September/October Reading

I don’t have much to say about my reading in September, as any reading time I spent was devoted to making progress with Tony Judt’s Postwar. After the month ended, I decided to take another break from it.

A brief vacation to New England in mid-October set off a wonderful reading streak. I wrapped up Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus (I found it just okay) and dove into some wonderful reads.

First up, was Carlene Bauer’s epistolary novel Frances and Bernard, which is apparently inspired by the lives of writers Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. Though I read a good bit of O’Connor in college, I couldn’t speak to how Bauer’s characters compare to its real-life counterparts. Bauer’s novel takes place in the mid-20th century. Frances and Bernard are two writers who start exchanging letters after meeting at a writer’s colony. Frances is an Irish Catholic from Philadelphia and Bernard is from New England and a recent convert to Catholicism. They talk about faith – some of which I found relatable and some if it a little too intellectualized. I really liked the character of Frances quite a lot. For me, the novel really took off after Bernard visits Frances in New York. There are some things revealed about his character that complicates their friendship in interesting ways. From there, I found the novel very engrossing, and in the end, a little bit of an emotional wringer.

I was in danger of a reading hangover at that point, so I picked the most promising book on my Kindle: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Set mostly in turn-of-the-century New York City, Wecker’s book is a lovely blending of immigrant tale and fantasy. The Golem and the Jinni are embodiments of the Old World, the mother countries, without being reduced to mere symbolic characters. Wecker’s world-building is superb. She has effortlessly worked in her research of mythologies and New York City into a compelling narrative. After describing the premise to my parents, they borrowed it from the library and read it as well. My younger sister also picked up the book. She is particularly enjoying all the references to Bedouin culture, as she has many close friends who are Bedu.

On the plane ride back home, I decided to stick to fantasy, and started reading Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, which combines Russian folktale and medieval Russian history to tell the story of the brave Vasilisa. The world-building is rich, and I loved how the novel is about Vasilisa’s whole family, though she is clearly the protagonist. But because it is partly a family story, sibling relationships are important to the narrative and I love a good tale about siblings.

After finishing The Bear and the Nightingale, I immediately read the second book in the trilogy, The Girl in the Tower. In the second book, the oppressiveness of Russian medieval times for women becomes even more apparent. Vasilisa is dressed as a boy throughout most of the book, and it made for very stressful reading for me, as I feared for what would happen to her if she was found out. The stakes felt very high. I believe the third book doesn’t come out until January. I’m hoping for a full family reunion, since a couple of the siblings were largely out of the action in the second book.

Currently, I’m reading straight-up historical fiction: Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It’s the second in her Cazalet Chronicles series, and England is now entered into World War II. The books follow an extended family. Similar to my joy at Katherine Arden’s focus on siblings, I love books that include cousin relationships and the interactions with uncles and aunts and grandparents. As with her first, I am impressed by her well-drawn characters, especially the children and young adults. Her depiction of the situational aspects that influence how we behave strikes very true.

I’m also participating in Nonfiction November, hosted by a range of bloggers. My participation is mainly going to be on Instagram. My handle there is christythelibrarian in case you want to follow, or you can follow the Instagram hashtag #nonficnov to see the posts by all participants.

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Summer reading

Hello hello! At this point, I must concede that summer is over. Here in the D.C. area, it’s still humid but there have been a couple of mornings this month that were a touch autumnal. I had quite a nice summer. My younger sister, who lives overseas, was back in the States and so I got to hang out with her a few times. In June, I went up to Maine with my family. My parents still live there. We went on a puffin cruise, visited Acadia, and kayaked on the Kennebec river. One of my cousins joked that my vacation pictures were like an LLBean ad. In late July, my sisters and I had a weekend together in Duluth, Minnesota and along the shore of Lake Superior. It’s a really lovely part of the country up there. I visited a fantastic bookstore in Duluth called Zenith books that I highly recommend. In addition to picking up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, I also picked out two books by authors with Minnesota/local connections. The first was The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich and the second was Onigamiinsing: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year by Linda LeGarde Grover. Onigamiinsing is the Ojibwe name for Duluth.

And with that, I’ll just pivot completely over to books!

