mini-reviews: ghettoside, blood at the root, another day

I’m watching the unfolding of events in the United States very carefully from here in Singapore. I feel helpless a lot of the time… I do what I can from here (emails to my representatives, mostly, and of course absentee voting) but one thing for certain that I can do is educate myself. In light of the current protests happening across the NFL lately, I thought this week it would be appropriate to catch up on reviewing related books I’ve recently read.

Ghettoside is about the murder of a young black man in L.A., who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who also happened to be the son of a policeman who lived where he patrolled, as well as the detectives who were assigned to this case. Beyond this central story, there is also examination of gang-related violence and killings in South-central L.A. and societal failures for these communities. I liked Jill Leovy‘s attention to detail and thorough reporting, but I felt there was too much focus on the white detectives and their value and roles, and not enough from the perspectives of the members of the black communities this violence effects. But the overall message certainly is that Black Lives Matter and tries to offer possible solutions to reducing and solving gang-related murders. [Listened to audiobook in August 2016.]

In 1912, three young black men were accused of raping and murdering a white woman in Forsyth County, Georgia. This launched the rise of a group of white supremacist terrorists prowling the county and the systematic removal of black families there, using tactics that were forceful, intimidating, outright inhumane and violent, and often outrageously “legal” thanks to white elitist legislators in the state. Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root is a fascinating, gripping, and often personal book that details the shameful, unjust racial cleansing that plagued this particular county, but is required reading in order to understand how this kind of homegrown terrorism continues to effect and shape our nation’s racial climate today. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Another Day in the Death of America provides an outsider’s view of how normalized gun violence has become in the United States, as the author, Gary Younge, is from the U.K. Being black and new to the U.S., he became alarmed by how he had to change raising his children to be prepared in our dangerous society here. He chose a random date and examines the tragic deaths of ten children by guns on that date. Ranging in age from nine to nineteen, most of these kids were black, but all were boys from low-income communities. Some were gang-related killings, some were just two kids messing around unsupervised. I agree with Younge’s argument on the urgent need for strict gun regulations, but I wish he hadn’t insisted in the opening that this book is not meant to be a political statement. That’s my only criticism. Gun availability, use, and regulations have all been heavily politicized, there’s no way a book like this isn’t political. And the problem is deeper than just gun regulations—it’s economics, media, and popular culture, too. This book is difficult to read at times, but important in that it is a potent reminder that there are real people—real, individual children and families—who are victims of of this insane, rampant gun violence EVERY DAY. It’s critical to not become desensitized. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

reading recap: august 2017

August was a good month! I went to Thailand, had a friend visit here in Singapore, saw Kronos Quartet for the first time, finished my first-ever commissioned drawing, and read seven books:

  • Difficult Men (audio) … Brett Martin, read by Keith Szarabajka
  • The Monster of Florence (audio) … Douglas Preston, read by Dennis Boutsikaris
  • The Fact of a Body (audio) … Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, read by author
  • Borne … Jeff VanderMeer
  • A Fine Balance (audio) … Rohinton Mistry, read by John Lee
  • It (paper and audio) … Stephen King, read by Steven Weber
  • Flowers of the Killer Moon (audio) … David Grann, read by various

I still want to start moving away from so many audiobooks for a while and focus back on paper soon. It felt great to read a couple books on paper this month (well, one and a half—I went half-audio, half-paper with It). I think I need to just slow down and set aside some time every day to sit with a physical book. My visit home in June–July, the Thailand trip (where I met up with a bunch of old friends from Kansas City), and another friend coming here to Singapore way overstimulated me and now I’m having trouble sitting still!

All the non-fiction I read this month was great, but my favorites were the novels A Fine Balance and BorneA Fine Balance is one of my favorite books anyway—I read it on paper in 2012 so this time on audio was a re-read. It’s just a beautiful, heartbreaking book. Bleak, but I loved it. I’m not sure I could write a better review now than I did in 2012 (link), but the audio was just as good. I really enjoyed Borne for it’s straight-up weirdness. I really liked VanderMeer’s Annihilation so I had Borne on on my radar when it was announced. Post-apocalyptic city terrorized by a building-sized flying bear? Yes. Yes, please. It was strange and fantastic.

