Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Reading List for the Times

I've spent this last week and a half sick at home, in the literal way, fighting a flu/cold thing, and yesterday involved a trip to urgent care with my husband when we both finally threw our hands up in the air that nothing was really getting me better. We put it off because I'm usually quick to recover when it comes to a cold/flu, but this did not happen. We had participated in the Women's March on Washington the weekend before the Monday I came down with this horrendous thing and then as my cold/flu thing settled in came the deluge of horrendous decision after horrendous decision from douche 45*. Honestly, I'm pretty sure that deluge also played a role in why I have not recovered so quickly, an onslaught of hate from your government should probably make your body feel weak and tired. Like so many of my fellow "bleeding heart liberals" since the election I have donated, marched, and read. I have always read and with call to become more diverse readers a few years ago, I have tried to do so. Currently, there has been a sudden climb in the sales of such classics of George Orwell's 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. As an avid reader/former librarian I feel I have a duty to also suggest a few more additions to that list.

I first want to start at the place of hope and love, after watching the video on the left of Linda Sarsour, I realized yes, I will continue to push back with all I have because of my love. The people I love and myself included are under direct attack from this administration. People I do not know but for whom I no reason to wish ill will upon, who are simply trying to exist, and care for the people they love are under attack.

So let me start at the point of love and hope in this reading list:

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit
-The desire to bury your head in the sand is understandable, but read this instead. It first came in the era of Bush and Cheney, it was not written in peaceful times.

The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman
-At times you need to step back and just think of the whole and because this is science which is directly under attack, give it a chance. The universe will go on without us, but we cannot go on without ourselves.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown
- Self care is demanded in times like these, why not go with some science backed self care. If you find your steps feeling shaky pick this book up.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
-Being a better person requires compassion and this collection is an ode to compassion, anger, and shame in all its many ways.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
-Morality, wonder, and the power of being responsible for your mistakes.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
-One of the beautiful renderings of language and experience.

 Getting Angry For All the Right Reasons:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
-A slim volume that encapsulates an experience shared by so many, you've seen it, pick it up, and just listen. It will be uncomfortable, you might have to put it down, and have a lot of discussions with yourself, but it will give you glimpse to an experience you need to consider.

Beloved and A Mercy by Toni Morrison
- I feel like A Mercy gets quickly forgotten but in someways it is to me one of the great American classics that people don't realize, it is a recognition that there was a time in American history when there was a choice of what the country would become and it did not have to become a history of slavery. It is a reminder that our relations with First Nations was not set on a path. It is a reminder that indentured servitude was caste for poor Europeans also. It is reminder that our idea of race was not set either. And then there is Beloved, a harrow of story and yes required reading. If you don't feel scorched and horrified by it, I'm not sure what you were reading.

Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein
-If this doesn't make you angry for women and girls and the desire to donate to Planned Parenthood I don't know what will.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
-The things done in the name of progress need to be addressed.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
-We have banned people and we have interned people in our very recent past in the US, this slim poetic novel by Otsuka is a searing reminder of that experience.

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
-Once long ago I got a BA in history, some would consider it laughable, but at the end of the day I frequently tell you about the many events in our history and world history that are currently at play. This book is considered the classic "Bleeding Heart Liberal" text that "they" love to laugh about, but here is the thing it is because it makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. It should make you uncomfortable, history should make you uncomfortable, it should make you look around question how things are.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller
-There is a piece of history we don't like to talk about in the US, the one where we had our own modern day witch hunt, it strangely has not come up as much as I thought it would recently, but this classic was written during the heart of the McCarthyism era as rebuttal to the insanity.

Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life by David Treuer
-The continuing fight to stop the XL Pipeline happens now in the heart of winter, with the fight there has been a recent interest in indigenous people's rights. This is a good starting point for reminding that humanity is vast and diverse and don't fall for the stereotyping.

The Possible Abyss

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Just read the MaddAddam trilogy!)
- I'll admit everyday I have a moment where I think of Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, required reading. The woman is prescient in the worst ways.

The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
-Perhaps, this is the book that scares me the most. The one that feels so possible right at this moment. I have not yet had the heart to read the second part of the duology. If you don't want to read Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale this is the one I would recommend instead.

*Nope, not calling him the "P" word.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Will Become A Classic: Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

I'm not the sort of person who seeks out the works of artists who died before their time, but there are now two I know of that in my heart, I will always deeply miss for the art they never got to make. The first is Jeff Buckley and I found his music 6 years after his death, and the second artist is Kathleen Collins, who died six years after I was born.

Kathleen Collins was one of those virtuoso artists who created in many forms, she was the first black woman to produce a feature length film, Losing Ground, I have to mention that she also wrote and directed it. She was a person who had creative endurance and flexibility. Her creative flexibility and endurance can easily be found in her posthumous short story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? A collection of stories that focuses on, for the most part, the interior lives of black artists from the span of the 1960s up to the 1980s*. In these stories readers will discover that Collins writing is playful, at ease with different styles, and sensual. As much as Collins writes and explores the issues of race, she explores the subject in relation to the issue of creative need and the desire to connect to another. She addresses these subjects with a smoothness and clarity that so many writers try so hard to get to.  

