mini-reviews: the art of the con and a false report

Like many people, I’m fascinated by true crime, and often the genre dominates my non-fiction reading. In May, I listened to two different but equally interesting true crime books on audio:

The Art of the Con by Anthony M. Amore was an interesting look at modern fraud and forgery in the art world. The profiles are pretty fascinating: a woman who sold fake art she claimed was real and procured from a wealthy estate, one person who employed Chinese immigrant artists (in the country illegally) to copy famous works, a high-quality scanning (giclée) operation, faked “antique” photography, and more. There’s a pretty good chapter on web-based schemes too. Amore’s writing leaves something to be desired—it’s less narrative and more news reporting. I got through it in just a couple days on audio while drawing, but I can see how this wouldn’t necessarily be a page turner on paper. I would have liked a little more information on the techniques the forgers used to recreate the masters’ style in their fakes. Still, this may be a decent place to start if you’re interested in true crime in the art world. Basically, the old proverb stands true for art, too: a fool and his money are easily parted. And if a deal on a piece of art is too good to be true, it probably is. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America came out this year, and couldn’t be more important or timely. T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong crafted a very engaging and fascinating examination of not only one specific rape case, but also some psychology and history on the subject. In 2008, a young woman named Marie reported that she had been raped. Within days, Marie’s honesty and integrity was called into question, as much under investigation as her rapist. She eventually broke down and said she made up the rape. The situation she was in was really horrifying and enraging. A few years later, Marie’s rapist, who was a serial predator, was caught and convicted. There is a profile of Marie’s rapist—his habits, history, and mental state. But he is not the focus of the book. The authors describe the misogynist history of rape investigations and how women pretty much have never been believed. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

mini-reviews: vacationland and instant replay

More non-fiction! Here are a couple of great, diverse celebrity memoirs I recently listened to on audiobook:

I’ve wanted to read Instant Replay for years, the diary of inside linebacker Jerry Kramer of his experience of the Green Bay Packers’ historic 1967 season. I’m sure my dad has a copy somewhere but I just hadn’t gotten around to it. When Kramer was recently inaugurated into the NFL Hall of Fame, though, my interest was renewed and I was able to listen on audio. What a great book! It’s definitely for a niche audience; if you’re not familiar with the team, key people involved, or the game of football, you will likely not be interested. Kramer may not have the most eloquent “voice,” but he’s a straight-talker just like Lombardi was, and Kramer’s day-to-day account here of his last season playing, as well as Lombardi’s last season coaching the Packers, is full of great stories from both on and off the field. A must read for any Packers or football fan for sure. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

I listened to John Hodgman‘s Vacationland on audio while flying back to the States from Singapore a couple weeks ago. I enjoy Hodgman’s humor in small doses, so maybe listening in one long sitting wasn’t the best for me, but I’d definitely recommend audio over paper for this one. His sly delivery makes all the difference on many of these stories. Sometimes he meanders off-topic and much of it is navel-gazing white privilege, but at least Hodgman acknowledges this and his self-deprecating humor makes it work. I enjoyed it and it was a good way to pass the time, even if it won’t be very memorable in the long run to me. [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

mini-reviews: the recovering and everything is horrible and wonderful

I had planned on reviewing these two later/separately, but they’re related in dealing with addiction, I just finished both so they’re fresh in my mind, and I had very different reactions to them.

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison was getting a lot of attention in the book world before its publication this year, and alcoholism is a subject that effects me, so I was very curious about this one. I was only able to read about half of it as an ebook before my borrowing period expired. I waited a couple weeks before it came through my Libby app on audio and finished it up that way. I agree with reviewers that it’s too long; maybe this is two books in one. I think Jamison’s writing style is excellent and raw—she acknowledges both her demons and her privilege as a white, middle-class, highly educated and acclaimed woman. But it had some repetition during her memoir sections that came across as somewhat indulgent. There’s also a lot going on here aside from recounting her own experience with alcoholism and journey towards sobriety: literary history (stories of famous addicts, mostly writers), socioeconomic and political commentary (addicts viewed/treated as criminals, etc.), vignettes of other “normal” alcoholics’ stories, as well as a history of AA. This is a tough one to review. I wonder if I would have liked it better if it was just her own memoir? If it was just on the topic of creativity and addition? It’s interesting and well written and very readable (if dense). Just know what you’re getting into when you pick this up. [Read ebook/listened to audiobook in April–May 2018.]

