one summer: america, 1927

I remember seeing One Summer: America, 1927 when it first came out and being somewhat interested, but at the time I was intimidated by it’s length and I had mixed feelings about the one other book I had read by Bill Bryson before, A Walk in the Woods. But I’m less freaked by long books now, and this seemed like a great one to listen to on audio. Edited from Goodreads:

The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record. Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.

Bryson was matter-of-fact with the events, with a little bit of observational humor thrown in but not interjecting his own views, and not sugarcoating the bad stuff. As a reader in 2018, I couldn’t help but notice it’s largely about white men… however, yes, this book is about a very specific span of a few months of one particular year. And the major achievements and events that took place then were certainly carried out by white men. However! I appreciated that Bryson exposed these men for who they were—Lindbergh wasn’t the American hero the press made him out to be. He was bland, rude, and had secret mistresses (and children) in Germany. Coolidge couldn’t be bothered to do much, if anything, during his presidency. Henry Ford was a stubborn anti-Semite. And I loved learning about Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the U.S.’s second-ever woman assistant attorney general, and first woman to head the Tax Division. She came up with the idea of investigating tax evasion as a way to prosecute major criminal figureheads, which was used to bust Al Capone in 1931.

I learned a lot from this book. One thing leads to another. For example, I had no idea about the anarchist movement at the time, the example used here was the 1927 electric-chair executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, convicted of murder and armed robbery. Bryson profiles the executioner, Robert Elliot, who was basically America’s most prolific killer, if you want to look at it that way, and you learn about the rise of the electric chair. He also executed Ruth Snyder in 1928, convicted of killing her husband the summer of 1927. So then you learn about Snyder and her case… which made headlines in the brand-new type of news magazines, tabloids…

There’s so much more. The season of arguably the best baseball lineup ever, the 1927 Yankees’ Murderer’s Row, as well as the rivalry between Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. The development of tabloids and the popularity of barnstorming (wild stunts that enthralled huge crowds, like flag-pole sitting). The rise of cinematic “talkies” just at the peak time of Broadway. The first national radio broadcasts and the invention of television. The beginnings of Mount Rushmore. Jack Dempsey’s historic boxing career and his final fights in 1927. Eugenics and the horrifying, unnecessary (but, at the time, totally legal) sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans.

I was especially captivated by the baseball (I had a mild obsession with Babe Ruth as a kid), organized crime and Al Capone, and the achievements of early aviation. Bryson does a wonderful job placing everything in context so you understand exactly how monumentally historic and important this time was, setting up what led to the events of summer 1927 (showing how America was woefully behind Europe regarding flight innovations, for example) and then laying out their lasting effects. This is a fascinating, engaging book!

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

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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fire and fury

I had to see what the hype was all about, of course. I mean, he tried to have Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff banned! Edited from Goodreads:

With extraordinary access to the West Wing, Michael Wolff reveals what happened behind-the-scenes in the first nine months of the most controversial presidency of our time in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Never before in history has a presidency so divided the American people. Brilliantly reported and astoundingly fresh, Fire and Fury shows us how and why Donald Trump has become the king of discord and disunion.

Well, it’s not great. The book or its subject matter or the state of the Union. But that’s not to say I don’t think this book is worth reading… at least maybe as an act of protest and dissent since he was trying to squash its publishing and have it banned. And while we still are allowed to read <eyeroll>. I’m fine with having borrowed it from the library instead of purchasing a copy.

Reading Fire and Fury affirms that it’s both exactly as bad as and worse than we think it is inside this administration, even if just half of the content of this book is true. No one is qualified for any of these positions, least of all Trump himself. Everyone is trying to keep their jobs and avoid prison; attempting to reign in Trump, which is impossible due to his unpredictable behavior; sucking up to him while simultaneously badmouthing him behind his back; pushing their own agendas; and fighting amongst themselves. It reads like a sensationalist piece of tabloid gossip, so it’s shamefully entertaining in that way, but there’s nothing new or revelatory as far as what’s covered in the book. If you’ve been paying attention, you know about all the scandals and tweets and disfunction. But there is a little more backstory to some of these scandals that I hadn’t heard before. Wolff is preoccupied with Steve Bannon, painting a somewhat sympathetic portrayal (which was unsettling to me), and much of what we read is based off interview(s) with him. There’s also a lot of focus on Ivanka and Jared’s roles and actions taken in the last year. Mike Pence is conspicuously absent…

I do believe it’s worthwhile to have a piece of concise documentation on this part of American history… but maybe this book is a little too rushed, too “unauthorized,” too speculative. I experienced this on audiobook, so I’m not sure if there was a reference list in the back or not. I’m hopeful that in the future after we’ve overcome this horrid moment, a more reliably factual account will exist.

