December 2018


Happy Holidays! Merry almost Christmas, Happy it used to be Hanukkah, Happy almost almost almost New Year. Hard to believe 2019 is nearly upon us! I know it’s not 2018’s fault, but I just really can’t wait for it to be behind me. I hope I don’t have many worse years ahead of me… It was a tough one for sure. But books were such a bright spot. I have loved so many of my reads this year, and I’m so glad that I really prioritized and made time for reading.

What goals are you setting for next year? I’m not sure I’ll intentionally read 100 books again, which is to say that I’m going to keep tracking my reads and keep making time for it, but if I read 85 instead of 100, I’ll be okay with it. My goal last year (2017) was 52 and I did 68, my goal this year was 100 and it looks like I’ll finish around 106 or 107 (I’m currently at 105).

My reads this week were Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture and Limetown which was written by Cote Smith but is based on a podcast created by Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie. I’ve mentioned that I’ve been working on Not That Bad for awhile, not because it’s bad or even slow, but because it is so intense to read. This is collection of many essays, many of them first person accounts of rape and sexual assault, and I found I could read about 3 before I had to take a break. Partially because I didn’t just want to breeze through these deeply personal stories, partly because it just made me so sad about the world we live in.

Despite the intensity of the book, I still recommend it (although if rape and sexual assault are too difficult for you, HUGE trigger warning on this one) as a powerful and well-written collection. The diversity in styles and in stories really makes this a strong book. No one in here is telling exactly the same story, although they are all telling you pieces of a larger story about our culture. I bookmarked A LOT in this book, and I will share a few of the more powerful pieces, but really I had to stop bookmarking because so much of this book feels important.

My first bookmark is a list I intend to come back to should I raise any men in this world – it is the author’s list of what you generally want to convey to your sons (Aubrey Hirsch, “Fragments”):

It’s not okay to hit the girl you like. And it’s not okay to hit the girl you love.

The world around you tells women that they should always nod politely no matter what they’re feeling inside. Don’t ever take a polite nod for an answer. Wait for her to yell it: “Yes!”

Not everyone gets sex when they want it. Not everyone gets love when they want it. This is true for men and for women. A relationship is not your reward for being a nice guy, no matter what the movies tell you.

Birth control is your job too.

Here are some phrases you will need to know. Practice them in the mirror until they come as easy as songs you know by heart: “Do you want to?” “That’s not funny, man.” “Does that feel good?” “I like you, but I think we’re both a little drunk. Here’s my number. Let’s get together another time.”

My feelings about this list should mostly be conveyed in exclamation marks. Another author ends with hopeful notes about the strength of her daughters (Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes, Reaping What Rape Culture Sows), which is a nice bit of optimism.

There’s another piece that is very much an autobiographical account of all the worst things that happened to the author (xTx, “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl”) that plays with how we assign a value to the ‘badness’ of the things that have happened:

My score is low compared to some and high compared to others. The harder the lesson, the higher the points. Some girls would kill for my score. That’s why I don’t talk about my score. I got off easy.

I legitimately think, “I got off easy.” I didn’t get raped … I got fondled at best. Not that bad, right? Lucky, right? Right. Exactly. This is what I’m saying. I got off easy. Why even write this essay?

This is, to me, the central thesis of the book. What has happened so many isn’t okay just because there’s some other person out there who has had it worse, it is that bad. I think V.L. Seek’s essay “Utmost Resistance” (written semi-in the style of a law review article, and about how the law views and has viewed rape) summed things up nicely (if depressingly):

[A] conclusion seems out of reach when we are still stuck debating the facts, deciding whom to trust and what is true. We are trapped in a legal system that has never favored women and has never believed survivors. And we are mired in a circuitous and damning dialogue, so powerful that it invalidates our experiences, our traumas, our truths — a dialogue so powerful that we begin to doubt whether our experience was ever there at all.

Limetown is, thankfully for my mental health, a very different sort of book. It’s pretty much a  prequel novel to the Limetown podcast which just released its second (and I think final) season. This is a sort of mystery-horror story, and the fact that the pieces take a while to fit together and some things aren’t explained is sort of key, so I will try not to ruin it for anyone.

The premise of the podcast is that Lia Haddock is a public radio reporter looking into the mystery of Limetown. Limetown, we’re told, was a planned community doing some kind of secret research, one day things went crazy, and then three days later, all 300 people who lived there had disappeared. The podcast moves forward from Limetown, with Lia trying to unpack what was going on there, what happened, and whether there are survivors.  Lia tells us that she has a personal connection, her uncle Emile was at Limetown and disappeared along with everyone else.

