book club: colony in a nation, bitch planet 2, and new jim crow

During my visit back to the States in November, I spent a week in Kansas City and one of my priorities there was a Best Friends International Book Club meeting with my beloved Anthony! He was a sight for sore eyes and gives the greatest hugs.

We may not have stayed on topic quite as well as last time by Skype, but it was still so great to discuss books and life with him, especially in person.

We like to typically choose two to three books: one or two that one or the other of us has read already, and one or two that’s new to both of us. For this installment, Anthony had read A Colony in a Nation (but I’ve had it waiting on my shelf), and both Bitch Planet, Book Two and The New Jim Crow were new reads for us. (We also ended up discussing Hillary Clinton’s What Happened a little bit, too!)

Our first choice was A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes. Confession: I have the biggest nerd-crush on Chris Hayes! I loved his first book, Twilight of the Elites, and I was super excited for Colony to come out. I bought it on its release date at Kinokuniya here in Singapore. As an astute and observant reporter for MSNBC and The Nation, Hayes has been checking his white privilege for a long time. He discusses his coverage of the turbulence in Ferguson and Baltimore after the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. This is not “a white guy explaining race to you.” Hayes does use personal anecdotes to point out aspects of racial inequality in the States, but always in a way that serves his argument. For example, he relates a time he was genuinely terrified of getting busted for weed by the cops, at the Republican National Convention no less, but was waved through security with no issue. But if he had been black? Surely arrested with unnecessarily tough punishment, possibly even shot on the spot. You may think, Well this is all very obvious, of course black Americans are discriminated against in society and the criminal justice system. But Hayes takes that and lays out exactly how, historically and democratically, the system has always been stacked against black Americans, and how there are two distinct Americas (“… American criminal justice isn’t one system with racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other is the kind you expect in an occupied land… the terrifying truth is that we as a people created the Colony through democratic means.” pg. 32). This is an awesome, short read to get you started on this subject, and a good companion to our other pick this time, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. [Read in October 2017.]

After liking the first volume, Anthony and I decided to continue with Bitch Planet, Book Two: President Bitch by DeConnick and De Landro. What I said when reviewing the first book (“I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass…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.”) is still pretty much how I feel. I enjoyed President Bitch even better than Extraordinary Machine. This second installment had the backstory I was missing in the first, as well as even more inclusion of intersectional feminism, featuring trans women too. I was glad to see less of the Megaton game (if at all? I can’t remember!). I love how one message in particular is loud and clear: if women (on Earth and Bitch Planet) stick together and fight, their resistance of the patriarchal Protectorate will only grow and surely eventually triumph. And it closed with a compelling cliffhanger! [Read in October 2017.]

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is ESSENTIAL READING FOR EVERYONE. I can’t stress enough the importance of this book. It took me kind of a long time to get through because every few pages I’d get so infuriated that I’d have to set it down and pace around for a while. The situation is just so bleak and unjust. Alexander didn’t even have to go into dramatic histrionics—literally just plainly lay out the facts and statistics. I knew some things going into this, in general as a concerned citizen and after reading Colony, but Alexander does an eye-opening job of unveiling layer after layer of corruption and bullshit in the criminal justice system and Prison Industrial Complex, and exactly how deep this all goes, and why it’s rooted in the War on Drugs, which was DESIGNED to legally create the next, current iteration of Jim Crow. A black man, for example, is convicted for possessing a miniscule amount of weed for the first time. He is convicted to 10–20 years in prison. When he gets out, he has no housing, no job, often no access to a car, tons of court and other fees to pay, no food assistance, he loses custody and access to his kids, and he can’t participate in basic rights as a citizen such as voting and serving on a jury. (CANNOT VOTE. Think about that—a whole mass people who can’t vote… what would the outcome of the 2016 election have looked like if prisoners and parolees could have voted?? This is yet another example of our racist system disenfranchising and keeping black and brown people from participating in democracy as fully recognized citizens.) Family members are reticent to take him in, as they’re liable if anything happens again and could lose their homes… even if it doesn’t happen in their homes but down the street!! Society has also engineered a system where black and brown Americans are left out of jobs and housing in cities across the country, which contributes to this nasty, practically inescapable cycle. They’re automatically second-class citizens, unable to get ahead (or even back to the starting line) by political design. This book made me better understand why people take terrible, lose-lose plea deals. I’m having heart palpitations and just sick typing this all up right now. This is a must-read, profound, accessible book and I’m pissed at myself for not reading it immediately when it came out. [Read in October 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (one of my all-time favorites), The Glass House by Jeannette Walls, and The Power by Naomi Alderman. I’m going to try to read Glass House and Power before the end of this month/year!

reading recap: october 2017

I know I say this every month, but wow this year has flown by. Again, again, again almost all my reads were on audio. What can I say, I like to be told a story while I’m drawing.

