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My January reading

I’ve been working through a couple nonfiction reads this January, and have sprinkled in some romance novels for something lighter.

After seeing the film First They Killed My Father, I picked up the memoir by the same name, written by Loung Ung. Loung Ung was a child during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. I am appreciating all the detail that could not fit in the movie. I have put it down for the last couple of weeks because I got distracted by my other nonfiction read, but I plan on returning to this memoir soon.

My other nonfiction read is Miguel A. de la Torre’s The U.S. Immigration Crisis: Toward an Ethics of Place (published July 2016, 198 pages on Kindle edition). Rev Dr. de la Torre is a professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology. In the introduction to his book, he emphasizes the importance of being presente with those who are being oppressed, of understanding the physical spaces in order to better form an ethical response. So as a scholar-activist, he went to border cities, and anti-immigrant rallies, and walked with No Más Muertes volunteers as they left water for the people making the risky journey across the harsh borderlands of Arizona.

This book is so good – the title and cover are not enticing, so I’m glad I was recommended this book last fall or I’m not sure how I would have found it. I am highlighting passages frequently, like this one:

I conclude that whenever one nation builds roads into another nation to steal their cheap labor and natural resources, we should not be surprised when the inhabitants of those nations take those same roads and follow all that has been stolen from them.

I’m filling in some gaps in my knowledge of history, from the United Fruit Company and the banana republics, to the repercussions of NAFTA.

With all the heartbreaking deportations and ICE raids in the news and the Dreamers in limbo, this book has been a helpful and humane companion.

The romance novels I read were all dance-related! First Position by Melissa Brayden is actually the first lesbian romance I’ve read. I liked it – it was very chaos muppet meets order muppet. I also read Alexis Daria’s Take the Lead and Dance With Me, which feature characters who dance on a competition show. Of the two I preferred Take the Lead as it had more of the wonderful behind-the-scene tidbits that should be familiar to anyone who watches Dancing with the Stars. It was like unREAL except less depressing and more romantic. Dance with Me was also enjoyable, but seemed to get a little stuck on repeat at times, as far as the emotional dynamic between the two main characters.

As far as my February reading plans, in addition to finishing my two nonfiction books, I will also be reading The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, for my book club. I started it a few days ago, but am only 50 pages in so far.

I also plan to read Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard in February. Other reads I’m contemplating include: Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea, the March graphic memoir trilogy, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue, and Slavenka Drakulic’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed.

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2017 in Reading: Nonfiction

Part 2 of my 2017 reading recap is a list of the nonfiction books I read, roughly in order from most liked to least liked.

White Rage by Carol Anderson

This short, powerful book helped me better frame American history, particularly how the economic progress of African Americans has been deliberately sabotaged over and over again.

Sweet’s relatives in Ocoee, Florida, lived in the part of town that whites incinerated “in the single bloodiest day in American political history.” Whites went hunting for a black man who had dared approach the ballot box in the 1920 presidential election, and, in the process, killed scores of African Americans and ethnically cleansed the town until it became all-white for nearly sixty years.

The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley [review]

‘Why do we keep going by sea?’ Abu Jana asks Kingsley. ‘Because we trust god’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.’

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl by Stacey O’Brien

As a young lab assistant at Caltech in 1985, O’Brien is asked if she will adopt an owlet that has a damaged wing. She does and Wesley lived with her for the rest of his life, which was nineteen years. I loved the descriptions of his particular owl behavior and also how it affected Stacey’s life to have this permanent owl companion. I cried at the end.

Here’s a video of the author talking about Wesley, that includes footage of Wesley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vufEqpZZql0

I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad by Souad Mekhennet

German journalist Souad Mekhennet’s memoir about her reporting on jihadists is fascinating. The daughter of Turkish and Moroccan guest workers, she pursues a career in journalism with tenacity and commitment to integrity in her reporting. While she never courts danger, some of her tales involve a fair amount of risk, so there are some suspenseful moments in this book, particularly her trips to Egypt and Libya. Excellent book.

