reading recap: may 2017

I read 13 books in May! Even though several were short and several were on audio, this might be a personal record for me. I also already hit 50 books (currently sitting at 51)! I can’t believe it. I guess this is what happens when you listen to audiobooks all day while you draw.

  • The Hearts of Men (audio) … Nickolas Butler, read by Adam Verner
  • Frankenstein (audio) … Mary Shelley, read by various
  • The Leavers (audio) … Lisa Ko, read by Emily Woo Zeller
  • The Road to Jonestown (audio) … Jeff Guinn, read by George Newbern
  • What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (ebook) … Lesley Nneka Arimah
  • There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (ebook) … Morgan Parker
  • The Teacher Wars … Dana Goldstein
  • Men Without Women: Stories (audio) … Haruki Murakami, read by various
  • Life’s Work (audio) … Dr. Willie Parker, read by Caz Harleaux
  • The Radium Girls (audio) … Kate Moore, read by Angela Brazil
  • Drinking: A Love Story (ebook) … Caroline Knapp
  • Parable of the Sower (ebook) … Octavia E. Butler
  • Bitch Planet, Book One … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro

My favorites for the month, as usual, were the non-fictions: The Road to JonestownThe Teacher WarsLife’s WorkThe Radium Girls, and Drinking: A Love Story. I was fascinated by Jonestown and Radium, while Teacher Wars and Life’s Work are important pieces to understanding where we are on the topics of education and abortion today. Drinking was personal and raw, and made me think more deeply about my own use and relationship with alcohol.

Of the fictions, The Hearts of Men and What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky really stand out to me, as well as a few stories from Men Without WomenParable of the Sower and Bitch Planet were recent picks for my international book club with my friend Anthony, and it was so great to read these along with him.

This last month I made a detailed plan for catching up on book posts here. I want to write a little bit about everything and I WILL get to it all! I’m traveling for several weeks in June and July, so I’m not sure how many posts I can write up and schedule ahead, but I’ll try my best to keep this space active a bit while I’m away.

I’m currently listening to Going Clear on audio, the exposé on Scientology that came out a few years ago, and it’s riveting so far. I also recently purchased Van Gogh’s Ear and Pachinko, which I’ve had my eye on for weeks! I also would like to pick up Chris Haye’s A Colony in a Nation and Roxane Gay’s new one, Hunger, while I’m on the road this summer. What are you planning for summer reading?
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dear committee members

Rehearsals started back up and you know what that means—audiobook time! I was able to get through Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher in just a few days. Edited from Goodreads:

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s Bartleby. In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies.

If any of you have worked or taught in higher education, especially in the arts and humanities… yeah. I had a lot of great laughs from Dear Committee Members—several statements in Fitger’s letters nail life in academia right on the head. Fitger bemoans the seemingly endless pile of recommendation letters he’s asked to write, even from students he doesn’t know, as well as cuts to his department (English) while other departments (Economics) get perks and upgrades.

Presented entirely in epistolary form, the letters start out being humorous and to-the-point, and as Fitger slips in (ridiculously inappropriate for recommendation letters) more and more personal information and woes, the book takes a few minor twists and turns I didn’t see coming. The underlying commentary on the state of academic affairs nowadays is ever-present through the funny and serious parts of the book; both the sentiment and the cranky professor character are recognizable. Dear Committee Members was brief, silly, and bittersweet.

Listened to audiobook from February 23 to 27, 2016.

i am malala

I had this I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai on hold at my library for a while and it came through this past week. From Goodreads:

Malala Yousafzai was only ten years old when the Taliban took control of her region. They said music was a crime. They said women weren’t allowed to go to the market. They said girls couldn’t go to school. Raised in a once-peaceful area of Pakistan transformed by terrorism, Malala was taught to stand up for what she believes. So she fought for her right to be educated. And on October 9, 2012, she nearly lost her life for the cause: She was shot point-blank while riding the bus on her way home from school. No one expected her to survive. Now she is an international symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize nominee.