  • How to Win at Feminism … Reductress
  • A Colony in a Nation … Chris Hayes
  • The Awkward Thoughts of… (audio) … W. Kamau Bell, read by author
  • I Know I Am, But What Are You? (audio) … Samantha Bee, read by author
  • Chernobyl 01:23:40 (audio) … Andrew Leatherbarrow, read by Michael Page
  • Black Mass (audio) … Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, read by various
  • Bitch Planet, Book Two … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro
  • The Secret History (audio) … Donna Tartt, read by author
  • Dear Ijeawele (audio) … Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, read by January LaVoy
  • It’s Up to the Women (audio) … Eleanor Roosevelt, read by Suzanne Toren
  • The New Jim Crow … Michelle Alexander
  • The Iceman (audio) … Anthony Bruno, read by Bronson Pinchot

I am proud of myself sticking pretty well to my goal of catching up on blog posts. I’m saving my review of The New Jim CrowBitch Planet 2, and A Colony in a Nation until after I meet up with Anthony, my fellow reader and partner in crime in our Best Friends International Book Club, to discuss in person in a couple of weeks.

My favorites of the month were definitely The New Jim CrowA Colony in a Nation, and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. I really enjoyed getting back into mafia books with Black Mass and The Iceman.

Next month I’m going back home to the States for a visit, and I’ll be bringing with me on paperback The Glass Castle and Killing Pablo. I have a books on my Libby app, True Story and Patient H.M. (audio) and Katy Tur’s new one Unbelievable (ebook). I’m also bringing home What Happened for my mom to read. And I’ve downloaded Stranger Things season 2 and a bunch of other videos to my iPad Netflix app. Why am I always so concerned I’ll be lacking in entertainment choices on flights and trips?? LOL!

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mini-reviews: dear ijeawele and it’s up to the women

This week, I listened to two short audiobooks on feminist ideas, one from 2017 and one from 1933. It was really interesting hearing these back-to-back, and both would be excellent for discussion in a book club!

First, I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest long-form essay Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. I enjoyed both We Should All Be Feminists and Americanah, so of course I was interested in this one. Adichie can come across as a little snotty to me sometimes… there are a few inside jokes she mentions to her friend. But I can’t deny her excellent and articulate way with words. Dear Ijeawele isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, and neither is We Should All Be Feminists, but Adichie conveys basic feminist messaging with unapologetic power and clarity, which I appreciate and admire. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

Right after Dear Ijeawele, I listened to It’s Up to the Women by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is her first book, written in 1933. I think I had way too high expectations—it’s more of an instruction manual for housewives during the Great Depression than “feminist manifesto,” to borrow from the title of Adichie’s book above. Some of the observations are prescient and timely even for today, like the growing roles women should, will, and do have the progressing world. Some of the advice is pretty much only applicable to the time period in which this was written, though, and curious to hear considering Roosevelt never suffered the same hardships through the Depression as almost all of her fellow citizens. Her writing may be plain, but her earnestness and sincerity is clear in her suggestions and observations. Roosevelt is an inspiring historical figure, a forward-thinking woman to be admired, and it’s frustrating that her vision for more influence, power, and equality for women still hasn’t been realized in the United States 84 years later. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

the secret history

The Secret History by Donna Tartt is one of those books that has consistently ended up on most-recommended and most-favorite lists for as many years as I’ve been paying attention to the book world online, and probably since it came out in 1992. I’ve passed it over at bookstores for years—it’s a chunkster so I was always intimidated—but several people were recently talking about it on Litsy and I noticed it on audio through my library app and decided to finally give it a shot. Edited from Goodreads:

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality they slip gradually from obsession to corruption and betrayal, and at last—inexorably—into evil.

I enjoyed The Secret History overall. It kind of reminded me of A Separate Peace on steroids (or rather, cocaine? It’s set in the 1980s, after all). A bunch of students who are too intellectually big for their britches kill one of their classmates (not a spoiler, it’s the first paragraph). The rest of the novel you get to know these characters and the why and how is slowly unveiled, as well as how they met and the progression to the killing and its aftermath.

I’m not sure the blurb there is entirely accurate. I don’t recall the “charismatic” classics professor to be so influential, and it seemed to me that the group of friends weren’t so much “clever, eccentric misfits” as pretentious, haughty, elitist assholes. I will say that I totally believed that a group of early-twenty-somethings studying a lofty subject such as the Classics at an exclusive private college would fall into a mindset of superiority over their peers.

