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.]

reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

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so you’ve been publicly shamed

Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed has been on my TBR pretty much since it came out a couple years ago. I’m not exactly sure what compelled me to read it now in particular…? But I decided to borrow the ebook from the library just because. Edited from Goodreads:

For the past three years, Jon Ronson has travelled the world meeting recipients of high-profile public shamings. The shamed are people like us—people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. Simultaneously powerful and hilarious in the way only Jon Ronson can be, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is a deeply honest book about modern life, full of eye-opening truths about the escalating war on human flaws—and the very scary part we all play in it.

We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of in our lives—honest, stupid mistakes because (surprise!) we’re all flawed human beings. Imagine having your life ruined because of something you did or said, thinking it was just harmless, silly, and trivial in the moment. Remember Justine Sacco, the woman who tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her ~100 followers, got on an 11-hour flight, and found upon landing that her tweet had gone viral… and not in a good way? She meant it as a mockery of white ignorance and privilege, but the joke was tasteless and fell flat. Twitter ruthlessly destroyed her, so much so that she lost her job and social life, and embarrassed her family. Only recently has she gotten her life and reputation back on track.

What does such a brutal public shaming do to a person? How does one recover from such profound humiliation? Ronson’s book covers Sacco’s story, as well as a handful of others to varying degrees of disgrace, to illustrate the point that pitchfork-wielding angry mobs are still alive and well—they (we) tar and feather the “offender” behind the anonymous safety of the internet now instead of in the streets. Some people were afraid to leave the house after their shamings, some felt no shame at all and were practically unscathed. Why do we do this? Simply put: because we can. But Ronson shows yes, it’s because we can, but also much more.

Was I experiencing some schadenfreude by reading about these people’s shamings in this book? Maybe? I wanted to find out if their professional and personal lives survived, though—I wanted them to come out the other side with a new life. I never bullied anyone, I don’t participate in dragging people online or get into heated debates. But still. I’m aware of them. I lurk and I read through them sometimes. I have opinions on what perpetrators of certain offenses deserve (like the sexual harassment/assault stories recently exposed in Hollywood and, well, every industry and field). Why do we derive pleasure from hearing about and witnessing others’ misfortunes? How has public online shaming become a new kind of social justice system, and why do we feel entitled to dole out the punishment?

There’s a lot of psychology to unpack, a lot of questions to ask yourself after reading So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I would have liked more insight and depth to the fact that today’s public shamings are overwhelmingly misogynistic, in that women get violent threats of rape and death almost immediately when they transgress whereas men do not. It’s more difficult for women to rebound from a shaming, both personally and professionally. This sexism is mentioned, but Ronson doesn’t elaborate. (Maybe follow up reading this one with Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why).

Regardless of that minor criticism, this is just the kind of accessible research I like, in the same vein and as interesting as anything Mary Roach has written. Even though this book ultimately contains more questions than answers, it’s a thought-provoking book worth a read.

Read ebook in February 2018.

unbelievable

I generally have zero interest in reading anything about Donald Trump, but Katy Tur’s Unbelievable  intrigued me enough to borrow a copy from the library. I’m really glad I did… but it still might be the only book I read on that person ever. Edited from Goodreads:

Called “disgraceful,” “third-rate,” and “not nice” by Donald Trump, NBC News correspondent Katy Tur reported on—and took flak from—the most captivating and volatile presidential candidate in American history. Unbelievable is her darkly comic, fascinatingly bizarre, and often scary story of how America sent a former reality show host to the White House. It’s also the story of what it was like for Tur to be there as it happened, inside a no-rules world where reporters were spat on, demeaned, and discredited. Tur was a foreign correspondent who came home to her most foreign story of all.

I started in November, had to return to the library, re-borrowed and finished this month. Despite my break in reading it due to travels, I flew through this book when I was able to sit down and devote some time to it. It’s a compulsive page turner, even if you know the main events and outcome. It’s not an insider’s tell-all of the running of Trump’s campaign or packed with juicy untold scandals, but rather a pro reporter’s experience covering the most bizarre and disorganized campaign ever.