I finished IT just in time! I’m looking forward to seeing the first movie when it comes out soon. To get prepped, I also re-watched the 1990s miniseries version. Just terrible! Except for Tim Curry, he’s perfection as Pennywise, but other than his performance that version can go float in the sewer. Yikes.

My non-fiction reads were mostly about murders, and one about TV show production. I recently started re-watching The Sopranos again, so Difficult Men was a great companion to that, but it was more about the creators of The Sopranos and shows like it rather than what I was expecting, the rise of the anti-hero protagonist in popular media and culture. That’s okay, it was still an interesting behind-the-scenes look at one of my favorite shows. The Monster of Florence and The Fact of a Body were similar in that they were investigations into mysterious real-life murders, while weaving in the authors’ personal stories as well. Flowers of the Killer Moon was my favorite of these non-fictions from August. It was also an about true murders—the 1920s killings of members of the Osage Indian Nation of Oklahoma, and how the FBI arose from the investigation of these murders. I enjoyed David Grann’s The Lost City of Z a few years back so I was excited to read this one, too, and it was just as compelling as Z. The amount of American history left out of the history books and our general educations is staggering, and Killer Moon is just one more example. We need these books and acknowledgement of our true, shameful past in America.

For September, I’m going to get through my Best Friends International Book Club’s current picks (A Colony in a NationThe New Jim Crow, and Bitch Planet, Book Two), as well as Killing Pablo (too late for the release of Narcos season 3 on Netflix, but it’s a real page turner! I’ll be through it quickly) and Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal and loaned to me by a friend here. On audio, I have to finish up ZeroZeroZero (also a good companion to Narcos and Killing Pablo), and I just got The Heart’s Invisible Furies off hold. It’ll be another good month, and I’m sure I’ll surpass my Goodreads goal of 70 books for the year.

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the fact of a body

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich was hyped a lot recently, so I had to put it on hold through the library. I just finished listening to the audiobook a few days ago. Edited from Goodreads:

Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes―the moment she hears him speak of his crimes―she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.

I love non-fiction, true crime stories. I find them fascinating, thought-provoking, and great for discussion, and The Fact of a Body is no exception. Marzano-Lesnevich weaves her own experiences during her upbringing with the crimes Ricky Langley committed, and the result is a well-executed, compelling book that reads like a novel. While the murder itself is disturbing, I was also upset by the fact that Langley knew he was a risk to others and needed help, but was ignored left and right by social and prison systems alike.

Marzano-Lesnevich tells her story and how it relates to Langley’s without hyperbole, if read (by her) a little dryly on the audio version. While the writing is beautiful, one thing that didn’t work much for me is that Marzano-Lesnevich takes artistic liberties and goes into impossibly detailed descriptions in her narrative of others’ thoughts, what they were wearing, etc., but to her credit she does admit this and explain why in the notes section. I would have liked to hear how the experience of investigating Langley’s life and crime changed her feelings on the death penalty, and how meeting with him in person went (she mentions that she met him but doesn’t elaborate or describe it).

After reading The Fact of a Body, I thought a lot about memory, what would I do in certain situations, and what society expects regarding punishment, rehabilitation, and social safety nets. Marzano-Lesnevich strikes a wonderful balance between the factual and the emotional. She is analytical and empathetic, and examines how one’s past effects the present. It’s a deeply uncomfortable yet moving book, and it doesn’t sugarcoat dark, confusing, and unfair parts of life. People have secrets, nothing in life is so black-and-white.

