I had very different reactions to them.

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison was getting a lot of attention in the book world before its publication this year, and alcoholism is a subject that effects me, so I was very curious about this one. I was only able to read about half of it as an ebook before my borrowing period expired. I waited a couple weeks before it came through my Libby app on audio and finished it up that way. I agree with reviewers that it’s too long; maybe this is two books in one. I think Jamison’s writing style is excellent and raw—she acknowledges both her demons and her privilege as a white, middle-class, highly educated and acclaimed woman. But it had some repetition during her memoir sections that came across as somewhat indulgent. There’s also a lot going on here aside from recounting her own experience with alcoholism and journey towards sobriety: literary history (stories of famous addicts, mostly writers), socioeconomic and political commentary (addicts viewed/treated as criminals, etc.), vignettes of other “normal” alcoholics’ stories, as well as a history of AA. This is a tough one to review. I wonder if I would have liked it better if it was just her own memoir? If it was just on the topic of creativity and addition? It’s interesting and well written and very readable (if dense). Just know what you’re getting into when you pick this up. [Read ebook/listened to audiobook in April–May 2018.]

In Everything is Horrible and WonderfulStephanie Wachs writes about her younger brother Harris Wittels: their upbringing and relationship, his drug addiction and untimely death at age 30 in 2015, and the aftermath of his death. He was a brilliant comedic mind who achieved notoriety as a writer and producer for Parks and Recreation and Comedy Bang Bang, as well as the person who recognized and coined the term “humblebrag.” This book, you guys. It’s more about a family’s experience with one member’s addiction than a straight-up biography of Harris, though it is a lovely tribute to him and his extraordinary life and accomplishments. I ugly-cried through the final chapters. I don’t think I’ve read anything before that so acutely describes the deep, fierce, singular bond between two close siblings. I completely identified with her feelings for her brother. I wouldn’t know who I am without him—being his sister is a huge part of my identity. I haven’t lost my sibling, but death certainly effects everyone and every family, so I understand the despondency and utter hell people go through when they lose a family member, especially when they are so young (we lost my cousin to a motorcycle accident when she was 19. It was horrible and still hurts.). But my brother… I’d be absolutely gutted. Your sibling is supposed to be your ultimate counterpart, your accomplice, your life-long partner in more ways than a parent, spouse, child, or friend ever could be. I’ve often said to my brother that we have more in common with each other on a molecular level than anyone else on the planet. He’s my soulmate. This book left me gutted. Wachs really takes you through what it feels like to love an addict with your whole being and all the worry, anger, fear, helplessness, and hope that goes along with that love, as well as the particular responsibility an older sister feels for a younger brother. She’s honest about her unrelenting grief and the utter nightmare she and her family have been through. I can’t recommend it enough; I’m sure it’ll be one of my top reads this year. [Read ebook in May 2018.]

mini-reviews: in the kingdom of ice and the lost city of the monkey god

I fell very behind on my book thoughts here due to some annoying computer issues! I’ve still been reading a lot, as well as my usual bass playing and drawing… just haven’t felt like trying to deal with this dilapidated, 8-year-old laptop much. A new laptop is definitely a top priority later this summer. But I’d like to get all caught up on my book posts before my five-week visit home next month! Here are a couple recent audiobooks about adventure and exploration I really enjoyed:

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides is another book I’ve been curious about for a while because I love adventure, exploration, and survival stories, but the length scared me off for too long. I’m happy I saw this become available on audio now and experienced it this way. I could barely put it on pause! The tragic 1879–1881 voyage of the USS Jeannette was truly “grand and terrible,” as the subtitle suggests. Set off originally on a mission to discover more about the polar arctic and prove or disprove some theories, like whether warm currents existed past the extensive ice barrier, this U.S. naval expedition quickly turned harrowing when the vessel was trapped in an ice pack and drifted for two years. The ice pack finally shifted and crushed the ship, leaving the crew stranded a thousand miles north of Siberia in uncharted icy territory. What followed was an epic attempt to save themselves by marching through this barren, mysterious part of the world. The descriptions of the deadly conditions and dangers they faced, from frostbite to unsteady ice to starvation, were palpable. The letters from one of the leaders’ wives gave this story a personal, human touch. The whole book left me breathless and rooting for them to make it out alive. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the outcome beforehand. I’ve added Dan Simmons’s The Terror to my list to read eventually now! [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

