reading recap: january 2018

I’m seeing a bunch of memes this week saying that this January was the longest month ever… but I feel just the opposite! I’ve been down lately—I have a touch of seasonal affective disorder right now… yes, even here in a sunny, tropical locale—so I’ve had the hardest time sticking to my usual routines and being able to focus on anything much, let alone reading. I did manage to get through four fantastic books, though, and started a few more:

AND I’m really proud of myself for catching up with (almost) all my reviews over the past few months! So you can see the linked titles there will bring you to my reviews of those books. I had a year and a half worth of reading I hadn’t written posts about here on the blog, and now I’m only behind on one (waiting to read another 1–2 I have on the same topic so I can bundle them together in one post), and The Power from this month I have drafted to go tomorrow. Progress!

Anyway, although I thought all four of these are incredible and I highly recommend, if I have to pick favorites I’d say The Last Black Unicorn and The Power. Tiffany Haddish is an incredibly funny comedian and I’m sure I’ll be a fan forever now. Her memoir strikes a a nice balance of both the difficult and good times of her life, while being thoughtful and entertaining the whole time. I didn’t realize it until I finished, but The Power is just what I needed this month. I’ve been in a slump and I’m still figuring out what the problem is, but reading a fictional novel engaged my imagination and attention better than anything else in a while. It’s a creative reversal of societal gender roles and expectations, and a look at how unequal distribution of power (and how it’s wielded) can effect humanity… hmm echoes of what’s happening now in many parts of the world.

I also thoroughly enjoyed Thank You for Your Service. It’s a potent, compelling book that chronicles the struggles of (mostly recent) veterans and their families due to time served at war. And Women & Power connected many dots for me as far as exactly how deeply rooted in history misogyny is, specifically in ancient Greek and Roman literature and art.

Besides starting and finishing these four, I also started Fire and Fury, the new barn-burner on the current executive administration in the U.S.; Dark Money, my first pick for my TBR Challenge 2018; and Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life just for fun. Anthony and I also chose our next book club read, The Left Hand of Darkness to honor the life of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I’m a few chapters in but I’m afraid this one might be lost on me… we’ll see. Next up in February I’d like to choose books by black authors to honor Black History Month, so I have HomegoingPushout, and We Were Eight Years in Power in my sights.

How is your reading going so far in 2018?

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thank you for your service

I had been hesitant about reading Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel even though I’m always interested in war and military stories/history. It just seemed like a pretty bleak read, and while it’s an excellent book, it’s definitely not a feel-good one:

In the ironically titled Thank You for Your Service, Finkel writes with tremendous compassion not just about the soldiers but about their wives and children. Where do soldiers belong after their homecoming? Is it reasonable, or even possible, to expect them to rejoin their communities as if nothing has happened? And in moments of hardship, who can soldiers turn to if they feel alienated by the world they once lived in? These are the questions Finkel faces as he revisits the brave but shaken men of the [US 2-16 Infantry Battalion that was stationed in Baghdad].

I didn’t realize this is a “sequel” to an earlier book of Finkel, The Good Soldiers. I wouldn’t say you need to read that one first for a full appreciation of Thank You for Your Service, this is still plenty affecting and easy to follow without the veterans’ service backstories. It’s difficult, uncomfortable subject matter, as it exposes the reality of trauma that lasts for a soldier long after the actual fighting is over for them. And beyond the soldier themselves, the family they return to has to deal with this trauma as well. I appreciated that Finkel spends time on the wives and girlfriends of this group of veterans, how they handle (or struggle with) their partners coming back as someone else entirely than the person they said goodbye to at the time of deployment.

He shows that the military does offer some assistance to veterans, but less in the form of therapy and rehab and more in the form of pharmaceutical medicating. There are some facilities around the country set up specifically to help veterans with PTSD or other mental issues associated with their service, but they’re difficult to get into, costly, and often the admitted vet has to forgo work for a while leaving their families in tough spots financially. Some of them are on the verge of closing due to lack of funding, as well.

“Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war,” that countless veterans are battling every day, either physically, psychologically, or both. I admire how Finkel leaves out sentimentality and removes himself from the narrative, choosing to focus on the veterans and their families, frankly chronicling exactly how it is for them. Despite the seeming lack of emotion in the writing, it’s still a heartbreaking, infuriating book because there’s no two ways about it: war breaks people. I think all Americans who call themselves patriots and claim to support our troops should read this book.

