book club: the glass castle and the power

It’s the latest edition of Best Friends International Book Club! To the left is a screenshot I snapped, that’s me laughing in the lower corner at Anthony’s antics. I love our little club!

Anthony and I had a lively discussion over Skype last week. In addition to our two main books, we talked a little bit about Into Thin Air, which I had read twice already and loved, and Anthony had just finished for the first time. And we actually stayed on topic pretty well! I’m really happy we chose a fiction. I’ve been in a slump lately, and for some reason reading a novel snapped me out of my funk just a little bit and I’m grateful. Maybe I just need an outlet for mental escape at the moment and I’m more in a TV mode lately than reading. Anyway! On to our thoughts on these two fantastic books:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls has been on my list for a very long time. I think at one point in grad school I even “borrowed” (read: stole) my mom’s copy for a while… only to return it eventually, unread, during some apartment move. With the new movie version out this rocketed back up to the forefront of my radar. I found it hard to put down, despite many emotionally difficult parts, mostly dealing with Walls’s neglectful parents. She recalls some truly disturbing moments from her poverty-stricken, nomadic childhood, including lack of adequate food and shelter. Glass Castle is an affecting look at addiction and mental illness. It’s clear throughout that her parents loved their children, but her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s manic depression dictated their lives. I found Walls’s writing to be even-tempered, coming across as almost neutral to her upbringing. She seemed (publicly in this memoir, at least) to be rather non-judgemental of her parents, and I think this may have helped the narrative. I was never put off by having to read through self-pitying diatribes or complaints, because there wasn’t any here. Anthony posed some excellent questions we ruminated on: What do you think is the larger takeaway The Glass Castle? Maybe it’s overcoming adversity, maybe a message about addiction and mental illness, maybe familial bonds, maybe reading a tough, depressing story like this makes us feel better about ourselves, maybe everyone has a story to tell? Or maybe nothing, it just is? Also, we wondered about Walls’s privilege to be able to tell her story, softly comparing it to another BFIBC book we read earlier, Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (brought up in rural poverty, overcomes odds to become journalist), although we both agreed we liked Glass Castle a little better in general. I watched the movie adaptation a couple months ago and liked it, Woody Harrelson is brilliant, but it does change and dramatize some things to achieve a standard Hollywood storyline, as adaptations do. [Read in December 2017.]

I can’t remember exactly how I found out about Naomi Alderman’s The Power… maybe when it won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The story is incredibly clever: what would happen if all of a sudden gender roles were reversed and women, not men, were the ones who held physical, political, and social power? Alderman explores this concept filtered through a handful of main characters as they navigate this new world where women and girls have discovered an newly awakened deadly, electric physical ability. It covers rape culture, religion, terrorism, politics, and more, all while turning gender norms and expectations upside down. At first, I felt empowered reading about these women finding a strength within and taking charge, but after a while I became uncomfortable rooting for them.”Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the saying goes. Don’t get me wrong, I hate the stereotype/expectation that women are supposed to be pure, innocent, perfect little angels. Women are not necessarily less corrupt or violent than men, generally speaking. Anthony had a great point about how “the power” in this book wasn’t always about the obvious evolutionary electric power in girls and women, but also different kinds of power like political power, physical beauty, and manipulation. There are some striking statements, though, like when the power was first becoming known, boys are advised to go out in groups and not to walk alone at night, boy babies are being aborted, etc. Yes of course you don’t walk alone at night! As a woman I’ve been indoctrinated to this. But I never thought of the possibility of men having to live in fear for their bodily safety no matter where they are or what time it is, and being taught to take these kinds of precautionary actions. It made me angry that this never occurred to me before. Anthony also posed the question: Who is Alderman’s intended audience, women? Men? Both? Because it was really interesting to read and discuss this with a person of the opposite-identifying gender, for both of us. This would be an amazing movie, or long-form episode of Black Mirror! [Read in January 2018.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, which we chose after hearing of her death last week. I’m a few chapters in already and to be honest, I have no idea who anyone is or what the hell is going on. I really struggle getting into this kind of deeply complex sci-fi fantasy, it’s not really my thing, so we’ll see how it goes. I might have to DNF. Our second choice is pending at the moment… we both happen to have copies of David Bowie Made Me Gay by Darryl W. Bullock, but in February I’d like to consciously choose books written by black authors (I’ll finish whatever I’m in the middle of, but for my new reads for the month). Stay tuned!

