Reading


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just finished Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen, and before that was Circe by Madeline Miller. I enjoyed both, although particularly with Bury What We Cannot Take maybe enjoyed is the wrong word….

Circe tells the story of Circe, a rather minor character in The Odyssey if I’m recalling my junior high reading assignments correctly… I’ve heard some criticism that this book required a little too much knowledge of Greek mythology, but I’m no expert and I still found it to be a fast and compelling read. Circe is a goddess, a child of a Titan (Helios a sun god) and an Oceanid nymph, and she’s little loved or appreciated in her family because she’s not as beautiful or as beautiful sounding as they are (she has a human voice).

The novel begins with Circe’s unhappy childhood, and follows her through the centuries — about halfway through she meets Odysseus. I found her incredibly compelling, despite being a goddess, she’s sort of the post of the #metoo era, a woman who is willing to call the men in power (or not in power) who have harmed her to account. Many powerfully sad things happen to her, and there was a bit of a sense of doom for me for much of the book, but the end is pretty happy.

Bury What We Cannot Take also has a somewhat happy ending, although the book itself looking back, is basically about the worst few weeks in a family’s life. I thought this novel would be more about, the years and decades of a family after escaping communist China, but it was really about that very initial period of their escape. The main characters of the story are nine-year-old San San and her older brother Ah Liam. As the story opens, they are well-to-do children with a father who is stuck abroad working in Hong Kong because the borders of China have been closed.  The two are both young enough to be completely taken in by the communist party’s message and in fact the wheels of the plot are set in motion by Ah Liam turning their grandmother in as a counter-revolutionary after witnessing her smash a picture of Chairman Mao.

I don’t know that the Chinese government would like this book, and it doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of the communist party — several minor characters are killed by the party for trying to leave China. At the beginning of the book, after Ah Liam has turned his grandmother in, grandmother and mother are able to get exit visas for three members of the family — but not all four. As a result, most of the book switches back and forth between Ah Liam and their mother in Hong Kong and San San, still stuck in China. San San’s resourcefulness, her sheer capability was what made me enjoy this book. It’s terrible, because you see her realize that her family lied to her about why they were leaving and you see her decide that the only person she can trust and rely on is herself. But, she’s pretty good at taking care of herself it turns out, and I found her adventures much more interesting than Ah Liam’s struggles with his communist education and the beliefs of the rest of his family.

Bury What We Cannot Take is another book from the amazing list 46 Books By Women of Color To Read in 2018 – if you’re looking for what to read next, start here.

Currently reading: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh and still working through So You Want to Talk About Race

 

Okay, apologies for my rather long absence, I just took an amazing vacation to the Pacific Northwest and spent a week hiking the Columbia River Gorge, Crater Lake, and the Redwoods. Highly recommend it. I did read while I was gone, of course, but I let myself continue on the path of reading let’s say… less stressful books.

First up, because I think it was my favorite of the bunch, Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart. This is actually the first book in a series, so I’m looking forward to maybe reading the next few over the holidays. This novel is based on the true story of Constance Kopp, a thirty-something unmarried woman living out in the county in New Jersey with her two also unmarried sisters. Her quiet country life is interrupted when a local thug drives his automobile into the buggy she and her sisters are ridding in. Kopp tries to exact payment to repair the buggy, which incites the thug into a rage that propels the rest of the story as he terrorizes the family and Kopp suddenly finds herself learning to shoot a gun and taking part in sting operations with the local sheriff (“I got a revolver to protect us, and I soon had use for it.”). This book is a great time, and I BOUGHT IT AT POWELL’S! Yep, before I took off into the wilderness, I stopped at THE Powell’s and bought a few books. It was amazing, every book lover must go. I actually found a bunch of great independent book stores on my travels — Dudley’s Bookshop Café in Bend, OR was great and made great chai.

I also read Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan and The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson. Both were kind of, I know this book is going to be escapist-y, and I’m fine with it. I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians a lot, and reading the book definitely made me want to see the movie. It is a silly book, but the characters are well-drawn and the book is pretty hard to put down.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays is about 28 year old Miranda who inherits a bookstore when her uncle dies. Somehow, this does not fill her with joy. Although, in her defense, the bookstore isn’t doing that well. But um, if anyone wants to leave me a bookstore, I will have NO angst about leaving my current job to go and run a bookstore. Much of the book involves Miranda figuring out a scavenger hunt left to her by her uncle, which turns out to be leading her towards understanding family secrets. Many of the clues are quotes from books (books which are in the bookstore and then have the next clue), I particularly liked the one from Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (so now I’m sort of debating reading that):

Whatever happened, I knew I would survive it. I knew above all, that I’d go on working. Surviving meant being born over and over. It wasn’t easy and it was always painful. But there wasn’t any other choice except death.

I’ve felt many things similar to this in the past year, so I’m pretty such the context is different in Fear of Flying, but I related. The good days are when I feel like I can survive anything. Anyway, this is not an amazing book, but it is a fun book if you like books and bookstores.

Currently reading: Circe and still working on a lot of other things…

 

 

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.

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