reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

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Yesterday I spent an embarrassing amount of time on Overdrive hunting for new audiobooks to listen to (seriously I think I had 100 tabs to different books open at one point). Gratitude by Oliver Sacks caught my attention, as I remember enjoying reading Musicophilia several years ago. (Although looking back at my review, I was pretty critical of that book at the time!) Edited from Goodreads:

No writer has succeeded in capturing the medical and human drama of illness as honestly and as eloquently as Oliver Sacks. During the last few months of his life, he wrote a set of essays in which he movingly explored his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death. Together, these four essays form an ode to the uniqueness of each human being and to gratitude for the gift of life.

This is a very brief collection (36 minutes on audio) but it was filled with profound insight into a life lived, and lived well at that. All the pieces are lovely and moving. In “The Joy of Old Age” (or “Mercury”) from July 2013, Sacks looks back at his professional accomplishments and looks forward to his ninth decade of life. “My Own Life,” from February 2015, is his announcement of having terminal cancer, which began as a melanoma in his eye nine years earlier but had metastasized in his liver. Though the end is near, he has not given up on life and is determined to make the most of the few months(?) he has left.

When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

In “My Periodic Table,” July 2015, he talks about his interest in minerals and metals, and how they relate to his life and cancer treatments, and how the treatments were making him feel physically and emotionally. The final essay, “Sabbath,” published just a couple weeks before his death in August 2015, is a tender reflection on purpose and meaning in life. I was inspired by his positivity and gratefulness, his wise perspective and unwavering curiosity, and his gentle voice in this collection.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Oliver Sacks was a remarkable human being who made a difference in the lives of his patients and their families, his colleagues, and his readers. I should definitely read more of his books in the future.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

mini-reviews: black earth and on tyranny

In the last year, I ended up reading two books by Timothy Snyder. One is a couple years old, one is brand new, and both are terrifyingly pertinent to what the United States is going through right now.

Black Earth is a dense and extensive look at the Holocaust, but is told not only as an historical account but also as a warning that the past isn’t so unrepeatable as we may think. Snyder delves into how the Holocaust began—as a dark idea within Hitler’s mind—and each step Hitler took towards attempting to achieve his vision. Military strategies, individual heroes, the dangers of statelessness, and of course the horrors of mass human slaughter are all examined here. Snyder’s warning comes as a conclusion that we in early-twenty-first-century America are facing similar ecological and ideological issues that Europe did in the early twentieth century, and missing the lessons of the Holocaust has endangered our national and global futures. We’re not as removed from Hitler’s supposedly incomprehensible world as we want to believe. It’s a bleak read, but necessary. [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

On Tyranny was released in March this year, hot on the heels of the inauguration. It’s a slim volume of twenty ways to defy fascism, the dismantling of democracy, and an authoritarian governmental takeover, citing historical (mostly European) examples from the twentieth century. It doesn’t go into great depth the way Black Earth does—it reads more like daily devotionals or meditations. But still, On Tyranny does serve as a reminder that there are ways to fight back. Some lessons included are refusing to normalize the situation, defending institutions, doing your homework when it comes to information, opposing a one-party state, paying close attention to words, believing in and defending the truth, reading, refusing to obey in advance, and making human connections. This is another excellent addition to the abundant response resisting this administration and time in U.S. history. [Read in April 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.

our divided political heart

The last book I listened to on audio was E. J. Dionne, Jr.’s Our Divided Political Heart and whoo boy, was it a whopper. From Goodreads:

Offering an incisive analysis of how hyper-individualism is poisoning the nation’s political atmosphere, E. J. Dionne Jr. argues that Americans can’t agree on who we are because we can’t agree on who we’ve been, or what it is, philosophically and spiritually, that makes us Americans. Dionne takes on the Tea Party’s distortions of American history and shows that the true American tradition points not to radical individualism, but to a balance between our love of individualism and our devotion to community.

I enjoy learning about politics, and have read a number of books on the subject in the last few years. I find it especially interesting now, as the country is so divided on many issues—how did it come to this? How can this be resolved? Dionne’s book examines this topic and does so looking back at historical societal trends, the birth of socioeconomic philosophies, and our nation’s current events. While Dionne clearly leans towards liberalism (and says so), I appreciated his fair discussions of both conservatism and liberalism, democrats and republicans, and the many factions of both sides therein.

America’s identity is balanced by two threads: individual freedom and community. Mostly what resonates is Dionne’s assertion in the “American Experiment” is that the individual cannot exist without community, and vice versa. Our history is important, and it’s important to have the facts straight. All factions of the political spectrum in the United States (radical individualism, compassionate conservatism, progressive liberalism, and so on) are guilty of selective history, taking only what facts serve their current ideology that it’s easy to forget how much balance is needed. It’s interesting, too, how much these political factions have changed over the years, in some cases even flipping ideals entirely.

Our Divided Political Heart was a slow listen for me—I do best with audiobooks on a long road trip and wasn’t on one when I listened to this, so it was tough to find time for it in my normal routine. And it’s very dense, sometimes a little dry and “academic.” Nevertheless, it’s a thought-provoking, informative book and great for those interested in American history, current affairs, and politics.

Listened to audiobook from June 23 to July 19, 2014.

the devil and miss prym

I have had Paulo Coelho’s The Devil and Miss Prym on my bookcase for more than ten years—I remember buying it new before I went off to college—and it only ended up taking me two days to read. (DERP!) When I signed up for my reading challenges this year, I knew The Devil and Miss Prym would be included on one of them, and the themes fit perfectly with the KC Public Library’s While the City Sleeps program.

One day, a stranger arrives in the sleepy village of Viscos after having buried eleven gold bars in the neighboring forest. The stranger meets Chantal Prym, the hotel bartender, and tells her that he will give the townspeople the gold bars but only on one condition: that they murder one of their fellow citizens. Chantal is beside herself and weighs her options and the consequences of each. Eventually, the residents are presented with the stranger’s proposal, and make their fateful decision.

The Devil and Miss Prym is simple yet intricate fable about a man who seeks answers about good versus evil in human nature; a woman internally conflicted with boredom, temptation, and right versus wrong; and a society faced with a complicated moral dilemma. The gold bars would mean prosperity and growth for the community, but is the cost of a human life—one of their lifelong neighbors and friends—really worth it? Who should they chose? Why is that life expendable? What will happen to the people and the town afterwards, in their hearts and souls?

The Devil and Miss Prym is full of stories, from character histories to town legends, and philosophical discussions of religion and spirituality. I enjoy Coelho’s toned-down narrative style, and it was effective with a complex, profound themes such as this. I felt sorry for Chantal, all of a sudden having the unenviable responsibility of basically saving the town from itself, but I was cheering for her by the end. This short book is memorable for its well-developed characters and highly thought-provoking subject matter.

I have read two other Coelho books, The Alchemist and By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. From what I remember of it—I read them soooo long ago—I felt more strongly about The Alchemist, but I have to admit I sadly can’t recall anything about By the River Piedra.

The Devil and Miss Prym was my second read of five books total for the 2013 KC Library Adult Winter Reading Program: While the City Sleeps, hosted by the Kansas City Public Library.

Read from January 16 to 17, 2013.