mini-reviews: milk and honey, tilting our plates, more beautiful things

Something unusual for me… I read quite a bit of poetry in the last year. In addition to Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman (recently posted), I read these three collections:

Rupi Kaur’s incredibly popular milk and honey started strong enough but lost me halfway. I see why her work resonates with so many, I do. It’s familiar subject matter, accessible, and easy to “get,” unlike some other poetry. But I was completely underwhelmed by the collection as a whole. I know I’ve heard or read some of these lines before elsewhere. Other readers have compared this to Tumblr posts, and I agree. While simple, linear drawings can be effective, I wasn’t really impressed by those included here. The whole thing is way over-hyped. [Read ebook in November 2016.]

I picked up Singaporean poet Cyril Wong’s Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light as a gift for my mom for Christmas last year, as I was getting everyone uniquely Singaporean gifts and she’s a reader. I couldn’t help but read this slim volume first before shipping it off, though! Tilting Our Plates uses musical (symphonic) metaphors and the ancient myth of Shiva (as Mohini) falling in love with Vishnu to relate the story of a couple in love, aging, and living in the shadow of a disease. Wong conveys simple poignancy in the everyday ordinariness of a deep partnership. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking collection. [Read in December 2016.]

There are a handful of striking poems in Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, like “All They want Is…,” “Afro,” “13 Ways,” “The Gospel According to Her,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “99 Problems.” There’s tension, rage, empowerment, and vulnerability simmering throughout many of the poems. But others fell flat… again it could be me—I’m starting to think that I’m not much of a poetry person in general. And I also definitely recognize that some are not meant for me—I do not personally know the black womanhood experience. But I like to learn, acknowledge, and be open-minded. I think these pieces would be more impactful performed aloud. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

what happened

I’ve been waiting with bated breath for Hillary Clinton’s What Happened for months. It both met and exceeded my expectations, but in different ways than I thought it would. This is a hard book to review, so I’ll keep it brief. From the hardcover’s jacket:

For the first time, Hillary Rodham Clinton reveals what she was thinking and feeling during one of the most controversial and unpredictable presidential elections in history. Now free from the intense personal experience of becoming the first woman nominated for president by a major party in an election marked by rage, sexism, exhilarating highs and infuriating lows, stranger-than-fiction twists, Russian interference, and an opponent who broke all the rules. This is her most personal memoir yet.

If you’ve paid close enough attention, there aren’t necessarily new revelations in What Happened, but I did learn a few things I hadn’t read in the news before. In a no-nonsense manner, and sometimes with surprising dark humor, Clinton goes over all the factors that influenced this election: racism, anger, sexism and misogyny, economics, Russian involvement, voter suppression and disenfranchisement, and more, including taking blame and responsibility for issues in her campaign and in getting her messaging across. There were many fist-pumping, tear-jerking, expletive-yelling moments for me while reading What Happened. She has no fucks left to give and I am HERE for it. What I didn’t expect was how much of the book she devotes to her childhood, family, and friends. It was refreshing.

I read this memoir because I wanted to hear directly from the first woman to come within an eyelash of being president of the United States what her experience was running in the weirdest, least civilized, most shameful election ever. What were her thoughts and feelings being so abhorrently demonized and lied about and hated, and having to go through such a humiliating public defeat? I wanted her unique, informed, diplomatic, experienced perspective. She’s a brilliant, accomplished, dignified, professional, tenacious, courageous, caring woman that I personally find to be admirable and inspirational. She is an historic figure in American history—her nomination alone as well as her win of the popular vote is powerful and cannot be dismissed.

I cried during Clinton’s accepting of the nomination at the DNC. I cried when the results rolled in last November. I cried when she gave her concession speech. I cried while reading many parts of this book, and while much of it is infuriating, frustrating, and worrisome, I was ultimately left hopeful by the end. As Michelle Obama says, “When they go low, we go high.” And as Hillary herself says, “Don’t let the bastards get you down. Stay true to yourself and your values. Most of all, keep going.”

Read in September 2017.

mini-reviews: the girls and we were liars

I read two books that revolved around teen girls last year, which is a subject completely outside my typical wheelhouse (even when I was a teen girl myself)!

