Non-fiction


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 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.

So, I’ve still be in a bit of a slump reading-wise. I just want to be home, under a blanket, not required to interact with any other humans, but somehow this has translated into rewatching a lot of The Office instead of reading… I have read the second book in The Broken Earth trilogy, The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin and I’ve started on the third book, The Stone Sky. More on the third book when I get back from vacation… (where I will likely read many books).

Mostly this week I was slogging through Everything Happens for R9780399592065eason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler. Slogging not because the book is long or bad, but because it is yet another grief memoir. I have never read a book about grief that I regretted reading. And yet, after my Mom died, I told myself, enough. Time to try living. Because reading about grief can be life affirming and helpful, but it can also just plunge you further into that pit.

Boweler’s book is about her life in the immediate aftermath of her diagnoses with a type of colon cancer (at 35). Her cancer is basically incurable, but responds well to immunotherapy, so that she continues to have cancer, but continues to live, in this weird middle space. She happens to be a strong Christian and a Duke professor (you might have heard of her first book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel) This books is lovely (talking about mail she received after writing for the NY Times, “These letters sing with unspeakable love in the face of the Great Separation. Don’t go, don’t go, you anchor my life“). And at times, funny:

The chemotherapy drugs are cracked up so high that my feet are tender. I’ve been plagued with lockjaw and cold hypersensitivity, so that every time I touch anything cool it feels like I am being zapped with electricity. I am so forgetful about this that [my husband] hangs a sign on the freezer with a picture of MC Hammer that reads: GIRL, U CAN’T TOUCH THIS.

And also:

[I tell my friend] where all the diaries are kept that I would rather not leave for posterity. The diary of twelve year old Kate will be allowed to remain, because it is a daily account of what a boy named Colin was doing and I convinced that if Colin committed a crime in 1992 and is later put on trial, my diary is so thorough that it would either convict or exonerate him.

It’s a little disingenuous of me to highlight the funny parts of this book, because I wept over it.  At only 166 pages, it took me days to read because I could only read it during the day. It is a sad book, a book about loss, and fear and making peace with terrible things that just shouldn’t happen.

I had this one on my ‘to read’ list for a long time, and finally decided to pick it up, but it was kind of the wrong time for me. I love lots of grief memoirs, but they just are pulling me back into feeling worse I think.

So, currently reading: The Stone Sky, and taking Crazy Rich Asians and The Bookshop of Yesterdays on vacation with me.

So my September reading has been a little slow, it’s not been the best few weeks and I let myself do some re-reading and possibly watched the BBC 5 hour Pride and Prejudice mini-series multiple times. Until I started challenging myself to read a certain number of books a year and arbitrarily decided re-reads wouldn’t count, I definitely re-read a few books many, many times. It’s an odd mix —  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, all the Harry Potter books, the Outlander books, The Thurber Carnival, perhaps most embarrassingly, the Gracelin O’Malley books. Oh geeze. If you like historical romance like Outlander, you will like those books.  So, I let myself re-read some books.

But, never fear, I also read three new books – Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neal Hurston, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me by Bill Hayes
and The Position by Meg Wolitzer.

You should read Barracoon, it is very short, and I think it’s a helpful reminder that slavery both wasn’t that long ago and that slavery was a choice, made by white people. Literally, Cudjo Lewis became a slave because a couple white guys made a bet that even though it was at that point illegal to import slaves from Africa, they could get away with it:

[Tim Meaher] bet ‘any amount of money that we would import a cargo in less than two years, and no one be hanged for it.’ It was Meaher’s dream to own land and become wealthy and to use slave labor to do it. He believed it was his birthright.

It is a very depressing, but very short book. I think if I’d been feeling less sad, I would have read this book too quickly, I’m actually glad I read it over a few sittings. The book doesn’t actually talk too much about Lewis’ time as a slave, I think at least a third of the book is his stories about his family and growing up in his village in Africa, and then a good chunk is about the decades he spent in America after he was free.

