Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book 125: Between The World And Me

"You must resist the urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children."

Dates read: February 9-11, 2017

Rating: 10/10

Lists/Awards: National Book Award

Reading has many different purposes. One of the primary ones is entertainment, to take your mind off the things that are weighing on you and activate your imagination. Another is knowledge, the deepen and enrich your understanding about the world around you. And another is to challenge you. To make you see things from a new perspective, to force you to reconsider your assumptions about the way things are. A book doesn't have to fit just one, many get at least two or even all three and more besides. But I think to the extent practicable, it's a good idea to try to make sure your reading touches all of them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer that I find challenging. He's incredibly talented and smart, but he pushes back against the way I'm inclined to view the world left to my own devices. Which are, of course, rooted in my own experience. It's easy to forget that the way you see and interact with the world (and the way it sees and interacts with you) isn't universal. Which is why I was really excited when my book club chose as a selection Coates' lauded Between The World And Me. It's a book I'd been meaning to read and that I was glad I had an excuse to force it upwards on my reading list.

Coates structures the book as a pair of letters addressed to his son. Part memoir and part social commentary, Coates relates his experiences growing up as a black man in America, filtered through the lens of trying to impart the lessons that his son will need to stay safe. Between The World And Me focuses intensely on the body, and the ways that the bodies of black people have been used to fuel the American Dream for white people. It's a startling thing to read about in writing as powerful as Coates' is: what it must feel like to always feel like your body is at the risk of being broken.

As a relatively attractive woman, I'm familiar with the feeling of a body that doesn't quite belong to me alone, that others (and by that, I mean men) feel like belongs to them in a particular way. But it's use, rather than breaking, that's usually at issue there. Coates makes the feeling of constantly knowing that your body, and the bodies of those that you love, are targets for violence and rage simply for existing, visceral and real. Coates' love of and fear for his son, his desperate desire to somehow protect him from a world that will see him as a threat simply by virtue of his existence as a black man, is palpable.

This book has become a must-read for white liberals who want to learn more about race relations, a group into which I myself fall. I read an article before I read the book where Coates himself addressed the way his book has been received and expressed some frustration about being constantly asked about how he feels about the way white people have reacted to it. He wrote the book after a friend was murdered by the police, but the conversation hasn't been about police brutality. It's been about how to help white people better understand race. That should be a wake-up call, fellow Caucasians. It's not the job of people of color to make it easier for us to understand what they go through, especially when there is plenty of literature, like this book, that will help us to that work on our own.

Tell me, blog you think it matters who the author's intended audience is when they write a book?

One year ago, I was reading: The Children of Henry VIII (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Dune

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Audiobooks I Really Liked

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week we have a total freebie, and I couldn't figure out what to write about until it hit me: I actually do a lot of non-fiction and beloved classics re-reading on audio, so I wanted to share some of my all-time favorite audiobooks!

His Dark Materials: Phillip Pullman, the author, narrates the trilogy with a full voice cast and the magic is just as real in your ears as it was on the page.

Sabriel: If you've ever read these books, you know that Tim Curry's voice is PERFECT for them (especially Mogget!).

Harry Potter: I'll admit I'm a little jealous that I can't find the Stephen Fry narration in the US, but honestly Jim Dale does beautiful work telling these wonderful stories.

The Queen Mother: I confess, I'm a royals junkie. The Queen Mum died before I got really into the British Royal Family, but listening to this was a cool way to be introduced to a very interesting woman.

Basque History of the World: Northern Nevada has a significant population of Basque people, who I knew very little about before I listened to this fascinating book about them.

The Princess Diarist: The world lost a skilled, witty voice when we lost Carrie Fisher, and listening to her tell her story in her own voice is a great experience.

Troublemaker: Scientology is super weird, to put it mildly, and while I keep meaning to catch up with her show about leaving the church, Leah Remini's actual warm, authentic voice telling her story about it is a must-listen.

Believe Me: Eddie Izzard's comedy often rests on the strength of his storytelling and his voice, which is delightful and enlightening in this beautiful, funny memoir.

Nixonland: The Nixon presidency, with its paranoia and division-stoking, seems ever more relevant today and I learned a lot listening to this book about it.

Stardust: I love listening to Neil Gaiman read his own amazing work. His voice is so distinctive and evocative.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book 124: Flowertown

"Contamination and containment became the buzzwords, replaced quickly with quarantine and treatment, all to the musical backdrop of international media and outrage as the world demanded to know who was responsible for the poisoning of seven and a half square miles of America's heartland. There were Senate hearings and criminal investigations. Some people died and many more people suffered, but as weeks turned into months, most people outside of the Penn County spill zone went back to their jobs and their newscasts and their horror at the other atrocities available on every continent, on every channel."