Five minute video of an interview with the author: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhe4XyG1OSE

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright [review]

In addition to being highly informative and well-researched, Thirteen Days in September is written in a very engaging style, capturing the high-stakes drama of diplomacy.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

1962 travel memoir by the famous novelist, who took a road trip around the United States with his dog Charley. Funny and insightful.

Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life by Gretchen Rubin

This is the third book I’ve read by Gretchen Rubin and I find her books always get me in the mood to reflect on how I spend my time, which is always a good thing. I often have taken specific actions or changes after reading her books.

Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a Man) by Primo Levi [review]

After the war, Primo Levi saw revisionist history at work trying to diminish or deny the horror of the Holocaust, and his book serves as a testimony refuting those efforts. Though a chemist by trade, If This is a Man also shows that Primo Levi was just as much a writer, able to capture Auschwitz in all its brutal aspects.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow

This is the memoir of New York Times columnist and writer Charles M. Blow, who grew up in small-town Louisiana. I read this book in a day, while recovering from mono last summer.

[Brandon] insisted on knowing why we had been stopped. The officer gave a reason: not signaling before a turn. It wasn’t true. We hadn’t made a turn before his flashing lights came on. Brandon protested, to a point. Then the officer said something I will never forget: that if he wanted to, he could make us lie down in the middle of the road and shoot us in the back of the head and no one would say anything about it. With that, he walked back to his car and drove away.

Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

I not only wanted to read this book because it was highly praised, but also because I enjoyed Peter Fleming’s travel memoir Brazilian Adventure, which was also a quest to find out what happened to the obsessed explorer Percy Fawcett, his son and his son’s friend. The three had disappeared in 1925. Fleming’s book was funny and self-deprecating, not so much focused on Fawcett as on Fleming’s own journey. Grann’s book delves more into Fawcett’s life and into the history of Amazon exploration and exploitation. I liked the revelation at the end about past Amazonian civilizations, and look forward to reading Grann’s more recent book Killers of the Flower Moon.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

I started reading Rachel Held Evans’ writing at some point in 2008-2009 when she was very active on her blog. Now, nearly ten years later, she has written four books, and of these I have read two, including this one. A couple of years ago, I saw a video of her giving a talk called “Keep the Church Weird,” which was based on the themes of this book Searching for Sunday. While I think other readers have found this book much more personally resonant than I did, what I really appreciate about Evans’ is her emphasis on Christianity as something done as part of a community. “Like it or not,” she writes, “following Jesus is a group activity, something we’re supposed to do together.”

While Evans’ style is on the edge of being too poetic/overwritten for my tastes at times, the payoff is some really poignant thoughts:

Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain functions of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed.

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah [review]

Overall, I found the book slow going due to the structure, but I’m glad I read it, as I feel more informed about Ukraine and the challenges it faces as a country.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

This book about the Long Island serial killings focuses primarily on the young female victims and their lives before their murders. The twists and turns of the investigation are covered but seen through the lens of the families and friends of the victims. All of the women were involved in the escort business at some level, which meant that their disappearances weren’t taken seriously until their bodies were uncovered together on a Long Island beach. Unsurprisingly, the women came from very broken home lives and limited financial means. They came to the NYC area from North Carolina, Maine, Connecticut and upstate New York.

I was most engaged when the book focused on the women’s lives before their murders. When the book shifted to the rollercoaster investigation afterward and the families’ efforts to see some answers, I got easily confused about which family member was which, and while the families’ drama with the media and with each other is part of the story, it got a bit tiresome at times. Still – and this is what I love about nonfiction – I came away from this book with greater insight into the lives of others.

Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh [review]

I admire Al-Khatahtbeh’s passion and love the mission of Muslim Girl, but there should have been more fact-checking for this book. Her account of the 2015 “Draw Mohammad Day” in Garland, TX was particularly problematic for me as a reader (see my review for more on that).

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard [review]

While I came away from this tome about Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition with numerous interesting passages highlighted, any enjoyment of the book had been leached from me by the end.

