mini-reviews: my life on the road, freedom is a constant struggle

I have admired the work of Gloria Steinem and Angela Y. Davis for a while, but haven’t read any books or essays by either until this past year! Here are my thoughts on their 2015 releases:

I won an ARC of Steinem’s fascinating, engaging memoir My Life on the Road from Goodreads. I didn’t know anything about Steinem’s upbringing, and she was so relatable here. I really enjoyed learning about her nomadic childhood, with her father’s wanderlust taking the family on frequent road trips, and how those experiences shaped her adult life both personally and professionally. I think this would have been even better on audio. A few sections dragged, but overall I loved how she used travel to illustrate feminism, organizing, and more in our world. She had insightful things to say about Hillary Clinton and 2008 primaries and election season, which was interesting to read just before the 2016 election. [Read in Sept. 2016.]

Freedom is a Constant Struggle is a great collection of selected speeches and conversations of Angela Y. Davis. The speeches in the last half of the book especially stood out to me; they connect race, feminism, civil rights, intersectionality, fighting for freedom, and more. Despite some repetitiveness, I think this is a must-read in these times as it drives home the point that several complex struggles we’re facing in the United States are also global issues. Davis is a fascinating, inspiring figure, and I’m awed by her brilliance and bravery. She’s a radical thinker and activist, and this slim book pushed my thinking on several issues. [Read in February 2017.]

mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything—an actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight. It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants—they just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is an excellent companion piece to Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear. Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)—finding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer. This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed—a blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]

mini-reviews: march trilogy, tears we cannot stop

Continuing my catch-up posts about excellent books on social justice, race relations, and civil rights…

I was captivated by Art Spiegelman’s Maus books when I first read them in middle school. While I was interested in learning about the Holocaust at the time, I’m pretty certain a “regular” book would have been too much for me. The graphic novel/memoir format was excellent at conveying serious subject matter to me then, and while I certainly can handle full-text books on heavy topics now, I was still pleased by and learned from John Lewis’s March graphic memoir trilogy. His life story (then, and still what he does for the country today) is an inspiration. In March, Lewis clearly connects critical events and people within and outside the Civil Rights Movement and the differences of varying social justice organizations of the 1950s and 60s. It was informative, hopeful, and inspiring… and also a little surreal and depressing reading this in January 2017. I hope young people are reading this now. [Read in January 2017.]

Michael Eric Dyson presents his argument for racial issues in the United States as a long-form sermon in Tears We Cannot Stop. This book could not be any more imperative for White America right now. Dyson speaks a lot of uncomfortable truths about race and the Black American experience, and we all really need to listen. Sadly, I’m afraid those who need these lessons the most will not pick up this book, but it’s an important piece anyway. Even just listening, learning, bearing witness, and acknowledging are beginning steps towards true advocacy for white allies. My one tiny criticism is that I believe there is much more to the election than just race, but there are (and will be) other books and articles one could read about all the factors that were in play. The audiobook (read by Dyson) is powerful and fantastic—I listened to the whole thing in one sitting. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

mini-reviews: fire this time, we gon’ be alright, underground railroad

Three more books related to race issues that I read recently, two of which (The Fire This Time and We Gon’ Be Alright) were among my favorites from last year:

I will read anything and everything by Jesmyn Ward. She only wrote the introduction and one entry in The Fire This Time, but there is fantastic writing by all the authors, which include Carol Anderson, Claudia Rankine, and more. Everyone should read this book. Ward has compiled a thoughtful, powerful, and moving collection of essays and poems—sometimes autobiographical, all unique perspectives—on life and race in America today. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking, but also hopeful. I wish I had read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time first, but I will get to it someday for sure. [Read ebook in October 2016.]

Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright is another essential collection of essays to help understand why race relations in America remain so strained today. The pieces examine Ferguson, racism in higher education, the morphed definition of “diversity,” #OscarsSoWhite, growing up Asian American, Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, white flight, segregation in k-12 schools, the symbolism of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and more. The chapters focused on student protests in Missouri really hit home—he mentions an incident with then-UM President Tim Wolfe being approached by student protesters in Kansas City after a fundraiser gala. I was at the event working, but I didn’t witness the confrontation. It was a big deal—we had to plan ahead for his attendance and what might happen. I admire the protesters for their courage and resistance, and my colleagues who were there for keeping the peace and being respectful. Tim Wolfe, on the other hand, was ignorant, rude, and dismissive. Anyway, this is a timely, incisive, and impactful must-read. [Read in December 2016.]

