book club: parable of the sower and bitch planet

This week, my friend Anthony and I held another meeting (online) of our Best Friends International Book Club! I have so much fun reading and discussing books with him. Anthony put it sweetly in a comment on my Instagram:

You encourage me to think deeper and wider with each selection, and I love how this keeps us connected‚ÄĒwith each other and the world around us! ūüė欆[link]

That’s how I feel about him and our club!¬†It means a lot to me to stay connected to my beloved Kansas City family. And although we’re in different countries and drinking different beverages when we have our book club Skype dates, we actually¬†do stay on topic! Mostly!¬†We keep it loose as far as timing our meetings go; we chat when we’re both done with the books and when we’re available.

First, we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. It was the first Butler book for either of us. In 2025, society is descending into a chaotic collapse. Headstrong teenager Lauren’s family is killed and her home is destroyed, so she and a few neighbors journey north to a rumored safe haven. Along the way they encounter dangers and new people, and Lauren reveals her plans for a new religion. Lauren also has a condition called “hyperempathy,” which allows her to physically feel the pain of others. I was struck by how prescient and insightful Butler was in her description of this near-future America: privatization, climate change, gender and race issues, religion, the opioid crisis, and more. It’s an important addition to the science fiction genre for these reasons, plus being written by a woman of color. Unfortunately, the book didn’t entirely live up to the hype and rave reviews for me. The religion aspect turned me off, as did the hyperempathy. I always have trouble with epistolary novels, too‚ÄĒSower is basically Lauren’s diary. I’d rather be¬†shown the action than be told about it after the fact. I think this may actually be a YA book, too, which are usually hard for me to get into. I was interested in the¬†The Road-like journey the crew takes north, though. I wonder if I would have liked¬†Sower better if the religion and hyperempathy had been cut? These parts bothered Anthony less, but overall he felt the same. We decided this first book in Butler’s Earthseed series was enough for us. But! I’m not writing off Butler entirely; I’m looking forward to reading¬†Kindred one day.¬†[Read ebook in May 2017.]

Bitch Planet, Book One¬†by DeConnick and De Landro was our second pick for this discussion. In another near-future dystopia, if women don’t comply with the behavioral and beauty expectations placed upon them by the patriarchal leadership, they are arrested and sent away from Earth to a prison planet. The plot (so far) involves the “non-compliant” women being forced to compete in an all-male game called Megaton in order to “spice up” the event, and there’s corruption in the government and prison, etc. I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass. I’m really interested in seeing where this is going. I do wish there was more backstory, and I felt it drag when the focus shifted to men on Earth just talking about Bitch Planet. Otherwise, I think Bitch Planet has a great premise and is an excellent, creative way to get readers thinking and talking about intersectional feminism,¬†the prison industrial complex, sexism, societal expectations of women, and more. Anthony felt the same way, so we chose Bitch Planet, Book Two for our next discussion. He also mentioned the best part: the hilarious fake ads at the end of each issue!¬†[Read in May 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are¬†Bitch Planet, Book Two,¬†Michelle Alexander’s¬†The New Jim Crow, and Chris Hayes’s¬†A Colony in a Nation. I’m excited!

american war

I’ve been listening to a ton of audiobooks lately while I draw during the day. I recently finished¬†American War by Omar El Akkad, his killer debut novel. El Akkad has reported myriad events across the globe, including Egypt’s¬†Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement originating in Ferguson, Missouri, the war in Afghanistan, and the Guant√†namo Bay trials.¬†From Goodreads:

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.

Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

The book imagines a United States in about 50 years from now, not so united anymore after civil war breaks out between the North and South (again), this time over a law banning fossil fuels. The capital has moved from Washington D.C. to Columbus, Ohio. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia secede, fighting the North to still use oil and coal, while the rest of the country (and, apparently, world) forges ahead with renewable energy. South Carolina is a quarantine state.

