mini-reviews: heart berries and educated

These two striking memoirs were hyped up a lot earlier this year and for the most part, they’re interesting, worthwhile reads that met my expectations.

Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries is brief, but packs an emotional punch. Through dreamy, poetic essays, she recounts her dysfunctional upbringing on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. She has two sons, she reconnects with her abusive father, she has tumultuous love affairs, she ends up hospitalized for PTSD and bipolar disorder. It’s an unsettling read about love, memory, pain, mental illness, abuse, and more. I struggled a little bit with her changes in tone—part of the prose is poetic, part stream-of-consciousness, sometimes affecting, sometimes stoic. This diminished the impact somewhat for me, but I still appreciated the sharp observation she makes here about race and privilege. It’s important for sure, I’m glad she lays it all out here especially as we need more literary voices from the indigenous community. Her writing can be incredible so I wouldn’t write her off in the future, but this memoir didn’t entirely jive for me as a reading experience. [Read ebook in April 2018.]

Educated by Tara Westover also came out in February this year, and it looked right up my alley. I’m always interested in reading about survivalists and off-the-grid living; I find it fascinating. And throw in an underdog story: the author discovers a deep love for learning and gets herself educated, despite the odds? Sign me up. It wasn’t the survivalist story I was expecting—the family has money, TV, phone—but it is an excellent portrayal of familial mental illness and abuse. I was confused as to how and where the family had money, and while her academic achievements are pretty incredible and unusual as I was reading it sort of seemed like she breezed through the traditional education system once she passed one test (ending up with advanced graduate degrees from Harvard and Cambridge). Here again is where memory can be tricky in a memoir. I would have liked more about her struggles adapting and adjusting to the traditional education system after no formal experiences. But maybe the book is actually less about her quest for an education than about growing up in a patriarchal, fundamentalist religious home and dealing with mental illness and abuse in the family. Educated would certainly be a great companion read to The Glass Castle. [Listened to audiobook in April 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: jonestown, going clear, gravel, and no god

I’m not a religious person. I was loosely raised as Roman Catholic… but the normal kind where we only went to church on Easter, Christmas, and when Gramma was in town. I begrudgingly made it through all the rites (except marriage) and ironically now I’m pretty thrilled to be my niece’s godmother. I was that kid in catechism class that was asking rebellious questions like, “What about the women?” and “What about the Dead Sea Scrolls?” and “Why should we believe what a bunch of old white men wrote centuries after the fact?” I bet the teachers just LOVED me, haha! My mom was secretly proud. Honestly, looking back, I’m glad I went through it, however sour my attitude may have been. I participated in a longstanding family tradition, I thought critically, I learned there are options, and once I was confirmed no one can force me to go to church ever again.

Anyway, despite all that, I’m always interested in learning about different philosophies and belief systems. It’s a big part of life and the world, and I think it’s worth reading about even if I don’t want to be religious myself. Another part of religion is the cultish aspect, which I happen to find fascinating and terrifying, and in the last year I listened to a few audiobooks on the subject, as well as one incredible book on a legit religion.

All I knew of the story of Jim Jones and his Jonestown settlement was “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” but I learned so much from Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Guinn does a great job chronicling Jones’s path from his early life in Indianapolis, family life, rise as cult leader, moving his base around until landing in Guyana, and his ultimate betrayal and abuse of his followers and its aftermath. I had no idea Jones started out as such a staunch supporter of civil rights… but oh how quickly greed for power and an inflated sense of self-importance can drive people to do evil things. This is a great look at the development of a narcissistic megalomaniac, and trying to understand how a person gets there and charms others to follow them. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

Another great book complementary to The Road to Jonestown is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Like Jim Jones, Ron L. Hubbard was a narcissistic leader with illusions of grandeur. Wright goes deep in laying out the entire history of Scientology, Hubbard’s and his successor David Miscavige’s lives, and how Hubbard’s science fiction musings and elaborate vetting system lured so many people into following him, including rich and famous Hollywood elites. And there’s so much more, like the secret goal of taking over the U.S. government. There are some shocking, abusive practices in Scientology, including possible brainwashing, slave-like living and working situations for followers, blacklisting and practically ruining the lives of former followers, and more. Just when you think this “religion” couldn’t get any crazier, it totally does. This is a long audiobook, but I was utterly transfixed throughout its 17 hours. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

Ruth Warnier was born into a polygamist cult, the 39th of her father’s 42 children. Her father was the founder of this particular sect, one which told women in order to get into heaven they must be one of many wives to a man and bear him as many children as possible. This patriarchal community blossomed in rural Mexico, where Ruth grew up in poverty-stricken conditions, as local authorities turned a blind eye to its unconventional practices. After Ruth’s father was murdered by his brother, her mother remarried a man who quickly became abusive to the children. Her book, The Sound of Gravel, relays the story of her family and upbringing. I was impressed with how even-keeled Warnier is in describing some of the horrors of her childhood—violent and sexual abuses at the hands of her stepfather, the family pulling welfare scams, and, while it’s clear her mother loved the children, her mother’s neglect and carelessness. It’s an inspiring, sad, raw story but told in an unsentimental way, and I wonder if that is a side effect of the psychological harm she had to endure. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