Listened to audiobook in August 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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hunger: a memoir of (my) body

I have been waiting with bated breath for Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger for a year! The day it came out in June this summer I was in Madison and promptly picked it up at A Room of One’s Own, one of my favorite bookstores. Edited from Goodreads:

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Gay explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

This memoir wrecked me. It’s about body transformation, but not in the typical way you might expect. It’s about rape culture, race, societal expectations and pressure, familial expectations and pressure, addiction, body image, self preservation and acceptance, gender and sexuality, relationships, and more. This is not a feel-good tome, and Gay doesn’t want your pity or to be called a “survivor.” She doesn’t pull punches or tug at heart strings in Hunger. She is self-aware and brutally honest about the way things are for a person her size, which is technically categorized as the horrible term “super morbidly obese.”

Although I have never experienced the same kind of specific hardships and trauma that Gay has (in fact, I’d say I’ve been blessed to live a fairly charmed, happy life), her personal experience of wanting to hide from the world and finding a way to do that with her body resonated with me in my own way. Even though I was (and am) slender and “normal” weight, I was very self-conscious and protective of my body when I was a kid and teenager. I wanted to be noticed, but I also didn’t… and either way certainly not for my body. Thank goodness for grunge—baggy flannel was my armor in the 90s. It was still years into my adulthood before I felt okay about wearing a bikini and also realized that I have had advantages in society because of what I look like (sometimes I’ve heard this called “pretty privilege”). I wish the world weren’t like this, but I think acknowledgment is better than denial and can help people (me) work towards changing it. I cannot sit here and honestly say I’m ugly or unattractive, certainly not by current societal and cultural standards. This privilege has been magnified a thousandfold to me after living in Singapore for a year, where I’m experiencing a strange mix of benefiting from white privilege (which I know I had in the States, of course) and also being a minority. It’s an uncomfortable, conflicting feeling of which I’m hyper-aware, which I think is a good thing.

In Hunger, Gay’s writing is unapologetic, and while she says she is not brave for putting out this memoir and speaking her truth, I have to disagree. Laying bare her rape and its physical and mental consequences, and then the consequences and daily issues of her resulting weight gain after that trauma, share with the reader and emotional rawness I’ve rarely encountered in any other book, if ever. I think releasing a book like this in today’s image-obsessed society and rape-apologist culture is brave as hell.

Read in July 2017.

al franken, giant of the senate

I don’t know how I’m going to catch up on all my book posts! One at a time, I suppose. I’ve been a fan of Al Franken for years, like pretty much everyone, and I think his time as a senator has made me like him even more (and seriously consider a move to Minnesota! But we do have the wonderful Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin). I recently listened to Franken’s new memoir Al Franken, Giant of the Senate on audiobook, read brilliantly by Al himself. Edited from Goodreads:

In this candid personal memoir, the honorable gentleman from Minnesota takes his army of loyal fans along with him from Saturday Night Live to the campaign trail, inside the halls of Congress, and behind the scenes of some of the most dramatic and/or hilarious moments of his new career in politics. Has Al Franken become a true Giant of the Senate? Franken asks readers to decide for themselves..

First off, the chapter on Ted Cruz is worth the price of this book alone. “I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz,” says Franken. But the entire book is full of interesting and enlightening details about his life and two careers. I really appreciate his honesty (he talks about how he cannot understand and abide by lying) and integrity as a senator. Franken sums up his memoir as “the story of how, after a lifetime of learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” Because senators aren’t supposed to be funny. But rest assured, Franken is still very funny, with his signature Minnesotan dry humor and droll observations found throughout. He recounts his childhood, his time on SNL, and his campaign run, as well as explains policy and political processes in a straight-forward manner that’s easy to follow and understand.

I really enjoyed hearing about his friendship with Paul Wellstone, which inspired him to get into politics, as well as his reconciling his funny and serious selves. While there is a lot of ugliness in politics right now, and we are going through some terrifying times, Franken managed to make me feel hopeful by the end of Giant of the Senate. I think this memoir is a must read for people who truly want a fair, balanced view of politics and politicians. With a few jokes thrown in, naturally.

12/1/2017 ETA: God dammit, Al Franken.

Listened to audiobook in July 2017.