In Everything is Horrible and WonderfulStephanie Wachs writes about her younger brother Harris Wittels: their upbringing and relationship, his drug addiction and untimely death at age 30 in 2015, and the aftermath of his death. He was a brilliant comedic mind who achieved notoriety as a writer and producer for Parks and Recreation and Comedy Bang Bang, as well as the person who recognized and coined the term “humblebrag.” This book, you guys. It’s more about a family’s experience with one member’s addiction than a straight-up biography of Harris, though it is a lovely tribute to him and his extraordinary life and accomplishments. I ugly-cried through the final chapters. I don’t think I’ve read anything before that so acutely describes the deep, fierce, singular bond between two close siblings. I completely identified with her feelings for her brother. I wouldn’t know who I am without him—being his sister is a huge part of my identity. I haven’t lost my sibling, but death certainly effects everyone and every family, so I understand the despondency and utter hell people go through when they lose a family member, especially when they are so young (we lost my cousin to a motorcycle accident when she was 19. It was horrible and still hurts.). But my brother… I’d be absolutely gutted. Your sibling is supposed to be your ultimate counterpart, your accomplice, your life-long partner in more ways than a parent, spouse, child, or friend ever could be. I’ve often said to my brother that we have more in common with each other on a molecular level than anyone else on the planet. He’s my soulmate. This book left me gutted. Wachs really takes you through what it feels like to love an addict with your whole being and all the worry, anger, fear, helplessness, and hope that goes along with that love, as well as the particular responsibility an older sister feels for a younger brother. She’s honest about her unrelenting grief and the utter nightmare she and her family have been through. I can’t recommend it enough; I’m sure it’ll be one of my top reads this year. [Read ebook in May 2018.]

mini-reviews: in the kingdom of ice and the lost city of the monkey god

I fell very behind on my book thoughts here due to some annoying computer issues! I’ve still been reading a lot, as well as my usual bass playing and drawing… just haven’t felt like trying to deal with this dilapidated, 8-year-old laptop much. A new laptop is definitely a top priority later this summer. But I’d like to get all caught up on my book posts before my five-week visit home next month! Here are a couple recent audiobooks about adventure and exploration I really enjoyed:

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides is another book I’ve been curious about for a while because I love adventure, exploration, and survival stories, but the length scared me off for too long. I’m happy I saw this become available on audio now and experienced it this way. I could barely put it on pause! The tragic 1879–1881 voyage of the USS Jeannette was truly “grand and terrible,” as the subtitle suggests. Set off originally on a mission to discover more about the polar arctic and prove or disprove some theories, like whether warm currents existed past the extensive ice barrier, this U.S. naval expedition quickly turned harrowing when the vessel was trapped in an ice pack and drifted for two years. The ice pack finally shifted and crushed the ship, leaving the crew stranded a thousand miles north of Siberia in uncharted icy territory. What followed was an epic attempt to save themselves by marching through this barren, mysterious part of the world. The descriptions of the deadly conditions and dangers they faced, from frostbite to unsteady ice to starvation, were palpable. The letters from one of the leaders’ wives gave this story a personal, human touch. The whole book left me breathless and rooting for them to make it out alive. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about the outcome beforehand. I’ve added Dan Simmons’s The Terror to my list to read eventually now! [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

The Lost City of the Monkey God is my first read by Douglas Preston and it did not disappoint. Deep in Honduras’s Mosquitia jungle lies the ruins of the Lost City of the Monkey God, sometimes called the “White City.” It’s an ancient civilization that vanished around 1500, similar to the Maya, but unlike the Maya, this civilization has hardly been studied at all—the site is near impossible to find and physically reach. Preston was invited to join a 2012 Lost City expedition, which he chronicles in this book, along with extensive research about the history of the city, its legendary curse, and the aftermath of the trip. Indigenous tribes warn that visitors to the Lost City will be cursed and die. One man reportedly found the city in 1940, only to commit suicide shortly after his return—his knowledge and secrets about the site died with him. Curse of the Monkey God? Preston’s expedition included an expensive technology called lidar, which projects lasers to the jungle floor from an airplane or helicopter and bounces images back. Two sites were discovered with the lidar machine, but controversy surrounded its use in the archaeology and academic fields. The team had the most state-of-the-art technology and equipment, but still dealt with danger and discomfort, from insects to bad weather to poisonous snakes, specifically the terrifyingly deadly fer-de-lance snake. Later, the team discovers mysterious sores on their bodies… curse of the Monkey God?? Preston poses credible theories as to why this civilization collapsed and disappeared, from greedy leadership (ahem) to foreigners arriving and carrying disease. This book reminded me of Grann’s The Lost City of Z! [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

radical hope

Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times edited by Carolina De Robertis on my holds for a while, and it just came through! Edited from Goodreads:

Radical Hope is a collection of letters—to ancestors, to children five generations from now, to strangers in grocery lines, to any and all who feel weary and discouraged—written by award-winning novelists, poets, political thinkers, and activists. Provocative and inspiring, Radical Hope offers readers a kaleidoscopic view of the love and courage needed to navigate this time of upheaval, uncertainty, and fear, in view of the recent U.S. presidential election.