Insomniac City is a very different book, although also sad, and also a memoir. Bill Hayes was Oliver Sach’s partner for many years and book is about Hayes love of New York City and his life there, but it is also about Sach’s illness and death. And I knew that was coming for the entire book, so the whole thing made me sad. Hayes is actually pretty upbeat though. I’ve read a lot of memoirs, a lot about grief and death this year, and I actually though Hayes’ postscript made the most sense in terms of “what is the point of all this?” The point of life is to be alive. And so, we live. Sadly, I got the second most comforting thing of the year from Hope Never Dies, although I think Biden actually wrote something along these lines – it will never make sense that someone is dead, that they are gone, that they aren’t here. You just learn to live with that feeling. So, those two pieces are kind of my philosophy for moving through grief and trying to live your life: it’s not going to make sense, just focus on being alive yourself. And alive is a pretty low bar. Like, when people start talking about living your best life, about not wasting time, ug, that stresses me out. Just be alive. That’s the point.

That doesn’t really tell you much about the book. Basically if you like New York, Oliver Sachs, or memoirs, you will enjoy this book. Hayes is also a photographer and there are many interesting pictures of New Yorkers. The book actually reminded me a bit of the Humans of New York.

I won’t say too much about The Position. I continue to enjoy Meg Wolitzer, this wasn’t my favorite of her books. It was a little different than others I’ve read by her because there were significant male characters who got to narrate.  Basically, this is a book about the four adult children of a couple that in the 70’s (when their children were children) wrote a very famous book about sex. The book is sort of a, where are they now, how did this impact everyone story set as they are considering re-releasing the book in a 25th anniversary edition. The four adult children were all interesting characters, I was invested in them, I found the sad stuff that happened in the book a little much for my current emotional state.

Currently reading: So You Want to Talk About Race and The Supernatural Enhancements, still waiting on many hold books from the library 😦

Also, should I read Bob Woodward’s new book? I feel like I should because you know, everyone is going to. But, ug. I kind of don’t want to – I read Michael Wolff’s book and I feel like my time could have been better spent. But hey, maybe you were hoping I would summarize it for you?

Two pretty quick reads this week – White Tears by Hari Kunzru and The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson. They are very different books, but I recommend them both. No idea where I got the recommendation to read The Language of Kindness, but White Tears was part of the 2018 Morning News Tournament of Books – which is an AMAZING place to get book recommendations from (I’ve read 10 of the 16 from 2018 and while not all were my favorite book of all time, I have no regrets about reading any of them). And they’ve been doing it for more than a decade, so if the 2018 books don’t excite you, you can look at all the books that have competed starting in 2005.

White Tears is a quick read because after about the first fifty pages it took a turn I was not expecting and became a magical realism/thriller/horror-ish story. This book reminded me of so many other books — Fever Dream (not quite as horrifying, but that same sense of pacing being a little out of your control, confusion about what’s going on) as well as The Underground Railroad (dealing with complicated issues of race while also being somewhat entertaining, although it feels terrible to say that either book was entertaining in some ways).

Essentially, this is the story of Seth and Carter, two white kids who enjoy African American music. Seth is awkward (“I often suspect that I make no impression on others. Gestures that ought to have an impact seem to fade before they reach their audience, before they bridge the gap between me and world of the living”). Carter is super, super, super rich and sets the pair up with a recording studio after college. They make a living basically helping white artists appropriate African American sound. Seth is the sound engineer and the protagonist of our story, for the most part. Seth accidentally records an unknown singer, the two release the song pretending it’s a long-lost recording of a 1920’s blues singer. Everything starts to get kind of weird from there. People, one man in particular believe that the song was really that of a 1920’s blue singer, and the magical realism begins to creep in. Seth and Carter’s cultural appropriation is layered on top of the racism, abuse, and violence faced by African Americans in the 1960’s and the 1920’s.

The whole book is really sort of this thought experiment about the many blues musicians who are lost to history (most familiar to me is Robert Johnson, but obviously there are many people we know even less about), this is sort of a, we can never know so let’s imagine one possible story:

The names were traded by collectors, but no one seemed to know a thing about them. No information, not a scrap. They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn’t just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.

I read a couple reviews that said something along the lines of, I saw the twists coming in this book. I DID NOT see the twists coming. Which is maybe why I found it so hard to put down, because I felt like the book really didn’t follow the trajectory I was expecting. If you’ve read it, what did you think – surprising, or not so much?