French Milk by Lucy Knisley

I have enjoyed stories about everyday “nothing” sort of things before, but sheesh. I was in Paris for a mere three days in 2003 and I have more interesting things to tell about my trip than the author manages to tell in her month-long stay there with her mother. All I remember now about this graphic memoir is that she was rather mopey and she bought things and ate a lot of foie gras. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to not be happy all the time while you’re on vacation! It happens – especially when traveling with others. I distinctly remember burning with anger at my friend while standing in a tower of the Chateau de Chambord (and I was fully cognizant that it was ridiculous to be mad while in such an amazing building, and that awareness just made me more upset). Anyway, French Milk was about nothing and it wasn’t even good at being about nothing. Don’t waste your time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2017 in Reading: Fiction

I didn’t read a lot of books last year and I haven’t posted on this blog in a while, but the turn-of-the-year revives an interest in reflecting back on what I read, so I’ll share.

In very rough order of most liked to least liked, the fiction I read in 2017:

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave –  “There’s wit, and profundity and tragedy all fixed up together.” [review]

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord – This was the first book of 2017 that I really escaped into, and it was such a relief to fall under its spell. [review]

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – the Baltimore story and the story of the prisoner in the mines were my favorites of this multi-generational epic story.

Pretty Face by Lucy Parker – perfect combination of chemistry and humor.

Mrs. Mike by Nancy and Benedict Freedman – Mrs. Mike has a brisk pace, of the sort that I really like. Sometimes you want a novel that just moves. [review]

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf – Read this short, simply told book in one night. In a world where stories are dominated by young characters, it was refreshing to get immersed in a story about two characters in their 70s.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – I will ever be grateful to this book for getting me through a long layover at JFK. Page-turning, engrossing – exactly what I needed. The miniseries was great too.

Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe – Jaffe captures a scene and an era with storytelling flair.

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner – Turner has a gift for hiding plot twists and revelations in plain sight. Her surprises never feels hokey.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong – A woman returns home after her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The novel is packed with observational details which I enjoyed. There is a funny payoff regarding the cruciferous vegetables that still makes me smile to remember it.

kira-kira by Cynthia Kadohata – the family dynamics and the setting had a great specificity. Also made me cry.

North of Boston by Elizabeth Elo – The main character gets as close to a magical power as you can get, while still staying within the bounds of a “real-world” setting, and that is still just a small part of what’s going on in this mystery. Not for everyone, but I liked it.

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine 1881 – 1901 by Nancy E. Turner – old-fashioned Arizona frontier story, a little too long, but considering I also read Mrs. Mike in 2017, clearly it was the type of story I was gravitating toward.

The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang – A tale of a family road-trip following their financial ruin. Haven’t thought about it much since I finished, but now that I stop and think about it, I remember enjoyable little turns in the story, and my appreciation for where the story ended up.

The Thing About Love by Julie James – The premise of the leading couple having very different perspectives about their shared history was well done. James’ contemporary romance always seem to hit the spot for me.

The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne – it’s a sexy book *shrug*. Also, found this hilarious plot summary on another blog I will share an early part of:

Sexy Spy Friend: This dirty French whore-spy whom I find delightful and already implicitly trust is also totally blind.

Grey: WTF.

Annique: Yup. I’m awesome. Frenchly awesome.

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen – read another book by Dessen years ago, thought it was solid young adult contemporary. I think I liked that other book more than this one, but one thing is constant: all the characters, not just the main character, feel fleshed out, and clearly have their own things going on.

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra – a unique format, as it’s written in the style of a standardized test, but didn’t leave much impression on me

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline – started off all right with the explosion and first quest, but I did not like the writing or the main character and I hate-read through the rest, because I was recovering from mono and I didn’t have much else to do.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir – So boring.