I thought this was a pretty solid collection. The letters are powerful, drawing on personal experiences of discrimination and other social and economic hardships, and explain fears and hopes for the present and future of the United States. Many letters make note of America’s dark history, illustrating the point that there’s no real “great” for everyone to go back to and highlighting all the progress we have made thanks to the struggle and tenacity of the Civil Rights Movement. I loved how inclusive the collection is, covering race, queerness, immigration, poverty, and more. “Dear Millennials” by Aya de Léon was my favorite entry.

The letters can be a little repetitive, though—a through-line of comfort during the Obama administration, like the writers were only shaken awake to reality in November 2016. Radical Hope is a good read to ground yourself in reality; a reminder that the results of the 2016 election aren’t apocalyptic (I sure hope not, at least…) but that doesn’t mean we have the luxury of inaction. Wake up and do the work to get progress back on track so we really can make America great, for all citizens.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

book club: homegoing

Anthony and my latest read for Best Friends International Book Club was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Bonus: Homegoing was also on my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge list. Edited from the book jacket:

Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

WHY why why didn’t I read this right when I bought it, right when it came out? This is a BEAUTIFUL book. I was really fascinated by the subject matter so that’s why I originally picked it up, but I usually struggle with narratives that are set too far in the past. But Gyasi’s research for her debut novel is so extensive and her writing is so vivid that I became completely immersed within the first few pages. She managed to give three-dimensional life and personality to every character despite our only spending one chapter with each of them. Each chapter felt like its own short story but woven together created a rich, captivating tapestry.

I really enjoyed learning about Africa’s parallel timeline over the last 250 years to America’s (even if through a fictional novel). America’s past (and lots of its present…) is horrific and shameful regarding its treatment of its black citizens. But  Homegoing doesn’t play the “grass is greener” game. There’s turmoil in Africa’s past, too—wars, corruption, complicity in slavery (kidnapping and selling fellow Africans to British slave traders), cultural and social upheaval due to colonization and missionaries, ostracizing members of your own community, etc. No place, no country, no group of people on Earth is perfect. There are upsetting scenes throughout and Gyasi doesn’t sugarcoat, but does have a sensitive touch handling difficult material.

Anthony pointed out some excellent quotes that illustrate how wonderfully Gyasi connects everything in the book: the countries, the family’s separate generations, and real history. As I’ve grown as a life-long learner, I’ve definitely noticed this looking back on my grade school education (which I do feel was excellent, but there’s so, so much missing from textbooks and curriculum, between factual events and different perspectives):

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.” (Yaw, to his students; 226–27)

I’m continuously sickened by the audacious privilege white people have enjoyed for centuries, in their feeling of entitlement to control everything and benefit, but are absolved from responsibility for any of the “bad stuff” resulting from their actions. These two quotes stood out to us:

“White men get a choice. They get to choose they job, choose they house. They get to make black babies, then disappear into thin air, like they wasn’t never there to begin with, like these black women they slept with or raped done laid on top of themselves and got pregnant. White men get to choose for black men too. Used to sell ’em; not they just send ’em to prison like they did my daddy, so that they can’t be with they kids. … Alls I can think is this ain’t the way it’s s’posed to be.” (Willie, to Sonny; 262)

Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? (Marcus; 289)

This last quote from page 289 continues, connecting the Great Migration to Harlem of the 1960s, to the “war on drugs” of the 1980s, to the Prison Industrial Complex… basically what you could learn all about in more detail in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (another excellent BFIBC pick). It’s just a very succinct look at how the racial disparity and discrimination in the U.S. didn’t just “happen.” The system has been purposefully designed and re-shaped along the way to continue to operate in this function, but behind a more palatable facade.

In addition to the snapshots of very real history placed in the context of this one family’s parallel journeys, the family itself is compelling. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which beyond being helpful to the reader, it also struck me how unfair it is that I get to see this family tree stretch back to the matriarch, Esi and Effia’s mother, but the current generation, at least Marcus, the twenty-first-century American, will never be able to trace his lineage back to her, no matter how much research he does. His family has been broken and separated far too many times to get the full, clear picture. And I was so heartbroken by this knowledge, and even more saddened and outraged knowing for a fact that this travesty happened to countless families in America during slavery. I can’t imagine the feeling of simply not knowing, of finding that at a certain point in the past, the path of your lineage just… vanishes. What does that do to your sense of identity? Reading Homegoing, both the America and Africa parts, I was reminded of articles of recent studies I’ve seen floating around online about how we carry trauma of our ancestors, close and distant, with us—it is psychologically transmitted across generations.

I loved this epic family saga, and I loved reading it with Anthony for our book club. Ok if I have one tiny complaint it’s that the ending is a little tidy but whatever, I still cried. Homegoing is one of the most affecting and thought-provoking pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in a long time. I can’t encourage readers enough to pick up this book.

We also discussed They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (I’ve read it, Anthony was almost finished) and both LOVED it, and decided on our next BFIBC pick: The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara. We’re on a fiction bender for book club lately!

Homegoing is my third of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read in March 2018.