book club: colony in a nation, bitch planet 2, and new jim crow

During my visit back to the States in November, I spent a week in Kansas City and one of my priorities there was a Best Friends International Book Club meeting with my beloved Anthony! He was a sight for sore eyes and gives the greatest hugs.

We may not have stayed on topic quite as well as last time by Skype, but it was still so great to discuss books and life with him, especially in person.

We like to typically choose two to three books: one or two that one or the other of us has read already, and one or two that’s new to both of us. For this installment, Anthony had read A Colony in a Nation (but I’ve had it waiting on my shelf), and both Bitch Planet, Book Two and The New Jim Crow were new reads for us. (We also ended up discussing Hillary Clinton’s What Happened a little bit, too!)

Our first choice was A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes. Confession: I have the biggest nerd-crush on Chris Hayes! I loved his first book, Twilight of the Elites, and I was super excited for Colony to come out. I bought it on its release date at Kinokuniya here in Singapore. As an astute and observant reporter for MSNBC and The Nation, Hayes has been checking his white privilege for a long time. He discusses his coverage of the turbulence in Ferguson and Baltimore after the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. This is not “a white guy explaining race to you.” Hayes does use personal anecdotes to point out aspects of racial inequality in the States, but always in a way that serves his argument. For example, he relates a time he was genuinely terrified of getting busted for weed by the cops, at the Republican National Convention no less, but was waved through security with no issue. But if he had been black? Surely arrested with unnecessarily tough punishment, possibly even shot on the spot. You may think, Well this is all very obvious, of course black Americans are discriminated against in society and the criminal justice system. But Hayes takes that and lays out exactly how, historically and democratically, the system has always been stacked against black Americans, and how there are two distinct Americas (“… American criminal justice isn’t one system with racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other is the kind you expect in an occupied land… the terrifying truth is that we as a people created the Colony through democratic means.” pg. 32). This is an awesome, short read to get you started on this subject, and a good companion to our other pick this time, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. [Read in October 2017.]

After liking the first volume, Anthony and I decided to continue with Bitch Planet, Book Two: President Bitch by DeConnick and De Landro. What I said when reviewing the first book (“I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass…I think Bitch Planet has a great premise and is an excellent, creative way to get readers thinking and talking about intersectional feminism, the prison industrial complex, sexism, societal expectations of women, and more.”) is still pretty much how I feel. I enjoyed President Bitch even better than Extraordinary Machine. This second installment had the backstory I was missing in the first, as well as even more inclusion of intersectional feminism, featuring trans women too. I was glad to see less of the Megaton game (if at all? I can’t remember!). I love how one message in particular is loud and clear: if women (on Earth and Bitch Planet) stick together and fight, their resistance of the patriarchal Protectorate will only grow and surely eventually triumph. And it closed with a compelling cliffhanger! [Read in October 2017.]

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is ESSENTIAL READING FOR EVERYONE. I can’t stress enough the importance of this book. It took me kind of a long time to get through because every few pages I’d get so infuriated that I’d have to set it down and pace around for a while. The situation is just so bleak and unjust. Alexander didn’t even have to go into dramatic histrionics—literally just plainly lay out the facts and statistics. I knew some things going into this, in general as a concerned citizen and after reading Colony, but Alexander does an eye-opening job of unveiling layer after layer of corruption and bullshit in the criminal justice system and Prison Industrial Complex, and exactly how deep this all goes, and why it’s rooted in the War on Drugs, which was DESIGNED to legally create the next, current iteration of Jim Crow. A black man, for example, is convicted for possessing a miniscule amount of weed for the first time. He is convicted to 10–20 years in prison. When he gets out, he has no housing, no job, often no access to a car, tons of court and other fees to pay, no food assistance, he loses custody and access to his kids, and he can’t participate in basic rights as a citizen such as voting and serving on a jury. (CANNOT VOTE. Think about that—a whole mass people who can’t vote… what would the outcome of the 2016 election have looked like if prisoners and parolees could have voted?? This is yet another example of our racist system disenfranchising and keeping black and brown people from participating in democracy as fully recognized citizens.) Family members are reticent to take him in, as they’re liable if anything happens again and could lose their homes… even if it doesn’t happen in their homes but down the street!! Society has also engineered a system where black and brown Americans are left out of jobs and housing in cities across the country, which contributes to this nasty, practically inescapable cycle. They’re automatically second-class citizens, unable to get ahead (or even back to the starting line) by political design. This book made me better understand why people take terrible, lose-lose plea deals. I’m having heart palpitations and just sick typing this all up right now. This is a must-read, profound, accessible book and I’m pissed at myself for not reading it immediately when it came out. [Read in October 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (one of my all-time favorites), The Glass House by Jeannette Walls, and The Power by Naomi Alderman. I’m going to try to read Glass House and Power before the end of this month/year!

