this will be my undoing

There was a lot of hype surrounding This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins before it came out in January, so I put it hold back then and the audiobook came through the library for me this month. Edited from Goodreads:

From one of the fiercest critics writing today, Morgan Jerkins’s highly-anticipated collection of linked essays interweaves her incisive commentary on pop culture, feminism, black history, misogyny, and racism with her own experiences to confront the very real challenges of being a black woman today. Jerkins is only in her twenties, but she has already established herself as an insightful, brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling tough, controversial subjects. In This Will Be My Undoing, she takes on perhaps one of the most provocative contemporary topics: What does it mean to “be”—to live as, to exist as—a black woman today? This is a book about black women, but it’s necessary reading for all Americans.

I’m on the fence a little bit about this one. Jerkins is a great writer, and has tons of potential for the future. But “controversial” and “brutally honest” are good adjectives for this book. I’m generally not upset by the most common content-triggering topics like sex and violence, but there are a lot here and she goes into great detail, so I guess just be prepared if you decide to read this one. Some of the essays were really good, especially those relating history to present-day black experiences, and those about her childhood. I also enjoyed the essays on Beyoncé’s groundbreaking visual album Lemonade and Michelle Obama.

However—and I completely acknowledge Jerkins’s book is not “for me,” as a white, middle-class, Oregon Trail-generation woman from the Midwest—there are some double standards and generalizations that made me sort of uncomfortable. She stereotypes white women and idealizes Japanese people. As a white woman who does not fit her narrow description of them, I’m just kind of like, well we’re not all rich, coddled, slim, beautiful Trump voters… And as an American living in Asia, I have to say, I really hate the “expat” mindset, which typically manifests itself as either the “white savior” trope or thinking that other countries and cultures exist solely for Americans to “discover” themselves, or something. So while I don’t doubt her interest in Japanese culture, I was bothered by her descriptions of Japan and its people. Remember that viral video a few years ago of a woman silently walking around New York City for hours to demonstrate frequent and unsettling street harassment of women? Jerkins weirdly defends the men in the video, while at the same time taking offense to being catcalled herself? I was confused as there being any difference.

I guess overall I was expecting something more insightful or somehow different, based on the hype and subtitle. Implicit bias exists in everyone. I respect Jerkins for putting it all out there, though, even the private, “shameful” stuff you’re supposedly not supposed to talk about.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

broad strokes

During my epic hunt the other day for audiobooks, I came across Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order) by Bridget Quinn in the non-fiction section and was immediately intrigued. Edited from Goodreads:

Historically, major women artists have been excluded from the mainstream art canon. Aligned with the resurgence of feminism in pop culture, Broad Strokes offers an entertaining corrective to that omission. Art historian Bridget Quinn delves into the lives and careers of 15 brilliant female artists in text that’s smart, feisty, educational, and an enjoyable read. Replete with beautiful reproductions of the artists’ works and contemporary portraits of each artist by renowned illustrator Lisa Congdon, this is art history from 1600 to the present day for the modern art lover, reader, and feminist.

I absolutely LOVED this book! I was totally engrossed in Quinn’s way of telling these women’s stories through their incredible art. The narrator, Tavia Gilbert, does a wonderful job setting a warm, enthusiastic tone for the audiobook reading. My only regret, which I realized about a third of the way through, was that I didn’t have this as a hardcover or paperback copy, as I’m sure there are reprints of the individual artworks discussed throughout the book. However, I was so taken with the women and Quinn’s friendly, descriptive writing brought everything to life for me anyway. She inserts herself in this book a lot, taking the reader along on her journey of following her dream (writing about art) and discovering these artists, but I didn’t mind that. I really love art but admittedly I have only a small base knowledge of any sort of art history, so I found this really fascinating and I learned a lot.

Besides art history, this is also a great piece on feminist history, as many (if not all) of these artists rebelled against the traditional expectations placed on women, like how you dress, keeping your last name after marriage, remaining devoted to your passion (in these cases, creating art) regardless of whether you’re married or have children, choosing NOT to marry or have children, or being an out lesbian. I appreciated that Quinn looked at this part of these artists’ lives as well—it really fleshed them out as real, 3-dimensional human beings for me and made them memorable.

This past year I’ve returned to one of my earliest loves, pencil drawing. Last month I was in such a bad slump—just couldn’t focus on hardly anything, and I had virtually no motivation to draw. Listening to Broad Strokes as I was trying to finish up a portrait of my parents helped so much to continue working—these women artists were so inspiring to me. I’m sure I’ll be recommending this book all year!