Listened to audiobook in January–February 2018.

dark money

My first book for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge! I bought Dark Money by Jane Mayer right after the 2016 election, but put it off for the usual, dumb, distracted reasons. Edited from the back of the book:

The U.S. is one of the largest democracies in the world—or is it? America is experiencing an age of profound economic inequality. Employee protections have been decimated, and state welfare is virtually non-existent, while hedge fund billionaires are grossly under-taxed and big businesses make astounding profits at the expense of the environment and of their workers. How did this come about, and who were the driving forces behind it?

I’m not religious, but if I was ever asked, I’d say that the absolute worst of the seven deadly sins is greed. I’m just so infuriated that my country has basically become a plutocracy. I knew some of the basics before reading this, but I had no idea the sheer depth to which this shady network goes. The devastation this small faction of billionaires has inflicted on America is staggering, and I’m worried for the future.

This is the Libertarian Party platform David Koch ran for public office on in 1980:

It called for the repeal of all campaign-finance laws and the abolition of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). It also favored the abolition of all government health-care programs, including Medicaid and Medicare. It attacked Social Security as “virtually bankrupt” and called for its abolition, too. The Libertarians also opposed all income and corporate taxes, including capital gains taxes, and called for an end to the prosecution of tax evaders. Their platform called for the abolition too of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, and the CIA, among other government agencies. It demanded the abolition of “any laws” impeding employment—by which it meant minimum wage and child labor laws. And it targeted public schools for abolition too, along with what it termed the “compulsory” education of children. The Libertarians also wanted to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seat belt laws, and all forms of welfare for the poor. The platform was, in short, an effort to repeal virtually every major political reform passed during the twentieth century. In the view of the Kochs and other members of the Libertarian Party, government should be reduced to a skeletal function: the protection of individual and property rights. (pg. 57–58)

Sounds like complete and utter chaos to me. That would clearly result in two classes: the ultra-rich and the rest of us impoverished and starving in a destitute wasteland. It would be catastrophic if their ideologies and policies were enacted as real legislation, right? They lost the election badly that year (receiving 1% of the vote), but Jane Mayer goes on:

The Kochs were not alone. … they got valuable reinforcement from a small cadre of like-minded wealthy conservative families … Philanthropy, with its guarantees of anonymity, became their chosen instrument. But their goal was patently political: to undo not just Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal but Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era, too. (pg. 59)

Terrifying. Almost 40 years later, it’s unfortunately working. Look at how conservatives and Republicans have attacked democracy and its institutions, intellect and knowledge, culture and the arts and humanities, diversity and anyone who is “other” than cishet white male… the list goes on. An entire swath of Americans have been convinced to stand by the GOP, no matter how deceitful, disloyal, corrupt.

One of the book’s sections that blew me away most was about how the Koch Brothers and their friends have spent countless millions of dollars fighting the factual reality of climate change/global warming. Skeptical scientists are hired to make vague or misleading statements to the public, and Republicans spout lies about climate change, that the average American will lose their jobs and way of life if we do anything to combat climate change. The audacity of the lies is mind-boggling, and so is how easily and quickly Americans fall for the lies.

I already knew much of Congress and many politicians at the local level have been corrupted by dark money from the Kochs and their ilk. I became aware of that especially during the gubernatorial election of Scott Walker and his raping and pillaging of my home state, Wisconsin, and also watching the collapse of Kansas’s economy under its failure of a governor, Sam Brownback. But what I didn’t realize until reading this book is how they’ve infiltrated our education system at every level. Here’s what happened in North Carolina when a conservative Republican majority, bought-and-sold by radical libertarians, took over:

They authorized vouchers for private schools while putting the public school budget in a vise … eliminated teachers’ assistants and reduced teacher pay … abolished incentives for teachers to earn higher degrees and reduced funding for a successful program for at-risk preschoolers. Voters had overwhelmingly preferred to avoid these cuts by extending a temporary one-penny sales tax to sustain educational funding, but the legislators, many of whom had signed a no-tax pledge promoted by Americans for Prosperity, made the cuts anyway.

North Carolina’s esteemed state university system also took a hit. … dug up professors’ voting records in an effort to prove political bias. … imposed severe cuts that were projected to cause tuition hikes, faculty layoffs, and fewer scholarships, even though the state’s constitution required that higher education be made “as free as practical” to all residents.

