reading recap: july 2017

I feel like July just flew by! Half of it I spent in Wisconsin, and half in Singapore. I was able to finish five books in July:

  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body … Roxane Gay
  • Al Franken, Giant of the Senate (audio) … Al Franken, read by author
  • Trainwreck (audio) … Sady Doyle, read by Alex McKenna
  • The Sound of Gravel (audio) … Ruth Wariner, read by author
  • The New Odyssey (audio) … Patrick Kingsley, read by Thomas Judd

I’m happy to report that I hit 60 books for the year so far this month! I raised my goal to 70 from 50 a while ago… maybe I should up it again. Or not. I’m happy to enjoy another month of passivity about it! After my trip this summer, I’m more resolved to continue catching up on my book posts here on the blog. If I can write two a week, that’ll be good enough for me (for now). I’m getting a little burned out on audiobooks at the moment… I think I might need a break for a while.

My favorite books for July were definitely Hunger and Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. These two memoirs were starkly different, but both made me reflect on the world, society, and my own experiences a lot. Trainwreck opened my eyes to how we as a society destroy women in the public eye, which was really thought-provoking and I’ve already recommended it to friends. The Sound of Gravel started as a bit of a guilty pleasure for me—I’m a little fascinated by cult religions and this memoir appeared in my Goodreads recommendations after finishing The Road to Jonestown (about Jim Jones) and Going Clear (about Scientology) a couple months ago. It’s another riveting memoir, if read a little dryly by the author on the audio version. Lastly, The New Odyssey hits hard as an exposé of the refugee and migrant crisis across Europe today. I wish it had gone a little more in depth on possible solutions, but still I found this book informative, powerful, and vital to understanding what’s going on in the world right now.

I’m still chugging my way through It, which I’m supplementing with the Steven Weber-read audio version (which is SO good!), as well as ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano on audio (I read his Gomorrah a few years ago and loved it), and started A Colony in A Nation on paper. Otherwise, new books coming in the mail include Capone: The Man and The Era by Laurence Bergreen and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden. I also just won a Goodreads giveaway for Marc Maron’s new book, Waiting for the Punch! I’m so excited, I haven’t won a giveaway in a long time and I love Marc Maron!
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hunger: a memoir of (my) body

I have been waiting with bated breath for Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger for a year! The day it came out in June this summer I was in Madison and promptly picked it up at A Room of One’s Own, one of my favorite bookstores. Edited from Goodreads:

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Gay explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

This memoir wrecked me. It’s about body transformation, but not in the typical way you might expect. It’s about rape culture, race, societal expectations and pressure, familial expectations and pressure, addiction, body image, self preservation and acceptance, gender and sexuality, relationships, and more. This is not a feel-good tome, and Gay doesn’t want your pity or to be called a “survivor.” She doesn’t pull punches or tug at heart strings in Hunger. She is self-aware and brutally honest about the way things are for a person her size, which is technically categorized as the horrible term “super morbidly obese.”

Although I have never experienced the same kind of specific hardships and trauma that Gay has (in fact, I’d say I’ve been blessed to live a fairly charmed, happy life), her personal experience of wanting to hide from the world and finding a way to do that with her body resonated with me in my own way. Even though I was (and am) slender and “normal” weight, I was very self-conscious and protective of my body when I was a kid and teenager. I wanted to be noticed, but I also didn’t… and either way certainly not for my body. Thank goodness for grunge—baggy flannel was my armor in the 90s. It was still years into my adulthood before I felt okay about wearing a bikini and also realized that I have had advantages in society because of what I look like (sometimes I’ve heard this called “pretty privilege”). I wish the world weren’t like this, but I think acknowledgment is better than denial and can help people (me) work towards changing it. I cannot sit here and honestly say I’m ugly or unattractive, certainly not by current societal and cultural standards. This privilege has been magnified a thousandfold to me after living in Singapore for a year, where I’m experiencing a strange mix of benefiting from white privilege (which I know I had in the States, of course) and also being a minority. It’s an uncomfortable, conflicting feeling of which I’m hyper-aware, which I think is a good thing.

In Hunger, Gay’s writing is unapologetic, and while she says she is not brave for putting out this memoir and speaking her truth, I have to disagree. Laying bare her rape and its physical and mental consequences, and then the consequences and daily issues of her resulting weight gain after that trauma, share with the reader and emotional rawness I’ve rarely encountered in any other book, if ever. I think releasing a book like this in today’s image-obsessed society and rape-apologist culture is brave as hell.

Read in July 2017.

al franken, giant of the senate

I don’t know how I’m going to catch up on all my book posts! One at a time, I suppose. I’ve been a fan of Al Franken for years, like pretty much everyone, and I think his time as a senator has made me like him even more (and seriously consider a move to Minnesota! But we do have the wonderful Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin). I recently listened to Franken’s new memoir Al Franken, Giant of the Senate on audiobook, read brilliantly by Al himself. Edited from Goodreads:

In this candid personal memoir, the honorable gentleman from Minnesota takes his army of loyal fans along with him from Saturday Night Live to the campaign trail, inside the halls of Congress, and behind the scenes of some of the most dramatic and/or hilarious moments of his new career in politics. Has Al Franken become a true Giant of the Senate? Franken asks readers to decide for themselves..