It’s not difficult to¬†speculate¬†on another civil war occurring in the United States, based on¬†its current political and ideological¬†divisiveness, with¬†unsettling surges of violence, intolerance, and hate crimes across the country. Historical issues of war such as families torn apart and living indefinitely in refugee camps, children recruited as guerrilla soldiers, cities and towns destroyed, and corrupt politicians appear in El Akkad’s vision of America’s future here, making it that much more believable.

It’s pretty clear that¬†American War serves as an allegory of¬†the Iraq War, with climate change as the book’s catalyst. The climate change aspect is realistic and handled well, but I found it a little strange that race is only brought up in the periphery, and I can’t recall religion being mentioned at all. It’s a noticeable omission, since race and religion loom so large in American society and politics now (still). It would be reasonable to conclude that race and religion would also be factors in an American civil war taking place just a short 50 years from now.

That said, I was able to suspend my disbelief and become immersed in this ruined-wasteland vision of America’s South. I’ve heard that the printed book has a few pages of maps, which I’m sorry I missed out on with the audio, but narrator Dion Graham (who also recorded the audio for the incredible Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 book¬†Evicted by Matthew Desmond) did a fantastic job¬†adding dimension to the characters and dramatizing¬†the action scenes. I really liked El Akkad’s technique of dispersing “historical documentation” with Sarat’s journey, so the reader has a change to learn about how we got to this point.

American War is a fine addition the dystopian-climate change fiction genre popular right now.

Listened to audiobook in April 2017.

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‚Äď3 … 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‚ÄĒshe was my spirit animal in¬†My So-Called Life‚ÄĒand 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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reading recap: september 2016

We’re almost through October all of a sudden! Time is a little weird for me here in Singapore, firstly because I’m on “temporary unlimited vacation” (code for job-free) right now, and secondly because the weather is such that it’s basically perpetually August. So I sort of feel like every day is an August Saturday, and it’s tough to make myself get on the computer these days when I have pretty much zero routine. But when I realized October is almost over, I figured I should put up my September books and try to get myself back on track! Here’s what I read in September:

sept-reading

  • My Life on the Road … Gloria Steinem
  • Station Eleven … Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Vegetarian … Han Kang
  • We Were Liars (audio) … E. Lockhart, read by¬†Ariadne Meyers
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (audio) … Dee Brown, read by Grover Gardner
  • The Underground Railroad (ebook) … Colson Whitehead
  • Yes, Chef (audio) … Marcus Samuelsson, read by author

My two best reads of the month were¬†Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and¬†Station Eleven. I’d been wanting to read¬†Bury My Heart forever, maybe since high school, and it was just as devastating and infuriating as I knew it would be, but so important and one that every American should read. I bought¬†Station Eleven almost right after it was first released, but kept putting it off‚ÄĒthat whole thing where you’re worried a book won’t live up to the hype or expectations. But luckily it totally did live up to the hype (for me). I loved how it was a different look at society’s not only practical but also cultural needs after a collapse, and that the reader is shown the process of and reason for the collapse rather than just the aftermath (as in so many future-dystopia books I’ve read).

The Vegetarian was brief but interesting and strange, and I thought about it quite a long time after finishing.¬†We Were Liars, also a brief read, was kind of predictable and reminded me (once AGAIN) that I should not pick up YA lit. But I do understand the appeal, no judgement here¬†of those who love YA. I love a good food memoir, and¬†Yes, Chef was enjoyable enough and he certainly has had a incredible life and career, even if I didn’t “click” with Samuelsson so much on a personal level like I did with¬†other memiorists. Like I did with Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road. I shamefully didn’t know much about her life before reading this book, and I really enjoyed “tagging along” on her travels and speaking engagements (so to speak). Her insight on the 2008 democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was illuminating, especially at this moment eight years later.

And here’s my unpopular opinion of the month: Colson Whitehead’s¬†The Underground Railroad didn’t really do it for me. While the subject matter is extremely important and timely even today, the characters fell flat and the plot felt disjointed for me. I’m the odd one out it seems, looks like the majority of readers were blown away, so don’t let my feelings¬†stop you from reading it if it’s on your list.

