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.

one of us

One of Us by Åsne Seierstad is one of the first books I read after moving to Singapore, and one of the best I read in 2016. Edited from Goodreads:

A harrowing and thorough account of the massacre that upended Norway, and the trial that helped put the country back together.

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside government buildings in central Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to a youth camp on the island of Utøya, where he killed sixty-nine more, most of them teenage members of Norway’s governing Labour Party. Journalist Åsne Seierstad tells the story of this terrible day and what led up to it. What made Breivik, a gifted child from an affluent neighborhood in Oslo, become a terrorist?

One of Us is mostly a deep dive into the life of Breivik, and an investigation of what in his past could have possibly shaped him into a terrorist. With intricate detail, Seierstad maps his transformation from smart yet socially awkward teen to radicalized, misogynistic bigot. It’s disquieting to examine the mind of a killer, especially when there’s no clear, black-or-white answer to the why of his evil deeds. I appreciate that Seierstad dutifully and respectfully recounts the lives of several of the teenage victims as well. By the time you reach the chapter on the island massacre, you feel like you really know all these people.

I’m unfamiliar with the Norwegian justice process, but I was shocked that Breivik received only 21 years, which is the maximum sentence allowed there. (It can be extended indefinitely.) He murdered 77 people in cold blood, injured hundreds more, and proudly proclaimed it in court. I admire Norway’s belief in and commitment to rehabilitation instead of permanent institutionalization, but it appears that Breivik won’t change for the better in prison. He’s recently popped up in the news claiming “inhumane conditions” and abuse by Norway while in prison, as well as for changing his name. In court appearances he shows zero remorse for his terrorist acts and murders, and frequently performs Nazi salutes.

I’m not sure how to recommend One of Us… I suppose in the same way you’d recommend Helter Skelter or The Executioner’s Song. It’s fascinating, upsetting, and doesn’t wrap up nicely in a necessarily just or fair way. The main takeaway from One of Us, I think, at least for me, is that sometimes you can’t make sense of the world. But for every one Breivik, there are countless good, decent, compassionate, and open-minded people. In the wake of all this brutally unfair sadness, this quote from the Norwegian prime minister’s response to the attack struck me as particularly inspiring:

We are a small country, but we are a proud people. We are still shaken by what has happened to us, but we will never relinquish our values. Our answer is more democracy, more openness and more humanity. But never naivety.

One of Us is a comprehensive journalistic achievement, bullet by sickening bullet, but reads like a novel. This is such a powerful, frightening, and important book. It’s difficult to get through some sections. I can only imagine the profound pain and anguish of the victims’ families. As an American, I’m furious and concerned about the lack of gun laws and regulations in my country, and how many lives are lost and destroyed by gun violence every day. It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be.

Read in August 2016.

reading recap: august 2016

August was both a hectic and relaxing month. I moved to Singapore August 5, so while it was exciting and there were all sorts of new things to discover and people to meet, I also had a lot of downtime. It’s the first time I’ve not had a job (or full-time classes) since I was a teenager! It’s a new, unfamiliar situation. It’s nice, but I still have to remind myself to slow down, no need to rush through anything, enjoy this time to relax (because I do plan to have work here eventually). I hang out at the pool, draw, nap (!!!!), take walks, go to museums, work out, and read. In August, I was able to catch up on a couple of books I had started months ago but had to put down due to the move and read two new books:

august-reading

  • The Girls … Emma Cline
  • Dark Matter … Blake Crouch
  • One of Us: Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway … Åsne Seierstad
  • Ghettoside (audio) … Jill Leovy, read by Rebecca Lowman

One of Us was hands-down the best book of that month for me. It was stressful, exhausting read, but a vital piece of journalism about the horrific 2011 massacre in Norway. It’s gripping in the same way Columbine was for me, but I had to take a long break when I shipped it to Singapore. I also finished Ghettoside, my other non-fiction this month, after the move. It’s an important subject right now to be sure—the rampant murders of young black men in America—but there was just something lacking for me here. It focuses on gangs and police in LA, but doesn’t delve deep into history there much, and the majority of the narrative centers on the white police officers and detectives and their roles in the system instead of the black citizens’ stories… or they’re related through the white detectives’ work.

The two new books I read were pretty fun, quick reads. The Girls was inspired by the Manson murders, but flipping the viewpoint from a teenager named Evie invited into the cult rather than an outside view. The setting is intriguing and familiar if you know about the Manson Family already, but the story is not plot driven in the way you’d expect with this setting, and rather revolves more about Evie and her feelings. I liked it, but I can’t say it stood out to me very much… while Helter Skelter had me absolutely glued to the page and I ripped through it in two days. Non-fiction is more interesting to me on topics such as this, I guess. Dark Matter by and large does live up to its enormous hype. It’s a fast-paced, entertaining page turner, and beneath the science is a story about family and choices. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I have to admit I spotted the twist/surprise before it happened. Both The Girls and Dark Matter were good for the poolside!

Recap for September coming soon…
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missoula

As a big fan of his work, I’ve been waiting for Missoula by Jon Krakauer to come up available through my local library’s Overdrive on audio since it was released this past April, and finally got to it last week. Edited from Goodreads:

Missoula, Montana, is a typical college town, with a highly regarded state university, bucolic surroundings, a lively social scene, and an excellent football team with a rabid fan base.

The Department of Justice investigated 350 sexual assaults reported to the Missoula police between January 2008 and May 2012. Few of these assaults were properly handled by either the university or local authorities. In this, Missoula is also typical.

A DOJ report released in December of 2014 estimates 110,000 women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are raped each year. Krakauer’s devastating narrative of what happened in Missoula makes clear why rape is so prevalent on American campuses, and why rape victims are so reluctant to report assault. Acquaintance rape is the most underreported crime in America. In addition to physical trauma, its victims often suffer devastating psychological damage that leads to feelings of shame, emotional paralysis, and stigmatization. PTSD rates for rape victims are estimated to be 50 percent, higher than for soldiers returning from war.

In Missoula, Krakauer chronicles the searing experiences of several women in Missoula—the nights when they were raped; their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the way they were treated by the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys; the public vilification and private anguish; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them.

As you can imagine, Missoula is a difficult book to get through. Krakauer is a relentless, dutiful researcher, and his work on Missoula is no exception. The subject matter is intense, very real, and a very real problem everywhere—Krakauer uses the single example of Missoula to illustrate the epidemic crisis that rape/sexual assault has become across the country.

I fully admit I was a bit shocked with the depth and detail of the descriptions of rape and assault—not for the faint of heart. But it’s completely necessary to the book and respectful to the victims for not sugarcoating what they went through. I was completely incensed at the perpetrators, the justice system for frequently failing these women, and even some citizen bystanders for heartless victim blaming. The cards are so stacked against women in this society that accusing a man of rape—especially a young man on a popular football team—more often than not is an exercise in futility. I can’t imagine being doubted, mocked, and shamed for a violent atrocity committed to YOU, and having to recount and relive this traumatic life-altering experience over and over again to police officers and lawyers.

One reason I gravitate to Krakauer’s books is that he maintains a clear-eyed perspective throughout. His tone is fair and without judgement, though you can usually tell which “side” he’s on. Missoula is an important, informative book for our times, and I suspect will go down as one of Krakauer’s more controversial works.

Listened to audiobook from November 17 to 21, 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.