reading recap: january 2018

I’m seeing a bunch of memes this week saying that this January was the longest month ever… but I feel just the opposite! I’ve been down lately—I have a touch of seasonal affective disorder right now… yes, even here in a sunny, tropical locale—so I’ve had the hardest time sticking to my usual routines and being able to focus on anything much, let alone reading. I did manage to get through four fantastic books, though, and started a few more:

AND I’m really proud of myself for catching up with (almost) all my reviews over the past few months! So you can see the linked titles there will bring you to my reviews of those books. I had a year and a half worth of reading I hadn’t written posts about here on the blog, and now I’m only behind on one (waiting to read another 1–2 I have on the same topic so I can bundle them together in one post), and The Power from this month I have drafted to go tomorrow. Progress!

Anyway, although I thought all four of these are incredible and I highly recommend, if I have to pick favorites I’d say The Last Black Unicorn and The Power. Tiffany Haddish is an incredibly funny comedian and I’m sure I’ll be a fan forever now. Her memoir strikes a a nice balance of both the difficult and good times of her life, while being thoughtful and entertaining the whole time. I didn’t realize it until I finished, but The Power is just what I needed this month. I’ve been in a slump and I’m still figuring out what the problem is, but reading a fictional novel engaged my imagination and attention better than anything else in a while. It’s a creative reversal of societal gender roles and expectations, and a look at how unequal distribution of power (and how it’s wielded) can effect humanity… hmm echoes of what’s happening now in many parts of the world.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Thank You for Your Service. It’s a potent, compelling book that chronicles the struggles of (mostly recent) veterans and their families due to time served at war. And Women & Power connected many dots for me as far as exactly how deeply rooted in history misogyny is, specifically in ancient Greek and Roman literature and art.

Besides starting and finishing these four, I also started Fire and Fury, the new barn-burner on the current executive administration in the U.S.; Dark Money, my first pick for my TBR Challenge 2018; and Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life just for fun. Anthony and I also chose our next book club read, The Left Hand of Darkness to honor the life of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I’m a few chapters in but I’m afraid this one might be lost on me… we’ll see. Next up in February I’d like to choose books by black authors to honor Black History Month, so I have HomegoingPushout, and We Were Eight Years in Power in my sights.

How is your reading going so far in 2018?

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women & power

I was excited to read Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard after seeing it make the rounds on bookstagram. It looked timely and right up my alley! Edited from Goodreads:

From the internationally acclaimed classicist and New York Times best-selling author Mary Beard comes this timely manifesto on women and power. In Women & Power, she traces the origins of this misogyny to its ancient roots, examining the pitfalls of gender and the ways that history has mistreated strong women since time immemorial. With personal reflections on her own online experiences with sexism, Beard asks: If women aren’t perceived to be within the structure of power, isn’t it power itself we need to redefine? And how many more centuries should we be expected to wait?

This very slim volume packs a thought-provoking punch, but overall I do wish there was more. These two reprinted lectures are a great starting point for learning about how women and our voices have been repressed throughout history. Before reading this, of course I knew about women being treated as lesser-than in all walks of life, condescended to, silenced, and oppressed. I’ve lived it and experienced this, too. So overall, not much is new here as far as feminist theory goes. But Beard connects some dots I never realized existed, as well as exactly how far back in history this treatment goes, specifically misogyny’s roots in ancient Greek and Roman culture. I loved the examples of literature and art that Beard uses to illustrate her talking points, and the list for further reading at the end is a great resource. I just wish it were longer and more in-depth! Women & Power is still a book I’d recommend, especially for those looking for a good starter into feminist texts and/or something short and provocative.