mini-reviews: recent stephen king reads

Continuing on my recap of scary books… in the last year I read FOUR Stephen King books! Well, three novels and one short story collection 🙂

I listened to The Lawnmower Man and Other Stories from Night Shift last October as an impulsive, last-minute attempt to participate in Dewey’s Readathon… I’m the worst readathoner! But these short stories were fun enough. “The Lawnmower Man” was nothing like the terrible movie… but honestly I’m having a hard time remembering anything about the story! “Quitters, Inc.” was probably the best and most intense, with “The Mangler” probably had the highest “classic scare” factor. Funny story: a few years ago I was up late at my gramma’s house with my cousin watching TV; she only had 4–5 channels. We landed on this ridiculous, terrible movie where a guy was driving around and getting freaked out by ghosts of dead people he knew in high school. It was so bad and cheesy! I had no idea it was a Stephen King story until I heard “Sometimes They Come Back” in this collection. Bottom line, it’s a decent, standard, old-school collection from King.  [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

I bought this copy of ‘Salem’s Lot in October 2015 on a road trip to Denver and finally got to it a year later! What can I say about ‘Salem’s Lot. It didn’t hold my interest and imagination the way that King’s other work has, like Pet Semetary11/22/63, and It. ‘Salem’s Lot is kind of a play on Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the whole arc of the story or the ending, but here’s the gist… Ben Mears, a writer, returns to his hometown to exercise his personal demons. There, he connects with a priest, a woman, and a boy. A stranger has also moved in to the mysterious Marsten House in the town, and eventually strange things start happening and people start dying… or are they really dead? It’s old-school horror and the violent fight scenes were excellent and action packed. I love how King writes kids—they have potential as characters and heroes that King brings out wonderfully, although I do wish he wrote women as strongly as he writes kids and men. [Read in October 2016.]

When I was a kid, I watched the godawful miniseries based on The Stand, so I knew this iconic, religious good-versus-evil tale set in post-apocalyptic America. In April this year, I started getting pretty excited for the new It movie—that one wasn’t available on my library app but The Stand was at the time. I’m just always blown away by King’s world- and history-building in his novels, and how fleshed out he makes every single character, whether major or minor. The beginning was fantastic—when the world goes all to hell thanks to to the deadly virus Captain Trips. The climax was a let-down for me… but as is often in King’s chunksters, he devotes so much time and energy to the characters and world-building that the story itself gets neglected and he “phones in” the climaxes. But this is still an epic, classic King book! Randall Flagg is easily one of the greatest villains in literature. Just because I like torturing myself, I rewatched the miniseries after finishing the book. Just as bad—no, way worse than—as I remember. UGH. Terrible production quality! Too literal! Costuming/music instantly dates it! I can’t believe that it was produced the same year as cinematic achievements such as Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

Another great, classic King story in all its cheesy, creepy, page-turning glory is his 1986 masterpiece It. This is another good example of King’s astonishing attention to character development and world-building. By now most everyone should know the synopsis: in 1957, kids start dying gruesome deaths or disappearing in Derry, Maine at the hands of the mysterious, demonic clown Pennywise. Four kids who call themselves The Losers’ Club have a showdown with Pennywise, and vow to return to Derry if his evil ever resurfaces. Almost 30 years later, it does, and they do, in an attempt to end Pennywise’s terror once and for all. Steven Weber’s audio narration was FANTASTIC, one of the best I’ve ever encountered on an audiobook. While I think King is a masterful storyteller and I’m always captivated, I did have a problem with Beverly. This goes back to my earlier comment about King’s archetypal interpretation of women and girls in his writing. OF COURSE Beverly is a victim. She’s also the love interest of EVERYONE. That said, she DOES kick some butt in the book, sadly not so in the new film (which I did really like!). Again, because I’m a glutton for punishment, I rewatched the 1990 miniseries. Again… terrible! Except, of course, for the inimitable, genius Tim Curry as Pennywise. Anyway, despite the female characters being clichés as usual, It is super memorable, with many legit terrifying scenes, and I’m looking forward to the second movie! [Read book and listened to audiobook in August 2017]

mini-reviews: station eleven and the last one

I bought Station Eleven right after it came out, and of COURSE I didn’t read it until two years later. Somehow it survived my Great Purge of Stuff of 2016 in the overseas move, and I finally read it last fall. Coincidentally, I won a copy of The Last One from a Goodreads giveaway right before moving too.These two post-apocalyptic literary books are often compared, and rightly so.