October recap coming next week (on time!)
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the heart goes last

The inimitable Margaret Atwood‘s latest, The Heart Goes Last,¬†came out in the fall, and despite mixed reviews I couldn’t resist. Edited from Goodreads:

Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‚Äėsocial experiment‚Äô offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month‚ÄĒswapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‚ÄėAlternates,‚Äô the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt, and sexual desire begin to take over.

I love Atwood, but this one went off the rails a little bit. The premise and the first half were great, very compelling‚ÄĒa biting commentary on capitalism and the prison industrial complex, gender roles, a frighteningly plausible near future in economic distress. I felt like just when it was getting good and juicy with life in this strange¬†half-prison, half-1950s enclosed bubble, the story goes off on a weird journey with unexpected twists each one more ridiculous than the last. Sometimes Stan’s stuff was more interesting to me, and sometimes Charmaine’s was… although¬†neither are very likable. I was curious to see how Atwood would wrap up this meandering plot, so I hung in there, and the final messages are pertinent to the story and thought-provoking.

I was entertained enough to finish, but it’s not my top Atwood read. That spot¬†is still held by¬†The Handmaid’s Tale and¬†Oryx and Crake.¬†The Heart Goes Last¬†started out as a serial, so it was easy enough to pick up whenever and read in small doses.

Read from November 15 to December 31, 2015.

the long walk

I can’t remember when I picked up The Long Walk by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)… it was a gift for my husband a while ago. He recently read it and asked me to read it so we could talk about it. Book club! ūüôā¬†From Goodreads:

Every year, on the first day of May, one hundred teenage boys meet for an event known throughout the country as “The Long Walk.” Among this year’s chosen crop is sixteen-year-old Ray Garraty. He knows the rules: that warnings are issued if you fall under speed, stumble, sit down. That after three warnings… you get your ticket. And what happens then serves as a chilling reminder that there can be only one winner in the Walk‚ÄĒthe one that survives…

What I thought would be a typical teen dystopia in the vein of¬†The Hunger Games (never read, seen the movies) turned out to be something else entirely. Participation in the Long Walk is voluntary, and for much of the book that bothered me. I thought that it should be mandatory, a lottery or something (like in¬†Hunger Games) but THEN I thought, no. This must be voluntary. Boys selected for the Long Walk against their will would protest‚ÄĒthey’d flee the country and go into hiding, anything to get out of it. Citizens would be in an uproar (think the Vietnam draft… and that was for a war! This is just¬†for¬†“The Prize”¬†at the end, anything the winner wants for the rest of his life). Oohh… is this book an allegory for military service?? Anyway, brilliant.

King makes subtle statements on adolescent masculinity in our culture, which I’ve noticed in other books of his. But in¬†The Long Walk, it might be the first King book I’ve read without any supernatural elements. This makes the idea of a military state in the (near?) future, where we’d cheer 100 boys literally walking to their deaths frighteningly plausible. In¬†The Long Walk, much of the “action” is cerebral‚ÄĒthe internal dialogue and philosophical musings of Ray, mostly. But King is so talented at character development, he manages to keep a the repetitive, singular activity of walking compelling for almost 400 pages. Also in this one, there¬†are no subplots or intersecting storylines. It’s just the Walk, from start to finish. There’s intense, relentless focus on the boys’ horrifying physical and mental breakdowns¬†after hours and miles of walking without rest.

The Long Walk came out in 1979, but it still has many points relevant to today’s American culture‚ÄĒsome shockingly so. I was especially struck by how similar the feel of the Long Walk event is to reality competition shows, in that people voluntarily put themselves in the spotlight competing to win (whatever), usually at their own or others’ expense (dignity), risk, and suffering. And how society is addicted to this kind of¬†sick¬†voyeurism.

Awesome book, I loved it! If you’re looking for a psychological thriller with some elements of horror and dystopia that will keep you thinking about it long after, check out¬†The Long Walk. It would be a great warm-up for Halloween!

Read from August 23 to September 3, 2015.