My tiny book club (which sadly became smaller when Leslie moved out of the area in August) had met in May, where we decided our next reading project would be re-reading books we had enjoyed as adolescents. I chose to re-read two books that I had first found on my aunt’s bookshelf when I lived with her for a summer, when I was seventeen. The books were Moonraker’s Bride and Tregaron’s Daughter. Both are authored in the early 1970s by Madeleine Brent, a pen name for Peter O’Donnell. Both are gothic romance novels that feature poor and plucky girls that each wind up living in a wealthy family’s home. Moonraker’s Bride is set in China and England, around the time of the Boxer Rebellion. The heroine of Tregaron’s Daughter is Cornish with Italian ancestry that ties her to a mystery in Venice. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the books definitely held up, despite some dated aspects. And I read the novels long enough ago to experience it quite freshly in my re-read. I was reluctant to put them down, and stayed up a little too late with them – which is certainly reminiscent of my teenage years.

Other delights from the summer included reading Naomi Novik’s fantasy Uprooted, which I adored. The storytelling is so good and it’s one of the best depictions of the learning and use of magic that I’ve read in a while. I also read my first Sarah Waters novel: The Little Stranger. My friend Teresa and I had gone to see Blackkklansmen one Friday and the trailer for Little Stranger was in the previews. I’d heard of the novel, but Teresa spoke of it so enthusiastically, that I went home that night and bought it. And then I read it completely over the weekend. I loved it. Teresa and I had a really great text conversation about its mystery and its narrator. And rounding out my discussion of delights is Lucy Parker’s Making Up, which continues her stellar London Celebrities romance series. Though her characters all work in the entertainment industry (in this case an aerialist and a make-up artist), Parker makes them all very grounded in real-world problems and relationships and the obstacles to romance never feel contrived.

On the nonfiction front, I read Robyn Davidson’s travel memoir Tracks: One Woman’s Journey Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback. I quite liked it – she’s very insightful about herself and the impact of this journey on her. And it’s quite an unusual journey – setting across with mainly her camels and her dog, with a few human companions for small intervals.

I also finished Beyond the Map by Alastair Bonnett (a book I requested from Netgalley), which is a collection of micro-essays about geographical oddities and unique places. A few standout essays that I found myself sharing with others: Rio de Janeiro as the “City of Helicopters”; Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India; and the essay on Tsunami Stones and Nuclear Markers. Bonnett’s essays are about points around the globe, but it was his essays set closer to home that I most enjoyed. He has an essay about his city’s abandoned skywalks, remnants of an urban planning fad that never was fully realized. In another essay, he muses on traffic islands. It just shows that exploring can happen anywhere.

I read Charles B. Dew’s short nonfiction book The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History and the Slave Trade. It’s book with two distinct parts. In the first part, he tells about the ways he was steeped in racist narratives as a boy, through jokes, children’s books, and particularly his father’s example. He then talks about how he came to recognize his own racism and alter his worldview. The second part is Dew’s analysis of primary texts associated with the internal slave trade of the South. Dew does explain the connection between the two parts in the introduction and in the transition to the second part, but I’m not sure I can recall it clearly. I liked the first part of the book, but the second part was so dry in comparison that it was hard to finish the book. I appreciate that his profession is as a historian and thus that engagement with primary texts is his life’s story. Still, as a reader, hitting this second part was like hitting the brakes and it really slowed the momentum of the reading experience. All that said, what I love about nonfiction is that I still came away with knowledge I did not have before about the internal slave trade in the United States.

I made some more headway with the chunkster history Postwar, by Tony Judt – the sweeping history of Europe after World War II.  I’m really finding my groove with this macro-history, and how Judt manages to paint a picture of trends and movements without being overly simplistic. There was a section on brutalist-type architecture of the 1960s that I found so fascinating – how these big impersonal housing blocks fed into the alienation of the people who lived there. Judt also gets into decolonization, cultural changes, the fatal puncture of Communist ideology in 1968 Prague, the huge demographic shifts as masses of people left agricultural work for service industries.

I’m belatedly and happily acquiring historical context for all the midcentury European films I consumed as a cinephile in my late 20s. Ah yes, the soldier in French director Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 is headed off to Algiers, and now I know even more details about that conflict. I retrospectively marvel at the clear indictment of anti-Semitism in the 1965 Slovak film The Shop on Main Street, when I realize now that most of Europe refused to acknowledge their culpability in the Holocaust for many years after World War II.