The kids are extremely obnoxious and unlikable. And maybe they forgot they’re KIDS, but I didn’t. They don’t drink beer; they drink mixed cocktails or whiskey neat. They don’t smoke pot; they do cocaine or other pills. They go on lavish vacations to Italy and stay in palaces. They go to a “cottage” to “get away” but it’s really a massive Victorian on the New England coast. There’s a lot of bullshit philosophical discussion and condescension among themselves. They’re not even all that interesting, personality-wise; in fact, they’re quite bland. Not that I need characters to be likable in what I read or watch, but these kids were just over the top! It was fascinating to see them dig themselves deeper into a dark situation of their own making, and seeing their over-the-top, imagined superiority unravel spectacularly. I wish the young woman character wasn’t just a love interest for the rest of the group, as is so often in ensembles like this.

While I did generally like it, I do think the book was too long—lots of scenes from the second half could have been cut. I’ve said it before that when the twist is revealed ahead of time (like here, in the first paragraph) and then the story is “told” from a perspective after the fact rather than “shown” in the moment, some of the suspense ends up lost on me. But it did have me curious, and Tartt’s writing is atmospheric and superb. She covers so many different aspects of friendship here, from how it feels to be accepted to the disintegration of a friendship, what you’d do and how far you’d go for a friend, I have The Goldfinch on my e-reader and I swear one day I’ll get to it! But thanks to The Secret HistoryGoldfinch has inched a little higher on my TBR.

Listened to audiobook in October 2017.

mini-reviews: heart’s invisible furies and child finder

I was really focused on non-fiction for a few months there this summer that I felt like I needed a good dose of fiction, and luckily for me there have been some fantastic new releases this year. Here are two that I listened to on audio last month:

Cyril Avery was born to a teenage mom in 1940s Ireland and adopted by a rich family who always let him know he wasn’t “really” one of them. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a beautiful, engrossing story of a man’s life and his personal journey to uncover his identity and where and with whom he belongs. I’m always attracted to literature coming from and based in Ireland, and I’ve been wanting a great LGBTQ+ story lately too, so this book pleasantly scratched a few itches for me. I’ll be adding more of John Boyne’s books to my TBR list, for sure. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

I loved Rene Denfield‘s last book, The Enchanted, so I knew I had to read The Child Finder when it came out. Naomi, a private investigator with a troubled past, is searching for a girl named Madison, who disappeared a few years earlier. As the plot unfolds through alternating viewpoints, you learn about Naomi’s past and why she is uniquely qualified to be the titular Child Finder, and also about Madison’s experience. It’s very dark and disturbing subject matter—child abduction and all you can expect that goes along with that but it’s not graphic whatsoever—so it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. But the writing is just as lovely as in The Enchanted, with elements of magical realism (but still heavy on the realism), use of characters’ imaginations, and an otherworldly quality that is emotional without being sappy. I didn’t dig the narrator so much, so I kind of wish I had read on paper, but despite that I did still get pulled in to the story. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

mini-reviews: brown girl dreaming, the hate u give

If you visit me here enough, you’ll know young adult lit is not really my jam. I have trouble with reading about teenage angst and melodrama, so I usually try to stay away from this genre. But in the last year I did end up listening to two good YA titles on audio:

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of her childhood told in verse. I may have missed out on something in the audio, as I think seeing verse written down on paper can be powerful and give you pause as to what you’re reading, but I did enjoy the poetic performance on audio (read by the author). Her vignettes about growing up black in the 1960s–70s in New York and South Carolina give a special perspective on Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, conveyed in beautifully rendered, accessible way for all ages. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

In Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, 16-year-old Starr balances between two worlds: living in her poor neighborhood and attending her upscale prep school. One night she witnesses the murder of her unarmed friend Khalil by a policeman. Khalil’s killing makes national news, protesting and riots start, and Starr is the only one who can say what really happened that night. It’s a good book, perhaps just a little on the long side, but at times there were conversations and scenes where I think the overall theme of police brutality against black citizens ends up in the background behind a “black people vs. white people, us vs. them” debate. Racism IS real, rampant, and a national disgrace that needs to be fixed, absolutely. As a white person, this is a hard book to objectively review. I acknowledge I don’t face discrimination like this, I don’t live the black American experience, and I know I have ingrained negative biases I actively work hard abolish in my heart (which I expect to do every day the rest of my life). And absolutely I agree that black Americans are overwhelmingly the targets of the majority of racism (just look at our shameful, horrifying history), and police brutality and racism in general needs attention and solving. But… I don’t agree that some issues and conflicts during scenes in this particular book are quite so black and white (to use the idiom) as the author portrays. I enjoyed the fact that this YA isn’t all about feelings and romance, and really appreciated the important, timely subject matter of this story. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]