November 2018


I’ll be honest, I mostly read this book because I like to know what everyone is talking about (even if, because I waited to get it out of the library, no one is really talking about this book any more). I was actually going to let myself off the hook and not read all of it if it wasn’t that interesting, but it turned out to be a pretty fast read.

I’m not necessarily saying that Wolff’s book (Fire and Fury) is wrong or bad, but I liked Woodward’s book better. It’s less over the top, although as you might expect for any book about Trump, there’s still plenty here that feels over the top. I guess I also feel like, it’s Bob Woodward, so there’s an air of authority that isn’t necessarily there with Wolff.  I mean, I’m not a Trump supporter, and I think if you are you may find most of the book hard to swallow, but I actually found it to be pretty balanced.

For example, I was rather surprised to read about Trump’s conversations with the families of soldiers who had been killed:

A staffer who sat in on several calls that Trump made to Gold Star families was struck with how much time and emotional energy Trump devoted to them. He had a copy of material from the deceased service member’s personnel file.

“I’m looking at his picture–such a beautiful boy,” Trump said in one call to family members. Where did he grow up? Where did he go to school? Why did he join the service?

“I’ve got the record here,” Trump said. “There are reports here that say how much he was loved. He was a great leader.”

Some in the Oval Office had copies of the service records. None of what Trump cited was there. He was just making it up. He knew what the families wanted to hear.

Considering one of the scandals of the campaign was Trump’s treatment of the Khan family, I was surprised to read this. But slightly heartened? I mean, this may be the only thing Trump has done that I agree with…

If you’re just interested in reading this book for the juicy bits, you don’t need to. I think most of the content of this book has been pretty out in the media or in other books. I wasn’t really surprised by anything. I’m impressed Mattis has been able to keep his head down and disagree so much with Trump but remain in the administration. I feel kind of bad for Priebus (“For Priebus, it was the worst meeting among many terrible ones.”) but not like, that bad. Bannon doesn’t feature too heavily in this book (unlike Wolff’s), so it was interesting to hear more about what other advisors were getting up to.

I also kind of forgot that obviously this book would end significantly in the past; it really only covers through March 2018. In a world where EVERY DAY is crazy, March is a REALLY long time ago.

I did get a strong sense that John Dowd (Trump’s former personal counsel) really believes there was no collusion between Trump and Russia, which is certainly interesting. There’s some hedging, at the end Dowd wonders whether Muller has something he isn’t aware of, but I think the last 20 pages or so of the book dealing with Dowd’s handling of the investigation and with his resignation were the most interesting. Definitely left me wishing the book covered a few more months, I’m so curious about the relationship between Trump’s legal team and the Muller investigation over the last six months. Or maybe I’m not, I mean Rudy Giuliani is a pretty open book, I’m not sure if there are things he’s really keeping private?

Of course, the consolation for me, there will almost certainly be more books about the Trump administration that have EVERYONE talking. And I’ll probably read them. If you didn’t read Wolff, it might be worth picking this one up, but if you read the paper a lot, you’re not in for many surprises. And, every day you don’t read this book, it becomes less and less relevant.

Currently reading: Let Me Tell You (Shirley Jackson!!!) and Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. I’m planning tor work in some more NK Jemisin soon, can’t have things get too depressing with the holidays coming up.

WHAT!? Another blog post like right away? Yeah. It may have taken me a while to get the last one down, and I then finished both of these books today.

9781501180910American Like Me by America Ferrera is, I think, meant to be more of a coffee table book. It’s a bit uneven, as you might expect from a collection of essays by a ton of different people. There’s also sort of a range of theme, everyone in the book is an immigrant or a child of immigrants, so many write about their experience immigrating, or their parents, or they write about key cultural traditions. Some really seem to be on the theme of what it means to them to be American.

