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.]

mini-reviews: children, women, trouble, men without

I used to think I wasn’t much of a short story person, but in the last year I’ve read a good handful of collections of them, and even bought a few more! Short stories still aren’t my favorite type of literature, but I’m really starting to come around to them.

Alexander Weinstein imagines people getting by in a near-future world taken over by technological advances in his debut, Children of the New World, with often dangerous and frightening consequences, featuring pieces on robots, industry and commercialism, cloning, virtual reality, memory, and more. The stories are more speculative than straight-up science fiction. Weinstein takes our society and culture already addicted to technology and social media and pushes that obsession to numerous edges, from merely uncomfortable to utterly catastrophic. They make you think about your own use of and dependence on social media and technology, brainwashing and memory, and what it means to be human and present in the modern world. His writing is kind of quiet though, I didn’t feel like I was reading sensationalist warnings necessarily. My favorite stories include “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Rocket Night,” and “Ice Age.” [Read in December 2016.]

I will read the hell out of anything and everything Roxane Gay writes, and I was so excited when her short story collection Difficult Women was released early this year. Gay’s writing is raw, affecting, and poetic. She presents women in her work who are complex, emotional, damaged, and have persevered through tragedy. I loved all the stories and had a hard time setting them down, but check out this incredibly prescient passage from “Noble Things:” “…there was anger and then there were petitions and then terrible decisions were made—demands for secession, refusals from Washington, rising tensions, a war to bring secession about, the wall erected, everything going to hell on only one side of the wall, dulling whatever victory was to be had. It all happened so fast, it hardly seemed real, until the war began and it was too real and then the war ended and nothing had been saved, which was always the case when foolish men made foolish, prideful decisions.” Written in 2014. [Read in February 2017.]

I bought Get in Trouble by Kelly Link right when it was released, after Margaret Atwood mentioned Link as an author she was currently enjoying during a Q&A portion of her lecture I attended in 2015. As with many short story collections, this was full of hits-or-misses… I’d say, for me, six of the nine stories were good. A few were too long, but a few others could have been longer. “The Summer People,” “Secret Identity,” “The Lesson,” and “Two Houses” were my favorites. I loved the weirdness and magical realism aspects, and Link’s sense of fun and pushing boundaries in her writing. [Read in March 2017.]

Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women, his latest short story collection, was a nice read, although I think I enjoy Murakami in full-novel form better. His signature cat and magical realism elements are included here throughout. The stories have melancholic and somewhat surreal atmospheres, and the writing is beautiful, as usual, but I think I read this book at the wrong time in my life, during a period where I needed something more uplifting. That said, I liked “Drive My Car,” “Scheherezade,” “Kino,” and “Samsa in Love” the best. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: dark matter, sleeping giants, lathe of heaven, frankenstein

I haven’t traditionally thought of myself as someone big into science fiction, but looking back at recent reads (and even further back), I think I can safely say it’s a genre in which I’m at least casually interested. Here are four recent sci-fi books I read and enjoyed:

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is the first book I purchased after moving to Singapore last year. Jason Dessen is a regular guy with a family he loves and a normal job teaching physics at the local college. One night after drinks with a friend, he is kidnapped, beaten, and blacks out. When he wakes up, Jason is inexplicably rich, famous, and wildly successful in his career, but at the apparent expense of his perfect home and family life. Nothing is as it was the night before. What happened? I read Dark Matter in just a couple of days. It’s a thrill ride from page one, very plot driven—it reads like a movie, with a lot of action-packed scenes and great “big questions” about lofty philosophical scientific ideas and also normal life choices we all make. It wasn’t the deepest book, but enjoyable and definitely a good one for fans of The Martian. [Read in August 2016.]

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel has a dark, fascinating premise: pieces of a metallic giant robot, thousands of years old, are discovered scattered deep below the surface of the Earth. A team of science and military experts is tasked with uncovering the mysteries of these pieces—who placed them on Earth? When? How? Why?—as well as assembling the robot and figuring out what it’s for. The epistolary format kept the pace going nicely, making this an engaging read. However, I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle, and didn’t feel connected to the characters as a whole, though I did like that women have prominent roles here. I’m not really compelled enough to continue with the series, but I did like this one on its own. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

I’ve been curious about Ursula K. La Guin‘s work for a while now, and my friend Lee back home suggested starting with The Lathe of Heaven. George has a problem: his dreams literally come true. He dreams it and wakes up the next morning to find the world and history has changed. George seeks the professional help of a psychiatrist, who has nefarious plans to exploit George’s unusual gift (curse?). I think it was a great introduction to La Guin; this one made me think a lot about facing your inner darkness, manipulation, responsibility, and more. If you had the power, would you play God? Would it be okay to disrupt the natural order of things, disrupt nature and change? There is so much to ponder in this short book. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I nearly DNF’d Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but ultimately I’m so glad I stuck with it. Again, the Classics seem to work better for me as audiobooks. Frankenstein is so much better than any movie depiction I’ve seen (except Young Frankenstein, obviously!). It questions the complexities of humanity and society, and examines identity, compassion, companionship, acceptance and belonging, and more. Dr. Frankenstein’s “monster” is created—without a woman’s assistance, mind you, what is the significance there?—as a full-grown adult with the mind of a child, still having to learn the world and his place in it, and finds rejection, violence, and terror awaiting him outside the lab. This cautionary tale disguised as a monster story is deeply layered and more philosophical and less traditionally “horror.” I listened to an ensemble cast read the original 1818 version, not the edited and revised 1930s version. I’ve heard the Mary Shelley’s experiences leading up to and while writing this book are more interesting than the final work itself, so I’ll have to investigate that further! [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: milk and honey, tilting our plates, more beautiful things