The Language of Kindness is a memoir covering Christie Watson’s (who also writes fiction) twenty years working as a nurse in the UK, mostly in London. If you are an easy crier, DO NOT read this book in public. Earlier today I had to like wipe my entire face clear of the tears into my sweater at Starbucks; somehow I felt going to get napkins would be even more obvious?? Watson did all kinds of nursing in her twenty years – ICU, PICU, mental-health, and working with an emergency crash team going all over the hospital whenever called. Her stories are heartening, and devastating. She also writes about losing her father to cancer in her late 30’s, which hit me hard although she writes about it beautifully:

Dad is dying in his bed at home, with my mum holding him, my brother holding him, and me holding my mum. There is no pain. There is dignity. There is comfort. I cannot imagine a better death. We have had time to say the things we needed to, and to leave unsaid the thing we didn’t…. We cry and laugh. He is totally himself until the last second. Dad is excellent at dying, it turns out.  It is Mum who teaches me how to live a full life: with joy and emotion and forgiveness and truth. But my Dad teaches me how to die well. He dies with humor and dignity and a complete lack of fear.

There is so much in this paragraph for me. It is a punch in the chest to be reminded of all the things that weren’t possible for my Mom — she did not die at home, she was not herself for years before she died, I can never really know whether she was afraid or in pain because she had no ability to communicate. But, she wasn’t in a hospital, she was with me and my Dad, we were talking to her, we were with her. And I pushed hard to make sure she got pain medication. Lots of people said nice things to me when my Mom died, but one person told me that I’d done everything I could to help my Mom to a peaceful and relatively pain-free death, and that that wasn’t a small thing. Oddly, it was nice to hear this.

Watson’s book could be boiled down to this: “Human beings are capable of such kindness. And such cruelty.” She tells vivid stories about the patients she’s cared for, the abuse suffered by some, but also the man getting chemo therapy who causes her to weep on her first day back at work after her father has died of cancer:

The crying that I’ve held in for days comes out in a rush that is so violent I know over the glass of water next to his bed.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry.” …

He pulls me toward his arm and tucks me there, next to his rattling chest, his ribs pressing against my cheekbones, my tears free and fast. It must have been only a few seconds, but it felt a lot longer, with him the nurse and me the patient.

“You let it out, girl.”

“I’m sorry. It’s unprofessional of me. I should be helping you.”

“Nonsense,” he says. “We should all be helping each other.”

Sometimes, more often than I’d like, I get so down thinking about how many of the problems that people face are caused by people (violence, war, poverty, just to name the over-arching themes). Watson’s book will make you cry, but it is also full of heartwarming moments that are powerful without being (to me at least) saccharine.

Currently reading: I’m a few pages into a few books (still only two chapters into A Full House of Women…), but I’m thinking this weekend I will focus on Barracoon although maybe I’ll veer into something lighter.

Book update: The Language of Kindness was book 75 for the year, so 100 is definitely within my reach. I said to someone yesterday, I’m reading 100 books this year, and he was just like, good for you, read 120! So…maybe.

Well, August has been better than July for reading I think, in the past couple weeks I’ve read, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher, and Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I didn’t write last week about The Magicians because, and I’m sorry to say it, I just didn’t really care for it. It just seems really derivative of Chronicles of Narnia, but it’s trying to be an adult book, and it just didn’t really work for me. I will say, it was a pretty fast read, so heck, maybe I’ll give the second book in the series a try.

The Princess Diarist was also not my favorite book; it was a bummer, and not just because Carrie Fisher passed away. The book includes excerpts from diaries that Fisher kept during the filming of the first Star Wars movie as well as Fisher’s writing about the time, but there are no real stories about the filming. Rather, the whole book is about Fisher’s affair with (then married) Harrison Ford, who was fifteen years older than her. The affair wasn’t really a happy one; Fisher was only 19, and while it doesn’t sound like Ford took advantage of her exactly, she clearly felt not in control of the relationship. All the excerpts from her diaries are about how uncertain and basically unhappy she is because of the relationship. You do get the story about the creation of Princess Leia’s hairstyle.

indexFreshwater on the other hand was an amazing book. It’s the story of a young Nigerian woman named Ada. You can either read this book as a story about a woman born with one foot on the other side, gods trapped inside her, or the story of a schizophrenic woman as more and more personalities appear. The book is variously narrated by Ada, by the “We” group of gods inside her before any distinction occurs, and by Asughara a god that separates and has the ability to control and to speak with Ada in her own mind. There’s also another personality, St. Vincent, who isn’t as powerful and thus (I guess) doesn’t get to narrate.