The Girls by Emma Cline was getting a lot of rave reviews last summer, and despite the wretched title I was intrigued in the general plot: troubled girl becomes mixed up with the Manson family in its early days. I’m fascinated by this subject matter—cults, true crime, etc.—and I absolutely loved Helter Skelter when I read it in 2014, so The Girls definitely piqued my interest. While the writing was great, unfortunately the story itself didn’t live up to the hype for me. I wanted it to be more an insider’s viewpoint of a cult, more about the leader and how he brainwashes the girls into committing crimes, and it didn’t go into these things at all. The main character, Evie, was really an outsider throughout the book. It was a quick, easy summer read, though. I liked it but didn’t love it. [Read in August 2016.]

The other book about teens I read last year was We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This came across in my audio recommendations and I recalled a lot of hype when it came out advertising a big twist, and I noticed it was short and I didn’t have anything else in my queue at that moment, so I gave it a try. Fans of YA literature would and probably do love this book, and the twist is decent enough (although I figured it out about halfway through). But this just proved to me once again that YA isn’t for me. I just cannot deal with all the teen drama and angst—I was hate-listening by the end. [Listened to audiobook in September 2016.]

reading recap: july 2017

I feel like July just flew by! Half of it I spent in Wisconsin, and half in Singapore. I was able to finish five books in July:

  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body … Roxane Gay
  • Al Franken, Giant of the Senate (audio) … Al Franken, read by author
  • Trainwreck (audio) … Sady Doyle, read by Alex McKenna
  • The Sound of Gravel (audio) … Ruth Wariner, read by author
  • The New Odyssey (audio) … Patrick Kingsley, read by Thomas Judd

I’m happy to report that I hit 60 books for the year so far this month! I raised my goal to 70 from 50 a while ago… maybe I should up it again. Or not. I’m happy to enjoy another month of passivity about it! After my trip this summer, I’m more resolved to continue catching up on my book posts here on the blog. If I can write two a week, that’ll be good enough for me (for now). I’m getting a little burned out on audiobooks at the moment… I think I might need a break for a while.

My favorite books for July were definitely Hunger and Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. These two memoirs were starkly different, but both made me reflect on the world, society, and my own experiences a lot. Trainwreck opened my eyes to how we as a society destroy women in the public eye, which was really thought-provoking and I’ve already recommended it to friends. The Sound of Gravel started as a bit of a guilty pleasure for me—I’m a little fascinated by cult religions and this memoir appeared in my Goodreads recommendations after finishing The Road to Jonestown (about Jim Jones) and Going Clear (about Scientology) a couple months ago. It’s another riveting memoir, if read a little dryly by the author on the audio version. Lastly, The New Odyssey hits hard as an exposé of the refugee and migrant crisis across Europe today. I wish it had gone a little more in depth on possible solutions, but still I found this book informative, powerful, and vital to understanding what’s going on in the world right now.

I’m still chugging my way through It, which I’m supplementing with the Steven Weber-read audio version (which is SO good!), as well as ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano on audio (I read his Gomorrah a few years ago and loved it), and started A Colony in A Nation on paper. Otherwise, new books coming in the mail include Capone: The Man and The Era by Laurence Bergreen and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden. I also just won a Goodreads giveaway for Marc Maron’s new book, Waiting for the Punch! I’m so excited, I haven’t won a giveaway in a long time and I love Marc Maron!
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hunger: a memoir of (my) body

I have been waiting with bated breath for Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger for a year! The day it came out in June this summer I was in Madison and promptly picked it up at A Room of One’s Own, one of my favorite bookstores. Edited from Goodreads:

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Gay explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

This memoir wrecked me. It’s about body transformation, but not in the typical way you might expect. It’s about rape culture, race, societal expectations and pressure, familial expectations and pressure, addiction, body image, self preservation and acceptance, gender and sexuality, relationships, and more. This is not a feel-good tome, and Gay doesn’t want your pity or to be called a “survivor.” She doesn’t pull punches or tug at heart strings in Hunger. She is self-aware and brutally honest about the way things are for a person her size, which is technically categorized as the horrible term “super morbidly obese.”