First off, the chapter on Ted Cruz is worth the price of this book alone. “I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz,” says Franken. But the entire book is full of interesting and enlightening details about his life and two careers. I really appreciate his honesty (he talks about how he cannot understand and abide by lying) and integrity as a senator. Franken sums up his memoir as “the story of how, after a lifetime of learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” Because senators aren’t supposed to be funny. But rest assured, Franken is still very funny, with his signature Minnesotan dry humor and droll observations found throughout. He recounts his childhood, his time on SNL, and his campaign run, as well as explains policy and political processes in a straight-forward manner that’s easy to follow and understand.

I really enjoyed hearing about his friendship with Paul Wellstone, which inspired him to get into politics, as well as his reconciling his funny and serious selves. While there is a lot of ugliness in politics right now, and we are going through some terrifying times, Franken managed to make me feel hopeful by the end of Giant of the Senate. I think this memoir is a must read for people who truly want a fair, balanced view of politics and politicians. With a few jokes thrown in, naturally.

Listened to audiobook in July 2017.

life’s work

I learned about Life’s Work by Dr. Willie Parker from Lizz Winstead’s excellent podcast Repro Madness, produced by women’s health and abortion advocate group Lady Parts Justice. Edited from Goodreads:

In Life’s Work, an outspoken, Christian reproductive justice advocate and abortion provider (one of the few doctors to provide such services to women in Mississippi and Alabama) pulls from his personal and professional journeys as well as the scientific training he received as a doctor to reveal how he came to believe, unequivocally, that helping women in need, without judgment, is precisely the Christian thing to do.

I was blown away by Dr. Parker’s rational take on why abortion does not contradict with Christian values. I appreciate that he acknowledges he was not always a proponent of choice, detailing out how his view changed through his upbringing in the poverty-stricken South, and his education and experience in the medical field coupled with a deeper examination of his faith. I have frequently questioned tenants of Catholicism, the religion in which I was raised (and made it through all the rites except marriage—that was in the courthouse for me), so of course hearing the account of a pro-choice Christian piqued my interest. Life’s Work is fairly short and I admit I’m already pro-choice, so I’m predisposed to like this book and agree with a pro-choice viewpoint, but I still learned things from Dr. Parker, like the ulterior motives of elderly, right-wing white men bringing legislation down to try to ban abortion entirely. Obviously they twist Christian beliefs to try to achieve this, claiming it’s about “saving unborn children,” when really it’s about resistance to (our wonderfully inevitable) future racial and cultural diversity.

I hope that people of all different ideological outlooks and faiths read Life’s Work. It’s an eloquent, though-provoking, brave memoir that I highly recommend.

Listened to audiobook in May 2017.

mini-reviews: celebrity food memoirs

Food is one of my favorite things on earth—I love eating, cooking, trying new cuisines and restaurants, and learning about other cultures through food. Aside from experiencing my own culinary adventures, I usually can’t resist a good Michael Pollan book or memoir by a celebrated chef. Last year, I read to two such books by famous personalities in food and cooking:

I’ve been a fan of Padma Lakshmi from her hosting gig on Top Chef for years. She’s poised but has a sense of humor and shows knowledge of food as a judge. I also have one of her cookbooks, Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet. I listened to her recent memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate on audiobook (read by Lakshmi). I really liked the parts about her childhood between India and the United States, as well as her career trajectory from model to TV show host to author. She also talks at length about having endometriosis, her romantic relationships, and becoming a parent. At times she is too self-pitying for her level of wealth and fame, but overall this is an enjoyable, light celebrity memoir. [Listened to audiobook in May 2016.]

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson has been on my radar for a few years now. Samuelsson has a fascinating background, starting with overcoming tuberculosis as a child Ethiopia and adopted in Sweden. I enjoyed learning about his upbringing, and how his race, heritage, and family shaped his love for food and development as a chef. However… I didn’t connect with Samuelsson on a personal level at all. I understand that you have to have a certain degree of self-centeredness, arrogance, and uber-confidence one has to have to succeed on the world stage (whether it’s as a renowned chef, famous musician, or whatever), but his relationships (as an adult) with his adoptive family and daughter—while I can appreciate his honesty and recognize that no one is perfect—are rather off-putting. It was a decent book, though, if you’re interested in celebrity chef memoirs. [Listened to audiobook in September 2016.]

the argonauts

After a year-long hiatus from regularly posting, I’m picking up where I left off on my little book reviews, starting with The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson! From Goodreads:

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of “autotheory” offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the story of the author’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes Nelson’s account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making.

The Argonauts was my introduction to queer theory and identity politics. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, and I don’t think I can say those sections of the book are easily accessible for everyone. She relentlessly delves into the topics of sexuality, gender, individuality, parenthood, and partnership. I appreciated this depth and how Nelson relates the words of famous theorists to her own personal story. I listened on audio, read by the author, and I think I liked it much better this way than I would have reading on paper. The book has a stream-of-consciousness feel, with no clear chapter breaks nor chronological order. However, what really stood out to me was Nelson’s relationship with Dodge and her experience with pregnancy and motherhood. The way she drew parallels between the birth of her child with Dodge’s mother’s death was heartrending, as well as comparing Dodge’s top surgery to a woman recovering from a mastectomy due to breast cancer.

I admit, writing this 13 months after reading it, my memory is fuzzy on many details, especially her commentary on theory. But this book was fundamentally a love story, and an “unconventional” one, so to speak, and this relationship at the center in all its complicated rawness and vulnerability makes The Argonauts memorable and worthy of discussion.

Listened to audiobook in March 2016.