Something unusual for me… I read quite a bit of poetry in the last year. In addition to Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman (recently posted), I read these three collections:

Rupi Kaur’s incredibly popular milk and honey started strong enough but lost me halfway. I see why her work resonates with so many, I do. It’s familiar subject matter, accessible, and easy to “get,” unlike some other poetry. But I was completely underwhelmed by the collection as a whole. I know I’ve heard or read some of these lines before elsewhere. Other readers have compared this to Tumblr posts, and I agree. While simple, linear drawings can be effective, I wasn’t really impressed by those included here. The whole thing is way over-hyped. [Read ebook in November 2016.]

I picked up Singaporean poet Cyril Wong’s Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light as a gift for my mom for Christmas last year, as I was getting everyone uniquely Singaporean gifts and she’s a reader. I couldn’t help but read this slim volume first before shipping it off, though! Tilting Our Plates uses musical (symphonic) metaphors and the ancient myth of Shiva (as Mohini) falling in love with Vishnu to relate the story of a couple in love, aging, and living in the shadow of a disease. Wong conveys simple poignancy in the everyday ordinariness of a deep partnership. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking collection. [Read in December 2016.]

There are a handful of striking poems in Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, like “All They want Is…,” “Afro,” “13 Ways,” “The Gospel According to Her,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “99 Problems.” There’s tension, rage, empowerment, and vulnerability simmering throughout many of the poems. But others fell flat… again it could be me—I’m starting to think that I’m not much of a poetry person in general. And I also definitely recognize that some are not meant for me—I do not personally know the black womanhood experience. But I like to learn, acknowledge, and be open-minded. I think these pieces would be more impactful performed aloud. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: phenomenal woman and mom & me & mom

I simply adore Maya Angelou. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 2008 just as I was finishing grad school and was awestruck by her tenacity and wisdom and way with words. And then inexplicably, I didn’t read any more of Angelou’s books until 2014, with Letter to My Daughter.That’s crazy! She’s amazing. This year I made time to read two more of her works:

I was already familiar with two poems in Phenomenal Woman: the titular poem and “Still I Rise,” which is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing ever. But the other two, “Weekend Glory” and “Our Grandmothers,” were new to me. Angelou awakens an empowerment in women with these poems, acknowledging women’s complexity, depth, and strength with an inimitable level of passion and wisdom like only she can. I read a library-borrowed ebook version, but I think I need a paper copy of my own. These are timeless and meant to be savored time and again. [Read ebook in December 2016.]

I guess I’m going out of order with Angelou’s autobiography series, having started with book 1 (Caged Bird) and moving on to book 7, Mom & Me & Mom, next! Oh well. I’m not sure they need to be read in order, necessarily, because from what I can tell, both these books stood on their own. This book chronicles Angelou’s complex relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter, throughout her life. She loved and respected her larger-than-life mother, but it was ever-changing and sometimes turbulent. The writing wasn’t quite as excellent as I was expecting based on what I remember from Caged Bird, and there some jumping forward and backward in time with the events described. But this was still a fascinating relationship and life to learn about. As always, it was a pleasure listening to Angelou narrate her own words on the audiobook version. I look forward to reading more from her autobiography series in the future! [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: americanah, what it means, beasts

As I’ve been catching up on these blog posts of book reviews, I noticed I read three books that center around Africa and African characters:

Why, why, why did I wait so long to read AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie crafted a brilliant, epic story about relationships, family, love, cultural identity, the immigrant experience, race, class, home, belonging, and more. I bought this years ago but was kind of intimidated to start since it looked dense and long (and it is), but once I got into it I found it difficult to put down. My minor quibbles are that it might be overly long—some scenes are repetitive of earlier ones—and Ifemelu could be pretty annoying at times. But generally this is a great book and I look forward to reading more from Adichie. [Read book and listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

So many great reviews of What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah compelled me to borrow this collection of short stories from the library, and I wasn’t disappointed. The stories are memorable, with not one dud, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. There are a few that still stand out to me in particular months later, like “Who Will Greet You at Home,” wherein a childless woman crafts a baby for herself out of hair, and the titular story, in which mathematicians have devised a way to eradicate grief in the future. Magical realism permeates a few of the stories, and most revolve around young women testing the waters of adulthood and wildness. I loved it. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

I requested Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala as my entry for “author born the same year as you” for the Litsy bingo reading challenge… which I quickly abandoned. Oh well! But I’m still glad I read this short, harrowing book. I had already seen the Netflix movie, which was excellent too. After his family is killed during a civil war in their unnamed African country, a boy named Agu is recruited into a group of rogue guerrilla fighters. The movie was quite faithful, but the book gives even more insight into Agu’s internal thoughts and fears. It’s fascinating to see how is psyche becomes increasingly warped in his new, horrifying reality full of fear, terror, and brutality as a boy soldier. I highly recommend both the book and movie. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]