Tur does a great job making you feel like you were by her side through this utter horrifying madness. She goes into detail of what it was like covering Trump from beginning to end of the last election season, more than 500 days—sleep deprivation, competition, frustrations, personal and professional sacrifices, constant traveling, the readiness to be on-air with commentary at a moment’s notice, and professionally handling Trump’s incessant lies and attacks every day.

Tur’s shifting timeline from chronological campaign coverage to ending each chapter with vignettes from election night at Trump’s headquarters helped add depth and (for me) a palpable sense of dread, because obviously you know how this book ends. I never attended a Trump rally—I only know what was reported on them in the media—and Tur deftly describes the hostile, toxic atmosphere found at his rallies. I was genuinely worried about her and her fellow reporters’ safety reading this; they were held in pens and verbally attacked by Trump onstage, leading to threats from the crowd… not to mention Trump’s confusing, seemingly personal (both negative and positive) focus on Tur herself.

I appreciate that Tur gives Trump supporters the benefit of the doubt in her book—I didn’t have a sense of “us vs. them” here—however, I personally think she might be a bit too generous to them. But, discussion of American society’s racist, bigoted, misogynistic underbelly is hefty enough for several other books and not the purpose of this memoir. Tur is a skilled and shrewd journalist and this is another great political memoir to come out this year.

Read ebook in November–December 2017.

mini-reviews: men explain, shrill, trainwreck, win at feminism

I’m always interested in reading books by and about women and our cultural and societal experiences. These four books caught my eye over the past year or so, and I was happy to learn more from different perspectives than my own on beauty standards, feminism, misogyny, and more:

Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me was on my radar as soon as it came out a few years ago, but I finally got around to reading it last year. I had not read any of her essays before, but I’d definitely heard of her. Of course, I’ve experienced mansplaining in work and life. Solnit’s collection here starts off with the titular essay recounting a time she was at a party where a man was telling her all about this excellent book he recently read… only to have to tell him that she wrote that book, which flabbergasted him. The rest of the book’s essays aren’t all quite so anecdotal; they cover a range of feminist issues and topics that can be familiar. It starts off and finishes strong, but there is some repetition throughout the essays (not Solnit’s fault, the essays weren’t written all with the intention of being published together in one volume), and unfortunately it was missing and acknowledgement or discussion of intersectional feminism, but the issues covered here are very real and depressing. Solnit does have a dry humor and an optimism that keeps you engaged. I was pretty fired up after reading this. [Read ebook in October 2016.]

Excellent read! I loved Lindy West’s Shrill, read it in two days. Her collection is all about her experiences coming of age in our beauty-obsessed society, fat shaming, harassment, sexism, and more. She sharply points out absurdities in our culture when it comes to what makes women visible and valued by society (be quiet, be pretty, etc., STILL), with hilarious essay titles. The essay about the limited (and flawed) list of fat women role models available to her as a child was pure gold. I went from laughing out loud to feeling enraged (during a piece about receiving death/rape threats on Twitter) to uplifted to empowered, often all in the same chapter. West is not shrill at all—she’s funny, insightful, and self-aware, and espouses loving yourself more than anything else. [Read ebook in November 2016.]

I already know how hard it is to be a woman in the world. Little things needle at us constantly all day, every day, telling us that we’re “less than,” not good enough, attractive enough, perfect enough, etc. etc. But Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck opened my eyes to how we as a society (even fellow women) destroy women who are in the public eye. It’s a thought-provoking study and in some instances even shocking exactly how far we’ll tear women down. There are some obvious examples, like Hillary Clinton, Britney Spears, and Miley Cyrus, but some others I never considered, historical examples like Sylvia Plath and Mary Shelley. As a musician, I have loved Billie Holiday for years and I knew her tragic, sad life story, but not from this sociological perspective. It was a fascinating, illuminating read on how we love to watch women crash and burn and we’ll blacklist them and label them negatively while we celebrate men who behave similarly. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

I’ve been a fan of Reductress for a while on Facebook—the headlines are killer! There are lots of funny bits in its new book How to Win at Feminism but I think it’s best digested in small doses over time. It takes the jokes pretty far, sometimes farther than comfortable, veering out of satire and into shaming (mostly of privileged white straight women feminists). When the jokes are on point and land just right they’re hilarious, but more often the snark can be overwhelming to my taste. That probably happens because it’s too long overall, but it’s good for some laughs. [Read in October 2017.]