book club: the glass castle and the power

It’s the latest edition of Best Friends International Book Club! To the left is a screenshot I snapped, that’s me laughing in the lower corner at Anthony’s antics. I love our little club!

Anthony and I had a lively discussion over Skype last week. In addition to our two main books, we talked a little bit about Into Thin Air, which I had read twice already and loved, and Anthony had just finished for the first time. And we actually stayed on topic pretty well! I’m really happy we chose a fiction. I’ve been in a slump lately, and for some reason reading a novel snapped me out of my funk just a little bit and I’m grateful. Maybe I just need an outlet for mental escape at the moment and I’m more in a TV mode lately than reading. Anyway! On to our thoughts on these two fantastic books:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls has been on my list for a very long time. I think at one point in grad school I even “borrowed” (read: stole) my mom’s copy for a while… only to return it eventually, unread, during some apartment move. With the new movie version out this rocketed back up to the forefront of my radar. I found it hard to put down, despite many emotionally difficult parts, mostly dealing with Walls’s neglectful parents. She recalls some truly disturbing moments from her poverty-stricken, nomadic childhood, including lack of adequate food and shelter. Glass Castle is an affecting look at addiction and mental illness. It’s clear throughout that her parents loved their children, but her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s manic depression dictated their lives. I found Walls’s writing to be even-tempered, coming across as almost neutral to her upbringing. She seemed (publicly in this memoir, at least) to be rather non-judgemental of her parents, and I think this may have helped the narrative. I was never put off by having to read through self-pitying diatribes or complaints, because there wasn’t any here. Anthony posed some excellent questions we ruminated on: What do you think is the larger takeaway The Glass Castle? Maybe it’s overcoming adversity, maybe a message about addiction and mental illness, maybe familial bonds, maybe reading a tough, depressing story like this makes us feel better about ourselves, maybe everyone has a story to tell? Or maybe nothing, it just is? Also, we wondered about Walls’s privilege to be able to tell her story, softly comparing it to another BFIBC book we read earlier, Charles Blow’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones (brought up in rural poverty, overcomes odds to become journalist), although we both agreed we liked Glass Castle a little better in general. I watched the movie adaptation a couple months ago and liked it, Woody Harrelson is brilliant, but it does change and dramatize some things to achieve a standard Hollywood storyline, as adaptations do. [Read in December 2017.]

I can’t remember exactly how I found out about Naomi Alderman’s The Power… maybe when it won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The story is incredibly clever: what would happen if all of a sudden gender roles were reversed and women, not men, were the ones who held physical, political, and social power? Alderman explores this concept filtered through a handful of main characters as they navigate this new world where women and girls have discovered an newly awakened deadly, electric physical ability. It covers rape culture, religion, terrorism, politics, and more, all while turning gender norms and expectations upside down. At first, I felt empowered reading about these women finding a strength within and taking charge, but after a while I became uncomfortable rooting for them.”Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as the saying goes. Don’t get me wrong, I hate the stereotype/expectation that women are supposed to be pure, innocent, perfect little angels. Women are not necessarily less corrupt or violent than men, generally speaking. Anthony had a great point about how “the power” in this book wasn’t always about the obvious evolutionary electric power in girls and women, but also different kinds of power like political power, physical beauty, and manipulation. There are some striking statements, though, like when the power was first becoming known, boys are advised to go out in groups and not to walk alone at night, boy babies are being aborted, etc. Yes of course you don’t walk alone at night! As a woman I’ve been indoctrinated to this. But I never thought of the possibility of men having to live in fear for their bodily safety no matter where they are or what time it is, and being taught to take these kinds of precautionary actions. It made me angry that this never occurred to me before. Anthony also posed the question: Who is Alderman’s intended audience, women? Men? Both? Because it was really interesting to read and discuss this with a person of the opposite-identifying gender, for both of us. This would be an amazing movie, or long-form episode of Black Mirror! [Read in January 2018.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, which we chose after hearing of her death last week. I’m a few chapters in already and to be honest, I have no idea who anyone is or what the hell is going on. I really struggle getting into this kind of deeply complex sci-fi fantasy, it’s not really my thing, so we’ll see how it goes. I might have to DNF. Our second choice is pending at the moment… we both happen to have copies of David Bowie Made Me Gay by Darryl W. Bullock, but in February I’d like to consciously choose books written by black authors (I’ll finish whatever I’m in the middle of, but for my new reads for the month). Stay tuned!

book club: colony in a nation, bitch planet 2, and new jim crow

During my visit back to the States in November, I spent a week in Kansas City and one of my priorities there was a Best Friends International Book Club meeting with my beloved Anthony! He was a sight for sore eyes and gives the greatest hugs.