 

 

 

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Muslim Girl – Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

In February I read Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story. Al-Khatahtbeh is the young passionate force behind the Muslim Girl web community. In this short book, Al-Khatahtbeh describes growing up in New Jersey in a post-9/11 atmosphere (she was in fourth grade during the 2001 terrorist attacks). She also expounds upon the challenges that Muslim women face in the United States, while also highlighting the public voice of advocacy that she and other Muslim women are rightfully claiming. I appreciated Al-Khatahtbeh’s examination of the ways that tokenization and stereotyping dominate society’s narrative about Muslim women. I was also very interested in her account of the brief time in her life that she lived in Jordan as a teenager, and how she navigated culture there. I wished there had been even more of that, but that is more a reflection on my own interests in Jordan than on Al-Khatahtbeh’s story.

My main criticism of the book is that it needed to have been fact-checked better – I suspect it was rushed too quickly to print. I caught several errors in the book’s descriptions of news events, when my curiosity had led me to look up the incidents online. For instance, in her book she describes a father and son being killed in the Gaza Strip in 2000, but it was only the son, Muhammed, who was killed.

Another example: when a group of anti-Muslim activists decided to host a “Draw Muhammad Day” in Garland, TX in 2015, Al-Khatahtbeh’s Muslim Girl team cleverly offered an alternative Draw Muhammad online event which invited people to draw a Muhammad that they know (brother, friend, etc.). In her book she says “our campaign effectively drowned out any negativity surrounding the event.” What she does not mention in the book is that, unfortunately, two gunmen did show up to the inflammatory Texas event and were killed by police. So to say that because Muslim Girl’s campaign went viral, that it drowned out any negativity surrounding the event seems naive – and to not mention the gunmen at all seems like trying to dodge the complexity of the situation. I think what the Muslim Girl team did in response was creative and awesome and in no way diminished by what those gunmen did, but I was bothered by how the gunmen weren’t mentioned at all.

I’ve dragged my feet on publishing this review because I worried that my criticisms about fact-checking could be taken as criticisms about the cause and mission of Muslim Girl. But this review reflects my reading experience of the book. I am still impressed by how Al-Khatahtbeh has built an online advocacy community at such a young age and if you visit the Muslim Girl website, it is consistently intersectional, and consistently boosting the voices of people who are underrepresented in general media.

 

 

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The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

I don’t recall exactly when I started reading it in 2016, but finally in April, I finished Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s first-hand account of the tragic 1910-1912 South Pole expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott. The Worst Journey in the World is a lengthy tome (640 pages in some editions) and I did not find it easy to read, especially in the last half. Cherry-Garrard often writes well – I actually quite enjoyed the book at first, as he described the perilous ship journey to Antarctica and the first stages of the expedition. However, so much of the book consisted of highly-detailed descriptions of sledging – the snow conditions, the weight, the actions of people and animals – that the book became an absolute slog. I am capable of quitting books, even those I’ve invested in, but I chose to finish anyway. That decision came with giving myself permission to skim as necessary, however. And while I came away from the book with numerous interesting passages highlighted, any enjoyment of the book had been leached from me by the end. I cannot recommend it in good faith to anyone.

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Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a Man) by Primo Levi

In February, I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (US title: Survival in Auschwitz). Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish man, was captured toward the end of World War II, shortly after he had joined a partisan resistance group. He was transported to Auschwitz, where he would labor and suffer deprivation for almost a year until the end of the war. His book describes the experience of Auschwitz – the grind of dehumanization, the systemic cruelty, the harsh conditions. The book most comes alive when the prisoners themselves become more alive – after the camp has been deserted by the camp command. Though the weak and starving prisoners have to fend for themselves, the desertion of their oppressors allows some of the prisoners’ humanity to re-emerge again after months of degradation. The book was published in 1947 in Italian, and in German and English in 1959. In the wikipedia entry for Primo Levi, it notes that he diligently attended Holocaust remembrance events and would tell his story in schools. He saw revisionist history at work, trying to diminish or deny the horror of the Holocaust, and his book serves as a testimony refuting those efforts. Though a chemist by trade, If This is a Man also shows that Primo Levi was just as much a writer, able to capture Auschwitz in all its brutal aspects. I’m curious to read the book he wrote about his long, harrowing return to his home after leaving Auschwitz.

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Quick takes: recently read fiction

I’m not a prolific blogger, but even by my own standards, my posting has been sparse this year. It’s just been hard to simultaneously possess the mood and the energy and the time for it.

