reading recap: january 2017

I think I’m getting my stride back with reading now in 2017. I’m not participating in any creative reading challenges this year, just the Goodreads and 50 Book Pledge ones, which takes some (admittedly imaginary) pressure off. So far I set my goal at 50, but I’m hoping to get back up to around 60, closer to my normal yearly amount. Bad bookish news, though: my Kansas City Public Library account expired! I was hoping I had at least another six months, tears. I’ve been using it for ebooks and audiobooks through Overdrive, and it’s been great. I’ll get a new account at my local Wisconsin library on my next visit back, but still. I liked having one last connection to Kansas City. Sigh.

I had a good January for reading, and enjoyed all of these books:

jan-2017-recap

  • Born a Crime (ebook) … Trevor Noah
  • Packing for Mars … Mary Roach
  • Metallica: Back to the Front … Matt Taylor
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) … Margaret Atwood, read by Claire Danes
  • March, books 1–3 … John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Almost all non-fiction… one could make the joke that I read all non-fiction… (weeps). But The Handmaid’s Tale was my favorite book of the month. I read it once before, in early 2010, and loved it then. I’ve had a little celebrity crush on Claire Danes for years and years—she was my spirit animal in My So-Called Life—and hearing her read one of my all-time favorite books gave me life in this state of political unrest. Just a terrifying, disquieting book. I read once that Atwood based things in the book (women losing agency over their finances, property, eventually their own bodies) on real-life events throughout world history. I wanted to start it over again from the beginning right after finishing (and I just may listen to it again before the year is out).

I was so excited to also read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, an immigrant, when it came through my (last) library holds at the beginning of the year. It was a wonderful, sharp, insightful memoir to start of 2017. There were some utterly hilarious scenes, and I really admired his honesty about his relationships with his country and family, especially his mother. I loved his reflections on language and how that can effect interpersonal understanding and empathy. I only wish I had been able to listen to the audio version!

I’ve enjoyed a couple other Mary Roach books, and Packing for Mars was no exception. My husband got it as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago and recommended it to me this month. I realize now that it was another pertinent read for these times, with anti-science and anti-education mindsets becoming more rampant. RESIST!! But truly, Packing for Mars is signature Roach, making you feel as though you’re right alongside her as she investigates the “everything-you-want-to-know-but-are-too-embarrassed-to-ask” questions surrounding any given topic. Bonus: after I finished Nick and I visited the NASA: A Human Adventure exhibit currently on at the ArtScience Museum here in Singapore. It was a treat to see artifacts of the very things I’d just read about in person, including the space toilet!

The March graphic novel trilogy by John Lewis had been on my TBR for at least a few months now, but skyrocketed to the top thanks to events that took place on Twitter, you all know what I’m talking about. I snagged the only set at the Kinokuniya bookstore and devoured all three books in a matter of days. I usually struggle with graphic novels just in that I focus on the words so much I forget to take time absorbing the art too, but I made an effort to pay attention to both text and image and the experience really paid off. March is a very engaging work that clearly connects events and people through the civil rights movement of the 1960s via John Lewis’s involvement. I really hope young people are reading this right now.

Finally, for some much needed mental catharsis, I read through Metallica: Back to the Front, the authorized story of the Master of Puppets album and subsequent tour, as prep for the band’s concert here in Singapore on January 22. I listened to (almost) the whole discography as I read, which really enhanced the experience. This book is obviously a must-own for any die-hard fan, but I think even casual fans and listeners would really appreciate this round-table style recounting and images of the band starting up, the making of its first three albums, and the epic (and ultimately tragic) tour of 1986. Besides the history, this is a beautiful tribute to the band’s unforgettable late bassist Cliff Burton.

Looking ahead, I’d like to read Duff McKagan’s It’s So Easy and Other Lies before we see Guns N’ Roses on February 25 here, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis, Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips, You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson, and Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. I’m already almost finished with Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, which I simply haven’t been able to put down. We’ll see what I can get through!
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what if

Last month, Nick and I listened to What If? by Randall Munroe on audio. It was big hit in our house! Edited from Goodreads:

From the creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd comes this hilarious and informative book of answers to important questions you probably never thought to ask. Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have a large and passionate following. Fans of xkcd ask Munroe a lot of strange questions. In pursuit of answers, Munroe runs computer simulations, pores over stacks of declassified military research memos, solves differential equations, and consults with nuclear reactor operators. His responses are masterpieces of clarity and hilarity.

I originally downloaded What If? to listen to during my orchestra rehearsal commutes, but after the first answer I knew my husband would enjoy this too. The “chapters” (or rather each Q&A) are so short, it was the perfect amount to devour listening in tiny bits night by night before bed. I’m not a very science-y person, but only maybe a couple of the questions and answers went over my head (and even then, it’s probably because I dozed off and missed a sentence or two!). There are many, many stand-out questions in What If?: what if you baseball coming at you at the speed of light? What if there were a planet of moles (animal) the size of a mole? What if the periodic table were made of each of the elements it represents? What if we tried to eradicate the common cold? What if we built a lego bridge capable of carrying automobiles across the Atlantic Ocean? And more! I do feel like I perhaps missed out on some of the answers by going with audio instead of paper (the author is an comics artist, after all), but Wil Wheaton’s as-usual incredible, enthusiastic narration made the scientific explanations accessible and just plain fun to listen to. And it was extra fun listening with someone! We had some excellent discussions after some of these answers.

Listened to audiobook from December 9 to 18, 2015.

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading? I mentioned before that I’m having trouble sitting and reading anything on paper lately, but I have been able to squeeze in some audiobook time:

monday reading

What If? by Randall Munroe has been a big hit for both me and my husband—we’ve been listening before falling asleep every night and loving the absurdity of it all. Wil Wheaton narrates and he’s fantastic, of course—loved his narration of Ready Player One when I listened to that a couple years ago.