Listened to audiobook in January 2018.

mini-reviews: stranger in the woods, teacher wars, new odyssey, pandemic

I missed Non-Fiction November… but for good reason: I was in Wisconsin visiting family and without my computer. Catching up on posting now! Although these four books are on totally different subjects, I thought that they’re all interesting, gripping, and worth a read:

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel was a great book. When Christopher Knight was 20, he abandoned his conventional lifestyle and retreated to the deep woods. For the next 27 years, he lived the solitary life of a hermit… except for the numerous burglaries he committed for supplies. I read the original GQ article about Christopher Knight which Finkel expanded here, so some information was familiar. I think I would have liked a little more depth to the historical and cultural info on hermits in general. But wow, some of the details here—his family didn’t look for him or report him missing? He didn’t use a fire or see a doctor for all those years? I was really interested in how he constructed and maintained his compound. How did no one find it, mere yards away from populated camping areas? Overall it was an enjoyable, fascinating look into the mind and experience of a man who left civilization behind (well… almost) for nearly 30 years. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

Dana Goldstein does a wonderful job of outlining the turbulent history of teaching and education in America over the past two centuries in The Teacher Wars. She shows the origins of often controversial topics, like teacher tenure and charter schools, as well as the creation of Teach for America, and how politics has always clashed with education (the disdain for unions, as a major example). I was really interested in the teacher strikes of the 1960s and 70s, and her coverage of teacher evaluations. As a musician and artist, and someone who has advanced degrees and worked in higher education for nearly a decade, I’ve had many discussions with my friends and colleagues who teach in the arts—their own objective vs. subjective metrics, and how does the State evaluate educators in a subjective field like the arts? It’s usually complicated and often not logical or applicable to arts and music education. I gave this book to my mom (a teacher) right after I finished, and she loved it too. [Read in May 2017.]

The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley is an eye-opening book about the refugee crisis happening now in Europe. Kingsley traveled extensively and interviewed countless people about their experiences and reasoning for fleeing, helping those who flee, or pursuing those who flee. Homes are destroyed in these war-torn countries— there’s nothing left, no infrastructure, jobs, schools, homes—so families abandon their homelands in order to survive and hopefully secure a better, safe life for their children. It’s a harrowing, dangerous journey but they’re left with no choice but to go. The other side of this is that after landing in a new country (if they survive the journey), now the refugees face culture shock, as well as rejection, suspicion, racism, and sometime violence from their new communities. I was moved by many of the stories in this important book. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

Sonia Shah’s Pandemic was a really fascinating, easy-to-follow book for a non-sciencey person like me. She mostly uses the development and history of cholera to drive the point home that there will be another pandemic that devastates the population. I’d like to have faith in human ingenuity to do all we can to combat it! But Shah also covers all sorts of factors that contribute to how and why pandemics happen and are largely unpredictable, including medical treatments and Big Pharma, habitats and environment (and the destruction of and/or industrial developments of these), animals and cross contamination, worldwide travel, population growth, and more. Her engaging, narrative style almost makes the contagions themselves “living” characters (well, I suppose they are living). Also, human beings are stupid and disgusting. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

mini-reviews: americanah, what it means, beasts

As I’ve been catching up on these blog posts of book reviews, I noticed I read three books that center around Africa and African characters:

Why, why, why did I wait so long to read AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie crafted a brilliant, epic story about relationships, family, love, cultural identity, the immigrant experience, race, class, home, belonging, and more. I bought this years ago but was kind of intimidated to start since it looked dense and long (and it is), but once I got into it I found it difficult to put down. My minor quibbles are that it might be overly long—some scenes are repetitive of earlier ones—and Ifemelu could be pretty annoying at times. But generally this is a great book and I look forward to reading more from Adichie. [Read book and listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

So many great reviews of What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah compelled me to borrow this collection of short stories from the library, and I wasn’t disappointed. The stories are memorable, with not one dud, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. There are a few that still stand out to me in particular months later, like “Who Will Greet You at Home,” wherein a childless woman crafts a baby for herself out of hair, and the titular story, in which mathematicians have devised a way to eradicate grief in the future. Magical realism permeates a few of the stories, and most revolve around young women testing the waters of adulthood and wildness. I loved it. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

