Non-fiction


So I technically returned from vacation late Wednesday, but it’s taken me until now to kind of get back to east coast time and to sit down and let you know what all I read on vacation.

In case you don’t follow it, The Morning New Tournament of Books (The Rooster) released the short list of books that will be in the tournament for 2019, so I’ve begun trying to read at least half of them before the tournament starts. I’m still smarting over the fact that An American Marriage didn’t make it into the tournament, but I’m putting that aside since it means that I have read literally none of the 16 books in this year’s tournament.

So, first up on vacation was Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. I took this one on vacation because it sounded like it might not be too heavy, which since the main character is a slave, should tell you how heavy a lot of the books in the tournament are this year… Washington Black (Wash) is an eleven year old boy who is a slave on a Barbados plantation. The master is cruel, but it turns out that his brother is an abolitionist and a scientist. He ‘borrows’ Wash from his brother to be his assistant with getting a flying machine to work — and in the process teaches him to read, a little about science, and discovers that Wash has a gift for drawing.

The book is not exactly light hearted, but it really is an adventure story that spans the globe — after a man is killed, a price is on Wash’s head, and he and the brother travel to America, to the Arctic, and ultimately London and Morocco also play a role.

Wash is a fabulous narrator, and completely sucks you into his world, and he’s apparently telling the story later so he has a little more insight than one expects from an eleven year old:

I could not have described him so then, but [the master’s cousin] was merely a man of his class, nothing more. His great passions were not passions but distractions; one day was but a bridge to the next. He took in the world with a mild dissatisfaction, for the world was of little consequence.

I think I mostly bookmarked that as a note of how to not live your life, but what an interesting comment on an Englishman at the time that the sun had not yet begun to set on the British Empire.

On a similar note, Wash considers the life of a slave hunter:

He was a wretched man… He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senseless cruelty. … he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.

How easy it is, to waste a life.

How true. Both of the quotes I’ve picked focus on the white men in the story, which isn’t quite right, although a lot of this novel is focused on how each of these men are different, and yet how each fails to see Wash’s full humanity. Wash really comes into his own in the end however, and stops being an eleven year old who is completely controlled by the world he lives in.

I read this entire book in one sitting, so I can definitely recommend it. It reminds me a bit of The Underground Railroad, because the flying machine and some of the science give it a bit of a sense of the fantastical (most slaves did not escape slavery in this exciting manner, they lived and died as slaves) although there’s no magical realism here.

Next I read The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling which I also enjoyed. The story is set in California and takes place over ten days. The main character, Daphne is a young mother to Honey a 16 month old. She works for an Islamic Institute affiliated with a university in San Francisco. Although she herself is not Muslim, she speaks Turkish and is married to a Turkish man, who was intimidated into giving up his green card and through a ‘click of the mouse’ error has so far been unable to get another — resulting in their 8 month separation. Daphne basically has a nervous breakdown on Day 1, and spends the next ten days in a fictional high desert town where she meets secessionist activists (who want the northern part of California to leave the Southern part) and an elderly woman named Alice who is trying to visit the camp where her long dead husband worked during WWII.

I spent a good chunk of the book identifying with Daphne while also being kind of annoyed with her for not pulling up out of her tailspin, until I kind of admitted that, this is what tailspins are like. If you could just realize, oh my behavior is irrational, sure you can right yourself, and at time Daphne tries, but really, when you are just at your breaking point, you break.

The book jacket told me that “more than anything, this is a story about motherhood,” but I (who read almost everything as a story about motherhood) really felt there was more here than that. Maybe because it delves so much into the unrest of the world we currently live in — state’s rights and authoritarianism, racism and discrimination against the ‘other.’  I strongly recommend this one, and it’s another pretty quick read.

A rounded out the week with non-fiction – Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper. I would say the downside of this book is that I’m not exactly sure what the thesis was. It’s not exactly a memoir, it’s more of a collection of essays. But parts of it were very powerful. Parts of it were also kind of hilarious, in talking about her love of the Babysitter’s Club books growing up she writes, “They fought sometimes, but always made up. And in the end, no matter what, they rode for each other.” Not how I, an extremely white person, who also grew up reading the books ever thought about it.