I’m sorry to say I didn’t know about Malala until after she was shot by a member of the Taliban in Pakistan. I honestly had no idea about her activist efforts for education and girls rights before the shooting, and she is even more inspiring now to me. Somehow I feel like this could be the first of several books about (or by) Malala to come in the future.

The copy that I borrowed was the young readers edition, and so, as an adult, the writing was simplistic and sometimes repetitive, but I think that might be a positive attribute for this edition—it read in Malala’s voice and she is quite an endearing “normal” teenager. This edition glosses over Pakistan’s history and the uprising of terrorism there (“One day, a man announced on the radio…” etc.) but there is a helpful timeline in the appendix. If you want more history and analysis, I’m sure there are plenty of other books on the subject; I’ve even seen online that the “adult” version of I Am Malala delves more deeply into history, and her father’s work and background.

Anyway, Malala is a charming, bright, wise-beyond-her-years person and I look forward to following her career in human rights. This is a perfect, important book for young teens around the world to read.

Read from July 28 to August 2, 2015.

twilight of the elites

I won Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites as a Goodreads First Reads giveaway a few weeks before its publication on June 12. My copy has about forty pages less than the official hardcover copies are advertised to have. The “acknowledgements” section is blank, so hopefully that’s all I’m missing!

I was always a good student. For the most part I enjoyed school, loved reading and learning, and excelled at projects. When I was in middle school, I took the social studies and language arts sections of a standardized test (one of the Iowa tests, if I remember correctly) on a day I was really sick. I wasn’t allowed to make it up a different time, so I was forced to take it that day, when my brain was in a fog and I could hardly focus, and predictably, I didn’t perform so well. Of course in the larger scheme of things, almost twenty years later, it has had little to no effect on my life and love for learning. But looking back, the test was clearly exaggerated to be this all-important, life-changing evaluation to decide your educational path until high school graduation. I ended up having to work a little harder to convince my guidance counselors to move me to the advanced courses, where I felt I belonged (and ultimately did end up after a few years). Even when I was younger, though, I thought it was weird that a test score would determine your position in school… especially when much of day-to-day learning involves projects and participatory discussions. My merit was judged on a number calculated by a one-time exam, in this case negatively influenced by a random, unavoidable illness, rather than who I am and how I perform as a student in the classroom. I’m not upset or complaining, because I had some fantastic teachers in my general level classes and learned a lot there too (not just coursework but also about social differences and diversity). I just found it curious how weighted our lives became on a test score.

Reading portions of Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites brought back those reflections of mine, starting with Hayes’ example of his own alma mater, Hunter High School in New York, and how admission to the school depends on a single merit-based test. Seems logical, right? Any child from any walk of life is welcome to take the test: score well enough, and you’re in. Equal opportunity. However children of wealthy families disproportionally dominate the classes. Why? Because their families can afford expensive prepping and tutoring. Because, as Hayes explains, equal opportunity does not result in equal outcome. People find ways to work around processes and bend rules in any and every facet of our social, economic, and political life.

Hayes breaks down how various dysfunctions in several American institutions have buckled under the weight of corruption. The accounts of Enron’s collapse, José Canseco’s “juicing” and the widespread use of steroids in major league baseball, the handling of child abuse accusations in the Catholic Church, and the burst of the housing market bubble were all fascinating and well-articulated examples. He discusses how these implosions have caused a crisis in trust in these institutions, and examines the relationship between authority and trust in detail. The “elites” in his title are defined as a small, powerful group of well-connected people who use either money, platform, and networking to stay at the top. Their control over institutions such as media and the government can skew reliability and competency.

Twilight of the Elites doesn’t necessarily offer a definitive a solution or alternative to meritocracy, however Hayes does say equal opportunity must be more closely in line with equal outcomes. The book lays out in writing deeper reasons for the our collective restlessness and the growing distance between our socioeconomic classes. While Hayes does disclose his liberal political leanings, he does not preach—the book’s tone avoids any sort of finger-pointing partisanship. It’s an informative, accessible read with Hayes’ voice clear throughout. A thought-provoking perspective on the “fail decade” and this post-bailout era.

Read from May 24 to June 1, 2012.