mini-reviews: fire shut up in my bones and drinking

I’m a big fan of memoirs, and this past year I’ve been reading some really excellent ones of all kinds of different lives. These two were powerful, personal, raw, and will stay with me a long time:

Charles M. Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones was a pick for my Best Friends International Book Club with Anthony earlier this year. In this memoir, Blow recounts his childhood not quite belonging in a rural small town in Louisiana, where slavery’s legacy still loomed large and violence was commonplace, as well his deep connection to his mother, and years of confusion and anguish following sexual abuse by a family member, and finally his escape from this life into college (where he endured brutal fraternity hazing) and, later, success as a journalist. Blow’s writing is expressive and I found his descriptions of places and scenes beautifully constructed. I was let down by the book’s blurb, which is a little misleading, but I was still certainly intrigued and hooked anyway, especially by his personal introspection and revelations about his sexual orientation. I thought the book ended abruptly—I would have loved to read more about his career path after college—but maybe that could be another book altogether. I find Blow to be an impassioned and eloquent writer, and this was a wonderful, insightful, inspiring memoir. [Read in February 2017.]

Caroline Knapp’s painful, honest memoir of her alcoholism and related struggles, Drinking: A Love Story, really touched me and made me take a deeper look at my own relationship with alcohol. Knapp was a successful journalist from an upper-class family, and also a functioning alcoholic for 20 years. She used alcohol to escape her daily realities and relationships, until personal crises and family issues force her to examine her lifestyle and quit drinking. She doesn’t glamorize her addiction—her downward spiral into alcoholism is chronicled in a clear way and you understand better how it can happen to anyone. She makes it clear that this is a disease, one that is possible to flow through families for generations. She has some interesting insights about her complicated relationships with her parents and partners. Though it can be a little repetitive at times and contains a few generalities about alcoholics, this was overall a great book. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

sing, unburied, sing

Jesmyn Ward has become one of my new favorite writers. Her work is eloquent and powerful, and she deserves all the awards and accolades she’s received lately for her latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Edited from Goodreads:

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When Michael, the white father of Leonie’s children, is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I initially had trouble getting into this book. I agree with some of the criticisms I’ve seen online—it’s a slow-moving burn, too much vomit (sorry, ever-so-mild spoiler), and I wasn’t entirely convinced of the ghosts until about halfway through. While an alternating first-person narrative doesn’t typically bother me, I found Jojo and Leonie’s voices a little too similar in tone. It too me far too long to get through; I started in October and didn’t read it at all in November (I was traveling… I barely read anything when visiting family!)

Ward’s esoteric, delicate writing as well as an excellent ending that made everything click for me ultimately made Sing, Unburied, Sing one of the best books I read this year. She builds tension describes situations and scenery so vividly you can easily become wrapped up in the story (at least, I did when I finally committed and settled into reading the rest of it this month). The characters were heartbreaking in their struggles and suffering, from Leonie’s addictions (to drugs and Michael) to Jojo’s protective instincts and loss of innocence, to Pop’s burdens as patriarch of this family and as an older Southern black man with his own personal demons. Ward powerfully illustrates many of America’s ills (specifically those that have historically and disproportionately effected black Americans)—poverty, parental neglect, disease, racism, incarceration, addiction, premature death, violence—with a multi-generational, mixed-race family in the deep South and a good dose of magical realism. It’s a Southern Gothic tragedy, one that is all too typical (ghosts notwithstanding) and familiar these days.

Read in December 2017.

mini-reviews: hidden figures and packing for mars

Early this year I finally got around to a couple of books on the subject of the history and mechanics of space travel that I’d been excited about. Even though I’m artsy fartsy by nature and vocation I still love learning about some science, especially when it involves kick-ass women!

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly features an excellent, important subject: the true-life story of the brilliant NASA mathematicians who did the calculations to send Americans to the moon in the 1960s were a team of black women. I loved the anecdotes about the women’s lives—who they were; their families; dealing with racial segregation in work, education, and neighborhoods, etc. But you have to slog through several chapters that have technical language and read like a textbook. I really struggled through these parts and ended up skimming a lot, which I should have resorted to in a 265–page book. I feel badly, because again I love the topic, but this is a case where the movie is actually better than the book. [Read ebook in March 2017.]