We may not have stayed on topic quite as well as last time by Skype, but it was still so great to discuss books and life with him, especially in person.

We like to typically choose two to three books: one or two that one or the other of us has read already, and one or two that’s new to both of us. For this installment, Anthony had read A Colony in a Nation (but I’ve had it waiting on my shelf), and both Bitch Planet, Book Two and The New Jim Crow were new reads for us. (We also ended up discussing Hillary Clinton’s What Happened a little bit, too!)

Our first choice was A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes. Confession: I have the biggest nerd-crush on Chris Hayes! I loved his first book, Twilight of the Elites, and I was super excited for Colony to come out. I bought it on its release date at Kinokuniya here in Singapore. As an astute and observant reporter for MSNBC and The Nation, Hayes has been checking his white privilege for a long time. He discusses his coverage of the turbulence in Ferguson and Baltimore after the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. This is not “a white guy explaining race to you.” Hayes does use personal anecdotes to point out aspects of racial inequality in the States, but always in a way that serves his argument. For example, he relates a time he was genuinely terrified of getting busted for weed by the cops, at the Republican National Convention no less, but was waved through security with no issue. But if he had been black? Surely arrested with unnecessarily tough punishment, possibly even shot on the spot. You may think, Well this is all very obvious, of course black Americans are discriminated against in society and the criminal justice system. But Hayes takes that and lays out exactly how, historically and democratically, the system has always been stacked against black Americans, and how there are two distinct Americas (“… American criminal justice isn’t one system with racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other is the kind you expect in an occupied land… the terrifying truth is that we as a people created the Colony through democratic means.” pg. 32). This is an awesome, short read to get you started on this subject, and a good companion to our other pick this time, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. [Read in October 2017.]

After liking the first volume, Anthony and I decided to continue with Bitch Planet, Book Two: President Bitch by DeConnick and De Landro. What I said when reviewing the first book (“I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass…I think Bitch Planet has a great premise and is an excellent, creative way to get readers thinking and talking about intersectional feminism, the prison industrial complex, sexism, societal expectations of women, and more.”) is still pretty much how I feel. I enjoyed President Bitch even better than Extraordinary Machine. This second installment had the backstory I was missing in the first, as well as even more inclusion of intersectional feminism, featuring trans women too. I was glad to see less of the Megaton game (if at all? I can’t remember!). I love how one message in particular is loud and clear: if women (on Earth and Bitch Planet) stick together and fight, their resistance of the patriarchal Protectorate will only grow and surely eventually triumph. And it closed with a compelling cliffhanger! [Read in October 2017.]

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is ESSENTIAL READING FOR EVERYONE. I can’t stress enough the importance of this book. It took me kind of a long time to get through because every few pages I’d get so infuriated that I’d have to set it down and pace around for a while. The situation is just so bleak and unjust. Alexander didn’t even have to go into dramatic histrionics—literally just plainly lay out the facts and statistics. I knew some things going into this, in general as a concerned citizen and after reading Colony, but Alexander does an eye-opening job of unveiling layer after layer of corruption and bullshit in the criminal justice system and Prison Industrial Complex, and exactly how deep this all goes, and why it’s rooted in the War on Drugs, which was DESIGNED to legally create the next, current iteration of Jim Crow. A black man, for example, is convicted for possessing a miniscule amount of weed for the first time. He is convicted to 10–20 years in prison. When he gets out, he has no housing, no job, often no access to a car, tons of court and other fees to pay, no food assistance, he loses custody and access to his kids, and he can’t participate in basic rights as a citizen such as voting and serving on a jury. (CANNOT VOTE. Think about that—a whole mass people who can’t vote… what would the outcome of the 2016 election have looked like if prisoners and parolees could have voted?? This is yet another example of our racist system disenfranchising and keeping black and brown people from participating in democracy as fully recognized citizens.) Family members are reticent to take him in, as they’re liable if anything happens again and could lose their homes… even if it doesn’t happen in their homes but down the street!! Society has also engineered a system where black and brown Americans are left out of jobs and housing in cities across the country, which contributes to this nasty, practically inescapable cycle. They’re automatically second-class citizens, unable to get ahead (or even back to the starting line) by political design. This book made me better understand why people take terrible, lose-lose plea deals. I’m having heart palpitations and just sick typing this all up right now. This is a must-read, profound, accessible book and I’m pissed at myself for not reading it immediately when it came out. [Read in October 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (one of my all-time favorites), The Glass House by Jeannette Walls, and The Power by Naomi Alderman. I’m going to try to read Glass House and Power before the end of this month/year!

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.]