area 51

I borrowed the audio version of Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen from the library on a whim, for a road trip last year. I like learning about science, but I admit I can be intimidated beyond a cursory level sometimes. Of course I wanted to learn about secret aliens, though! Area 51 ended up being much more interesting and accessible than I anticipated. Edited from Goodreads:

It is the most famous military installation in the world. And it doesn’t exist. Located a mere seventy-five miles outside of Las Vegas in Nevada’s desert, the base has never been acknowledged by the U.S. government—but Area 51 has captivated imaginations for decades. […] Some claim it is home to aliens, underground tunnel systems, and nuclear facilities. Others believe that the lunar landing itself was filmed there. The prevalence of these rumors stems from the fact that no credible insider has ever divulged the truth about his time inside the base. Until now. In Area 51, Jacobsen shows us what has really gone on in the Nevada desert, from testing nuclear weapons to building super-secret, supersonic jets to pursuing the War on Terror. […] This is the first book based on interviews with eye witnesses to Area 51 history, which makes it the seminal work on the subject.

This was an excellent choice for a road trip. I wanted aliens, but what I got was so much more. In fact, aliens are the least interesting part of Area 51. The real meaty parts of the book that kept me most fascinated was the history of the military base and its black ops, rather than shaky conspiracy theories. Jacobsen does a fine job laying out previously unknown-to-the-public projects at the base about stolen and reverse-engineered technologies, nuclear weapons testing, the development of radar and stealth bombers, and more. There were many dangerous and catastrophic projects being carried out. I learned more about the Military Industrial Complex and corporations had their hands in the government, how compartmentalizing major secret projects is effective but complicates accountability, and how different factions of the military and intelligence community clashed over these projects. There are some insightful, respectful interviews with veterans who worked at Area 51 that add value to the book.

It’s too bad the final chapter, which finally ties in Roswell and aliens, was a letdown. Honestly I hardly even remember the details of this part compared to the rest of the book. Truth is definitely stranger (and more interesting) than fiction in the case of Area 51. This would be a great companion piece to Drift by Rachel Maddow.

Listened to audiobook in March 2016.

mini-reviews: underground girls, thousand splendid suns

Catching up on posting book reviews from what I read last year has been a lot of fun so far! Next on my list was The Underground Girls of Kabul, which I realized is a great companion piece to a book I just recently finished, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I learned a lot from both of these excellent books.

I listened to Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul on audio about a year ago on a road trip and found it riveting. Like many Americans, I’m sure, I had no idea about the practice of bacha posh, disguising daughters as sons because boys are more valued, in Afghanistan. Honestly I didn’t know much about Afghanistan culture in general before encountering this book. Nordberg profiles a handful of bacha posh women and girls, and how it has shaped their lives both personally and professionally. It is a fascinating account of gender norms as they relate to culture and society, as well as perceptions of temperament and opportunities (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. The book also examines the complexities of gender identity and its value in global and historical contexts. It was a really worthwhile read I wholly recommend. [Listened to audiobook in March 2016.]

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had been on my TBR for about five years! Splendid Suns is the story of two women, Miriam and Laila, whose lives intertwine when they become married to the same man—Miriam first and Laila, fifteen years younger than Miriam, a couple decades later. Hosseini’s writing positively aches; I felt so deeply for these women and the hardships they endured throughout their lives. Much like Underground GirlsSplendid Suns bring readers inside daily lives of women living in Afghanistan with its political unrest and societal rules. I wish the characters had been more fully realized (three-dimensional), and some of the “history lessons” peppered throughout were somewhat clunky, but overall it’s a heartrending story that deserves its enduring popularity. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

american war

I’ve been listening to a ton of audiobooks lately while I draw during the day. I recently finished American War by Omar El Akkad, his killer debut novel. El Akkad has reported myriad events across the globe, including Egypt’s Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement originating in Ferguson, Missouri, the war in Afghanistan, and the Guantànamo Bay trials. From Goodreads:

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.

Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

The book imagines a United States in about 50 years from now, not so united anymore after civil war breaks out between the North and South (again), this time over a law banning fossil fuels. The capital has moved from Washington D.C. to Columbus, Ohio. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia secede, fighting the North to still use oil and coal, while the rest of the country (and, apparently, world) forges ahead with renewable energy. South Carolina is a quarantine state.

It’s not difficult to speculate on another civil war occurring in the United States, based on its current political and ideological divisiveness, with unsettling surges of violence, intolerance, and hate crimes across the country. Historical issues of war such as families torn apart and living indefinitely in refugee camps, children recruited as guerrilla soldiers, cities and towns destroyed, and corrupt politicians appear in El Akkad’s vision of America’s future here, making it that much more believable.