The book is a prequel, and it shifts back and forth between Lia and her uncle Emile’s perspectives as they each grow up (in different decades). It’s an enjoyable enough book, not amazing, not something you definitely must pick up. I think I’d actually recommend listening to the first season of the podcast first, if you like that, pick up the book. I, like many others, didn’t like the second season as much. I love this idea, but I’m not sure it couldn’t have been executed better.

Currently reading: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, When Will It Be Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin and thinking about whether I can make one more trip to the library before the end of the year…

 

 

I’m late to the party on reading this book, and loving Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve been meaning to read this since I read The New Yorker profile of Adichie. It took me a while to read this one (although I’ve been working on a few other things too), but once I got about half way through I just couldn’t put it down. And now I’m debating when I’ll be able to read some of her other books (my to read list is like 30 books long, at least…).

Adichie’s novel tells the story of a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who is living in America as the story opens but is preparing to move back to Nigeria after 15 years away. The story flashes back to teen Ifemelu in Nigeria, and for the first six parts of the novel we spend more of our time seeing her grow up, go to college, get a visa to go to college in America, make a life in America, become a successful blogger, and then make the decision to go back to Nigeria. The final few sections of the book finally take us to Nigeria.

Although I have almost nothing in common with Ifemelu, I had the same problem as I did with The Female Persuasion — wanting to mark every other page of the book to come back to and to write about here. Perhaps because part of the book is set in Philadelphia, a city close to my heart:

[Philadelphia] did not raise the specter of intimidation as Manhattan did; it was intimate but not provincial, a city that might yet be kind to you.

[Disclaimer, Philadelphia might not be that kind to you.] Or, maybe I just really liked Ifemelu, she’s such an intelligent but realistic woman, and I enjoyed see her come into herself (“She had, finally, spun herself fully into being.”).

This is a book that has interesting insights into race and immigration, which are still interesting although I feel like the world, or America at least, has changed tremendously in the last few years. On the race side, Ifemelu’s blog is about being a Non-American Black in America, as she puts it, she wasn’t black until she came to America, race doesn’t mean quite the same thing in Nigeria. Throughout the book we get some excerpts of her blog which I also really enjoyed:

The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.

This excerpt from the blog is a bit depressing, although I think rather true; many of the blog excerpts are more sassy.

And well, someone dies off screen in this novel, someone’s mother, and of course that always strikes home for me:

I never thought she would die until she died. Does this make sense? He had discovered that grief did not dim with time; it was instead a volatile state of being. Sometimes the pain was as abrupt as it was on the day [he found out she died] …; other times, he forgot that she had died and would make cursory plans about flying to the east to see her.

I also read N.K. Jemisin’s novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, this week, and sadly I must report that while I enjoyed it, it is not nearly as strong as her more recent AMAZING books in The Broken Earth trilogy. These feel purely escapist, and I’m not sure I’ll make time for the rest of this series. But, I do have her newest short story collection in my current stack so I’m looking forward to that.

Currently reading: SO CLOSE to finishing Not that Bad, not sure what novel I’ll start next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Power’s The Overstory felt like kind of a slog to me. I liked the book, but at over 500 pages, it is not a short novel. Although it took me a while to get through, I did like this book and would recommend it to all the nature lovers out there.

The novel is the intertwined story of nine strangers (well, eight strangers, two are married to each other and their story is pretty much always told together) in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Some of them end up coming together, some of them never meet or meet only briefly, but all of them are part of this larger story about deforestation and trees.

The novel opens with a section called “Roots” which fittingly, gives us a chapter on each character — (1) Nicholas Hoel a Midwesterner who grows up with a family Chestnut tree and does amazing tree-related art work, (2) Mimi Ma a second generation Chinese-American engineer who loves a specific little grove of trees, (3) Adam Appich a boy interested in science and psychology who goes on to research group think, (4) Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly who are married and start planting in their yard each year on their anniversary, (5) Douglas Pavlicek a Vietnam veteran who is disguised to find out that all the time he spends planting seeds is really hurting the environment (because companies can then log more older trees – “What do I do now, for the next forth years? What work can’t the efficiency of unified mankind chop into pure fertilizer?”), (6) Neelay Mehta an India-American who loves computers and is inspired in his programing by trees/nature, (7) Patricia Westerford a scientist who discovers that trees communicate and writes several best selling books about trees (which all the other characters read), and (8) Olivia Vandergriff a girl who after not doing much has a life changing experience that causes her to devote her life to activism for trees. Man, and that’s the first like 100 pages.

Nicholas, Mimi, Adam, Douglas, and Olivia all end up engaging in eco-activism together, and their stories kind of provide the plot. I still enjoyed Ray and Dorothy and Neelay, but I kind of felt like, this book didn’t really need those plot lines, I’m not totally sure what they added, other than that they are interesting characters. Although I guess having Patricia be the only one who doesn’t join everyone else would have been weird.