I also just started One More Thing by B.J. Novak on audio… although I think my husband would love this too! So I might have to stop and hold it for him, maybe for the holiday road trip coming up.

What are you reading this week?

modern romance

On our anniversary road trip to Denver a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I (ironically) listened to Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari on audio. Edited from Goodreads:

At some point, every one of us embarks on a journey to find love. We meet people, date, get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection. This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago. Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history. With technology, our abilities to connect with and sort through these options are staggering. So why are so many people frustrated? In Modern Romance, Ansari combines his irreverent humor with cutting-edge social science to give us an unforgettable tour of our new romantic world.

Modern Romance wasn’t quite what I expected… I guess I was thinking more along the lines of humorous personal anecdotes and silly “dos and don’ts” to dating. Turns out this book is more scientific, but not overly in-depth—Aziz does inject his brand of funny commentary throughout making it accessible. A lot of the book talks about how advancing technology has changed options and communication in dating, compared to how seemingly simple it was to find a mate just a few short decades ago.

I met my husband in grad school, neither of us had smartphones (we did text), and we did flirt a bit on Facebook, but our relationship was in-person right from the start. I never experienced dating in the modern technology age, really. I don’t think I’d even know where to begin with all the avenues Aziz and his writing partner Eric Klinenberg go over in Modern Romance. They focus on online dating sites and mobile apps, statistically successful profiles and awkward texting (and sexting), timing and mind games, and more.

Aziz does explain right at the start that Modern Romance covers mostly middle class heterosexuals, saying that delving into the romantic processes for homosexuals and other economic classes would be enough material for several other books in and of themselves. I liked the sections on the dating scenes of Japan, Brazil, and France, and also the interviews with people on their dating techniques and options in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I was pretty shocked (mostly at myself) at how “old fashioned” I guess I am—I can’t imagine being dumped via text, while apparently that has become an acceptable norm for people just a few years younger than me.

The audio was great; Aziz’s narration is hilarious as expected, but you do miss out on images and graphs. It was fun to listen to this one with my husband, several really good discussion starters in here for us!

Listened to audiobook from October 15 to 18, 2015.

brain on fire

I know it’s only the first month of the year, but I’m on track so far for my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge! The first book I decided to read from my list was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. From Goodreads:

When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened? In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

In August 2013 I actually attended Cahalan’s appearance in Kansas City for an author event sponsored by Rainy Day Books. She was bubbly and personable, and there was a particularly sweet moment when, during the Q&A, a mother expressed her gratitude at Cahalan’s book raising awareness for neurological diseases such as these, of which her young daughter suffered as well. The girl was there too, and Cahalan took her up on stage to sit with her.

Brain on Fire is an interesting read—her descent into “madness,” to the bafflement of many doctors, was harrowing and shocking. The best part is that Cahalan brings to light the prospect that perhaps those with undiagnosed “mystery” illnesses, or illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism, say, may actually have a disease that’s treatable and curable. How many people have died in situations like the one Cahalan faced? The brain is a fascinating and enigmatic subject.

While I do think the pacing and layout was done well, the writing lacked in places for me. Some of it was repetitive and some of it felt like trying to hard to be literary, like the book couldn’t decide whether to be a narrative memoir (too many adverb…) or an investigative scientific research piece—admittedly I glazed over many of the scientific descriptions. I also didn’t get a great sense of who Cahalan was before the onset of the disease. A bizarre behavior manifests seemingly out of nowhere, and we just take her word for it that it was uncharacteristic? I mean, yeah, I guess so… I just wish we would have gotten to know Cahalan better beforehand so the unusual symptoms could carry more cause for alarm. I didn’t feel emotionally invested or connected to her.

But, if you like the TV show House and have an interest in books about science, health, and mysteries, I think this one is worth a read.

Brain on Fire is my first of twelve books read for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from January 23 to 25, 2015.

five days at memorial

I recently finally read one of the books from my 2013 retail therapy bender, Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. From Goodreads:

In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs five days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.

After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

It took me forever to get through this one, and it took me forever to write this review! I’m not sure what the deal was with Five Days at Memorial for me. This kind of subject matter is usually right up my alley—survival, tests of humanity and society, etc. I just had trouble becoming completely immersed. I may have been in a bit of a slump in September, though—my schedule and workload really amps up when summer ends, and I admit to being overwhelmed with the shift this time. Anyway, it was interesting and well written enough for me to finish.

I found the first and last thirds to be especially fascinating, first the harrowing situation the people found themselves in, and finally the tense legal battles. The middle section dragged for me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why (my “real life” stuff could easily be the culprit). I remember noticing quite a bit of repetition, but it did make sense to repeat some things in context (differing accounts of the same act, etc.).

Fink’s research is exhaustive and apparent, and for the most part fair and balanced. The book delves deeper into the history of the hospital, the lives of the individuals involved, and the aftermath of the disaster than I would have ever expected. However, I’m not sure it was entirely without bias… it could just be how I read it, but I felt like Dr. Pou was portrayed at times as heroic and other times was demonized for her alleged actions.

I learned so much about disaster preparedness for places like hospitals, and I did get a sense that the doctors and nurses truly were doing everything they could to help their patients in the face of little resources. I did appreciate that Fink doesn’t drive home any specific conclusion or “lesson” here, especially on the topic of human euthanasia. The main point, I think, is that life is not all black and white, strictly right or wrong—it is all grays and subjective and feelings, and that’s what these people faced during Katrina in Memorial. It’s a great read—powerful, gut wrenching, informative, and thought provoking. I definitely recommend it, but only when you have the time to really dig in (unlike me, ugh)!

Read from September 7 to 28, 2014.