I had to work a bit to get into Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and unfortunately (for me) I only got a little ways in before I had to put it down for the move, but when I finally picked it up again I flew through it. After a lethal virus sweeps the globe, a group of actors, musicians, and artists travel the decimated Great Lakes region performing plays and concerts to the few inhabitants left in the towns they pass through. There were a few odd things (like the dearth of guns/ammo and books in America after almost all of its citizens are wiped out… wouldn’t there be an abundance of these things?) but these minor anachronisms don’t detract from the story. I really enjoyed this thoughtful and imaginative speculative fiction novel. It shifts timelines, giving you a glimpse of living through a societal collapse instead of just showing you the aftermath. Thus, rather than being strictly about survival during and after a global epidemic, the story is more about beauty, nature, music, art, literature, and culture surviving. It’s about humanity and connection. Station Eleven was one of my favorite reads of 2016. [Read in September 2016.]

Alexandra Oliva shows she is a promising, creative writer with her debut novel, The Last One. During the filming of a survival reality TV show, a pandemic killed off much of the population. The show’s contestants have been cut off from the outside world and don’t know what’s happened. One person, a woman known as Zoo, who continues believing she’s in a game rather than an apocalypse. Zoo wasn’t as kick ass as I wanted her to be and I think the book is a bit long and winding overall. I also kind of wish I (as reader) hadn’t known that the corpses, danger, and devastation Zoo comes across were real—it left me frustrated that I knew and she didn’t, having to witness her behavior based on being in the dark. But I liked the book in general. It’s thought provoking regarding the portrayal of reality in media (how much of reality TV is real?) and how it can shape your perception of people, the world, etc. I think it’s worth a read if you like post-apocalyptic stories. [Read/listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: borne and made for love

Like I said in my previous post, I have been craving some good fiction recently. Here are two fantastically weird books I read in the last couple months fit the bill and will rank highly when I look back at everything I read this year! I read great books by both of these authors before and was really excited for their new ones.

In Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, Rachel is a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic city in the near future. She holes up in an abandoned apartment building with a mysterious guy named Wick, who worked for a biotech company in town that may or may not have something to do with ruining the city. One day scavenging, Rachel picks up Borne, an amorphous, living creature she raises and teaches like a child, but we’re not sure of Borne’s origins or real purpose. Meanwhile, there is a humongous building-sized grizzly bear named Mord that flies (no wings) above and terrorizes the city. What. Am. I. Reading. I loved it—it was suspenseful and immersive, strange and compelling. Just like in Annihilation and his Southern Reach Triology, VanderMeer is the king of weird world building and psychologically eerie style. I had absolutely no idea where the plot was going and it was awesome. [Read in Aug. 2017.]

I was so excited for Made for Love by Alissa Nutting after reading her salacious book Tampa a few years ago. In Made for Love, Hazel leaves her tech mogul husband Byron after his inventions become too invasive. She stays with her aging father and his newly acquired life-like sex doll at his trailer-park retirement home, while trying to dodge Byron’s seemingly never-ending reach. Meanwhile, a second story line takes place involving a con man (think Sawyer from Lost) who is in love with dolphins. How will these people all intersect in the end? It sounds crazy and ridiculous but still makes total sense as you’re reading. I laughed out loud many times! I love Nutting’s absurdist but still kind of matter-of-fact style. This was a brilliant and imaginative story from Nutting and I was entertained and satisfied from start to finish. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

reading recap: august 2017

August was a good month! I went to Thailand, had a friend visit here in Singapore, saw Kronos Quartet for the first time, finished my first-ever commissioned drawing, and read seven books:

  • Difficult Men (audio) … Brett Martin, read by Keith Szarabajka
  • The Monster of Florence (audio) … Douglas Preston, read by Dennis Boutsikaris
  • The Fact of a Body (audio) … Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, read by author
  • Borne … Jeff VanderMeer
  • A Fine Balance (audio) … Rohinton Mistry, read by John Lee
  • It (paper and audio) … Stephen King, read by Steven Weber
  • Flowers of the Killer Moon (audio) … David Grann, read by various

I still want to start moving away from so many audiobooks for a while and focus back on paper soon. It felt great to read a couple books on paper this month (well, one and a half—I went half-audio, half-paper with It). I think I need to just slow down and set aside some time every day to sit with a physical book. My visit home in June–July, the Thailand trip (where I met up with a bunch of old friends from Kansas City), and another friend coming here to Singapore way overstimulated me and now I’m having trouble sitting still!

All the non-fiction I read this month was great, but my favorites were the novels A Fine Balance and BorneA Fine Balance is one of my favorite books anyway—I read it on paper in 2012 so this time on audio was a re-read. It’s just a beautiful, heartbreaking book. Bleak, but I loved it. I’m not sure I could write a better review now than I did in 2012 (link), but the audio was just as good. I really enjoyed Borne for it’s straight-up weirdness. I really liked VanderMeer’s Annihilation so I had Borne on on my radar when it was announced. Post-apocalyptic city terrorized by a building-sized flying bear? Yes. Yes, please. It was strange and fantastic.