It’s pretty clear that American War serves as an allegory of the Iraq War, with climate change as the book’s catalyst. The climate change aspect is realistic and handled well, but I found it a little strange that race is only brought up in the periphery, and I can’t recall religion being mentioned at all. It’s a noticeable omission, since race and religion loom so large in American society and politics now (still). It would be reasonable to conclude that race and religion would also be factors in an American civil war taking place just a short 50 years from now.

That said, I was able to suspend my disbelief and become immersed in this ruined-wasteland vision of America’s South. I’ve heard that the printed book has a few pages of maps, which I’m sorry I missed out on with the audio, but narrator Dion Graham (who also recorded the audio for the incredible Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 book Evicted by Matthew Desmond) did a fantastic job adding dimension to the characters and dramatizing the action scenes. I really liked El Akkad’s technique of dispersing “historical documentation” with Sarat’s journey, so the reader has a change to learn about how we got to this point.

American War is a fine addition the dystopian-climate change fiction genre popular right now.

Listened to audiobook in April 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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reading recap: october 2016

I had a great month of reading in October! As you can see, I was mostly consumed by Halloween-appropriate books, with a few library holds that just happened to come through:

october-reading

  • The Fire This Time (ebook) … Jesmyn Ward, et al
  • House of Leaves … Mark Z. Danielewski
  • The Troop … Nick Cutter
  • Men Explain Things to Me (ebook) … Rebecca Solnit
  • Dead Mountain … Donnie Eichar
  • Black Earth (audio) … Timothy Snyder, read by Mark Bramhall
  • Stories from Night Shift (audio) … Stephen King, read by John Glover
  • ‘Salem’s Lot … Stephen King

I have to say, as someone who is generally chunksters-averse, I’m pretty proud of myself for getting through three (!) this month: House of Leaves (709 pages), The Troop (507), and ‘Salem’s Lot (653). Black Earth is pretty much a chunkster too, but since it was on audio it felt less daunting. Something about seeing the bulk of it intimidates me, so it usually takes a lot of pep talk to get myself to read anything longer than about 350 pages.

While I enjoyed House of Leaves overall, I may have bailed/DNF if I didn’t have so much free time at the moment—getting through this one is a real time commitment, and you have to pay close attention with all the different tangents and footnotes. It had a great premise and some genuinely creepy moments, but generally didn’t quite live up to the mythical hype for me. The Troop and ‘Salem’s Lot were perfect to get me in the Halloween mood—between the contagious gore in Troop and vampire mischief in Lot, I felt the spirit here in Singapore despite the hot, sunny weather. The audio for Stories from Night Shift was an impulse borrow from the library, to finish out the last few hours of Dewey’s 24 Hour Readthon, the first time I’ve been able to participate! Next time, if I can join again, I’ll plan ahead more (joining this time was also on last-minute impulse).

Men Explain Things to Me and Black Earth were my library holds that came in. Both were excellent, but very real and heavy material. Neither was quite what I was expecting, but I learned a lot from them and both were thought-provoking. I’m glad I was able to finally get these two books.

My favorite books of the month were The Fire This Time and Dead Mountain. EVERYONE should read The Fire This Time. This anthology is full of powerful, moving essays by several writers in a variety of styles, all different perspectives on the experience of being black in America. I will read anything Jesmyn Ward touches. Dead Mountain interested me because I’ve had a fascinating with this case for a while, ever since I saw the movie it inspired, Devil’s Pass. What exactly happened to these nine young hikers in a remote area of Siberia, resulting in their mysterious deaths?? Donnie Eichar has a compelling investigation here.

I’m thinking I might try to go back and do full reviews of the books I’ve read since my last real review post, all the way back in March! Or maybe I’ll just continue the monthly posts. We’ll see. Otherwise… I think I’ll be able to meet my 50 book goal for 2016, with only 16 books left to go. And now that it’s November, I’m going to focus on non-fiction to hopefully jump in on some Non-Fiction November fun.

What were the best books you read in October?
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madison audiobooks

My husband and I just got back from six wonderful days in Wisconsin, visiting family and having a ton of fun! Of course I forgot my camera, so there are no pictures. We listened to two audiobooks on the road, one new to me and one I read on paper last year. Both of these were absolutely perfect for the car.

On the way up we heard The Daily Show crew read America: The Audiobook. Sigh, I miss Jon Stewart already. Although America is slightly out of date now (released in 2004), it was still a fun and funny look at our political history. I loved how it was a group effort, with not only Stewart narrating but also Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Samantha Bee, and more. The only bummer was that it was abridged, which I generally try to avoid, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything here. [Listened to audiobook on August 11, 2015.]

During our drive home we listened to Rob Delaney’s Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. I loved it as much as I loved it last year when I read it on hardcover (my review), but I enjoyed it even more hearing Delaney narrate. He’s just the best! I hope to have a chance to watch his new show Catastrophe soon, too. [Listened to audiobook on August 16, 2015.]