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.

reading recap: may 2017

I read 13 books in May! Even though several were short and several were on audio, this might be a personal record for me. I also already hit 50 books (currently sitting at 51)! I can’t believe it. I guess this is what happens when you listen to audiobooks all day while you draw.

  • The Hearts of Men (audio) … Nickolas Butler, read by Adam Verner
  • Frankenstein (audio) … Mary Shelley, read by various
  • The Leavers (audio) … Lisa Ko, read by Emily Woo Zeller
  • The Road to Jonestown (audio) … Jeff Guinn, read by George Newbern
  • What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (ebook) … Lesley Nneka Arimah
  • There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (ebook) … Morgan Parker
  • The Teacher Wars … Dana Goldstein
  • Men Without Women: Stories (audio) … Haruki Murakami, read by various
  • Life’s Work (audio) … Dr. Willie Parker, read by Caz Harleaux
  • The Radium Girls (audio) … Kate Moore, read by Angela Brazil
  • Drinking: A Love Story (ebook) … Caroline Knapp
  • Parable of the Sower (ebook) … Octavia E. Butler
  • Bitch Planet, Book One … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro

My favorites for the month, as usual, were the non-fictions: The Road to JonestownThe Teacher WarsLife’s WorkThe Radium Girls, and Drinking: A Love Story. I was fascinated by Jonestown and Radium, while Teacher Wars and Life’s Work are important pieces to understanding where we are on the topics of education and abortion today. Drinking was personal and raw, and made me think more deeply about my own use and relationship with alcohol.

Of the fictions, The Hearts of Men and What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky really stand out to me, as well as a few stories from Men Without WomenParable of the Sower and Bitch Planet were recent picks for my international book club with my friend Anthony, and it was so great to read these along with him.

This last month I made a detailed plan for catching up on book posts here. I want to write a little bit about everything and I WILL get to it all! I’m traveling for several weeks in June and July, so I’m not sure how many posts I can write up and schedule ahead, but I’ll try my best to keep this space active a bit while I’m away.

I’m currently listening to Going Clear on audio, the exposé on Scientology that came out a few years ago, and it’s riveting so far. I also recently purchased Van Gogh’s Ear and Pachinko, which I’ve had my eye on for weeks! I also would like to pick up Chris Haye’s A Colony in a Nation and Roxane Gay’s new one, Hunger, while I’m on the road this summer. What are you planning for summer reading?
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reading recap: november 2016

Well… that happened. You know what I’m talking about. I think based on the books I read and love you can probably guess my political views. It has been surreal watching it all unfold from here in Singapore. Just surreal and frustrating and infuriating. Someone here recently asked me how I was doing after the election, and being crappy at hiding my feelings, I responded, “Oh, boiling over with rage.” “Still?” YES STILL, ALWAYS. Anyway. Needless to say, the election results didn’t exactly change my TBR entirely, as I have consistently been interested in learning more about social movements and justice, race, religion, history, politics, and culture. But the result certainly bumped certain books to the top of my list, and I did look up more books to add to the list. The result also stalled my book reading for about a week. I’m back into it though. Reading, educating myself, practicing empathy and understanding, and listening (and donating, writing emails, and signing petitions) are what I can do from abroad.

Here are my books for November:

november-reading

  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (audio) … Matthew Desmond
  • milk and honey (ebook) … Rupi Kaur
  • Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (ebook) … Lindy West
  • No god but God (audio) … Reza Aslan
  • Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove … Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

I gave up participating in Non-Fiction November… sort of. Now looking at my list, I realize I read all non fiction except one. All these books were fabulous except for the the one fiction.

My favorites were Evicted and Mo’ Meta BluesEvicted and also No god but God are absolutely essential reads right now. Evicted follows several families in the Milwaukee area, trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty exacerbated by addiction, disability, unemployment, and more impossibly cruel circumstances. It is extremely well written—intimate portraits of these very real people and their very real problems. Desmond humanizes an epidemic and makes clear that welfare and housing assistance reforms are necessary immediately.

Mo’ Meta Blues was just a delight—Questlove is just a charming, humble, thoughtful human being. I’ve loved the Roots for a long time so this has been on my list since it came out in 2013. In his memoir, Questlove keeps it light while going deep at the same time, which is a real feat. Important moments in his own personal and Roots’ histories are referenced with cultural progression in the U.S., and his philosophical musings about the states of pop culture, hip-hop, and music criticism were intelligent and spot on. I wish I had kept a list going of all the songs and records he mentions in order to listen to them all later. I loved it.

No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam is an accessible and informative book—Aslan brings to life the intricate, sprawling history of Islam and expands on its current varieties as well as how the religion has existed and relates in the world, including in the U.S. in the twenty-first century. This was an illuminating and fascinating book for me, especially right now.

Shrill was so much fun! I went from laughing out loud to feeling enraged to uplifted and empowered, often all in the same chapter. West didn’t come off as shrill at all to me, she’s insightful and self-aware of her own self and society. An excellent feminist read, I loved it—read it all in two days. Milk and honey was just okay. It started strong, but lost me halfway through. Only a few poems were truly striking, but many I breezed right over. Some were trite and some lacked originality—I know I’ve heard or read a few of the lines before in some of these poems. I was pretty disappointed in this poetry collection, it’s been sadly over-hyped in my opinion.

Here’s hoping for a better month to close out the year…
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