Atong Atem
Gabriel Moreno
The smoothness of Collins's writing is what struck me the most, while I know she must have scrapped and rewrote, her writing flows very easily, you never get a sense that she was writing and agonizing over the perfect word. The only other writer I am familiar with who has a similar genius in smooth writing is Neil Gaiman and whatever Collins and Gaiman's writing techniques were and are, they both achieve the rather miraculous when they write, a smooth clarity of difficult subjects. The smoothness of writing is what makes Collins's short story collection so worth seeking out. Short story collections are currently enjoying a resurgence, but I think sometimes readers can be put off by them  because they can frequently become a rather masturbatory exercise by a writer to show just how "writer-ly" they are.  Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is not that, Collins clearly understood and enjoyed writing in the format of short story. It comes across again and again that she should/would have become force within short story writing, but her untimely death stopped that possibility.

I highly recommend this collection of short stories and especially if you want a prime example of what is the opposite of belabored writing.

*One issue I am taking though with other reviewers of this book is everyone who keeps mentioning this collection takes place in the 1960s, yes, some of the stories do take place during that era, but quite a few have no time reference, and made me think they were taking place during Collins's present time period when she wrote.

 Books and Films to go with Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?
Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Single, Carefree, and Mellow: Stories by Katherine Heiny

Middle of Nowhere
Something New

Monday, January 9, 2017

Eh: Thanks for the Money: How to Use My Life Story to Become the Best Joel McHale You Can Be by Joel McHale

I'm not adverse to reading comedy books, in fact I consider it one of my hobby genres, I read Amy Schumer and Jessi Klein's books last year and I've read many more previous to that. I needed something easy to read and this bright green covered book was blaring at the library and I figured "Why not?" I had enjoyed The Soup and Community when they had aired.

Thanks for the Money: How to Use My Life Story to Become the Best Joel McHale You Can Be by Joel McHale falls into the nice try of comedy writing. He lands a few zings but I think the problem was he couldn't quite figure out how to get around the plotting style of so many comedy books (that he so clearly was trying to lampoon) which is look how crazy my life has been and let me tell you about it. Yes, he was willing to point out the farce that in fact he has lead a fairly normal life and except for a few incidents where he could clearly make himself the butt of the joke, but not much else was of note to write about.

Courtesy of XKCD
The next problem is that McHale also tried to combine it with a parody of Celebrity Self Help books, I actually think he achieved this half of the book far better, because he was able to move away from the personal that I don't think he really wanted to go into to begin with. The problem is this section  just does not have enough bite, McHale never really went far enough in pointing out the absurdity of it all. Call it hiding behind the veneer.  There were times where he did let the veneer fall and those were the bright spots. One of those bright spots was the admittance of the money and time he has spent on his body and that includes that he got hair plugs. This was the most refreshing part of the book because he was able to let the veneer down enough that he was able to actually point out the hypocrisy and insanity of the industry he works in and use his smarmy biting humor. Otherwise I felt like a lot of the book was filler, at times creative filler, but filler.

Overall this book was a about a 2.7 for me. I can't recommend it but it is definitely not the worst thing I have read either. Also, McHale layoff off the "fat people" jokes, they're old, and while definitely on the offensive side, just incredibly lazy to use.

What To Read Instead
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
You'll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein
Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation by Aisha Tyler*
Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin by Kathy Griffin

*Yup, she also hosted The Soup at one point too. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Bedtime Stories: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

I am for the most part a reader of adult oriented books but they rarely center around genuine warmth and kindness and if they do they frequently veer into the territory of smarmy and saccharine. Which is why it is sometimes necessary to delve into the younger reader ocean of books to find warmth and kindness and while they can be just as smarmy and saccharine for younger readers, there is still a larger talent pool of writers to be found in the younger reader arena that can convey warmth and kindness (frequently far better than most author who write for adult readers). Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon made for an excellent first read* of the year because it has warmth and kindness in abundance. I forgot to mention it also has one of the sweetest dragons. 

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a lovely series of re-told Chinese fairy tales wrapped in the quest of a young girl who seeks to help her family. The young girl, Min Lee, is kind, bright, and pro-active. Lin has created a character who is curious, full of empathy, and the desire for adventure. It was refreshing to have a quest tale where the young female character is pro-active and eventually respected for it. What made me really enjoy Lin's characters is that she allowed all of them to grow.  An example of character grow is Min Lee's family, who at the very beginning are shown to be on the very protective side, but they are allowed to grow and think, and eventually come to respect Min Lee's choice. In fact they are allowed to go outside the genre of "dumb parents" and be whole and thoughtful. This is a short book but Lin is able to expertly convey human nuance and depth in her characters that makes what could be a simplistic book actually one of greater depth.
Paige Gemmel from Society Social

Next I must mention the beautiful and lovely language that elevates Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to book full of magical imagery. Lin has an exquisite precision in her writing in that she is able to capture the simplicity of fairy tale language and but also able to convey clear and vibrant imagery. A reader can easily imagine the sweetness of the peaches, the beauty of lively round happy children, or a kind and confused dragon who wishes he could fly.

Crystal Liu from My Modern Met

My reading experience was enjoyed through the audio book format for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the one thing missing from that experience is the wonderful illustrations that Lin also did for the book (Yes, she is that seriously talented).

Reason to pick up this book: If you are looking for sweet and magical tales.

Books and Films of Similar Taster for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Kubo and the Two Strings
Spirited Away

*Should the names seem incorrectly written it is because so much of my reading these days is audio books for my rather short but long commute.