Dates read: February 6-9, 2017

Rating: 6/10

When it comes to corporate scandals, there's little that it's hard to believe in this day and age. The Ford Pinto incident seems especially egregious, but even the recent enormous price hikes of life-saving medication like the Epi-Pen should remind us all that for companies, the value of human life often gets lost somewhere in the cost-benefit analysis matrix. For all that mega-corporations try to create brand loyalty and convince us that they do actually care, the bottom line is that the entire point of a publicly-traded company is to maximize value for stockholders. If there is little-to-no impact on their income reports, sure, some companies will do the right thing. But when it comes down to it, nearly all the time they will chose profit over any other factor.

In S.G. Redling's Flowertown, it's a company called Feno Chemical that finds itself mired in controversy after a disastrous pesticide spill in a small town in Iowa. The area is quarantined by the Army as large numbers of residents begin to die from exposure to the toxin, and Feno's pharmaceutical subsidiary develops a drug regime to try to treat them. For those who manage to survive, the drugs have a side effect: a sweet smell that emanates from those who've been dosed, leading to the nickname Flowertown. Even with the drugs, though, the chemicals are excreted from the body through any liquid and prove impossible to remove through filtering, so the people who remain have to stay to avoid infecting anyone else.

Ellie Caulley had just quit her job in advertising and was visiting her boyfriend's hometown before they were to take off on a trip overseas when the accident happened. Her boyfriend and his family died, but Ellie lived, and after seven years of being trapped in the confines of Flowertown, she only manages to keep a lid on her anger by being high all the time and sleeping with one of the Army officers assigned to keep the peace. She has only two friends: her sweet-natured roommate Rachel and the hyper-paranoid Bing, who keeps her in pot. When bombs start going off, though, she finds herself increasingly drawn into the local events: who's setting off the explosions? The local resistance movement? Feno Chemical trying to rid itself of a problem? The Army?

This is a mystery/thriller, but once events are set into motion, it's not too hard to figure out what the deal is (I'm not good at that kind of thing at all, but I still figured it out). The character development is surprisingly decent...Redling's Ellie is a prickly heroine who takes some warming up to but captures your sympathies. It's not hard to imagine how awful it would be to find yourself in the situation she does, how it would drive you almost crazy with loss and regret. With most of the books in this genre that I've read, creating characters doesn't seem like a big priority, but this book is less plot and more character driven, which worked for me. If you're looking for a thriller-style book based in people and personalities, this is a solid (albeit unspectacular) read.

Tell me, blog friends...have any stories about corporate greed come out that you had an especially hard time believing?

One year ago, I was reading: Big Little Lies (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Dead Wake

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Loved but Will Never Re-Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about books that we really liked but will never re-read. I figure for a lot of people this will include the gigantic books like War and Peace and such but I am crazy enough to think that one day I might actually get back around to them.

The Divine Comedy: It's just too much theology and Italian history to wade back into. Glad I read it once, but it's hard to imagine I'll read it again.

My Sister's Keeper: Just tooooo many feelings here. Tear-jerkers are a category I'm generally not particularly into re-reading.

The Hobbit: I really enjoyed this book, but I prefer the LOTR trilogy and when I want to revisit Middle Earth, I turn to them rather than the prequel.

Number The Stars: This is a very good book, and I re-read it several times as a kid, but I think it would lose some of the magic now as an adult reader. Middle grade is hard to get back into now when I want so much more from my reading.

Eat Pray Love: I quite liked this book when I first read it, but with the strong criticism of it I've absorbed over the years, I'm hesitant to go back to it and have it fall apart for me.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: This book meant so much to me in high school and I'd happily recommend it to high schoolers, I just feel like I'm past the point in my life where it's going to have that kind of impact on me and I want to keep it as it is in my memory.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood: I loved this book as a teenager, but now that I've actually lived in the South, I think the stereotypes of southern womanhood would bother me.

Ella Enchanted: Charming, delightful middle grade that I just don't think would hold 32 year-old me's attention anymore.

The Pianist: A harrowing, powerful story that's good to read once but I can't think about reading again.

The Chaneysville Incident: This book packs a punch, but it's pretty bleak. I'm glad I experienced it but don't feel any need to do so again.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Book 123: Orange Is The New Black

"It was a weird place, the all-female society with a handful of strange men, the military-style living, the predominant 'ghetto' vibe (both urban and rural) through a female lens, the mix of every age, from silly young girls to old grandmas, all thrown together with varying levels of tolerance. Crazy concentrations of people inspire crazy behavior."

Dates read: February 2-6, 2017

Rating: 7/10

My mother is a pharmacist, but she was also a single parent to my sister and I. Most retail pharmacy jobs require nights and weekends, which were a no-go, so she worked for the State. Which meant working mostly in prisons and psychiatric facilities. Pharmacists have relatively little interaction with the prisoner population, but she still had interesting stories about what it was like to work on the inside. Now that I'm an adult, I can't imagine how weird it must have been to go to jail every day, Monday through Friday, as her job.