Asughara appears after a traumatic moment, “I had arrived, flesh from flesh, true blood from true blood. I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into a weapon, the weapon over the flesh. I was here.” Honestly, at first I was like, I wish everyone had a personality like this to take over, to protect them, but as the book progresses, I leaned more towards reading this as being about a severely mentally ill woman, and I really wanted her to get help.

This is a really beautifully written book, you should read it.

Currently reading: White Tears, and still working on A House Full of Females.

So, I need to transition away from non-fiction for a while after this… although Heart Berries is certainly not to blame for my slowed reading pace — that honor falls to The Greatest Story Ever Told – So Far: Why Are We Here by Lawrence Krauss. Which I will discuss only to say that I am wildly unqualified to discuss this book. The one thing I can tell you is that I feel the title is misleading. This isn’t exactly about why we’re here. It’s about the history of particle physics (i.e. our understanding of particle physics). And I guess Krauss’ point is, if the universe worked differently, we, humans as we are constructed, wouldn’t be here. I kept reading this book because I refused to allow it to defeat me, not because I actually found it to be an accessible book on physics. Although, to be fair to this book, there may not be a book on physics which I would find accessible… Thanks for nothing public school education!

Heart Berries is a pretty different book. It’s a memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot, who grew up on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation and is Native American. It’s a little awkward to read this book because Mailhot was one of Sherman Alexie’s students, and I always loved Sherman Alexie, but now, with the #MeToo allegations he faces, it’s hard for me to know what to think about him. Obviously, he himself was the victim of violence and sexual abuse. But that’s not a free pass to sexually harass or abuse others. Fortunately, Mailhot does not seem to have had a negative relationship with him and she thanks him for his support in this book.

The book itself is very odd, which if you’ve read Sherman Alexie, you may not find surprising. Mailhot doesn’t tell a straightforward story, rather tells the reader about the last few years, while also flashing back further. Much of the book is written to her significant other (so it is addressed to ‘you’), but it is BRUTALLY honest, like if I were him I wouldn’t be thrilled about how I’m portrayed. Also, Mailhot is bipolar/has PTSD/has a lot of different diagnoses, and one full chapter is written from a stay in a mental hospital. Her style is hard to convey, it’s not exactly flowery, but there is a sense of poetry in her words.

The book is largely about Mailhot’s pain, which sounds dismissive as I write it, but I don’t mean it that way, Mailhot has a lot of pain, and she writes about it beautifully:

In white culture forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution. I don’t even know that white people see transcendence the way we do. I’m not sure their dichotomies apply to me.

I like the idea of framing pain as something other than a problem, although I certainly don’t live that way. Mailhot’s description of herself and her pain is interesting, because she understands when she’s behaving in a way that isn’t socially acceptable, she just doesn’t really care because she doesn’t accept that if she behaved in some other way that would be ‘right.’

I didn’t agree with Mailhot, or I didn’t identify with her on a lot of things, but I agreed with her about dying right:

Indians aren’t always allowed to rest in peace. I want to be buried in a bone garden with my ancestors someday. I’d like to belong to that. ‘If we can’t die right, how are we gonna live right?’ my mother would have asked.

I love the phrase “I’d like to belong to that.” The sense of belonging in death, is kind of beautiful. Even if you don’t think there’s anything else, to know that what’s left of you, is in the right place. I think there can be a peace in that.

This is a hard book to summarize. It is beautifully written. It is only 123 pages long. If you enjoy short, painful, beautifully written memoirs, this is for you. And hey, even if it isn’t, at 123 pages, it’s not going to take you long (certainly not as long as a pop science book on particle physics!)

Currently reading: Call Me Zebra and still A House Full of Females.

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