The chapter White-Girl Tears was one of the more powerful parts for me:

White-lady tears might seem not to be a big deal, but they are actually quite dangerous. When white women signal through their tears that they feel unsafe, misunderstood, or attacked, the whole world rises in their defense. The mythic nature of white female vulnerability compels protective impulses to arise in all men, regardless of race.

I am definitely the beneficiary of being a very non-threatening looking white woman. I try hard not to forget this, and to be honest I have at times been quite grateful for it. Although this book also makes the point that this, the power of white-lady tears really stems from patriarchy, the idea that white women need to be protected. And when you lean into that power, are you really leaning into power?

This was one of many, many books written about rage in the last few years, and it’s the first one I read, so I kind of feel like I need to read This Will Be My Undoing before I can definitely recommend this one.

I also read Expecting Better, which is  a great evidence based pregnancy book. But, if you’re not pregnant, you’re probably not that interested. If you are though, skip What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Read this and Like A Mother. Then call it a day, there aren’t any other good books out there.

Currently reading: Conversations with Friends and The Interestings.

So, this is very delayed – last week I read Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward and Can You Ever Forgive Me: Memoires of Literary Forger by Lee Israel.  First up, Can You Ever Forgive Me (which was recently made into a movie) the true account of how Lee Israel during the 90’s forged and sold letters purporting to be from Noel Coward, Dorthy Parker, and several others. Israel is actually pretty likeable in print, although you get the sense you might not really want her as an officemate. The story itself is more of a short story than a memoir — I think it clocks in at 126 pages, and the font is not small. This might be one instance where you’re fine just seeing the movie or don’t get much out of reading the book and seeing the movie. I enjoyed the movie more than I expected to, so I requested the book from my library back in November. I’m still trying to figure out what the heck the person who had it out before me was doing for 6 weeks with the book — using it as a primer on how to become a literary forger???

I really liked Salvage the Bones — although that feels a bit strange to say since the book is about Katrina. I recently had the amazing opportunity to meet Jesmyn Ward and hear her read some of Sing Unburied Sing (and get my copy signed !). And that prompted me to decide it was high time I read the rest of her books.

Salvage the Bones is set in Bois Savage, Mississippi and begins about two weeks before Hurricane Katrina strikes. The main character is Esh, a fifteen year old girl, and her three brothers (Randall, Skeetah, and Junior) all play main roles as well. Their mother died giving birth to Junior, and their father isn’t great — although he takes storm preparedness pretty seriously so that’s good, although, against a category 5 hurricane, it doesn’t really end up being quite enough… Their lost mother is definitely a presence in the story (although not a ghostly presence as with Sing Unburied Sing):

When [Esh’s grandmother] died, Mam told me that she had gone away, and then I wondered where she went. Because everyone else was crying, I clung like a monkey to Mama, my legs and arms wrapped around her softness, and I cried, loved running through me like a hard, blinding summer rain. And then Mama died, and there was no one left for me to hold on to.

I miss her so badly I have to swallow salt, imagine it running like lemon juice into the fresh cut that is my chest, feel it sting.

I checked, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Esh is pregnant because that fact is included in the book flap summary. So there’s a fair amount of pre-storm drama – and I worried over this motherless soon-to-be mother especially knowing Katrina was coming. The storm doesn’t actually show up until page 215. There’s a lot of sort of dread in reading most of the book because you the reader have a sense of what’s coming and the characters very much do not. Hurricanes, they are somewhat used to. But not Katrina.

There is a lot of sadness in this book, and that sadness is beautifully conveyed. But, I will say that while the end was hardly happy, it was redeeming enough that you didn’t finish this book feeling nearly as bad as I expected to going in.

Read Salvage the Bones, skip Can You Ever Forgive Me.

Currently reading: Eloquent Rage and The Interestings.

This past week I read two memoirs, both of which cover very specific periods of the author’s life — in Glynnis Macnicol’s No One Tells You This we hear about Macinol’s early forties as she creates her own way to be a woman alone and okay with it and in Peter Sagal’s The Incomplete Book of Running we hear mostly about Sagal’s rebirth as a runner in his 40’s as he was getting divorced.