I would say, reading this cover to cover is not necessarily advisable. I think you could easily just read the best stories in here and call it a day. I enjoyed reading about Roxanna Gay’s Haitian parents, who never stop parenting — Gay is a fabulous and hilarious writer. Ravi Patel’s story was hilarious, and made me want to see the documentary he and his sister made (Meet the Patels). Lin-Manual Miranda’s was short and felt a little phoned in. Randall Park’s was great both because he’s a funny guy and because his essay sparked a new understanding of his family — his parents had never really told him about their past, but for this essay, they let him interview them and now he knows all this stuff about them! Talk to your parents and you grandparents while you can, hear their stories.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer has been the work of MONTHS. It’s a whopping 574 pages, and fairly densely packed with science. Fortunately, Zimmer is an excellent writer and this is certainly a book science for the masses, so I wasn’t totally at sea. This book could really have been five of six books, but a big part of Zimmer’s point is that heredity is a huge topic. We act like heredity is just genes, but man, genes themselves are complicated, and then you add in the issues of epigenetics and culture (human ability to teach each other things and pass them down is a huge part of what separates us from our closest chimp relatives).

I strongly recommend this book. I’d like to read it again to be honest because it just contains so much, and I feel like I retained so little. Reading about mosaics and chimera was FASCINATING. Look, chimeras are so cool, okay? Did you know that most women who have children become chimeras? Like, even if you’re a surrogate, you probably have fetal cells from a kid that isn’t biologically yours floating around in your body forever! And they don’t just hang out as fetal cells, they like become part of your lung OR YOUR BRAIN. I find it rather comforting that our mother’s cells may very literally be living on in each of us — you may be a chimera too.

Relatedly to that, much of this book filled me with a sense of hope and a sense of dread. Anyone with a parent who died of a potentially heritable condition would probably feel the same, you wonder what might be waiting for you in your genes. But at the same time, Zimmer really makes it seem like science is proceeding along at a break-neck pace of amazing discoveries! Surely we will cure everything in the next 30 years…?

The cultural portions of the book were fascinating too, and reminded me of Theory of Bastards, discussing how humans have developed to be much friendly with each other than most of our monkey ancestors, with the result that we can pass down the lessons we learn about how to survive.  Related to culture, I also learned that Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976! That’s so early! Like, he hadn’t even seen the honey badger video 🙂

The whole final section of the book is about CRISPR, which I felt like I understood so much better after reading 100 pages about it, although I’m still sort of like, “So, it works with magic?” Zimmer also really distances himself from the insane hype of what horrors CRISPR might do. Not by ignoring them, he’s very clear that CRISPR presents many moral and ethical issues, but he refuses to sink to the click bait level of discussion or fearmongering.  It’s definitely a nuanced and interesting discussion of what we can do and what we might be able to do.

I could basically talk about this book forever (almost certainly getting much of the science wrong). Don’t be intimidated by the size of the book, definitely pick this one up.

Currently reading: Limetown and Fear (!! came in at the library, now I’ll know what everyone was talking about six months ago).

I don’t know about you, but man for me, November is flying by. I just can’t believe it’s the 20th already?? And Thanksgiving is upon us. My reading pace has definitely slowed a bit this fall, but I’m still only four books from my goal of 100.

This past week I read Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink and Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li. In retrospect, I didn’t really like Number One Chinese Restaurant that much. To be honest, it bummed me out, and felt like a bit of a slog despite being only about 300 pages. The novel tells a sort of upstairs/downstairs story of both the family that owns a Chinese restaurant and a few of the staff members who have worked there. Essentially, a fire occurs in the restaurant, and the novel tells the story of how everyone was involved, reacts, and how their lives are changed afterwards.


I liked Alice Isn’t Dead significantly more. I’d previously read Joseph Fink’s two novels related to his Welcome to Nightvale podcast. Alice Isn’t Dead is also based on a podcast (of the same name), which you don’t need to listen to to enjoy this book. You do kind of need to be a fan of Fink’s quirky style and way of creating a world very similar to our own, but just a little bit stranger. It’s not exactly science fiction, but it certainly isn’t realism. Magical realism? 

