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?

monthly recap image

women & power

I was excited to read Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard after seeing it make the rounds on bookstagram. It looked timely and right up my alley! Edited from Goodreads:

From the internationally acclaimed classicist and New York Times best-selling author Mary Beard comes this timely manifesto on women and power. In Women & Power, she traces the origins of this misogyny to its ancient roots, examining the pitfalls of gender and the ways that history has mistreated strong women since time immemorial. With personal reflections on her own online experiences with sexism, Beard asks: If women aren’t perceived to be within the structure of power, isn’t it power itself we need to redefine? And how many more centuries should we be expected to wait?

This very slim volume packs a thought-provoking punch, but overall I do wish there was more. These two reprinted lectures are a great starting point for learning about how women and our voices have been repressed throughout history. Before reading this, of course I knew about women being treated as lesser-than in all walks of life, condescended to, silenced, and oppressed. I’ve lived it and experienced this, too. So overall, not much is new here as far as feminist theory goes. But Beard connects some dots I never realized existed, as well as exactly how far back in history this treatment goes, specifically misogyny’s roots in ancient Greek and Roman culture. I loved the examples of literature and art that Beard uses to illustrate her talking points, and the list for further reading at the end is a great resource. I just wish it were longer and more in-depth! Women & Power is still a book I’d recommend, especially for those looking for a good starter into feminist texts and/or something short and provocative.

Read ebook in January 2018.

thank you for your service

I had been hesitant about reading Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel even though I’m always interested in war and military stories/history. It just seemed like a pretty bleak read, and while it’s an excellent book, it’s definitely not a feel-good one:

In the ironically titled Thank You for Your Service, Finkel writes with tremendous compassion not just about the soldiers but about their wives and children. Where do soldiers belong after their homecoming? Is it reasonable, or even possible, to expect them to rejoin their communities as if nothing has happened? And in moments of hardship, who can soldiers turn to if they feel alienated by the world they once lived in? These are the questions Finkel faces as he revisits the brave but shaken men of the [US 2-16 Infantry Battalion that was stationed in Baghdad].

I didn’t realize this is a “sequel” to an earlier book of Finkel, The Good Soldiers. I wouldn’t say you need to read that one first for a full appreciation of Thank You for Your Service, this is still plenty affecting and easy to follow without the veterans’ service backstories. It’s difficult, uncomfortable subject matter, as it exposes the reality of trauma that lasts for a soldier long after the actual fighting is over for them. And beyond the soldier themselves, the family they return to has to deal with this trauma as well. I appreciated that Finkel spends time on the wives and girlfriends of this group of veterans, how they handle (or struggle with) their partners coming back as someone else entirely than the person they said goodbye to at the time of deployment.

He shows that the military does offer some assistance to veterans, but less in the form of therapy and rehab and more in the form of pharmaceutical medicating. There are some facilities around the country set up specifically to help veterans with PTSD or other mental issues associated with their service, but they’re difficult to get into, costly, and often the admitted vet has to forgo work for a while leaving their families in tough spots financially. Some of them are on the verge of closing due to lack of funding, as well.

“Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war,” that countless veterans are battling every day, either physically, psychologically, or both. I admire how Finkel leaves out sentimentality and removes himself from the narrative, choosing to focus on the veterans and their families, frankly chronicling exactly how it is for them. Despite the seeming lack of emotion in the writing, it’s still a heartbreaking, infuriating book because there’s no two ways about it: war breaks people. I think all Americans who call themselves patriots and claim to support our troops should read this book.

Listened to audiobook in January 2018.

they can’t kill us until they kill us

The last book I read in 2017, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, is also one of the best books I read in 2017… and probably one of the best I’ve read in the last few years, period. From the book’s jacket:

In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.

In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.

Wow, you guys. Just wow. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. I extra love that I hadn’t heard anything about They Can’t Kill Us until I randomly saw it at my favorite bookstore and bought it on a whim in November. This collection is full of moving, insightful observations about life, culture, society, and more that touched me deeply. I identified with how clearly and specifically music has impacted Abdurraqib’s life, because it has for me, even if our tastes and the music that shaped us growing up (for me the ’90s, he writes here mostly about ’00s) are slightly different. Doesn’t matter, I’m always down to read and learn about music and life experiences outside of my own experience and comfort zone.

Abdurraqib’s essays use the music fan/listener experience as the impetus to discuss a variety of issues, not least of all is racism in America, of which he has a unique perspective as a black Muslim man. These essays aren’t strictly about politics, religion, and race, though. He also goes into depth on loneliness, grief, loss, and even hope with his own personal stories as examples, like the deaths of his close friends and his mother. And then there’s the writing. Abdurraqib is a poet, and while there aren’t any poems in the traditional sense in this collection, his prose reflects his poetic style:

The world is undoing itself & I must tend to my vast & growing field of fears. In this new country, a nightmare is nothing but a brief rental home for the mind to ransack & leave the sleeping body unharmed. (139, “There Is The Picture Of Michael Jackson Kissing Whitney Houston On The Cheek”)

But our best work is the work of ourselves, our bodies and the people who want us to keep pushing, even if the days are long and miserable and even if there are moments when the wrong side of the bridge beckons you close. (77, “Brief Notes on Staying // No One Is Making Their Best Work When They Want To Die”)

Nina Simone rode away on the troubled ocean, standing on the deck of a black ship, looking back while a whole country burned, swallowing itself. (198, “Nina Simone Was Very Black”)

There are so many pieces I loved in They Can’t Kill Us. The ones that resonated the most with me were those on grief, creativity, heartbreak, and striving for optimism. The ones I learned from most were those of his perspective on racism and religion. The one about Allen Iverson’s crossover hit on Michael Jordan was brilliant, as were so many others. I think if I have one tiny criticism, it’s that I wish there had been more women artists present… the music he filters his topics through is mostly rap and punk, which are, of course, still male dominated genres. Even so, They Can’t Kill Us a near-perfect book. It reminded me a lot of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Read those, and read this.