“It’s sad and blatant,” said Cat Warren, an English professor at North Carolina State. [Art] Pope, [NC retail magnate and a friend of the Kochs], she said, “succeeds in getting higher education defunded, and then uses those cutbacks as a way to increase leverage and influence over course content.” (pgs. 340–341)

And influencing course content not only in higher education but in grade school and high school as well. I feel pretty good about my public school education, but as an adult and life-long learner I’m shocked at some of the realities of America’s history that were left out or glossed over in my classes during my formative years. I hate thinking about how generations of Americans have been unwittingly indoctrinated to a business-first philosophy that actively demonizes social programs and the roles of government.

All of this comes back to greed for me. I will never understand how these people with more money than they and their children and children’s children could ever spend in their lifetimes, more money than average Americans could ever dream of let alone earn in a million lifetimes… why do these people think they need more money? Their money is buying political power, which they bend to their will so they can amass more money. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I don’t get it. Don’t they know that when everyone does better, everyone does better? What’s going to happen when the 99% and 99.9% and 99.99% have all died off and they are alone with their riches. Who will do the real-world work they refuse to do: clean, cook, build? Don’t they know that money doesn’t buy happiness? How would they know, though, when most of these billionaires buying political power were born into their riches. They simply don’t care. They just want more, they want it all. The pure GREED. It’s breathtaking.

You know what, fuck the Kochs. Fuck their greedy billionaire cronies. Fuck Mitch McConnell. Fuck Paul Ryan. Fuck the greedy members of Congress and local politicians who accept dark, dirty money and selling out their constituents and all Americans. Fuck radical libertarians. Fuck them for duping enough Americans into buying their selfish ideologies and into voting against their own interests. Fuck them for their systematic efforts to ruin our democracy, government, and society for their own outstandingly greedy benefit. I hope against hope that the pendulum will swing back to the left (even center-left, where most Americans’ ideologies lie) sooner rather than later.

While this is all very depressing and has left me even more livid than I ever thought I could be, I’m also encouraged by the protests and acts of resistance around the country since the election. Research. Read. Listen. Don’t take political ads at face-value. Don’t take anything on the internet at face-value. Have an open mind. Be critical. Question. Show up. VOTE in every local election—that’s where this dark money is having the most, harshest impact—not just once every four years.

We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.
—Louis Brandeis (epigraph)

Dark Money is my first of twelve books read for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

Listened to audiobook in January–February 2018.

book club: the glass castle and the power

It’s the latest edition of Best Friends International Book Club! To the left is a screenshot I snapped, that’s me laughing in the lower corner at Anthony’s antics. I love our little club!

Anthony and I had a lively discussion over Skype last week. In addition to our two main books, we talked a little bit about Into Thin Air, which I had read twice already and loved, and Anthony had just finished for the first time. And we actually stayed on topic pretty well! I’m really happy we chose a fiction. I’ve been in a slump lately, and for some reason reading a novel snapped me out of my funk just a little bit and I’m grateful. Maybe I just need an outlet for mental escape at the moment and I’m more in a TV mode lately than reading. Anyway! On to our thoughts on these two fantastic books:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls has been on my list for a very long time. I think at one point in grad school I even “borrowed” (read: stole) my mom’s copy for a while… only to return it eventually, unread, during some apartment move. With the new movie version out this rocketed back up to the forefront of my radar. I found it hard to put down, despite many emotionally difficult parts, mostly dealing with Walls’s neglectful parents. She recalls some truly disturbing moments from her poverty-stricken, nomadic childhood, including lack of adequate food and shelter. Glass Castle is an affecting look at addiction and mental illness. It’s clear throughout that her parents loved their children, but her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s manic depression dictated their lives. I found Walls’s writing to be even-tempered, coming across as almost neutral to her upbringing. She seemed (publicly in this memoir, at least) to be rather non-judgemental of her parents, and I think this may have helped the narrative. I was never put off by having to read through self-pitying diatribes or complaints, because there wasn’t any here. Anthony posed some excellent questions we ruminated on: What do you think is the larger takeaway The Glass Castle? Maybe it’s overcoming adversity, maybe a message about addiction and mental illness, maybe familial bonds, maybe reading a tough, depressing story like this makes us feel better about ourselves, maybe everyone has a story to tell? Or maybe nothing, it just is? Also, we wondered about Walls’s privilege to be able to tell her story, softly comparing it to another BFIBC book we read earlier, Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (brought up in rural poverty, overcomes odds to become journalist), although we both agreed we liked Glass Castle a little better in general. I watched the movie adaptation a couple months ago and liked it, Woody Harrelson is brilliant, but it does change and dramatize some things to achieve a standard Hollywood storyline, as adaptations do. [Read in December 2017.]