I’m now getting into Europe in the 1970s – depressed economies and all. I find myself excited as the book creeps closer to my own lifetime, when I’ll start connecting it with my own memories of the time.

In addition to Postwar, I have the following books in current rotation:

a book of daily meditations taken from homilies by Archbishop Oscar Romero

Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out by Walter Brueggemann, which is a read-together book for my church

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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My May reading

In May, I finished reading Naomi Alderman’s The Power. In case you haven’t heard of it, in this novel, the women of the world acquire the ability to channel electrical power through their bodies. This development flips the world’s gender dynamics. The book follows four characters (three women, one man) through this new world.

I enjoyed most of The Power. In a way, it reminded me of alternate histories like the film Inglorious Basterds, where oppressors are vanquished by people they had underestimated. I read the first half of the book during sessions on an exercise bike and the combination of increased heart rate and the story had me walking away from the gym feeling like I was *thisclose* to shooting electrical power out of my hands.

I must admit I found the last third or so to be disappointing. I’m not sure if it’s simply that things happened in the story that I didn’t want to happen? I think it was also that what I most enjoyed were the smaller-scale aspects – the dynamics between runaway girls taken in by nuns, a mother’s relationship with her teenage daughter. There’s this through-line involving television news anchors that I found quite funny, and a chapter containing some believable subreddit discussions. But the end is mostly about war, and it’s deflating. This effect is probably deliberate, and I may come to appreciate it more in time, but not at present.

I also finished Nicole J. Georges’ book Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home. The specificity of this graphic novel memoir pulled me in. Georges’ alternates the story of her dog with stories from her childhood with a neglectful mother. After high school, Georges goes to live in Portland, Oregon, and her memoir also captures that specific scene and all the living situations she had.

For my book club, I read Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero which is a YA novel about a Latina teen, written in the style of a diary. It did remind me of my own teenage diaries at times, so kudos for the verisimilitude. Even so, I had a hard time getting into this one. There is a lot of drama in Gabi’s life and it can seem like too much, but I had to reflect that there are teens that do have a lot of disruptions in their lives. I thought Gabi’s creative writing pieces were great, especially the one that the book’s cover references.

I have two books I requested from Netgalley and I finished one of them in May: Vanessa Riley’s historical romance The Bashful Bride. I liked the premise of the story – Ester, a young sheltered “Blackamoor” woman (as the term was at the time) decides to elope with Bex, an actor she admires, who is also an abolitionist. I really dig the British abolitionists, ever since reading Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains. But in the end, though I enjoyed the historical context, I couldn’t really buy the romance, due to getting annoyed at both characters. One keeps a secret for far too long and the other is uncompromising in a grating way.

My favorite book that I completed in May was Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. It’s about a young woman, Nayeli, who lives in a small village in Sinaloa, Mexico. The majority of the men from her village – including her father – have gone to the United States for work. This leaves their village vulnerable to bandidos. Inspired by the film The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli and three of her friends leave on a quest to bring back men from the north to protect their town. Urrea is a great storyteller and Nayeli is a great heroine, so I had a good time with this novel. It’s a relatively light and fun book considering the fraught nature of the issue. It is not without pointedness, suspense and small tragedies, but I found myself looking forward to rejoining Nayeli and her crew on their adventures.

The number of books I’ve started but not kept up with in May was a little ridiculous, but it seemed that there were so many books calling my name that I had a hard time choosing a reasonable amount of books to juggle at once.

The books I’m working on for real at the moment are:

A Local Habitation (October Daye #2) by Seanan McGuire

Beyond the Map by Alistair Bonnet (this book is made up of super-short essays on geographical oddities, and I’m taking my time with it.)

I’m also on my church’s library committee now, so I’m looking through a couple of donated books to see if they will be a good addition to our collection.

For my summer reading plans, I was thinking about really leaning into book series. I think one of the series I’ll work through is the October Daye series.

Additional series I could choose from:

The Books of Bayern by Shannon Hale (I’ve read the first three, but would probably need to re-read them at this point.)

The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner (I’ve read the first two)

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (I’ve read the first)

Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion mysteries (I’ve read #2 and #3)

Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire (I’ve only two more to go).