I requested Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala as my entry for “author born the same year as you” for the Litsy bingo reading challenge… which I quickly abandoned. Oh well! But I’m still glad I read this short, harrowing book. I had already seen the Netflix movie, which was excellent too. After his family is killed during a civil war in their unnamed African country, a boy named Agu is recruited into a group of rogue guerrilla fighters. The movie was quite faithful, but the book gives even more insight into Agu’s internal thoughts and fears. It’s fascinating to see how is psyche becomes increasingly warped in his new, horrifying reality full of fear, terror, and brutality as a boy soldier. I highly recommend both the book and movie. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

mini-reviews: bury my heart and killer moon

I’m a day late, but I thought this “holiday” (it’s awesome and amazing that this is being reclaimed as Indigenous Peoples’ Day by more and more cities and states!) is a good time to share my thoughts on two excellent books I recently read about Native American Indian history:

I’ve had Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on my TBR list forever. I really wonder why this wasn’t in my high school history curriculum (along with Zinn’s A People’s History…). Bury My Heart is a dark but necessary piece of United States history that tells the truth about how this country was built on greed, slaughter, and oppression rather than Christian values and a desire for independence as is so often taught in school. Bury My Heart outlines the systematic decimation of Native Americans from the day Europeans landed through the nineteenth century. Time and again the Native Americans were tricked, threatened, robbed, and massacred, yet they still compromised with white men to avoid war. By the time they did fight, it was too little, too late. Bury My Heart is long and dense, but gripping. This is our shameful, racist story of genocide and crimes against humanity, and should be required reading for every American. This is one of the best books I read in 2016, and I regret not reading it earlier. This horrific era (and the events in Flowers of the Killer Moon) are closer to us and our time than we’d like to think. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2016.]

David Grann is a master of well-researched narrative non-fiction, and Killers of the Flower Moon ranks right up there with The Lost City of Z for me. This book starts as a true-crime murder mystery: in the 1920s, residents of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma begin to be killed off, an event called “The Reign of Terror.” This is after the Osage people profited from inhabiting oil-rich land… which they were forced onto from their native lands decades earlier. Local and federal government agencies found ways to take advantage of these riches (and take money out of the hands of these citizens) by manipulating laws and policies so that the Osage weren’t deemed fit to handle their own money. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was brand new, and this was its first big homicide investigation. Using this one case as his example, Grann deftly exposes the racist, deceitful, and shameful tactics used not only by individuals but by institutions of government and law enforcement to further exploit and oppress Native Americans after where Bury My Heart leaves off. This was just shy of a century ago; why haven’t I heard about it before? This book is full of secrets, twists, and layer upon layer of disgusting corruption. It’s another engrossing piece of must-read American history. [Listened to audiobook in August 2017.]

mini-reviews: black earth and on tyranny

In the last year, I ended up reading two books by Timothy Snyder. One is a couple years old, one is brand new, and both are terrifyingly pertinent to what the United States is going through right now.

Black Earth is a dense and extensive look at the Holocaust, but is told not only as an historical account but also as a warning that the past isn’t so unrepeatable as we may think. Snyder delves into how the Holocaust began—as a dark idea within Hitler’s mind—and each step Hitler took towards attempting to achieve his vision. Military strategies, individual heroes, the dangers of statelessness, and of course the horrors of mass human slaughter are all examined here. Snyder’s warning comes as a conclusion that we in early-twenty-first-century America are facing similar ecological and ideological issues that Europe did in the early twentieth century, and missing the lessons of the Holocaust has endangered our national and global futures. We’re not as removed from Hitler’s supposedly incomprehensible world as we want to believe. It’s a bleak read, but necessary. [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

On Tyranny was released in March this year, hot on the heels of the inauguration. It’s a slim volume of twenty ways to defy fascism, the dismantling of democracy, and an authoritarian governmental takeover, citing historical (mostly European) examples from the twentieth century. It doesn’t go into great depth the way Black Earth does—it reads more like daily devotionals or meditations. But still, On Tyranny does serve as a reminder that there are ways to fight back. Some lessons included are refusing to normalize the situation, defending institutions, doing your homework when it comes to information, opposing a one-party state, paying close attention to words, believing in and defending the truth, reading, refusing to obey in advance, and making human connections. This is another excellent addition to the abundant response resisting this administration and time in U.S. history. [Read in April 2017.]