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

gratitude

Yesterday I spent an embarrassing amount of time on Overdrive hunting for new audiobooks to listen to (seriously I think I had 100 tabs to different books open at one point). Gratitude by Oliver Sacks caught my attention, as I remember enjoying reading Musicophilia several years ago. (Although looking back at my review, I was pretty critical of that book at the time!) Edited from Goodreads:

No writer has succeeded in capturing the medical and human drama of illness as honestly and as eloquently as Oliver Sacks. During the last few months of his life, he wrote a set of essays in which he movingly explored his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death. Together, these four essays form an ode to the uniqueness of each human being and to gratitude for the gift of life.

This is a very brief collection (36 minutes on audio) but it was filled with profound insight into a life lived, and lived well at that. All the pieces are lovely and moving. In “The Joy of Old Age” (or “Mercury”) from July 2013, Sacks looks back at his professional accomplishments and looks forward to his ninth decade of life. “My Own Life,” from February 2015, is his announcement of having terminal cancer, which began as a melanoma in his eye nine years earlier but had metastasized in his liver. Though the end is near, he has not given up on life and is determined to make the most of the few months(?) he has left.

When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

In “My Periodic Table,” July 2015, he talks about his interest in minerals and metals, and how they relate to his life and cancer treatments, and how the treatments were making him feel physically and emotionally. The final essay, “Sabbath,” published just a couple weeks before his death in August 2015, is a tender reflection on purpose and meaning in life. I was inspired by his positivity and gratefulness, his wise perspective and unwavering curiosity, and his gentle voice in this collection.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Oliver Sacks was a remarkable human being who made a difference in the lives of his patients and their families, his colleagues, and his readers. I should definitely read more of his books in the future.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

i am, i am, i am

I saw I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell on one of the what-to-read-in-February lists online last month, and immediately put it on hold on my library app. I love memoirs and I was intrigued by this unconventional look at very specific experiences in this writer’s life. Edited from Goodreads:

I Am, I Am, I Am is a memoir with a difference—the unputdownable story of an extraordinary woman’s life in near-death experiences. Intelligent, insightful, inspirational, it is a book to be read at a sitting, a story you finish newly conscious of life’s fragility, determined to make every heartbeat count. A childhood illness she was not expected to survive. A teenage yearning to escape that nearly ended in disaster. A terrifying encounter on a remote path. A mismanaged labour in an understaffed hospital. Shocking, electric, unforgettable, this is the extraordinary memoir from Costa Novel-Award winner and Sunday Times bestselling author Maggie O’Farrell. It is a book to make you question yourself. What would you do if your life was in danger, and what would you stand to lose?

I hadn’t read Maggie O’Farrell’s work before (confession: hadn’t heard of her before) reading this memoir. I was really spellbound by her beautiful writing, which simultaneously conveys rationality and an emotional rawness in these often harrowing vignettes. The first story was easily my favorite and one of the most chilling. Here’s the first sentence: “On the path ahead, stepping out from behind a boulder, a man appears.” NOPE. My heart literally raced while listening to this opener. As a woman, this resonated so deeply with me because things like this have happened to me. Granted and fortunately, no man ever interacted with me the way O’Farrell describes she was in this piece, but that doesn’t make my feelings when I’ve seen a strange man staring at or following me any less frightening.

I realized quickly that perhaps my expectations were too high going in—seventeen brushes with death?? O’Farrell’s either extremely lucky or unlucky (or a bit of both). But some experiences were definitely more true to near-death than others: a machete held at her neck during a robbery and almost bleeding out while delivering her first baby bring a person much closer to death than taking an STD test. The momentum lulled just slightly for me in the middle, as there was a little repetition (more than one drowning story), but the last few chapters were utterly heartbreaking and captivating, especially the final one about her daughter’s anaphylaxis and life-threatening allergies. Despite the brief ebb in the middle, I thought this book was a perfect length—easily devoured in a sitting or two.

There are so many amazing-looking books coming out this month and I Am, I Am, I Am definitely lived up to the hype for me. I really admired O’Farrell’s resilience, gratitude for her life, and generally optimistic outlook, all things considered.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

american housewife

As you know, I’ve been in a funk the last month or so with my reading (and kind of everything…). I’ve been having the worst time focusing on books in any format, but I think maybe I’m starting to come out of it, partly thanks to American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis, a great recommendation from one of my friends back home. Edited from Goodreads:

Meet the women of American Housewife: they wear lipstick, pearls, and sunscreen, even when it’s cloudy. They casserole. They pinwheel. They pump the salad spinner like it’s a CPR dummy. And then they kill a party crasher, carefully stepping around the body to pull cookies out of the oven. These twelve irresistible stories take us from a haunted prewar Manhattan apartment building to the set of a rigged reality television show, from the unique initiation ritual of a book club to the getaway car of a pageant princess on the lam, from the gallery opening of a tinfoil artist to the fitting room of a legendary lingerie shop. Vicious, fresh, and nutty as a poisoned Goo Goo Cluster, American Housewife is an uproarious, pointed commentary on womanhood.