I can’t remember exactly how I found out about Naomi Alderman’s The Power… maybe when it won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The story is incredibly clever: what would happen if all of a sudden gender roles were reversed and women, not men, were the ones who held physical, political, and social power? Alderman explores this concept filtered through a handful of main characters as they navigate this new world where women and girls have discovered an newly awakened deadly, electric physical ability. It covers rape culture, religion, terrorism, politics, and more, all while turning gender norms and expectations upside down. At first, I felt empowered reading about these women finding a strength within and taking charge, but after a while I became uncomfortable rooting for them.”Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the saying goes. Don’t get me wrong, I hate the stereotype/expectation that women are supposed to be pure, innocent, perfect little angels. Women are not necessarily less corrupt or violent than men, generally speaking. Anthony had a great point about how “the power” in this book wasn’t always about the obvious evolutionary electric power in girls and women, but also different kinds of power like political power, physical beauty, and manipulation. There are some striking statements, though, like when the power was first becoming known, boys are advised to go out in groups and not to walk alone at night, boy babies are being aborted, etc. Yes of course you don’t walk alone at night! As a woman I’ve been indoctrinated to this. But I never thought of the possibility of men having to live in fear for their bodily safety no matter where they are or what time it is, and being taught to take these kinds of precautionary actions. It made me angry that this never occurred to me before. Anthony also posed the question: Who is Alderman’s intended audience, women? Men? Both? Because it was really interesting to read and discuss this with a person of the opposite-identifying gender, for both of us. This would be an amazing movie, or long-form episode of Black Mirror! [Read in January 2018.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, which we chose after hearing of her death last week. I’m a few chapters in already and to be honest, I have no idea who anyone is or what the hell is going on. I really struggle getting into this kind of deeply complex sci-fi fantasy, it’s not really my thing, so we’ll see how it goes. I might have to DNF. Our second choice is pending at the moment… we both happen to have copies of David Bowie Made Me Gay by Darryl W. Bullock, but in February I’d like to consciously choose books written by black authors (I’ll finish whatever I’m in the middle of, but for my new reads for the month). Stay tuned!

reading recap: january 2018

I’m seeing a bunch of memes this week saying that this January was the longest month ever… but I feel just the opposite! I’ve been down lately—I have a touch of seasonal affective disorder right now… yes, even here in a sunny, tropical locale—so I’ve had the hardest time sticking to my usual routines and being able to focus on anything much, let alone reading. I did manage to get through four fantastic books, though, and started a few more:

AND I’m really proud of myself for catching up with (almost) all my reviews over the past few months! So you can see the linked titles there will bring you to my reviews of those books. I had a year and a half worth of reading I hadn’t written posts about here on the blog, and now I’m only behind on one (waiting to read another 1–2 I have on the same topic so I can bundle them together in one post), and The Power from this month I have drafted to go tomorrow. Progress!

Anyway, although I thought all four of these are incredible and I highly recommend, if I have to pick favorites I’d say The Last Black Unicorn and The Power. Tiffany Haddish is an incredibly funny comedian and I’m sure I’ll be a fan forever now. Her memoir strikes a a nice balance of both the difficult and good times of her life, while being thoughtful and entertaining the whole time. I didn’t realize it until I finished, but The Power is just what I needed this month. I’ve been in a slump and I’m still figuring out what the problem is, but reading a fictional novel engaged my imagination and attention better than anything else in a while. It’s a creative reversal of societal gender roles and expectations, and a look at how unequal distribution of power (and how it’s wielded) can effect humanity… hmm echoes of what’s happening now in many parts of the world.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Thank You for Your Service. It’s a potent, compelling book that chronicles the struggles of (mostly recent) veterans and their families due to time served at war. And Women & Power connected many dots for me as far as exactly how deeply rooted in history misogyny is, specifically in ancient Greek and Roman literature and art.

Besides starting and finishing these four, I also started Fire and Fury, the new barn-burner on the current executive administration in the U.S.; Dark Money, my first pick for my TBR Challenge 2018; and Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life just for fun. Anthony and I also chose our next book club read, The Left Hand of Darkness to honor the life of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I’m a few chapters in but I’m afraid this one might be lost on me… we’ll see. Next up in February I’d like to choose books by black authors to honor Black History Month, so I have HomegoingPushout, and We Were Eight Years in Power in my sights.

How is your reading going so far in 2018?

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