mini-reviews: born a crime, you can’t touch my hair, and awkward thoughts

This year I read three wonderful new memoirs by comedians that are not to be missed:

My only regret with reading Trevor Noah’s brilliant memoir Born a Crime is that I didn’t have it on audio. I really enjoyed this book, especially his thoughts on the power of language and the ramifications of apartheid on the ground level. Noah was raised by his single black mother in apartheid South Africa, only seeing his white Swiss father sparingly throughout his childhood and then not at all for many years. His stories are at times hilarious, touching, and harrowing, and throughout the book he expertly balances gravity and humor. His mother is AMAZING. [Read ebook in January 2017.]

I want Phoebe Robinson to be my friend the way Phoebe wants Michelle Obama to be her friend. I want Phoebe, Michelle, and I to all be friends. I loved this book and it was well worth the wait for audio (read by the author). You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of hilarious, poignant, and sharp essays that tackle race, growing up, gender, pop culture, and more. The relentless pop culture references and her own unique vernacular can get somewhat tiresome, but I think it probably still works better on audio than read on paper. The chapters about hair (of course), the letter to the future female POTUS, and her letters to her niece were the best for me. The guest entries from Jessica Williams and John Hodgman were brilliant too. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

To be honest, all I knew of W. Kamau Bell before reading The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell was his name and that he is a comedian; I had never heard any of his comedy or shows. But that didn’t matter because I loved this book! It’s full of funny, observant, interesting, even moving essays on his work, his interracial marriage and raising mixed-race daughters, race, being an ally to women and LGBTQ+ in show business and life, and more. There were things I related to (being a lazy kid, getting excited about random things) and lots of things I learned from his life experience. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything—an actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight. It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants—they just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is an excellent companion piece to Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear. Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)—finding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer. This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed—a blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]

reading recap: june 2017

I’m back in Singapore after the most wonderful, fun visit to see family and friends in Wisconsin last month. I’ll post about that soon, but in the meantime here’s my (late) monthly reading recap for June:

  • Going Clear (audio) … Lawrence Wright, read by Morton Sellers
  • How to Speak Midwestern (ebook) … Edward McClelland
  • The Emperor of All Maladies … Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Janesville: An American Story (audio) … Amy Goldstein, read by Joy Osmanski

Not much because of my trip, which was expected. I hardly ever get much reading done while visiting family. But these four books were all really interesting and enjoyable. I’m not sure I can even choose a favorite or stand-out; I would recommend them all. The Emperor of All Maladies was on my list for a very long time, though, followed by Going Clear. I’m really happy I finally read them; they were long but worth every minute. I knew as soon as I heard about it I had to read Janesville, about the economic fall of the formerly booming industrial town in my home state, and luckily I was able to get the audio from the library without a wait. How to Speak Midwestern is a fun, brief look at the subtle differences in Midwestern accents, and was a really nice way to get in the mood for my trip back home.

I finished reading Roxane Gay’s phenomenal memoir Hunger on the plane ride back a few days ago. Next on my list are It by Stephen King in anticipation of the new movie coming out in September, as well as Al Franken, Giant of the Senate and Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation. I also hit 80% of my reading goal for the year already… maybe time to bump it up once more?? Possibly! No matter what I feel good that I’m going to have a record year for reading.
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eats, shoots + leaves

When I was in ninth grade, I wrote a paper for biology class and my mother, a college reading instructor, proofread it for me. While she was reading, she kept looking at me sideways with a little smirk. What is so funny?? Finally Mom said, “Um, Kristin? Do you have something on your mind?” and showed me all the instances of the word “orgasm” throughout my paper.

Totally mortified.

“Oh my God!! ORGANISM!!!” It was this moment I realized I couldn’t blindly trust a computer to catch every mistake and typo, and being a better speller became important in my life.

Later, as a college student, I had to peer-review another student’s work. Her paper was written in a conversational style, for example (with very little exaggeration here): “The teacher was like tall and talked with like a strong accent.” Wow. I was kind to her in my comments, but it was another wake-up moment for me. Saying “like” in conversation this way is one thing, but on paper… not so cute or forgivable. This was the time I remember realizing that writing at a certain level doesn’t come easily to everyone. While I felt pretty lucky with my natural writing ability, I still wanted to have highly developed skills, just in general as a well-rounded, educated person.

In 2010, a year and a half out of grad school, I started reviewing for KCMetropolis.org. It was so much fun, and I learned a lot about writing—being descriptive yet readable, fluid phrasing, attention to relevant details, appropriate constructive criticism, and having a clear personal “voice.” I was promoted to executive editor the next year, but I do most of my applied editing at my Conservatory job, fixing up and formatting program notes and bios for concert programs. Here I learned even more about punctuation rules—I am a big fan of the em-dash and the Chicago Manual of Style—and this has turned me into a punctuation stickler right after Lynne Truss’s heart.

My mom loaned me Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves this month, and it was more thorough on its subject matter than I expected. I loved reading about the origins of each punctuation mark, and how they’ve evolved to our current usage today. Truss’s droll humor and historical anecdotes give life and personalities to the punctuation marks. I found the comparisons of British and American practices very interesting, especially the British rules for terminal punctuation and quotation marks. Truss gives proper instances and examples for the terminal mark inside and outside the quotes, while Americans typically put all terminal punctuation inside the quotes. I actually like the British way better for these situations—it’s more logical. I had completely forgotten about the interrobang, too!

It is hard out there for a stickler. I find myself biting my tongue about some typo or oddly placed punctuation mark nearly every day. But I really hate it when grammarians are snotty about their knowledge of the area (and on the internet, everyone is an expert…). There is a polite way to correct writing mistakes and teach people these rules without making them feel like idiots. All the different styles can be opposing and confusing, too. One format might not be wrong, just a different way. Not everyone in this world has to be an expert—that’s why we have editors. So I let it go much of the time, especially in casual settings. I’m not immune to typos, either! I appreciate that Truss acknowledges her persnickety nature when it comes to punctuation, although I think she takes her desire for correctness too seriously when it comes to the corruption of punctuation in modern times. Perhaps this was played up for entertainment’s sake in the book. Yes, people can be careless in emails and text messaging, but doesn’t your level of informality depend on your recipient? I wouldn’t put a smiley face on a job application cover letter :p or use abbreviated text-speak in a review (LOL!), but it’s fun and plenty harmless in a text to a friend! Who wants to spend time typing out complete, correctly punctuated sentences on those tiny keyboards anyway? Life’s too short.

I wonder what Truss would think of Gadsby, the book with no occurrence of the letter “e,” or Lord Timothy Dexter’s tome which is totally devoid of all punctuation. (The copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves I read was a US hardcover edition published in 2004; I think there may be newer editions in which she mentions Dexter.) I did enjoy Eats, Shoots & Leaves and would recommend it to any word-nerd interested in cultural differences in our language and the history of punctuation, exclamation point!

Read from August 12 to 19, 2012.