I’m had a lot of fun reading Packing for Mars,  recommended by my husband who is a big Mary Roach fan (and I turned him on to her books in the first place!). In this one, Roach delves deeply into the topic of the effect of space travel on the human body. What happens to your body when you don’t walk on the ground for a year? Can you have sex in space? How do you go to the bathroom? And other urgent inquiries along these lines, as well as the history of space travel in general, are investigated by Roach with her usual wit, charm, and down-to-earth (sorry) writing. She embarks on many on-ground simulations designed by NASA to test I wish I had read this back-to-back with The Martian; they’d make a great complementary pair. This made me want to go watch Apollo 13 and The Simpsons’ “Deep Space Homer” again soon! Some chapters dragged for me, but more were good, informative, and engaging. Mars wasn’t as good as Stiff (a new non-fiction classic, in my opinion), but it’s still a fun, interesting book. [Read in January 2017.]

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!

reading recap: october 2017

I know I say this every month, but wow this year has flown by. Again, again, again almost all my reads were on audio. What can I say, I like to be told a story while I’m drawing.

  • How to Win at Feminism … Reductress
  • A Colony in a Nation … Chris Hayes
  • The Awkward Thoughts of… (audio) … W. Kamau Bell, read by author
  • I Know I Am, But What Are You? (audio) … Samantha Bee, read by author
  • Chernobyl 01:23:40 (audio) … Andrew Leatherbarrow, read by Michael Page
  • Black Mass (audio) … Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, read by various
  • Bitch Planet, Book Two … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro
  • The Secret History (audio) … Donna Tartt, read by author
  • Dear Ijeawele (audio) … Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, read by January LaVoy
  • It’s Up to the Women (audio) … Eleanor Roosevelt, read by Suzanne Toren
  • The New Jim Crow … Michelle Alexander
  • The Iceman (audio) … Anthony Bruno, read by Bronson Pinchot

I am proud of myself sticking pretty well to my goal of catching up on blog posts. I’m saving my review of The New Jim CrowBitch Planet 2, and A Colony in a Nation until after I meet up with Anthony, my fellow reader and partner in crime in our Best Friends International Book Club, to discuss in person in a couple of weeks.

My favorites of the month were definitely The New Jim CrowA Colony in a Nation, and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. I really enjoyed getting back into mafia books with Black Mass and The Iceman.

Next month I’m going back home to the States for a visit, and I’ll be bringing with me on paperback The Glass Castle and Killing Pablo. I have a books on my Libby app, True Story and Patient H.M. (audio) and Katy Tur’s new one Unbelievable (ebook). I’m also bringing home What Happened for my mom to read. And I’ve downloaded Stranger Things season 2 and a bunch of other videos to my iPad Netflix app. Why am I always so concerned I’ll be lacking in entertainment choices on flights and trips?? LOL!

monthly recap image

mini-reviews: dear ijeawele and it’s up to the women

This week, I listened to two short audiobooks on feminist ideas, one from 2017 and one from 1933. It was really interesting hearing these back-to-back, and both would be excellent for discussion in a book club!

First, I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest long-form essay Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. I enjoyed both We Should All Be Feminists and Americanah, so of course I was interested in this one. Adichie can come across as a little snotty to me sometimes… there are a few inside jokes she mentions to her friend. But I can’t deny her excellent and articulate way with words. Dear Ijeawele isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, and neither is We Should All Be Feminists, but Adichie conveys basic feminist messaging with unapologetic power and clarity, which I appreciate and admire. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

Right after Dear Ijeawele, I listened to It’s Up to the Women by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is her first book, written in 1933. I think I had way too high expectations—it’s more of an instruction manual for housewives during the Great Depression than “feminist manifesto,” to borrow from the title of Adichie’s book above. Some of the observations are prescient and timely even for today, like the growing roles women should, will, and do have the progressing world. Some of the advice is pretty much only applicable to the time period in which this was written, though, and curious to hear considering Roosevelt never suffered the same hardships through the Depression as almost all of her fellow citizens. Her writing may be plain, but her earnestness and sincerity is clear in her suggestions and observations. Roosevelt is an inspiring historical figure, a forward-thinking woman to be admired, and it’s frustrating that her vision for more influence, power, and equality for women still hasn’t been realized in the United States 84 years later. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]