Read in December 2017.

mini-reviews: stranger in the woods, teacher wars, new odyssey, pandemic

I missed Non-Fiction November… but for good reason: I was in Wisconsin visiting family and without my computer. Catching up on posting now! Although these four books are on totally different subjects, I thought that they’re all interesting, gripping, and worth a read:

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel was a great book. When Christopher Knight was 20, he abandoned his conventional lifestyle and retreated to the deep woods. For the next 27 years, he lived the solitary life of a hermit… except for the numerous burglaries he committed for supplies. I read the original GQ article about Christopher Knight which Finkel expanded here, so some information was familiar. I think I would have liked a little more depth to the historical and cultural info on hermits in general. But wow, some of the details here—his family didn’t look for him or report him missing? He didn’t use a fire or see a doctor for all those years? I was really interested in how he constructed and maintained his compound. How did no one find it, mere yards away from populated camping areas? Overall it was an enjoyable, fascinating look into the mind and experience of a man who left civilization behind (well… almost) for nearly 30 years. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

Dana Goldstein does a wonderful job of outlining the turbulent history of teaching and education in America over the past two centuries in The Teacher Wars. She shows the origins of often controversial topics, like teacher tenure and charter schools, as well as the creation of Teach for America, and how politics has always clashed with education (the disdain for unions, as a major example). I was really interested in the teacher strikes of the 1960s and 70s, and her coverage of teacher evaluations. As a musician and artist, and someone who has advanced degrees and worked in higher education for nearly a decade, I’ve had many discussions with my friends and colleagues who teach in the arts—their own objective vs. subjective metrics, and how does the State evaluate educators in a subjective field like the arts? It’s usually complicated and often not logical or applicable to arts and music education. I gave this book to my mom (a teacher) right after I finished, and she loved it too. [Read in May 2017.]

The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley is an eye-opening book about the refugee crisis happening now in Europe. Kingsley traveled extensively and interviewed countless people about their experiences and reasoning for fleeing, helping those who flee, or pursuing those who flee. Homes are destroyed in these war-torn countries— there’s nothing left, no infrastructure, jobs, schools, homes—so families abandon their homelands in order to survive and hopefully secure a better, safe life for their children. It’s a harrowing, dangerous journey but they’re left with no choice but to go. The other side of this is that after landing in a new country (if they survive the journey), now the refugees face culture shock, as well as rejection, suspicion, racism, and sometime violence from their new communities. I was moved by many of the stories in this important book. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

Sonia Shah’s Pandemic was a really fascinating, easy-to-follow book for a non-sciencey person like me. She mostly uses the development and history of cholera to drive the point home that there will be another pandemic that devastates the population. I’d like to have faith in human ingenuity to do all we can to combat it! But Shah also covers all sorts of factors that contribute to how and why pandemics happen and are largely unpredictable, including medical treatments and Big Pharma, habitats and environment (and the destruction of and/or industrial developments of these), animals and cross contamination, worldwide travel, population growth, and more. Her engaging, narrative style almost makes the contagions themselves “living” characters (well, I suppose they are living). Also, human beings are stupid and disgusting. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

unbelievable

I generally have zero interest in reading anything about Donald Trump, but Katy Tur’s Unbelievable  intrigued me enough to borrow a copy from the library. I’m really glad I did… but it still might be the only book I read on that person ever. Edited from Goodreads:

Called “disgraceful,” “third-rate,” and “not nice” by Donald Trump, NBC News correspondent Katy Tur reported on—and took flak from—the most captivating and volatile presidential candidate in American history. Unbelievable is her darkly comic, fascinatingly bizarre, and often scary story of how America sent a former reality show host to the White House. It’s also the story of what it was like for Tur to be there as it happened, inside a no-rules world where reporters were spat on, demeaned, and discredited. Tur was a foreign correspondent who came home to her most foreign story of all.

I started in November, had to return to the library, re-borrowed and finished this month. Despite my break in reading it due to travels, I flew through this book when I was able to sit down and devote some time to it. It’s a compulsive page turner, even if you know the main events and outcome. It’s not an insider’s tell-all of the running of Trump’s campaign or packed with juicy untold scandals, but rather a pro reporter’s experience covering the most bizarre and disorganized campaign ever.

Tur does a great job making you feel like you were by her side through this utter horrifying madness. She goes into detail of what it was like covering Trump from beginning to end of the last election season, more than 500 days—sleep deprivation, competition, frustrations, personal and professional sacrifices, constant traveling, the readiness to be on-air with commentary at a moment’s notice, and professionally handling Trump’s incessant lies and attacks every day.

Tur’s shifting timeline from chronological campaign coverage to ending each chapter with vignettes from election night at Trump’s headquarters helped add depth and (for me) a palpable sense of dread, because obviously you know how this book ends. I never attended a Trump rally—I only know what was reported on them in the media—and Tur deftly describes the hostile, toxic atmosphere found at his rallies. I was genuinely worried about her and her fellow reporters’ safety reading this; they were held in pens and verbally attacked by Trump onstage, leading to threats from the crowd… not to mention Trump’s confusing, seemingly personal (both negative and positive) focus on Tur herself.

I appreciate that Tur gives Trump supporters the benefit of the doubt in her book—I didn’t have a sense of “us vs. them” here—however, I personally think she might be a bit too generous to them. But, discussion of American society’s racist, bigoted, misogynistic underbelly is hefty enough for several other books and not the purpose of this memoir. Tur is a skilled and shrewd journalist and this is another great political memoir to come out this year.

Read ebook in November–December 2017.