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!

mini-reviews: earth and hooey

I was dealing with an international move last June, so I felt like I needed some levity during a time of stress (and excitement, of course). I also drove between Kansas City and Madison twice in that month, so audiobooks were in order! Here are two humor books I listened to on audio during that crazy month:

After listening to America: The Audiobook in August 2015 I’ve had¬†Earth (The Book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race¬†by Jon Stewart, et al¬†on my list. I’m sure I missed some of the visual gags listening on audio instead of reading on paper, but this one had the same great performances by¬†The Daily Show¬†alumni with the same great irreverent, sarcastic, biting humor I expected. Although I didn’t find it quite as consistently laugh-out-loud as¬†America,¬†Earth¬†was another fine lighthearted roadtrip selection. I still miss Jon Stewart on Daily Show (although I love Trevor Noah now, too!)

The short story collection A Load of Hooey is¬†Bob Odenkirk‘s authorial debut. When I say short I really mean short‚ÄĒif I recall correctly, the audiobook was less than three hours long, even. As with all short story collections, there are some hits and misses, some memorable and some forgettable. A year later there are a handful of stories I remember liking a lot: “One Should Never Read a Book on the Toilet,” “Didn’t Work for Me,” “Obit for the Creator of Mad Libs,” “Abs,” “Origin of ‘Blackbird’,” and “Second Meeting of Jesus and Lazarus.” Many of these selections are seemingly random soliloquies that read like sketches, and if you like Bob Odenkirk’s offbeat Mr. Show humor you’ll like Hooey‚ÄĒit’s a fun way to pass a couple hours.

Listened to audiobooks in June 2016.

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

My favorites for the month, as usual, were the non-fictions:¬†The Road to Jonestown,¬†The Teacher Wars,¬†Life’s Work,¬†The 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 Women. Parable 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 expos√© 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?
monthly recap image

the hearts of men

I’ve had my eye on Nickolas Butler ever since reading his debut,¬†Shotgun Lovesongs, a couple of years ago, and put The Hearts of Men on my list as soon as it came out. And of course I’m going to read another book set in Wisconsin!¬†From Goodreads:

Camp Chippewa, 1962. Nelson Doughty, age thirteen, social outcast and overachiever, is the Bugler, sounding the reveille proudly each morning. Yet this particular summer marks the beginning of an uncertain and tenuous friendship with a popular boy named Jonathan.

Over the years, Nelson, irrevocably scarred from the Vietnam War, becomes Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan marries, divorces, and turns his father‚Äôs business into a highly profitable company. And when something unthinkable happens at a camp get-together with Nelson as Scoutmaster and Jonathan‚Äôs teenage grandson and daughter-in-law as campers, the aftermath demonstrates the depths‚ÄĒand the limits‚ÄĒof Nelson‚Äôs selflessness and bravery.

The Hearts of Men is a sweeping, panoramic novel about the slippery definitions of good and evil, family and fidelity, the challenges and rewards of lifelong friendships, the bounds of morality‚ÄĒand redemption.

I have some of the same feelings I had about¬†Shotgun Lovesongs. I really like how Butler dismantles the stereotypical notions of manhood and masculinity in his stories. And he is a fantastic storyteller. I never felt the pace lagging or any unnecessary meandering in¬†The Hearts of Men. Each section is purposeful to the overall story and message. That said, the beginning is stronger than the end, mostly because the main characters, Nelson and Jonathan, seemed so fully realized and lively as children but became flat and¬†somewhat generic¬†in later sections as adults. Perhaps that was intentional, though? Is Butler trying to make a point that we lose something, some spark, as we age? I’m not sure‚ÄĒpossibly, or it could possibly have been the narrator’s interpretation didn’t handle the jumps forward in time so well for me. I liked Rachel, Jonathan’s daughter-in-law, but I would have liked her to have been more realistic and more three-dimensional‚ÄĒButler had a similar issue developing women characters in¬†Shotgun. In this story, women are central to the hearts of these men, after all.

Ultimately,¬†The Hearts of Men is a story about boys becoming men, fathers and sons, bravery and decency, how both romantic and platonic relationships affect you, and the ubiquity of being a flawed human. Butler has a sensitive voice and his storytelling is immersive, and I’ll definitely look forward to his next book.

Listened to audiobook in May 2017.

mini-reviews: underground girls, thousand splendid suns

Catching up on posting book reviews from what I read last year has been a lot of fun so far! Next on my list was The Underground Girls of Kabul, which I realized is a great companion piece to a book I just recently finished, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I learned a lot from both of these excellent books.

I listened to Jenny Nordberg’s¬†The Underground Girls of Kabul on¬†audio about a year ago on a road trip and found it riveting. Like many Americans, I’m sure, I had no idea about the practice of¬†bacha posh, disguising¬†daughters as¬†sons because boys are more valued,¬†in Afghanistan. Honestly I didn’t know much about Afghanistan culture in general before encountering¬†this book. Nordberg profiles a handful of bacha posh¬†women and girls, and how it has shaped their lives both personally and professionally. It is a fascinating account of gender norms as they relate to culture and society, as well as perceptions of temperament and opportunities (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan.¬†The book also examines the complexities of¬†gender identity and its value in global and historical contexts. It was a really worthwhile read I wholly recommend.¬†[Listened to audiobook¬†in March¬†2016.]

A Thousand Splendid Suns¬†by Khaled Hosseini¬†had been on my TBR for about five years! Splendid Suns is the story of two women, Miriam and Laila, whose lives intertwine when they become married to the same man‚ÄĒMiriam first and Laila, fifteen years younger than Miriam, a couple decades later.¬†Hosseini’s writing positively aches; I felt so deeply for these women and the hardships they endured throughout their lives. Much like Underground Girls,¬†Splendid Suns bring¬†readers inside daily lives of women¬†living in Afghanistan with its political unrest and societal rules. I wish the characters had been more fully realized (three-dimensional), and some of the “history lessons” peppered throughout were somewhat clunky, but overall it’s a heartrending story that deserves its enduring popularity.¬†[Listened to audiobook¬†in April¬†2017.]

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.