I enjoyed both, and although there was sadness in The Incomplete Book of Running it was a nice counterbalance to No One Tells You This, which I found quite sad. Now, don’t get me wrong, Macnicol’s book is very powerful as well — about how we live in this moment where for the first time really women have choices and can choose to be alone and childless and not be say, doomed to be eaten by their cat. That’s not the life Macnicol lives and she is not at all worried about being eaten by her cat. BUT. Her mother dies, of Parkinson’s, but of a variant of Parkinson’s that presents very strongly with dementia. And that hits me hard. Usually when I read about other people struggling with losing family members to dementia, I don’t relate all that much. My Mom was very young, I was very young, and her illness while interminable while it was happening, moved very very quickly and took her in only four years. But crappily for both of us, Macnicol’s mother’s illness had a lot of similarities, and well, it seems like we just really saw the illness in similar ways. That made this a very sad book for me, even if I was bookmarking every page like, SHE GETS IT.

So most people I think will read this as an interesting and powerful story of new options that are open to women. Macnicol takes us through the years where she started figuring this out:

I reveled in the fact that I was being jetted away on someone else’s dime and that I’d finally reached the point in my life where my career, and to some degree, financial has aligned to produce the life I’d fantasized about, though I couldn’t help but lament the fact that I was likely going to be doing it alone. All my other halves now had their own other halves to travel with or young kids who made travel difficult. Just as my life was catapulting me into some great beyond, theirs were tying them down to routines and caregiving – decades of both. … I had to be prepared to have adventures alone.

I loved her take down of, you’re going to regret not getting married, not having a kid, etc:

I wasn’t going to have a baby as an insurance policy against some future remorse I couldn’t yet imagine. I had more respect for myself than that. The truth was, no one knows what they’re missing in the end. You can only live your own life, and do your best with the outcome when you roll the dice.

This is sort of the crux of her book — no choices are bad. The power of this book is in telling the story of a woman choosing differently, and realizing there are different paths for women than have ever truly been available before. Although she is very honest about the emotional labor that is expected of a woman, and how sometimes when you don’t hit your own milestones, it can feel difficult to keep showing up for others again and again. But not because she’s bitter, or because she wants what they have, so much as because, when you have a baby, people know what to do and how to act (sort of…). But when you’re just sinking for some other reason, it can be hard to ask for help, and there’s no automatic jumping in of your friends as there can be for other life events.

Additionally, Macnicol isn’t anti-kid, and her story shows just how much kids and caregiving can be a part of your life, even if you don’t choose wife/mom — I loved her description of her nephew:

Babies are like that. They appear, tear themselves a hole in the world, and somehow it becomes immediately impossible to remember a time when that space did not exist.

If you read and enjoyed Rebecca Traister’s All The Single Ladies, this feels very much like a companion book to that to me.

Peter Sagal’s book is perhaps not as funny as you’d expect if you’re only familiar with him from the NPR news quiz Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. But I happened to catch him talking about this book on RadioTimes (yeah… I listen to a lot of NPR and I read The New Yorker, I am very much that person…) and it was a great interview, so I found this book at my library.

There’s a fair amount of sadness in the book because of Sagal’s divorce (“Instead of a ‘conscious uncoupling’ it was turning into a brush war”), his honestly about his depression and body image issues, and the fact that he was about a 100 yards away when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon in 2013. All that said, Sagal doesn’t want to force you to look at his pain, he kind of wants to make you laugh. So this somehow is not that intense of a book.

I am a runner, and so I enjoyed reading about Sagal’s love of running, and I related to some of what he says (but not all, despite not being a 50 year old man, I am much slower than he is, I do not think I will ever run a sub-5 hour marathon let alone a 3:09):

By the time I got to mile 22 … I would have quit happily, except that if I ever wanted to finish a marathon, I’d have to run twenty-two miles allover again and that seemed far more painful than the measly four miles I had to limp through now. … [At the finish line] I said to myself something I did not expect to hear myself say, something that became a hinge between my former life and my present, and led to, among many, many other things, the writing of this book.