The Lost City of the Monkey God is my first read by Douglas Preston and it did not disappoint. Deep in Honduras’s Mosquitia jungle lies the ruins of the Lost City of the Monkey God, sometimes called the “White City.” It’s an ancient civilization that vanished around 1500, similar to the Maya, but unlike the Maya, this civilization has hardly been studied at all—the site is near impossible to find and physically reach. Preston was invited to join a 2012 Lost City expedition, which he chronicles in this book, along with extensive research about the history of the city, its legendary curse, and the aftermath of the trip. Indigenous tribes warn that visitors to the Lost City will be cursed and die. One man reportedly found the city in 1940, only to commit suicide shortly after his return—his knowledge and secrets about the site died with him. Curse of the Monkey God? Preston’s expedition included an expensive technology called lidar, which projects lasers to the jungle floor from an airplane or helicopter and bounces images back. Two sites were discovered with the lidar machine, but controversy surrounded its use in the archaeology and academic fields. The team had the most state-of-the-art technology and equipment, but still dealt with danger and discomfort, from insects to bad weather to poisonous snakes, specifically the terrifyingly deadly fer-de-lance snake. Later, the team discovers mysterious sores on their bodies… curse of the Monkey God?? Preston poses credible theories as to why this civilization collapsed and disappeared, from greedy leadership (ahem) to foreigners arriving and carrying disease. This book reminded me of Grann’s The Lost City of Z! [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

radical hope

Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times edited by Carolina De Robertis on my holds for a while, and it just came through! Edited from Goodreads:

Radical Hope is a collection of letters—to ancestors, to children five generations from now, to strangers in grocery lines, to any and all who feel weary and discouraged—written by award-winning novelists, poets, political thinkers, and activists. Provocative and inspiring, Radical Hope offers readers a kaleidoscopic view of the love and courage needed to navigate this time of upheaval, uncertainty, and fear, in view of the recent U.S. presidential election.

I thought this was a pretty solid collection. The letters are powerful, drawing on personal experiences of discrimination and other social and economic hardships, and explain fears and hopes for the present and future of the United States. Many letters make note of America’s dark history, illustrating the point that there’s no real “great” for everyone to go back to and highlighting all the progress we have made thanks to the struggle and tenacity of the Civil Rights Movement. I loved how inclusive the collection is, covering race, queerness, immigration, poverty, and more. “Dear Millennials” by Aya de Léon was my favorite entry.

The letters can be a little repetitive, though—a through-line of comfort during the Obama administration, like the writers were only shaken awake to reality in November 2016. Radical Hope is a good read to ground yourself in reality; a reminder that the results of the 2016 election aren’t apocalyptic (I sure hope not, at least…) but that doesn’t mean we have the luxury of inaction. Wake up and do the work to get progress back on track so we really can make America great, for all citizens.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

an american marriage

I had to see what was up with An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, the very hyped latest pick for Oprah’s book club. Heavily edited from Goodreads:

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored. As their time apart passes, Celestial is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

There’s a lot to unpack in this story, which is fictional but undoubtedly all too real for many families. It’s a love story at its core, but through the lens of a tragically common situation black Americans face today. I’m not surprised Oprah (and probably many others) picked this for book club—it makes for excellent discussion. How can black Americans achieve the American dream when they have to be twice as good and work twice as hard for it, when their achievements don’t protect them at all from persecution and discrimination? What about loyalty, or conditional vs. unconditional love? How do partners handle life-altering, stressful, major life events in their marriage? Does absence truly make the heart grow fonder? And more, like dealing with the stigma families deal with when one of their own is or has been incarcerated, nature vs. nurture, fathers and sons, etc.

I’m happy I listened on audio. The actors, Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis, did a fantastic job performing these characters and giving them depth, especially during the epistolary first half of the novel. Their delivery and emotion gave Roy and Celestial life; I felt almost like I was experiencing a play in person rather than listening to a book. That’s also a testament to Jones’s wonderful storytelling. My one tiny complaint is that the ending was just a touch too tidy for me, but it (along with the rest of the story) was completely believable.