As a woman who happens to be married and also happens to just now not be working outside the home, I have to admit the beginnings of some of these stories hit me a little to close to home (“What I Do All Day,” for example—a list of the mundane things a former career woman rattles off after she relinquishes her office job to become a full-time author supported financially by her husband, only to lose her motivation and settle into a stereotypical housewife role… holy identity crisis (mine), Batman). Here in Singapore, I’ve been called a housewife and have gotten so offended! “NO, I’m a musician and artist.” I’ve learned since that there isn’t the stigma or historically negative association with being a non-working female spouse here like there is in the States (I still answer “no,” though). But just when I moved from slightly uncomfortable to cringing while listening to these stories, there’d be a wtf! moment that would turn the whole thing on its head and have me laughing. Well done! My favorite stories were:

  • “The Wainscoting War,” about a condo-hallway decorating conversation that, in the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, “escalated quickly”
  • “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” a commentary on our ridiculous obsession with reality TV and celebrities
  • “Hello! Welcome to Book Club!” which emphasizes the cliquey-ness of book clubs and takes it to the extreme
  • “My Novel is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax,” another “that escalated quickly” story, about a woman with a touch of writer’s block working on her first novel, which has been sponsored by Tampax
  • “Dead Doorman,” in which a bored housewife develops relationships with employees of her posh apartment building

There were a few list-like pieces that I found amusing too, like “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady” and “How to Be a Patron of the Arts.” Ellis’s characters are devilish and wicked while her observations on the expectations of modern womanhood are sharp and sardonic. Overall I enjoyed the dark quirkiness to this collection; it’s a funny, entertaining quick read that was perfect to get me out of this slump.

Listened to audiobook in February 2018.

reading recap: january 2018

I’m seeing a bunch of memes this week saying that this January was the longest month ever… but I feel just the opposite! I’ve been down lately—I have a touch of seasonal affective disorder right now… yes, even here in a sunny, tropical locale—so I’ve had the hardest time sticking to my usual routines and being able to focus on anything much, let alone reading. I did manage to get through four fantastic books, though, and started a few more:

AND I’m really proud of myself for catching up with (almost) all my reviews over the past few months! So you can see the linked titles there will bring you to my reviews of those books. I had a year and a half worth of reading I hadn’t written posts about here on the blog, and now I’m only behind on one (waiting to read another 1–2 I have on the same topic so I can bundle them together in one post), and The Power from this month I have drafted to go tomorrow. Progress!

Anyway, although I thought all four of these are incredible and I highly recommend, if I have to pick favorites I’d say The Last Black Unicorn and The Power. Tiffany Haddish is an incredibly funny comedian and I’m sure I’ll be a fan forever now. Her memoir strikes a a nice balance of both the difficult and good times of her life, while being thoughtful and entertaining the whole time. I didn’t realize it until I finished, but The Power is just what I needed this month. I’ve been in a slump and I’m still figuring out what the problem is, but reading a fictional novel engaged my imagination and attention better than anything else in a while. It’s a creative reversal of societal gender roles and expectations, and a look at how unequal distribution of power (and how it’s wielded) can effect humanity… hmm echoes of what’s happening now in many parts of the world.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Thank You for Your Service. It’s a potent, compelling book that chronicles the struggles of (mostly recent) veterans and their families due to time served at war. And Women & Power connected many dots for me as far as exactly how deeply rooted in history misogyny is, specifically in ancient Greek and Roman literature and art.

Besides starting and finishing these four, I also started Fire and Fury, the new barn-burner on the current executive administration in the U.S.; Dark Money, my first pick for my TBR Challenge 2018; and Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life just for fun. Anthony and I also chose our next book club read, The Left Hand of Darkness to honor the life of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I’m a few chapters in but I’m afraid this one might be lost on me… we’ll see. Next up in February I’d like to choose books by black authors to honor Black History Month, so I have HomegoingPushout, and We Were Eight Years in Power in my sights.

How is your reading going so far in 2018?

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