This novel is definitely a downer in a lot of ways, not only is it about deforestation (not uplifting, as Olivia explains, “Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it.”), but lots of horrific things happen to each character basically from the word go — dead parents, near-death experiences, severe on-going health issues.

Much of the book is really beautifully, if densely written, here’s Nick talking about working in a warehouse:

The aisle rises on girders into an endless chasm of books. Dozens of aisles in this Fulfillment Center alone.  And every month, new Fulfillment Centers across several continents. His employers won’t stop until everyone is fulfilled. Nick squanders a full five precious second of his time-motion gazing down at the gorge of books. The sight fills him with horror inseparable from hope. Somewhere in all these boundless, compounding, swelling canyons of imprinted paper, encoded in the millions of tons of loblolly pine fiber, there must be a few words of truth, a page, a paragraph that could break the spell of fulfillment and bring back danger, need, and death.

I love this passage, while also feeling like, Powers could have killed a couple fewer trees himself to make this particular book if he’d been more able to convey and idea in a paragraph instead of ten pages.

I will also say that, not unlike The Sixth Extinction (non-fiction by Elizabeth Kolbert), this book conveys a sense that humans are only going to win for so long. It’s not the earth that’s in danger — we are. If (when?) we make the planet uninhabitable, the planet spins on, trees will be a big part of the environment recovering from the big species die-offs that are happening now. Give it 65 million years or so, some new cool stuff might be happening on the third planet from the sun.

Currently reading – Still working on Not that Bad and now starting N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy (time to get some lighter reading in).

Let me tell you, I really like this collection, Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson. I think most people mainly know Jackson for her terrifying short story The Lottery or, now that Netflix made a special, for The Haunting of Hill House. But, Jackson, despite dying young and raising four kids, wrote so many other amazing short stories and novels !!  I really enjoyed this collection because it includes short stories, very early short stories, non-fiction writing, and some of her essays or speeches on her process or on writing. It really feels like you get to get in her head a little bit — and she discusses writing both The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery in the essays in the book.

The first section of the collection is short stories which were ‘finished’ (or you know, at least completely written if not deemed finished by Jackson) but unpublished or uncollected. I enjoyed all of them — they were all so different, and I love how Jackson plays with magical realism. She just wasn’t bound to the rules of the world the way some of us are (“I don’t think I like reality very much.”). It’s sort of hard to give examples without spoiling these short stories because first, they’re short so the plots are pretty straight forward, but also some of their strength comes from the way not everything is made explicit (so as in The Lottery, it is never explained WHY this is happening).

The second section is all non-fiction pieces, including one where Jackson talks about being asked to write a children’s story:

I was given a word list, made out by a “group of educators,” and asked to confine myself to this list . . . . “Getting” and “spending” were on the list, but not “wishing”; “cost” and “buy” and “nickel” and “dime” were all on the list, but not “magic”; “post office” and “supermarket” were on the list, but not “Fairlyland.” I felt the children for whom I was supposed to write were being robbed, persuaded to accept nickels and dimes instead of magic wishes.

Considering how TERRIFYING The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House are (as well as several other Jackson stories), reading Jackson’s non-fiction is delightful. She just seems to see life in everything — she was raising four kids and doing all this housework, so her brain just started making up stories about the laundry basket, and she just kind of seems to live in that kind of world.

The third section of the collection is all very early Jackson short stories, most of which involve WWII or the end of WWII. It’s kind of fascinating to see these early hints of her later style in these stories, they don’t have quite the same light touch or twists and turns.

The fourth and fifth sections are both non-fiction, the fourth centers on her kids/housekeeping and the fifth is all essays about writing.  I found the fifth section fascinating because she does provide a little insight in how she came up with some of her stories. But, the fourth section may actually have been my favorite and made me laugh out loud — this is where you really see that unrelentingly creative brain:

My two forks are insanely jealous of each other, and I find that I must take a path of great caution with them, something I would not do for many of my friends. I try to keep out of their quarrels – who wouldn’t be afraid of an angry fork? – but I am always fumbling the delicate balance of power that is all that keeps them from each other’s throats.  …

I do not mean to say that I am under the thumb of my forks, any more than I am honestly afraid of the meat grinder’s threats, or the bullying of the coffee pot. It is simply that one cannot live a day in the middle of so many personalities without occasionally treating on some fork’s toes. . . .

Although I will admit, it made me wish I had a time machine, I would go back a hire Jackson a nanny or a maid or a cook or something so she could have had a few more hours with her typewriter. I guess she enjoyed the balance, but there is this feeling, how much more could she have written if someone else was doing the laundry?

OH, and PS – This was book 100 for me! I totally met my goal of 100 books in 2018. With pretty much all of December to go.

Currently reading: The Overstory, still working on Not That Bad.