I really enjoyed the informative and accessible No god but God by Reza Aslan. I learned so much from this book. Aslan brings to life the intricate, sprawling history of Islam and expands on its current varieties as well as how it exists and relates in the world, including in the United States in this century. He offers a narrative of Muhammed the Profit’s life, as well as challenges the religion in all its iterations faces today. This subject is broad and deep, but Aslan’s prose kept it from becoming too technical, long-winded, or overwhelming (well, it might be a little dry in the beginning, but well worth it to muscle through). This is a fascinating, refreshing, and illuminating book, especially for a Westerner, since most of us have been told time and again that Muslims are to be feared and hated because of their “evil” religion teaching them to destroy America… sure whatever. No religion is perfect, and not that I subscribed to the Islam-hatred ever, but this book did open my eyes to the fact that Islam is not all that different from the actual, historical core values of Christianity (“peace, love, and understanding,” in a nutshell). Can’t we all just get along? [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

reading recap: july 2017

I feel like July just flew by! Half of it I spent in Wisconsin, and half in Singapore. I was able to finish five books in July:

  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body … Roxane Gay
  • Al Franken, Giant of the Senate (audio) … Al Franken, read by author
  • Trainwreck (audio) … Sady Doyle, read by Alex McKenna
  • The Sound of Gravel (audio) … Ruth Wariner, read by author
  • The New Odyssey (audio) … Patrick Kingsley, read by Thomas Judd

I’m happy to report that I hit 60 books for the year so far this month! I raised my goal to 70 from 50 a while ago… maybe I should up it again. Or not. I’m happy to enjoy another month of passivity about it! After my trip this summer, I’m more resolved to continue catching up on my book posts here on the blog. If I can write two a week, that’ll be good enough for me (for now). I’m getting a little burned out on audiobooks at the moment… I think I might need a break for a while.

My favorite books for July were definitely Hunger and Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. These two memoirs were starkly different, but both made me reflect on the world, society, and my own experiences a lot. Trainwreck opened my eyes to how we as a society destroy women in the public eye, which was really thought-provoking and I’ve already recommended it to friends. The Sound of Gravel started as a bit of a guilty pleasure for me—I’m a little fascinated by cult religions and this memoir appeared in my Goodreads recommendations after finishing The Road to Jonestown (about Jim Jones) and Going Clear (about Scientology) a couple months ago. It’s another riveting memoir, if read a little dryly by the author on the audio version. Lastly, The New Odyssey hits hard as an exposé of the refugee and migrant crisis across Europe today. I wish it had gone a little more in depth on possible solutions, but still I found this book informative, powerful, and vital to understanding what’s going on in the world right now.

I’m still chugging my way through It, which I’m supplementing with the Steven Weber-read audio version (which is SO good!), as well as ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano on audio (I read his Gomorrah a few years ago and loved it), and started A Colony in A Nation on paper. Otherwise, new books coming in the mail include Capone: The Man and The Era by Laurence Bergreen and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden. I also just won a Goodreads giveaway for Marc Maron’s new book, Waiting for the Punch! I’m so excited, I haven’t won a giveaway in a long time and I love Marc Maron!
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reading recap: june 2017

I’m back in Singapore after the most wonderful, fun visit to see family and friends in Wisconsin last month. I’ll post about that soon, but in the meantime here’s my (late) monthly reading recap for June:

  • Going Clear (audio) … Lawrence Wright, read by Morton Sellers
  • How to Speak Midwestern (ebook) … Edward McClelland
  • The Emperor of All Maladies … Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Janesville: An American Story (audio) … Amy Goldstein, read by Joy Osmanski

Not much because of my trip, which was expected. I hardly ever get much reading done while visiting family. But these four books were all really interesting and enjoyable. I’m not sure I can even choose a favorite or stand-out; I would recommend them all. The Emperor of All Maladies was on my list for a very long time, though, followed by Going Clear. I’m really happy I finally read them; they were long but worth every minute. I knew as soon as I heard about it I had to read Janesville, about the economic fall of the formerly booming industrial town in my home state, and luckily I was able to get the audio from the library without a wait. How to Speak Midwestern is a fun, brief look at the subtle differences in Midwestern accents, and was a really nice way to get in the mood for my trip back home.

I finished reading Roxane Gay’s phenomenal memoir Hunger on the plane ride back a few days ago. Next on my list are It by Stephen King in anticipation of the new movie coming out in September, as well as Al Franken, Giant of the Senate and Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation. I also hit 80% of my reading goal for the year already… maybe time to bump it up once more?? Possibly! No matter what I feel good that I’m going to have a record year for reading.
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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.