Julie Mulhern’s The Country Club Murders (I’ve read the first.)

P. T. Deutermann’s Cam Richter series (it’s been a while since I’ve read these, but I think there’s one more left in the series I never got around to)

Re-reading the early books of Laurie King’s Mary Russell series and deciding whether to continue on to the later books I haven’t read.

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My April reading

April felt like a long month. It was the last month in an online certificate program I had been taking since last September. It was a good three-course program and I enjoyed the content, but I’m also glad it’s now done! More time to read I hope!

One surprise of the month is that I picked back up a long dormant in-progress book – Tony Judt’s Postwar, which is about Europe after World War II. Postwar is definitely macro-history, focusing on large-scale trends of political and cultural change and tracking the different countries’ variations on those trends. And I’m not used to reading history of that kind. I think my recent reading of Slavenka Drakulic’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed helped me find my way back into Judt’s book. I’m able to connect Postwar to other books and films that I know – a lightbulb comes on, things click into place as I get this greater context. Though there are limits to the metaphor, at times framing post-war Europe as a family epic in my mind has also helped me engage with the book. I am not faulting Judt’s writing – I’m just not used to reading history this broad in scope. Here’s hoping I can keep some steady momentum on this book (it’s 933 pages).

I finished Seanan McGuire’s first October Daye novel, Rosemary and Rue. It’s been a while since I’ve dug into an urban fantasy series and I liked this one. I’ve already picked up the second book from my public library.

Some discussions on Twitter made me more aware of the inequality facing romance authors who are women of color. Over the years, several members of the book blogging community have impressed upon me the importance of intentionally seeking out a diverse range of authors. As a result of the Twitter discussion, I discovered several new-to-me authors that I will try. One was Synithia Williams and I picked up her contemporary romance, Full Court Seduction. Though sports romances are not typically my catnip (one character, Jacobe, is a professional basketball player), I was thrilled that the main character Danielle was an environmental activist and worked for a conservation non-profit. I was delighted in all the details about Danielle’s work and would even get annoyed if I thought that Jacobe was being a distraction to Danielle’s professional life. I think I liked her job stuff more than the romance itself, lol, though the romance was fine. I liked the book’s Floridian setting as well.

The other romance novel I read in April was Talia Hibbert’s A Girl Like Her, spurred by some comments I saw on Reading the End’s blog post on romance in April. I found the dynamic between her two main characters, Evan and Ruth, to be refreshingly different from other romances I’ve read. Evan is kind and Ruth is prickly and it makes wonderful sparks. Ruth is on the autism spectrum and it is not treated as an “issue” but rather just as another way to be in the world. There was some good angst there, all earned, and I just really enjoyed seeing the way the two of them got to know and fall for each other. It’s a “new neighbor” plot, which I think I also have a fondness for. I look forward to the next book in the series, which I believe will be about Ruth’s sister.

I finished Rachel Pearson’s excellent book No Apparent Distress, her memoir about being a medical student. I had heard about this book from Library Journal’s Best Book round-up from last year. A Texas native, Pearson went to medical school at University of Texas’ Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston and worked at St. Vincent’s student-run free clinic whose patients were often impoverished. She shares many stories from that experience, and from her other experiences – medical care for prisoners, in a remote border town, in an abortion clinic, in a plastic surgery clinic, and her own family’s medical stories. She writes well about the complex ethical aspects of her profession, as seen from her student’s point of view.

Near the start of the book, Pearson describes how, after Hurricane Ike in 2008, UTMB cut off its charity care to cancer patients without notifying the physician in charge of their care. That doctor learned of the cuts from her bewildered patients. The doctor did her best to track down all her patients who had been scattered by the hurricane but without that funding and without other options, this doctor knew most of these patients were now facing death. As I read this book, and this chapter, in particular, I kept hearing Idaho Congressional Representative Raul Labrador’s ludicrous statement to upset constituents at a televised town hall last year: “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” Pearson’s book has so many stories of people in peril due to lack of health care access.

Besides Postwar, my other in-progress books are:

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – for book club

The Power by Naomi Alderman – so far, really liking it. Finding it almost cathartic to read.

Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges – this graphic novel/memoir was a random pick from my library’s new books area and it’s been an unexpected pleasure

I have so many options for other books to pick up that I don’t know for sure what’s next after these – though I know that Robyn Davidson’s Tracks will be a near future read, as it’s something my cousin Phil and I chose to read and discuss together later.

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Judging books by their samples Round 2

I recently rediscovered a list I had made last year while on a trip to Jordan. During my long plane flights and layovers, and in my downtime while in Jordan, I read book samples on my Kindle and wrote down quick thoughts on each. This was not the first time I have done this sort of sample blitz. I’m listing them in the order that I read the samples and including the stars that I had placed on the samples that most caught my attention last year. As you will see, I struck out for a while but then hit a good streak.

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye – actual quote from my list “nopety nope.” I was not a fan of the style and I wasn’t getting on board with a serial murderer as a protagonist.

A Killing in the Hills (Bell Elkins #1) by Julia Keller – the prologue didn’t excite me, but I became intrigued by the initial crime that kicks-off the narrative and the main character’s response to it. Set in West Virginia.

Blind Your Ponies by Stanley Gordon West – From what I read, the book seemed to be shaping up to how a ragtag HS basketball team brings together various members of a depressed Montana town. The adults’ backstories provided were quite bleak, but I liked the kid. Not in a rush to read this one, but it’s still on my to-read list.

The Chateau by William Maxwell – A 1961 novel that starts off with a young American couple arriving in post-WWII France. I liked the details of their journey as they bumbled about and I felt that I would like this book, as long as I was in the right mood for it.

Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer – an epistolary novel about two artists who develop a friendship through their letters. The writing style and subject matter is not my usual fare, but I think I would like it overall.

Solar Storms by Linda Hogan – I read the sample without refreshing on the synopsis, and was really confused about what was going on. (Goodreads synopsis: “At seventeen, Angela returns to the place where she was raised—a stunning island town that lies at the border of Canada and Minnesota—where she finds that an eager developer is planning a hydroelectric dam that will leave sacred land flooded and abandoned.”) I think it will be worth giving it more of a try.

Sugar by Bernice McFadden – The novel sets the scene with a depiction of a small gossipy Southern town and I did not like it. For whatever reason, I was/am feeling tired of the small gossipy Southern town in fiction. Not for me.

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold – Prologue was a Grimm fairy tale. Narrator was a cynical young adult, and the narration felt like it tried too hard. That can happen with beginnings of books, though, and may settle out. I could see picking this up and reading further than the sample went, to see if it was for me.

Faith by Jennifer Haigh – Irish-American family saga. Didn’t feel fresh to me.

A Brief History of Montmaray – in a world where Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle exists, this novel felt quite unnecessary

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson – I enjoy the covers of Jenny Lawson’s books. I didn’t enjoy the writing style.

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran – Not for me

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller – a YA boarding school story. Not for me.

*Conquistador by S. M. Stirling – I was impressed by the sample, which sets up an intriguing time-travel premise. I later picked up the book from the library and soon found that the story itself had some insufferable bits (like one of the main characters) and I abandoned it.

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis – The premise of this book is fifteen dogs overnighting at a vet clinic given human consciousness by the gods. The sample didn’t take me much beyond that premise, so I still remain intrigued by the premise but not sure where it will take me.

*Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho – I liked the writing and specificity displayed in the sample quite a bit. I’ve never read anything by Coelho.

The Last Town on Earth by Thomas Mullen – Book is about a Pacific NW town that quarantines itself during the 1918 flu epidemic. I was liking the historical aspect but feeling like the characters weren’t quite popping on the page.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts – All the Mumbai setting details were interesting, and the characters too. The main character’s instalove thing with a girl he meets sounded a small alarm in my mind, but I’d have to see how it plays out.

*Dying to Live by Kim Paffenroth – Enjoyed the first-person narration of this zombie novel. Seemed like it would be a fun read

*The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty – After being cooped up in the car together, my family spread out for some solitary time at the Shobak crusader-era castle in Jordan. I brought my Kindle and this is the sample I read in the castle ruins. (Later my sisters and I traveled down a ‘secret’ very worn stairway from the castle to the bottom of the hill, with only the light of my cell phone to show the way.) The story’s initial setting – 1920’s Wichita, Kansas – couldn’t have been more different than my own. The main character, Cora, who will end up chaperoning Louise Brooks to New York City, was intriguing. I’ve read two books by this author previously, but that was a long time ago.

*Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty – I’m not much of a YA reader, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself drawn in by the beginning of this epistolary Australian novel.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – The Thatcher-era British setting was good. I couldn’t quite tell yet if I was interested in the characters though.

City of One by Francine Cournos – I’m not sure why I added this book to my to-read list. It’s the author’s psychoanalysis of herself. No thanks.

*These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 by Nancy Turner – I was engaged from the start in this tale of a young woman in the Arizona territory. I picked up the book from the library later and enjoyed it, though it was a smidge too long.

*Forever by Pete Hamill – Though the book will eventually follow its main character to New York City, the sample all takes place in 18th century Ireland. The details of the family’s routines and life are fantastic if a bit overwhelming in volume, but the book was starting to grow on me as I finished out the sample.

*The Street by Ann Petry – The sample presents the main character, Lutie, at a crossroads. She is determined to get out of her mother’s home, which she feels is not a good environment for her young son. But she is a young Black single mother and it’s the 1940’s, so she doesn’t have many good options for housing in Harlem. The sample shows her considering a terrible apartment with a terrible landlord and we know she will probably take it. I left the sample wondering what would happen next for her.

*Ratking by Michael Dibdin – the phone call dialogue that starts off this Italian-set mystery in this book was great and promised a lively writing style throughout.

*Absent by Betool Khedairi – this story about a young woman in Baghdad intrigued me though the jury was still out about the chronology-hopping style on display in the sample.

What Angels Fear (Sebastian St. Cyr #1) by C. S. Harris – from the sample, I thought this was just ok. The instigating crime is a brutal rape and murder of a young woman in a church. I haven’t figured out the exact factors that turn me away from some violent murder stories, while I continue on with others, but this book had the factors that made me say “not for me”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My March reading

March was a great month in reading. I read Slavenka Drakulić’s 1992 book of essays,  How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. Drakulić grew up and lived in what is now Croatia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. Her essays detail and reflect upon daily life – particularly women’s daily life – under Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, behind the Iron Curtain. It’s a snapshot of history, but more than that it’s a reflection of the intersection between the personal and the political.

But communism created this lack of any kind of privacy – in crowded communal apartments; in its morals, where everybody was comrade to everybody else; in the Communist Party, where every member watched over the ‘correct’ life of the others – because only when there is no privacy can there be total control. p71

The state wants it all public – it can’t see into our apartment, but it can tap our telephone, read our mail. We didn’t give up: everything beyond the door was considered ‘theirs.’ They wanted to turn our apartments into public spaces, but we didn’t buy that trick. What is public is of the enemy. So we hid in our pigeonholes, leaned on each other in spite of everything, and licked our wounds. p91-92

In one of her last essays, she writes of the war that has just begin in the former Yugoslav states. After the fall of Communism, the wounds from World War II resurface and everyone is at each other’s throats. War is approaching Drakulić’s city and she writes of her fear:

No thoughts, no movements, nothing but this crystal moment of pure fear shining inside you. It’s not the fear of death but of planned death, death invented in someone’s head, death as a statistical number, a mass death in a deadly game of power. p. 177


I finished Min Jin Lee’s excellent family saga Pachinko. I loved the characters, particularly Sunja and everyone from her generation. The story is about a Korean family living in Japan from the 1930s to the 1980s. They moved to and stayed in Japan for the future of their children, as Japan sucked out the life of their native land. The Japanese government and society treated them like second-class citizens, but Korea was no longer their home either. I appreciate that Lee’s story doesn’t downplay the effect of these oppressive societal forces on the characters’ emotional health and success. Systemic injustice is not an external force that can be overcome by pluck and will. Insidiously, it worms its destructive way into the characters’ heads and hearts as well.

I loved how Min Jin Lee wrote about people. Particularly with the earlier generations, she is able to write about the kindness and love of people in a way that moved me to tears several times.


