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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.