reading recap: march 2017

I had another prolific month of reading! It’s really nice to be back in a groove after so many blah months. I’m trying to catch up on books I’ve had forever and not buy new ones, and I’m doing okay with that, better than in the past. My audiobook reading has skyrocketed, though. Without a regular 8-to-5 I have tons of time to listen at home and on bus/subway rides. These ten books makes my 2017 total 27 already—more than halfway to my Goodreads goal of 50 for the year, so I may raise that soon enough!

  • Americanah … Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Stranger in the Woods (audio) … Michael Finkel, read by Mark Bramhall
  • When Breath Becomes Air … Paul Kalanithi
  • The Last One (win) … Alexandra Oliva
  • Psycho (audio) … Robert Bloch, read by Paul Michael Garcia
  • Brown Girl Dreaming (audio) … Jacqueline Woodson, read by author
  • Get in Trouble: Stories … Kelly Link
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (audio) … Ken Kesey, read by Tom Parker
  • Hidden Figures (ebook) … Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Mom & Me & Mom (audio) … Maya Angelou, read by author

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestWhen Breath Becomes Air, and The Stranger in the Woods were my favorites read in March. I loved Americanah, but I finished right before Adichie’s controversial interview comments came out, so I’m still sort of reconciling my feelings about it in retrospect. There were some really great stories in Get in Trouble, too, and Psycho was fabulous. I really wanted Hidden Figures to live up to all the grand hype, but for me it fell flat. The parts about the women themselves and their lives were excellent, but you have to wade through lots of textbook-like technical chapters that bored me. I still want to see the movie, though.

Okay. I think if I’m going to be getting through this volume of books (or close to it) each month, I’m going to have to get back into individual posts. It’ll be good for me, another project to keep me occupied!

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between the world and me

I know I’m super late on writing this one, but I don’t feel right just skipping it because it’s one of the best books I read this year. From Goodreads:

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden? Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son.

I was so moved by this book; I was brought to tears more than once. Coates tackles this brutal, urgent topic that effects us all in a poetic, even-keeled manner. I felt the heaviness of his heart and worry for his son’s future as I read. There are no answers or solutions presented here, just Coates’s interpretation of the American Dream, and that self-assessment, education, solidarity, and awareness are the ways to survive.

I’ll admit that I’m jaded some from my reality after graduating from college, but I’m also fully aware of my white privilege and that I’m living easy street compared to countless others. I was taught that if I work hard and “do all the right things” I’ll have a well-paying job out of college and a comfortable life. I’ll inherit the world, not just grow up in it. Young black Americans are given a very different message, rooted in fear and struggle and survival.

One of Coates’s most jarring (and now that I’ve read it and been made aware, accurate) assertions is that violence to black bodies is American tradition inherent. It’s a part of the system and designed by it, not a failure of the system. Why does it persist, if we’ve supposedly evolved as a society, right? Well, that’s a thought out of white privilege. Parents of black children live in fear everyday in a way that parents of white children need not—their children can be brutalized, jailed, and killed over the tiniest (or non-existent) offense.

Between the World and Me ranks right up there with Claudine Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for me as far as urgency and potency. This is necessary reading for these times.

Read from September 7 to 10, 2015.

an untamed state

After reading Bad Feminist and seeing this one all over “best of” lists last year, I knew I had to read Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. From Goodreads:

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

What a powerful, harrowing book. The brutal violence during Miri’s captivity took my breath away—it reads like a bona fide thriller. Scenes flashing back to Miri’s childhood and marriage are interspersed throughout the first part, letting the reader get to know all the players better and Miri’s mindset before her 13-day ordeal began. (That’s one shining light for the reader—you know she will be freed after 13 days. Miri does not, though.) The second half of the book covers the aftermath of the event—Miri’s fragile, volatile mental and emotional health as a result of the physical and psychological trauma she endured. Not only Miri suffers during and after her kidnapping, her family does as well. They all have to reconcile with what happened to her and find a “new normal” somehow.

I do believe An Untamed State lives up to the hype—it makes a mighty impression and is not a story you’ll soon forget. However, for me personally, I found the characters to be generally unlikable. I don’t need all my protagonists in entertainment to be likable, I just got the impression we’re supposed to like Miri and her husband. They’re supposed to be great star-crossed soulmates or something, but their overall mutual unkindness to each other and immaturity was unappealing to me. I think I would have liked more insight into the socioeconomic, political, and cultural context within this story—Miri’s privilege over her captors and Haitians living in abject poverty is mentioned but not discussed in depth.