Read ebook in January 2018.

mini-reviews: stranger in the woods, teacher wars, new odyssey, pandemic

I missed Non-Fiction November… but for good reason: I was in Wisconsin visiting family and without my computer. Catching up on posting now! Although these four books are on totally different subjects, I thought that they’re all interesting, gripping, and worth a read:

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel was a great book. When Christopher Knight was 20, he abandoned his conventional lifestyle and retreated to the deep woods. For the next 27 years, he lived the solitary life of a hermit… except for the numerous burglaries he committed for supplies. I read the original GQ article about Christopher Knight which Finkel expanded here, so some information was familiar. I think I would have liked a little more depth to the historical and cultural info on hermits in general. But wow, some of the details here—his family didn’t look for him or report him missing? He didn’t use a fire or see a doctor for all those years? I was really interested in how he constructed and maintained his compound. How did no one find it, mere yards away from populated camping areas? Overall it was an enjoyable, fascinating look into the mind and experience of a man who left civilization behind (well… almost) for nearly 30 years. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

Dana Goldstein does a wonderful job of outlining the turbulent history of teaching and education in America over the past two centuries in The Teacher Wars. She shows the origins of often controversial topics, like teacher tenure and charter schools, as well as the creation of Teach for America, and how politics has always clashed with education (the disdain for unions, as a major example). I was really interested in the teacher strikes of the 1960s and 70s, and her coverage of teacher evaluations. As a musician and artist, and someone who has advanced degrees and worked in higher education for nearly a decade, I’ve had many discussions with my friends and colleagues who teach in the arts—their own objective vs. subjective metrics, and how does the State evaluate educators in a subjective field like the arts? It’s usually complicated and often not logical or applicable to arts and music education. I gave this book to my mom (a teacher) right after I finished, and she loved it too. [Read in May 2017.]

The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley is an eye-opening book about the refugee crisis happening now in Europe. Kingsley traveled extensively and interviewed countless people about their experiences and reasoning for fleeing, helping those who flee, or pursuing those who flee. Homes are destroyed in these war-torn countries— there’s nothing left, no infrastructure, jobs, schools, homes—so families abandon their homelands in order to survive and hopefully secure a better, safe life for their children. It’s a harrowing, dangerous journey but they’re left with no choice but to go. The other side of this is that after landing in a new country (if they survive the journey), now the refugees face culture shock, as well as rejection, suspicion, racism, and sometime violence from their new communities. I was moved by many of the stories in this important book. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

Sonia Shah’s Pandemic was a really fascinating, easy-to-follow book for a non-sciencey person like me. She mostly uses the development and history of cholera to drive the point home that there will be another pandemic that devastates the population. I’d like to have faith in human ingenuity to do all we can to combat it! But Shah also covers all sorts of factors that contribute to how and why pandemics happen and are largely unpredictable, including medical treatments and Big Pharma, habitats and environment (and the destruction of and/or industrial developments of these), animals and cross contamination, worldwide travel, population growth, and more. Her engaging, narrative style almost makes the contagions themselves “living” characters (well, I suppose they are living). Also, human beings are stupid and disgusting. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

courage is contagious

As soon as I saw Courage is Contagious, and Other Reasons to Be Grateful for Michelle Obama come across my Instagram feed I knew I had to read it. Edited from Goodreads:

Michelle Obama’s legacy transcends categorization; her cultural imprint is as nuanced as it is indelible. She used her time in the White House to fight for women, minorities, and health and education advocates. At the same time, her own genre-busting style encouraged others to speak, to engage, even to dress however they wanted. Editor Nicholas Haramis assembles twenty original essays from a stunning array of prize-winning writers, Hollywood stars, celebrity chefs, and politicos who have been moved and influenced by her extraordinary grace in power.

This slim collection was a much-needed uplifting read for me right now. With the clear and present danger the current administration poses to Americans and humanity in general across the globe, it was refreshing to listen to others who are equally inspired by the inimitable Michelle Obama.

Some of the essays were a little too similar to each other in tone and there’s some repetition of well-known Michelle Obama facts and quotes (her bold fashion choices, “When they go low…,” etc.). I wish I would have skipped Lena Dunham’s introduction; I thought it was trite, verging on disrespectful, and I can’t stand her anyway.

There are several stand-out essays to me, though, including those from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jason Wu, Gabourey Sidibe, Charlamagne tha God, and Issa Rae. The best essays are definitely the two by the ninth-grade girls Adasendis De La Cruz and Laura Camacho, reminding the reader that beyond Mrs. Obama’s tangible accomplishments as first lady, her life-long tenacity and achievements above and beyond her humble origins have shown young people, especially young women of color, that they can accomplish their dreams while still being true to themselves.

Michelle Obama is a national treasure and we’re lucky beyond imagination that she was introduced to us. I really hope she writes a memoir or autobiography someday.

Listened to audiobook in 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.]