But of course, there's a world of difference between working at a prison and living inside of one. Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is The New Black, chronicles the latter: just about a year of doing time at a minimum security women's prison in New England. This book was the basis of the Netflix show of the same name, but it's a very different piece of media. Like any memoir, it's rooted in the author's personal experience. So while many of the characters, and even some of the incidents, will be familiar to those who watch the show, the book is really all about Piper.

Which, for me at least, worked just fine. She doesn't spend much time dwelling on her crime, but rather focuses her attention on what it actually means to be a prisoner. What comes through the most strongly is the dehumanization, going from being a person with autonomy to a number at the mercy of the system. There's virtually no privacy, there are strip searches required for every visit with someone from the outside world, the smallest concessions are subject to the capricious whims of prison officials. While many of the women are due to be released relatively soon, there's no meaningful rehabilitation or real preparation to be re-integrated into the outside world.

It really makes you think about what the point of prison actually is. Kerman's case, in particular, was a crime that was nearly a decade behind her by the time she actually saw the inside of a cell. She had long since ceased to be a threat to society, so protecting the world from her by putting her away clearly wasn't the point. The near-total neglect of actual education or career prep that might enable women to be able to quickly secure a job that might keep them out of the kinds of situations that landed them in prison in the first place shows that rehabilitation isn't what's going on. Our ever-growing prison population shows that deterrence isn't working. So it's just punitive then. And what point does that actually serve? Do most people feel like it's a moral victory to imprison low-level drug offenders, with all the costs that it entails?

Kerman is a good writer, and is more sympathetic than her television portrayal would suggest. She accepts her guilt for her crime, and while she's certainly surprised and upset that her brief stint with crime comes back to haunt her years later, once she's gotten used to the idea, she's mostly regretful about the impact it has on her family and loved ones. She takes the reader inside a world that most of us won't ever experience, and renders it with empathy and humor. This is a solid read, and as long as you're not expecting it to be just like the show, I'd definitely recommend it.

Tell me, blog you anyone that's ever been incarcerated?

One year ago, I was reading: Moonglow (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Suspicious Minds

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters I Liked In Books I Didn't

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! Not every book is amazing, obviously, but sometimes the most frustrating books that don't really connect is that the characters in them feel like they deserve better. So here are ten characters that stole my heart, even if the rest of the book didn't.

Ma Joad (The Grapes of Wrath): I hated this book so so much after reading it in AP English in high school, but Ma Joad reminds me of Ma Ingalls...ladies who had to deal with a whole lot of bullshit and kept their families together as well as they could through it all. I found literally no one else in this book at all worth my time or attention.

Lucifer (Paradise Lost): I'm convinced that it's meant to be a joke that the devil is by far the most compelling character in this epic poem. But also proof that the villain is usually a better role than the hero.

Jakob (The Hangman's Daughter): The actual hangman's daughter, Magdalena, didn't particularly interest me, but the hangman himself, Jakob, was knowledgeable and thoughtful and enjoyable to read about in this otherwise completely unremarkable book.

Freida Mintz (Charity Girl): This book, about women who were held against their will because they contracted venereal disease, was very uneven, but I rooted for headstrong, independent Freida, who refused to just accept the circumstances that were handed to her.

Hannah Chase (The Sisters Chase): I found Mary, the older sister and the center of the narrative, boring and cliche, but Hannah, first as a sweet kid and then going through the regular rebellion of a teenage girl, was the only thing that got me through this legitimately bad book.

Florence (The Highest Tide): This book did absolutely nothing for me, but Florence, the old lady who takes an awkward, lonely preteen boy under her wing while stubbornly resisting her increasingly obvious need to leave her home, tugged at my heart strings.

Anna O'Donnell (The Wonder): I hated this book, but I loved the sweet, high-spirited girl at the center of a maybe-hoax miracle in rural Ireland in the early 20th century.

The Old Turk (Boys and Girls Together): Almost everyone in this book about five young people whose lives end up converging in New York is awful and the experience of reading it was unpleasant, but the relationship between young Rudy (who becomes such a martyr that he's boring) and his grandfather, the Old Turk, is the lone bright spot. He's so kind and warm-hearted that he seems to be from another universe entirely.

Bernadette Fox (Where'd You Go Bernadette): Bernadette was super smart and completely unwilling to go along with the bullshit in pretty much every aspect of her life. Too bad her garbage husband didn't bother to notice the way his centering of his own needs was slowly destroying her and the book made a joke out of her deterioration.

Venus Black (My Name Is Venus Black): I found Venus herself compelling, but the book as a whole fell very flat for me. Venus deserved a better book.