Non-fiction


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.

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?

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