As advertised, the novel is sort of about Alice not being dead. The main character is Alice’s wife, Keisha. Alice disappears, and eventually Keisha has to admit to herself that Alice is probably dead, and then, Keisha starts seeing Alice, alive, in the background of the news. Whenever something terrible happens, there is Alice in the background. Keisha quits her job and starts working as a trucker in order to spend her time looking for Alice. While out on the road, she discovers a terrible non-secret about monsters who walk among us. This is a full on good v. evil story, although it’s more complicated than you initially think. I found the end a bit quick, but overall the story was satisfying. 

Fink is a hilarious writer, I’m sorry to say I returned the book to the library, forgetting that I had bookmarked some quotes I wanted to include in this post 😦 You’re just going to have to go read it for yourself. 

 

Currently reading: Trying really hard to finish both American Like Me and She Has Her Mother’s Laugh so I can start new books over the long Thanksgiving weekend… 

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! 

I don’t have a ton to say about either of these books — both were fine, I think both are unlikely to end up in anyone’s Christmas stocking (my Christmas shopping is basically me perusing the books I read over the year and then giving my favorites to people I think will also enjoy them).

Dear Mrs. Bird, by AJ Pearce, is actually a delightful romp through WWII London with narrator Emmy a twenty-something woman who longs to be a war correspondent but ends up accidentally working at a Women’s magazine typing up advice columns written by a woman who isn’t great at giving advice and is horrified by the immorality of the problems writers are sending in. Hijinks ensue – Emmy just can’t help herself. The war certainly dampens things a bit, but basically this is a slightly cheerier, funnier version of Everyone Brave is Forgiven. Really, other than the war, the central problems of the book don’t create a lot of tension — you can smell Emmy’s happy ending coming for the entire book. But, I couldn’t help but enjoy Emmy, who has a Jolly Good Time and generally shows Hitler what’s what with her Stiff Upper Lip. There is a lot of hilarious capitalization in the book. Although I didn’t buy this one, I don’t regret reading it and I was rather happy to hear that a sequel is in the works.

From the Corner of the Oval, by Beck Dorey-Stein, is a rather different book, although it also centers on a twenty-something (later a thirty-something) woman trying to find her footing in the world.  I really wanted to like this book, I kept waiting to like it. I absolutely identified with Dorey-Stein in many ways, being you know, also a thirty-something woman trying to find my footing in the world. But I mean. YOU ARE TEN FEET FROM OBAMA AND ALL YOU CAN THINK ABOUT ARE BOYS??? Really, because Dorey-Stein was a stenographer, not say, ambassador to the UN, this is a very personal memoir and doesn’t touch as much on the substance of Obama’s policies or decisions made in the administration. I mean, she certainly makes it sound like everyone had a good time.

I just kind of didn’t care about her continued inability to not cheat on her boyfriend, or the fact that the guy she was cheating with was a jerk. And I also just can’t really feel bad for someone, no matter how confused they are, who gets to travel the world with the president. She may not know what she wants, but having White House on her resume opens so many doors. Like say, writing a successful memoir despite being like 34? I didn’t hate this book, at times I enjoyed it, I think it could have been shorter.

Currently reading: Still only about 250 pages into She Has Her Mother’s Laugh. It is a dense freaking book. But, with 94 books under my belt for the year, I have the time.

Oh man. October was a bad month for reading books. Which was due in part to the fact that I am DEDICATED to reading all of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer (it’s the book you would want to have with you in a situation where you had to defend yourself with books) which is kind of good because although it’s slow going, I’m really enjoying the book and it’s good to mix things up and read 600 page books about science sometimes.