I finished IT just in time! I’m looking forward to seeing the first movie when it comes out soon. To get prepped, I also re-watched the 1990s miniseries version. Just terrible! Except for Tim Curry, he’s perfection as Pennywise, but other than his performance that version can go float in the sewer. Yikes.

My non-fiction reads were mostly about murders, and one about TV show production. I recently started re-watching The Sopranos again, so Difficult Men was a great companion to that, but it was more about the creators of The Sopranos and shows like it rather than what I was expecting, the rise of the anti-hero protagonist in popular media and culture. That’s okay, it was still an interesting behind-the-scenes look at one of my favorite shows. The Monster of Florence and The Fact of a Body were similar in that they were investigations into mysterious real-life murders, while weaving in the authors’ personal stories as well. Flowers of the Killer Moon was my favorite of these non-fictions from August. It was also an about true murders—the 1920s killings of members of the Osage Indian Nation of Oklahoma, and how the FBI arose from the investigation of these murders. I enjoyed David Grann’s The Lost City of Z a few years back so I was excited to read this one, too, and it was just as compelling as Z. The amount of American history left out of the history books and our general educations is staggering, and Killer Moon is just one more example. We need these books and acknowledgement of our true, shameful past in America.

For September, I’m going to get through my Best Friends International Book Club’s current picks (A Colony in a NationThe New Jim Crow, and Bitch Planet, Book Two), as well as Killing Pablo (too late for the release of Narcos season 3 on Netflix, but it’s a real page turner! I’ll be through it quickly) and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal and loaned to me by a friend here. On audio, I have to finish up ZeroZeroZero (also a good companion to Narcos and Killing Pablo), and I just got The Heart’s Invisible Furies off hold. It’ll be another good month, and I’m sure I’ll surpass my Goodreads goal of 70 books for the year.

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book club: parable of the sower and bitch planet

This week, my friend Anthony and I held another meeting (online) of our Best Friends International Book Club! I have so much fun reading and discussing books with him. Anthony put it sweetly in a comment on my Instagram:

You encourage me to think deeper and wider with each selection, and I love how this keeps us connected—with each other and the world around us! 😍 [link]

That’s how I feel about him and our club! It means a lot to me to stay connected to my beloved Kansas City family. And although we’re in different countries and drinking different beverages when we have our book club Skype dates, we actually do stay on topic! Mostly! We keep it loose as far as timing our meetings go; we chat when we’re both done with the books and when we’re available.

First, we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. It was the first Butler book for either of us. In 2025, society is descending into a chaotic collapse. Headstrong teenager Lauren’s family is killed and her home is destroyed, so she and a few neighbors journey north to a rumored safe haven. Along the way they encounter dangers and new people, and Lauren reveals her plans for a new religion. Lauren also has a condition called “hyperempathy,” which allows her to physically feel the pain of others. I was struck by how prescient and insightful Butler was in her description of this near-future America: privatization, climate change, gender and race issues, religion, the opioid crisis, and more. It’s an important addition to the science fiction genre for these reasons, plus being written by a woman of color. Unfortunately, the book didn’t entirely live up to the hype and rave reviews for me. The religion aspect turned me off, as did the hyperempathy. I always have trouble with epistolary novels, too—Sower is basically Lauren’s diary. I’d rather be shown the action than be told about it after the fact. I think this may actually be a YA book, too, which are usually hard for me to get into. I was interested in the The Road-like journey the crew takes north, though. I wonder if I would have liked Sower better if the religion and hyperempathy had been cut? These parts bothered Anthony less, but overall he felt the same. We decided this first book in Butler’s Earthseed series was enough for us. But! I’m not writing off Butler entirely; I’m looking forward to reading Kindred one day. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

Bitch Planet, Book One by DeConnick and De Landro was our second pick for this discussion. In another near-future dystopia, if women don’t comply with the behavioral and beauty expectations placed upon them by the patriarchal leadership, they are arrested and sent away from Earth to a prison planet. The plot (so far) involves the “non-compliant” women being forced to compete in an all-male game called Megaton in order to “spice up” the event, and there’s corruption in the government and prison, etc. I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass. I’m really interested in seeing where this is going. I do wish there was more backstory, and I felt it drag when the focus shifted to men on Earth just talking about Bitch Planet. Otherwise, I think Bitch Planet has a great premise and is an excellent, creative way to get readers thinking and talking about intersectional feminism, the prison industrial complex, sexism, societal expectations of women, and more. Anthony felt the same way, so we chose Bitch Planet, Book Two for our next discussion. He also mentioned the best part: the hilarious fake ads at the end of each issue! [Read in May 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Bitch Planet, Book Two, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation. I’m excited!