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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thank you for your service

I had been hesitant about reading Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel even though I’m always interested in war and military stories/history. It just seemed like a pretty bleak read, and while it’s an excellent book, it’s definitely not a feel-good one:

In the ironically titled Thank You for Your Service, Finkel writes with tremendous compassion not just about the soldiers but about their wives and children. Where do soldiers belong after their homecoming? Is it reasonable, or even possible, to expect them to rejoin their communities as if nothing has happened? And in moments of hardship, who can soldiers turn to if they feel alienated by the world they once lived in? These are the questions Finkel faces as he revisits the brave but shaken men of the [US 2-16 Infantry Battalion that was stationed in Baghdad].

I didn’t realize this is a “sequel” to an earlier book of Finkel, The Good Soldiers. I wouldn’t say you need to read that one first for a full appreciation of Thank You for Your Service, this is still plenty affecting and easy to follow without the veterans’ service backstories. It’s difficult, uncomfortable subject matter, as it exposes the reality of trauma that lasts for a soldier long after the actual fighting is over for them. And beyond the soldier themselves, the family they return to has to deal with this trauma as well. I appreciated that Finkel spends time on the wives and girlfriends of this group of veterans, how they handle (or struggle with) their partners coming back as someone else entirely than the person they said goodbye to at the time of deployment.

He shows that the military does offer some assistance to veterans, but less in the form of therapy and rehab and more in the form of pharmaceutical medicating. There are some facilities around the country set up specifically to help veterans with PTSD or other mental issues associated with their service, but they’re difficult to get into, costly, and often the admitted vet has to forgo work for a while leaving their families in tough spots financially. Some of them are on the verge of closing due to lack of funding, as well.

“Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war,” that countless veterans are battling every day, either physically, psychologically, or both. I admire how Finkel leaves out sentimentality and removes himself from the narrative, choosing to focus on the veterans and their families, frankly chronicling exactly how it is for them. Despite the seeming lack of emotion in the writing, it’s still a heartbreaking, infuriating book because there’s no two ways about it: war breaks people. I think all Americans who call themselves patriots and claim to support our troops should read this book.

Listened to audiobook 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.]

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.]

mini-reviews: emperor of all maladies and when breath becomes air

Cancer is the worst. It fucking sucks. I can’t think of one person or one family it hasn’t profoundly effected, including me and mine. It’s a tender subject to me for sure, but I’m interested in absorbing information about it regardless. This year I finally swallowed my hesitation and read two books on cancer that I’ve had my eye on since they came out.

I’ve been wanting to read The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee for a long time, but I was nervous and intimidated to start this book, yes because it’s a chunkster, but also because I was afraid of the medical stuff going over my head and my heart breaking. But, despite some long-winded sections, I was riveted the whole way through. It’s a combination of history, science, politics, and actual patients’ stories, but very readable and engaging. The amount of research here is staggering, and Mukherjee leaves nothing out. I can’t say there are answers here, that’s not the book’s purpose. But I did gain a better understanding of this disease in general, its many iterations, and how it and our responses to it have evolved since its discovery. Cancer is frightening, but centuries-long war between humankind and cancer involves experimentation (some of it truly horrific in the early days), ingenuity, progress, failure, persistence, and hopefully, one day, a cure. [Read in June 2017.]

Paul Kalanithi was on track to being a successful neurosurgeon and married to the love of his life. When he was 36, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s account of transforming in an instant from doctor to terminal patient, from someone who has his whole life ahead of him to having virtually no future at all. He died while working on this book. My heart both broke and burst reading this. Kalanithi lays bare all his fears and frustrations about losing his career and facilities, his marriage and relationships with friends and family, and his impending mortality. It’s a deeply personal, raw, insightful, beautiful memoir. More than one passage moved me to tears, but this one especially will stay with me: “‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.” [Read in March 2017.]

reading recap: november 2017

I had a wonderful “vacation”… from my semi-permanent “vacation”… in Wisconsin the whole month of November! I spent a lot of time with family and friends, drove all over the Midwest and Wisconsin, saw some great shows (and not-so-great Packer games), and was just reminded yet again how much I love it there and it’s where I truly belong. Sigh. Anyway, as usual on my trips, I didn’t read much, so here’s a monthly recap and mini-reviews post all in one!

It has been too long since I had any nice, day-long drives all to myself, and I downloaded two for my drives in November back home. First up was Michael Finkel’s True Story, a non-fiction about his disgraceful fabrication in his The New York Times story about child slavery in Africa’s cocoa colonies, which resulted in his embarrassing firing. But then, he discovers an American man in Mexico, Christian Longo, has stolen his (Finkel’s) identity in order to escape suspicion of the murder of his entire family. It was an interesting listen, especially the dialogues and cat-and-mouse interplay between these two narcissists and how they are sort of similar (the different levels of gravity to their separate errors notwithstanding). Fans of true crime will like it. I think Finkel may have redeemed himself… if not with True Story, then perhaps with his recent The Stranger in the Woods (review coming soon!). I fell asleep when I tried to watch the movie, so I’m going to give it another try soon. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich chronicles the medical and personal histories of Henry Gustave Molaison, the eponymous patient referred to by his initials in medical research to protect his identity, and whose status as H.M. revolutionized our understanding of the brain. After a serious bike accident when he was a child, Henry later developed seizures as a teen. After drugs and other standard treatments didn’t work, Dr. William Beecher gave Henry, then 27 in 1953, a lobotomy, after which his behavior and memory drastically changed, transforming him into the prime human test subject for brain study. This book also covers Beecher’s life and career and the history and controversy of lobotomy procedures. I learned a lot about the brain, memory, and lobotomies from Patient H.M.—it’s easy to understand with minimal technical medical jargon—and the lives of Henry and Beecher were equally sad, shocking, and fascinating. Like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, treatment and understanding of patients in mental health facilities of the 1950s was horrific, and the human rights issues surrounding Henry’s situation are staggering. It’s an eye-opening look for non-medical and non-sciencey people like me at the sometimes uncomfortable and ugly side of medical progress. Sometimes Dittrich goes off on familial tangents (Dr. Beecher was his grandfather), but overall this is an awesome book in the vein of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

This might seem strange to include with a couple of non-fictions, or to review at all, but I did read it cover-to-cover last month! I bought Girl Power: 5-Minute Stories as a gift for my 3-year-old niece, for her baptism in Madison last month. It is a collection of ten short, newer children’s stories focusing on smart, fearless, determined, interesting, fun girls. It caught my eye because I wanted to get my niece the first story as its stand-alone book version, I Like Myself, but this collection was an even better choice. I also enjoyed Flora’s Very Windy DayPrincess in TrainingElla Sarah Gets Dressed, and Wow, It Sure is Good to Be You! I identified with some of these stories, of course, and wished I had these growing up! I loved how diverse the collection is, too, with girls of different ethnicities, ages, families, adventures, and more. [Read in November 2017.]

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