An American Marriage lived up to the hype for me. Life isn’t strictly black and white, people are complex and flawed and both good and bad. It’s a powerful story about love, being human, being black in America, familial relationships, friendships, and reacting/recovering after the universe unexpectedly slaps you in the face and upends your life.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

altamont

I’ve been craving reading about music lately, and I was really pleased to come across Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin, which I had never heard of before finding it randomly on Libby. Edited from Goodreads:

In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock—the day that shattered the Sixties’ promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from the film Gimme Shelter, the whole story has remained buried in varied accounts, rumor, and myth—until now.

The product of twenty years of exhaustive research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, Altamont is the ultimate account of the final event in rock’s formative and most turbulent decade.

I’ve been to some poorly organized shows in my life. Just last year, here in Singapore, the Guns n’ Roses concert was quite the debacle, starting with complicated transportation options: the venue was way out past the airport with only one 2-way street in and out. Then the fans were left to bake in the hot equatorial sun for hours before the concert started. There was a giant air-conditioned warehouse there for the merch tables, but the stage was outside. There was only one merch station. There weren’t enough food or beverage stands, and the organizers insisted on a rip-off, chip-bracelet “cashless system” for purchases. People were fainting from dehydration and heat exhaustion. Sound was bad. The back half of the venue had a view of a giant black screen with nothing on it for much of the show, which blocked the view of the stage. Getting out of there was chaotic. I loved seeing the band and we’re experienced concertgoers so we mostly avoided the bad stuff, but whoo boy I’ll definitely never go to that venue again, and I was even hesitant to see another concert hosted by that promoter.

Regarding the Altamont festival, I honestly didn’t know more than “someone was killed at the show” before reading this book. Wow. This entire event, from the planning stages to well afterward, was a disaster. Basically, the Rolling Stones had a wicked case of FOMO and wanted to cash in on the “free festival” trend, after not participating in Monterey Pop or Woodstock. The vibe at the time was that musicians felt that the music was their priority and they were not so interested in money, but that couldn’t be further from the truth (except maybe in the Grateful Dead’s case). The Stones’s career was flailing and they needed money so it decided to do a U.S. tour (despite being out of touch with America’s music scene in the late ’60s), invited a film crew along, and finish the tour with a free concert in California. Everything that could go wrong did—there were shady, major characters involved in the planning, the execution was lazy, and no one anticipated any violence after such a peaceful showing at Woodstock just months earlier.

I had no idea how much the Grateful Dead was involved. After playing several successful free park concerts, it was the Dead that suggested to the Stones to end with the free festival-style concert, for which the Dead also signed on to play. The Dead also suggested hiring the Hells Angels as security, after using them multiple times without issue. Pretty much no one in the Stones’s entourage took the time to handle with care or precision each intricate detail of putting on such an epic event. Everyone wanted to do things the easy, free (or at least cheap) way. Altamont was located in an area with a faction of Hells Angels unknown to the Dead. Violence was brewing from the beginning, and there was bad acid floating around. The stage was shoddily set up, only four feet off the ground, without proper space or barriers between the band and the 300,000 fans, with only about 40 Hells Angels for security. It seems like everyone was tripping on bad LSD. There weren’t enough medical tents or toilets or food/beverages available. I was dismayed (but not surprised) to learn the Stones stiffed almost everyone along the way and afterward, damages to the land, hotels, car services, etc. Reading this was like watching a car crash in slow motion.

I watched Gimme Shelter the day after finishing the book, and while I appreciated that it added images and sound to the words I’d just listened to, it wasn’t a true documentary. Major people involved were left out of the picture, two members of the Grateful Dead were on screen for maybe thirty seconds, the prevalence of dangerous drugs wasn’t shown, and it looked like the Hells Angels were to blame for the violence. It was disturbing to see the Stones keep playing their set (granted they stopped a couple times to try to quell the violence), but especially disquieting to see the look on Mick Jagger’s face as he watched the footage of one fan stabbed mere feet from the stage, and subsequently have pretty much no reaction. His greed is partly the reason for the violence and tragedy at Altamont.

Four people died—one by drowning, two by vehicular manslaughter, and one right in front of the stage, Meredith Hunter, stabbed by a Hells Angel. It was interesting and sad to read about a concert where violence broke out like this, after the gun massacres at concerts in the last few years. This is a shocking and upsetting read, just yet another example of the worst in people coming out. But it’s one of the best cultural histories I’ve read—I highly recommend if you’re into the music scene of the 1960s.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.