And now for my unpopular opinion. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was by far one of the most hyped books of 2016, but unfortunately I didn’t find it engaging. It’s about a runaway slave and her journey to freedom, only Whitehead’s “railroad” here is a physical one with trains. I thought there would be more about the trains and railroad, like it would become magical realism, but it does not. I was so intrigued by the premise of this book, but the plot jumped from scene to scene and past to present too frenetically, or it slogged too slowly, and I had trouble connecting with the characters—they fell flat for me. The cheese stands alone, though, as The Underground Railroad has won numerous awards including the 2017 Pulitzer for Fiction. I think perhaps a non-fiction on this subject would have affected me more than an historical fiction. I had to force myself to finish. [Read ebook in September 2016.]

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: february 2017

I had a busy February. We saw three awesome concerts (Periphery, Joe Satriani, and Guns N’ Roses), went to the Singapore Botanic Gardens, tried more new restaurants, saw some good movies (Lego BatmanMoonlight), and I read a lot. I think I might have hit a new personal record for number of books read in one month (especially the short month of the year!).

feb-recap-2017

Difficult Women — This collection of stories was captivating, tumultuous, distressing, and real. Gay’s writing is almost poetic and cuts deep. She presents women who are complex, emotional, damaged, and who persevered through tragedies. I loved it—read it in two days.  **favorite**

You Can’t Touch My Hair — I wish Phoebe Robinson was my friend. And she gets her wish for Michelle Obama to be her friend. Basically I wish Phoebe and Michelle and I were all friends. I loved how Phoebe uses unfiltered humor to tell stories from her life while discussing how they relate to race, gender, pop culture, and more. My favorite part might be the letters to her young niece at the end.  **favorite**

Another Day in the Death of America — Gary Younge picked a random day and examined the short lives of ten children and teenagers who were killed by guns on that day in the US. It puts each victim and their death in context of economic and familial situations, education, race, etc. It’s a powerful book in line with Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. My only quibble is that the author said this book is not about gun control, and while it’s true that he doesn’t delve into the politics of gun control, a book about ten children murdered by guns can’t entirely not be about that.

Freedom is a Constant Struggle — This is a very thought-provoking collection, if repetitive and in need of another round of edits. I’m not sure it’s the best one to start with if you’re unfamiliar with Davis. The email interviews weren’t engaging at all. I did appreciate Davis’s articulation in connecting struggles throughout the world, from the US to Palestine to Turkey to Africa. She’s a brilliant scholar-activist to whom we should pay heed, especially in these times. Her take on remaining optimistic and mass movements through community organizing uplifted me.

Blood at the Root — This is the true history of how more than 1,000 black citizens were driven out of Forsyth County, Georgia, starting in 1912 when three black men were accused of murdering a white woman. It’s a fascinating, horrifying, difficult read but important that we learn the truths of our country and not the sugar-coated, edited versions. I think I would have gotten more out of this one reading on paper instead of listening on audio. Still, the events of Blood at the Root especially sting in that we still experience this sort of racial cleansing today, be it “white flight,” gentrification, disproportionate incarceration rates, etc.

Wishful Drinking — I was standing in line for a concert while I read this short, irreverent book by the late, hilarious Carrie Fisher. It was a great book to cleanse my palate after three heavy, serious reads. Carrie rambled and went off on tangents at times, and I guess I was expecting more depth as far as her addictions went. I bet this is 100 times better on audio, but it worked pretty well as an ebook on my phone.

Fever Dream — I did like the unsettling sense of dread throughout this brief, creepy novel, but overall I feel neutral. This was an audio hold that came through, so maybe it was the wrong time for me for this one. Truthfully, I may need to read it again, and on paper instead of audio. (Or maybe not. I have a ton of other books to get to!)

Sleeping Giants — I started Sleeping Giants with my husband but he lost interest about halfway through. The premise is intriguing, if not the most original ever. Too many of the characters left a bad taste in my mouth (the actors gave them condescending, snotty attitudes) for me to continue with the series.

Beasts of No Nation — I saw the Netflix film a few months ago and thought it was astounding. I was looking for a book to fill the “author your age” square for the Litsy Reading Challenge, and Uzodinma Iweala is just one month older than I am, but I would have been interested in reading this regardless. Nyambi Nyambi did a phenomenal job performing the young protagonist Agu on the audiobook. Even though Beasts is a fiction, nothing about this story is “fake” in the sense that this is the harrowing, scary reality for many boys in war-torn countries of seemingly endless conflict.  **favorite**

Fire Shut Up in My Bones — My friend Anthony and I decided to resurrect our little two-person book club (now international!) and chose Fire Shut Up in My Bones. I loved Charles Blow’s introspective, descriptive, and poetic writing. He really gives you an immersive picture of the world in which he grew up. He’s an impressive figure who overcame a childhood fraught with poverty, betrayals, and inner turmoil. I had a couple of expectations going in that weren’t met, which is actually totally fine… it’s hard to talk about this without spoilers. I think I was just mislead (likely by my own self) in what may or may not have happened to him to shape his life journey. Anyway, it’s a fantastic memoir.  **favorite**

OKAY! This is a long post; maybe I should go back to singular review posts?? How was your February for reading?

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