An Untamed State delves deep into the very real issue of rape and violence against women that are rampant in societies all over the world. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so thoughtfully bold on the subject. The sheer terror and fear Miri felt, both during and after her kidnapping, were palpable. Gay doesn’t hold back on the shocking sexual and physical atrocities committed on Miri, which may be more than some readers can stomach, but sticking through the whole book is worth it.

Read from August 7 to 23, 2015.

behind the beautiful forevers

Two years after it first came out I finally got around to reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a fascinating, heartbreaking exposé of a Mumbai slum and its residents. Edited from Goodreads:

A bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human through the dramatic story of families striving toward a better life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects people to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on years of uncompromising reporting, carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds—and into the hearts of families impossible to forget.

I’m embarrassed this took me so long to get to, and then so long to read. I think I was just too busy this past month, because a book like this is right up my alley and wouldn’t normally take me so long. When I was able to catch moments with this over the past month I was spellbound. Boo crafts this narrative non-fiction with compassion, grace and objectivity, exposing what life is like for these hardworking individuals at the bottom of the ladder in one of the world’s wealthiest cities, taking into account social and economic context. Annawadi could be any slum in any large city in the world with substantial economic inequality.

The families on these pages came alive to me, especially the children. Education is basically nonexistent. They compete with each other in garbage trading to scrape together a little money for their families. They endure beatings and witness suicides, often contemplating it themselves. But some we learn about in Beautiful Forevers are tenacious and hopeful, striving for a better life.

The struggles of Annawadi’s residents are wide-ranging, from unemployment to addiction to disease to suicides to corrupt police and government to fear of their homes being bulldozed. The fact that they are fundamentally no different from anyone else—needing to provide for their families, hopes and dreams for a better future for their children—is made crystal clear. Beautiful Forevers is a powerful, tragic, affective glimpse at the daily lives of these spirited people in abject poverty.

Read from June 18 to July 26, 2015.

pilgrim’s wilderness

I saw Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia pop up a couple years ago when it first came out and decided to give it a listen on audio when it became available at the library.From Goodreads:

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is the bizarre and utterly fascinating story of how Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale and his 15-child self-named Pilgrim family came to settle deep in one of the most remote parts of Alaska, motivated by a belief that a simple pioneer life could be lived there in the twenty-first century. Celebrated by locals for his anti-establishment ways, Hale was eventually exposed as a cult leader-like sociopath with an extraordinary criminal past who brutalized his wife and children and kept them isolated, ignorant, and under his control.

Whoa, what a fascinating read! I could barely stop listening, it just became more and more twisted as components of Hale’s life fell apart. It went from bizarre to icky to downright frightening. The story is interesting on many levels, from the in-depth look at this family’s interpersonal dynamics to the external factors working against their lifestyle. I loved how McCarthy, Alaska was basically another “character” here. I’m not sure I dug the author’s infusing himself into the story, but, with investigative journalistic non-fiction, I understand it. Just maybe didn’t work for me so well in this case.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a great read for anyone interested in off-the-grid lifestyles, religious extremism and cults, environmentalism, small town community, and more. At first blush it does seem like an unbelievable tale, but it’s all darkly true. It was complementary to a recent novel I read, too, Our Endless Numbered Days.

Listened to audiobook from June 25 to 29, 2015.

just mercy

If you’ve been reading my blog lately, you know I’ve been itching for some great non-fiction and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson was an incredible book that hit me right in the feels, as they say. I do have a fascination with learning about the American prison system and crime, so this was right up my alley. From Goodreads:

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

What a powerful memoir. Throughout the book, Stevenson recounts his youth and education, and also outlines the many issues with the current prison industrial complex, but the most powerful segments revolve around how his work effects him and his clients on personal and emotional levels. Chapters range from infuriating to hopeful, and ultimately I wanted to start this over right away after I finished it. Listening to Stevenson narrate added to the urgency and poignancy of the events in this book.

At the heart of this book is Walter McMillian’s case, who was sent to Death Row before he even had a trial. The obstacles Stevenson and his team faced to use the proof Walter was innocent were just enraging. It’s a piercing example of how Jim Crow still has a tight grip on our legal system, reiterating how racial oppression, poverty, and also mental illness are exploited to drive the highly profitable mass incarceration in this country.

Just Mercy was in line with two books I read earlier this year and found equally important and heartbreaking: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (my review) and Men We Reaped (my review). To go further, a couple more books I’m interested in reading now on this topic are Ghettoside and The New Jim CrowJust Mercy is an eye-opening account of a growing problem in the U.S. from the inside, and Stevenson’s dedication and compassion is truly inspiring. Can’t recommend this highly enough.

Listened to audiobook from June 4 to 18, 2015.