Although I have never experienced the same kind of specific hardships and trauma that Gay has (in fact, I’d say I’ve been blessed to live a fairly charmed, happy life), her personal experience of wanting to hide from the world and finding a way to do that with her body resonated with me in my own way. Even though I was (and am) slender and “normal” weight, I was very self-conscious and protective of my body when I was a kid and teenager. I wanted to be noticed, but I also didn’t… and either way certainly not for my body. Thank goodness for grunge—baggy flannel was my armor in the 90s. It was still years into my adulthood before I felt okay about wearing a bikini and also realized that I have had advantages in society because of what I look like (sometimes I’ve heard this called “pretty privilege”). I wish the world weren’t like this, but I think acknowledgment is better than denial and can help people (me) work towards changing it. I cannot sit here and honestly say I’m ugly or unattractive, certainly not by current societal and cultural standards. This privilege has been magnified a thousandfold to me after living in Singapore for a year, where I’m experiencing a strange mix of benefiting from white privilege (which I know I had in the States, of course) and also being a minority. It’s an uncomfortable, conflicting feeling of which I’m hyper-aware, which I think is a good thing.

In Hunger, Gay’s writing is unapologetic, and while she says she is not brave for putting out this memoir and speaking her truth, I have to disagree. Laying bare her rape and its physical and mental consequences, and then the consequences and daily issues of her resulting weight gain after that trauma, share with the reader and emotional rawness I’ve rarely encountered in any other book, if ever. I think releasing a book like this in today’s image-obsessed society and rape-apologist culture is brave as hell.

Read in July 2017.

book club: parable of the sower and bitch planet

This week, my friend Anthony and I held another meeting (online) of our Best Friends International Book Club! I have so much fun reading and discussing books with him. Anthony put it sweetly in a comment on my Instagram:

You encourage me to think deeper and wider with each selection, and I love how this keeps us connected—with each other and the world around us! 😍 [link]

That’s how I feel about him and our club! It means a lot to me to stay connected to my beloved Kansas City family. And although we’re in different countries and drinking different beverages when we have our book club Skype dates, we actually do stay on topic! Mostly! We keep it loose as far as timing our meetings go; we chat when we’re both done with the books and when we’re available.

First, we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. It was the first Butler book for either of us. In 2025, society is descending into a chaotic collapse. Headstrong teenager Lauren’s family is killed and her home is destroyed, so she and a few neighbors journey north to a rumored safe haven. Along the way they encounter dangers and new people, and Lauren reveals her plans for a new religion. Lauren also has a condition called “hyperempathy,” which allows her to physically feel the pain of others. I was struck by how prescient and insightful Butler was in her description of this near-future America: privatization, climate change, gender and race issues, religion, the opioid crisis, and more. It’s an important addition to the science fiction genre for these reasons, plus being written by a woman of color. Unfortunately, the book didn’t entirely live up to the hype and rave reviews for me. The religion aspect turned me off, as did the hyperempathy. I always have trouble with epistolary novels, too—Sower is basically Lauren’s diary. I’d rather be shown the action than be told about it after the fact. I think this may actually be a YA book, too, which are usually hard for me to get into. I was interested in the The Road-like journey the crew takes north, though. I wonder if I would have liked Sower better if the religion and hyperempathy had been cut? These parts bothered Anthony less, but overall he felt the same. We decided this first book in Butler’s Earthseed series was enough for us. But! I’m not writing off Butler entirely; I’m looking forward to reading Kindred one day. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

Bitch Planet, Book One by DeConnick and De Landro was our second pick for this discussion. In another near-future dystopia, if women don’t comply with the behavioral and beauty expectations placed upon them by the patriarchal leadership, they are arrested and sent away from Earth to a prison planet. The plot (so far) involves the “non-compliant” women being forced to compete in an all-male game called Megaton in order to “spice up” the event, and there’s corruption in the government and prison, etc. I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass. I’m really interested in seeing where this is going. I do wish there was more backstory, and I felt it drag when the focus shifted to men on Earth just talking about Bitch Planet. Otherwise, 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. Anthony felt the same way, so we chose Bitch Planet, Book Two for our next discussion. He also mentioned the best part: the hilarious fake ads at the end of each issue! [Read in May 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Bitch Planet, Book Two, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation. I’m excited!