But, reading has also been down because civic engagement has been up! Which is also good, but it’s so freaking depressing. I’ve had some good experiences knocking on door and phone banking. Some great conversations that have given me so much hope. But, ug. I’ve also had some terrible interactions. There are so many people in America who think that everything that keeps me up at night is fine (war in Yemen, global climate change, women’s bodily autonomy, families torn apart at our border). And there are so many people who just don’t seem to care at all about other people (literally, all anyone wants to talk about is property taxes). Case and point, I was walking around in a neighborhood about 10 minutes from my house today, knocking doors, being super friendly!, and carved into the sidewalk on one block, a swastika. It just really, really upset me. Because who just lets that sit there? Who doesn’t do anything about having a symbol of such powerful hatred carved into their sidewalk? I mean, Pittsburgh tragedy ringing any bells?? I’m not Jewish. I’m powerfully white. Like, I accept that I have many privileges because I’m that sweet looking white girl, and also my skin could burn your eyes in winter. Possibly also summer. But the idea that there are people out there who think it’s cool to put swastikas on things, and the idea that there are people who just don’t care that there’s a swastika on their sidewalk? Well, frankly it makes me seriously consider a long winter of solitude with book and no human interaction…

So, rant over, back to books for now. My last October read was This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us by Edgar Cantero. This is Cantero’s third book in English, and you may recall that I’ve read the other two and LOVED Meddling Kids and liked The Supernatural Enhancements, and I’m going to say I actually really really liked This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us. Yeah, it’s a very refined rating system I have going.

Cantero’s third novel is another pretty big departure, you know how some authors really have a style or write like fifty books about the same character (whether openly or not), yeah, Cantero isn’t like that, other than maybe his focus on the supernatural, although that’s less at play in this book.  First, he wrote The Supernatural Enhancements which is VERY supernaturally focused and told entirely via letters, journal entries, transcripts, etc. Then he wrote Meddling Kids which is very obviously based on the Scooby-Doo Gang, but a sort of, what if one of their cases really WAS a ghost/supernatural thing. And now, his third novel is the story of A.Z. Kimrean, private eyes. And yes, the grammar is confusing because A.Z. is actually Adrian and Zoey who both inhabit the same body. A.Z. isn’t mentally ill, rather, they are chimeric twins — so sort of like Siamese twins but they only have one of everything (but say the left leg belongs to Zoey, the right leg belongs to Adrian). Adrian is all left brain, logical, and Zoey is all right brain creative.

Honestly, this book is enjoyable because Adrian and Zoey are interesting characters and the plot isn’t much better than your average PI novel, but it does zip along pretty well. There’s also some fun genre bashing:

“Femme fatale? It’s an archetype: the devious, beautiful woman with a dark past and compromising knowledge, playing other characters like chess pawns and getting the hero into trouble. That’s who you are now. Innocent but dangerous.”

“But I don’t want to cause you trouble.”

“Oh, please – trouble is necessary. It’s what moves the plot forward. And your presence is a breath of fresh air; this case oozes testosterone. Drug cartel, undercover cops – this would be a sausage factory without you girl. Don’t worry about us, you’re doing great. You do you.”

Essentially, A.Z. is called in to try to stop a gang war — there’s a undercover cop imbedding in a gang, the police want to take out the ringleaders, but fear that a gang war will just result in lots of bloodshed and new gangs rising up, negating all the work they’ve put in. The gang leader’s son has been killed and the police want A.Z. to figure out who it was/convince the gang leader that it wasn’t the fault of the rival gang. Yeah, it’s not the best plot ever. But it’s a fun book!

And for a book written by a man with like 1.5 female characters, this book actually said some interesting things about women (and well, a lot of interesting things about gender). Primarily this is through the eleven year old girl who is smarter than everyone else in her family (her dad is the gang leader):

“I used to be everyone’s favorite; the staff, the bodyguards, everyone complimented me. . . . I’m supposed to be proud of all the new things going on in my body, but if I talk tampons, everyone’s embarrassed. I cuddle with my friends, everyone stares; I bump against my PE teacher, he jolts like I’m toxic. Everyone’s all happy I’m turning into a woman but freaked out I’m not a child anymore. Like I’m in the gray area, and anything can happen.”

It’s been a while since I was an eleven year old girl, and Cantero never was (as far as I’m aware), but this says such interesting and terrible things about how society sees girls and women. Zoey actually turns out to be pretty great with pre-teen girls telling her, “You will take the reigns. You will write your own story.”

Currently reading: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh and From the Corner of the Oval