“I wonder if I could do that faster.”

I totally relate to wanting to give up at mile 22 of a marathon, but I didn’t finish and decide to do another. I finished and decided half-marathons were great and you can finish them, take a nap, and feel fine! But, I did end up running my one and only marathon because I finished a half-marathon and thought, huh, I could do more.

I think a lot of people,sadly, will also relate to Sagal’s feeling about his body, although I love how he can make it sort of funny:

“If you’ve ever been fat, you will either be fat for the rest of your life or you will worry about being fat for the rest of your life.” I came across those words in the manuscript of the place Fighting International Fat, by Jonathan Reynolds, a pretty obscure place to find the underlying thesis of your waking life … That casual observation struck me then and now with the profound power of its obvious truth, much like Kafka’s observation: “The meaning of life is that it ends.” But of course, Kafka did not add that once you’re dead, you won’t gain weight. Which is a comfort to me, sometimes.

This is pretty much the tone of the whole book, walk up to a serious subject, poke it with a stick, and get out with a laugh. But maybe if that’s the way to be honest about how you feel, that’s the way to do it. The book doesn’t feel raw and honest quite the same way as Macnicol’s does, but well, they are rather different people.

Currently reading: Salvage the Bones and The Interestings (yeah, going back a few years to read more by Wolitzer and Ward).

The last book of 2018 was How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin, bringing the 2018 total to 106 books read. This is belated because I kept thinking I would finish another book and write about them both, but well, this week I mostly spent catching up on all the issues of The New Yorker that I’ve been carrying around forever (I’m currently only reading 2 issues of The New Yorker!).  Also, I’m always suggesting books to my mother-in-law so for Christmas she returned the favor and gave me 4 of her favorite books. We’ll see how it turns out, but the first one is a 650 page novel… So that’s taking some time.

Briefly, I will say that I recommend How Long ‘Til Black Future Month if you enjoy sci-fi, fantasy, or magical realism at all. It’s a great short story collection that really runs the gambit between other world sci-fi, fantasy (think dragons), and alternative history. My favorite was a bit of steam-punk alternate history (“The Effluent Engine”) — what if Haiti had been able to stay a free country after a slave revolt, and they’d been able to build a stable country? Also, everyone travels by dirigible and women can do stuff. It’s also a wonderful book because there really is sadly a huge dearth of black characters in sci-fi and fantasy generally. That’s changing, but I think it’s pretty much all thanks to Jemisin…

And now I want to also briefly recommend my favorites from my 2018 reading:

1. The Power – Naomi Alderman
2. Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan
3. Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
4. How to Stop Time – Matt Haig
5. Sing Unburied Sing – Jesmyn Ward
6. Fever Dreams – Samanta Schweblin (this book is terrifying, but I can’t leave it off the list)
7. The Animators – Kayla Rae Whitaker
8. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir – Asha Bandele and Patrisse Khan-Cullors (again, not on here because I enjoyed it per se, but one of the more powerful books I read this year)
9. The Idiot – Elif Batuman
10. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
11. You Think It I’ll Say It – Curtis Sittenfeld
12. Everything Here Is Beautiful – Mira T. Lee
13. Happiness – Aminatta Forna
14. An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
15. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez
16. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin
17. The Supernatural Enhancements – Edgar Cantero (looking back, I just really enjoyed the format of this book, not everyone will)
18. Dear Mrs. Bird – AJ Pearce
19. She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Power, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity – Carl Zimmer (Fascinating)
20. Let Me Tell You -Shirley Jackson

I held myself to only 20 (I was going for 10, but couldn’t whittle this down further…), so really I recommend almost every book I read this year. A lot of these are on the list because I just enjoyed reading them so much, some because the power of the book demands it (Fever Dreams, I’m looking at you), some because they really taught me something.

What were your best reads of 2018? What are you looking forward to in 2019?

Currently Reading: Unsheltered and Cutting For Stone

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…

 

 

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.

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.

Next Page »