I put down Michael Waldman’s book The Second Amendment a couple of weeks ago. What I read was good, but it is very focused on the detailed Constitutional history behind the amendment. After the energy of attending March for Our Lives in D.C., this book just didn’t feel like the right book to match the current moment for me. I just bought Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives by Gary Younge. The ebook was on sale and it’s been on my to-read list since before it was published. Younge’s book tells the stories of ten American children and teens who lost their lives to gun violence on November 23, 2013. At the March for Our Lives, one girl from Chicago told the story of a man waving a gun in her face at a convenience store. Another teen from D.C. told the story of his twin brother’s murder. Younge’s book sounds like it will be tough, but like the March, it is focused on telling the stories of individual lives cut short by gun violence.

My escape reading was Mary Balogh’s Irresistible. It was a sweet friends-to-lovers romance. I was also a fan of Balogh’s The Escape and A Summer to Remember, so she’s likely to stay on my reading radar.

I’m almost finished with Rachel Pearson’s No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming of Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine. It is very well-written (Pearson pursued an MFA before quitting to pursue her medical career). Medical students learn their skills on the bodies of the poor and the imprisoned, and Pearson grapples with this reality throughout the book in a nuanced way.

I am also in the middle of Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue. My friend Cindy’s been a fan of this urban fantasy series for a while, and I’ve heard good things from others. I like that it’s set in San Francisco, and I’m enjoying it.

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My February reading

The first part of February was for finishing books.

I finished Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father. In her memoir, she not only talks about life under the Khmer Rouge, but also about life in the transitional period as the Khmer Rouge’s reign ended. That period of “what next?” uncertainty has interested me in other history books – Auschwitz after the Nazis have fled in Primo Levi’s first memoir, Rwanda after the genocide has ended in Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You, the shattered populations of post World War II Europe in Tony Judt’s Postwar. It interests me because popular conceptions of history’s narrative often brush past the aftermath period – simply say “the terrible thing was over” and move on.

I also finished Peter Ho Davies’ The Fortunes. The first story was a little too slow for my tastes – the other three stories were much more brisk, which I appreciated. The fourth story, about a Chinese-American man adopting a baby from China with his Irish-American wife was fascinating in its exploration of all the facets of identity in such a situation.

One of my favorite reads so far this year was Miguel A. de la Torre’s excellent book, The U.S. Immigration Crisis: Toward an Ethics of Place. I am still haunted by a story he tells about Sandra Lopez who was brought in to the U.S. as a baby by her mother and deported as a young adult to a border city where she knew no one and had very little money.

My mind is also still turning over what de la Torre calls “ethics para joder (“an ethics that screws with”) and defines as “when the oppressive structures cannot be overturned, the only ethical response is to screw with the structures to create disorder and chaos. This is an ethics that employs the trickster image to upset the normative law and order of those in power who require stability to maintain their privileged position.”

An example he gives is of eight clergy members who interrupted an Operation Streamline court hearing by standing up and reading from the Bible or praying. The clergy released a statement “We have disrupted the courts and we do not do so lightly, for the courtroom is in its own way a sacred place. But we disrupted the proceedings today because they have already been disrupted in a much more troubling way by Operation Streamline. It is clear to us that Operation Streamline is immoral, unjust, and a sin against the poor and their families, and as pastors in this community we have an obligation to speak.”

Wanting a quick read, I read Jill Sorenson’s Tempted by His Target. Not my favorite of hers, but I appreciated that her Mexican setting was clearly researched. I noticed that about her book Off the Rails as well.

As far as my March reading, I have already finished one excellent insightful book of essays: How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić. I will write more about it in my March recap, but this quote gives an idea of her focus:

Growing up in Eastern Europe, you learn very young that politics is not an abstract concept, but a powerful force influencing people’s lives. It was this relationship between political authority and the trivia of daily living, this view from below, that interested me most. And who should I find down there, most removed from the seats of political power, but women. The biggest burden of everyday life was carried by them.

I am currently in the middle of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, which I am absolutely adoring. I mentioned on Twitter that Pachinko reminds me in some ways of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

I also started Michael Waldman’s The Second Amendment: A Biography in February after the Parkland shooting, after seeing those teens use their voices to call for change. I feel very hopeful because of them.

I have a small stack of nonfiction books checked out from the library now that will likely comprise some of reading for the rest of March: The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History and the Slave Trade by Charles Dew, No Apparent Distress: A Doctor’s Coming of Age on the Front Lines of American Medicine by Rachel Pearson, and Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home by Nicole J. Georges.

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