Anyway, rather than do separate posts for the below fiction reads, here’s my quick takes on them:

In February, I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, first in a YA dystopian fantasy series. It was really really boring. I only finished it because I own it.

In March, I read Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice. The author is Chilean and used a standardized test format as a vehicle for satire. I can’t say that it made much of an impact on me, but it was good to try some translated slightly experimental fiction.

I don’t read much middle grade fiction, but my sister gave me Cynthia Kadohata’s kira-kira as a gift a couple Christmases ago. Winner of the Newbery Medal, this novel is about two Japanese-American sisters who move with their parents from the Midwest to Georgia in the 1950’s. I appreciated the relationship between the two sisters – loving, but not immune to sibling squabbles – and the family dynamics and the setting had a great specificity that was very interesting. And it’s a tear-jerker too, so, you’ve been warned.

My book club read for this year was Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. It’s a family saga that follows the descendants of two half-sisters. One half-sister is taken on a slave ship from Ghana to the United States. The other half-sister’s family is – at least initially – complicit in the slave trade while remaining in Ghana. Each chapter captures the story of one generation in each family line. As with all novels in this format, there will be certain people’s stories that resonate more than others. I found the Ghana chapters fascinating because it was a history that I was less familiar with. However, the chapters that were most emotionally resonant with me were the one about a descendant in Baltimore living in fear of the Fugitive Slave Law and a later chapter about a descendant in the Reconstruction-era South arrested under ridiculous pretenses and, as a prisoner, forced to work in the mines. An impressive book overall.

I read most of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in an airport. It is the perfect airport book – page-turning family drama, great character dynamics, a little mystery. The ads for the TV show made me curious about the book, and now I want to watch the TV show.

In the romance vein, I read new-to-me author Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, which I really enjoyed. I also read Lucy Parker’s Pretty Face, her follow-up to Act Like It. I think I liked Pretty Face even more than Act Like It. The challenges of the relationship are real, the dialogue is great, and it’s just a perfect combination of chemistry and humor. I also picked up the latest Julie James’ The Thing About Love. I think this is her first that has a female FBI agent as a protagonist? (She has a whole series that is FBI agents and district attorneys.) Anyway, Julie James is a reliably good author and The Thing About Love was no exception.

Despite romance being nearly every girl’s goal in Rona Jaffe’s 1950’s classic The Best of Everything, it is not a romantic book. Set in New York City, the book follows three young women who work for a publishing firm. All are working girls, but the expectation and hope of each is to find love and marriage (with the possible exception of Caroline, who seems to have more career aspirations than the others). However, the world is of course horribly sexist and the women find themselves having to navigate the minefields of lascivious bosses and callous rich playboys. Jaffe is writing a world that she knew and it shows – she captures a scene and an era with storytelling flair.

Just before the fifth book of the Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series came out, I read the second: The Queen of Attolia. As with the first book, the slow build-up absolutely pays off. Turner has a gift for hiding plot twists and revelations in plain sight. Her surprises never feels hokey. I love the character of Gen, and his character evolves in this book in compelling ways. The only part of the book I did not love was protracted passages of military strategy. I know it supported the world-building, but I just wanted to get back to scenes of conversations and action.

The most recent fiction book I’ve completed is Elizabeth Elo’s North of Boston. It’s a mystery set mostly in Boston. Elo packs a lot into her book. I particularly enjoyed the complexity of her main character, Pirio Kasparov. The book starts with the funeral of Pirio’s friend, who died in a boating hit-and-run. Pirio was on the boat too but managed to miraculously survive floating in the cold water for a long time (which makes the US Navy very interested in her). There are some plot turns that stretch credulity, but I didn’t really care. I liked the crazy stuff. I was however super annoyed that Pirio was given a love interest. It wasn’t believable and it wasn’t necessary. It came late in the book, so I had been getting excited that I might have a book in my hands about a single person who stays single throughout. But alas, here came a rushed romantic subplot – a tiny one, but a terrible one.

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