Bookish Oversights: Americanah

As part of my 2017 pledge to read harder (and my general life pledge to finally read those bookish oversights everyone loves), I borrowed a friend’s copy of Americanah and dug in this week. And hoooh boy, did I love it. For some dumb reason, I’ve been casually resistant to reading books not set in the U.S. I guess I would assume it just wouldn’t be personally interesting or relevant to me, or something. And guys, that was so dumb and closed-minded of me. The very purpose of books is to expand your horizons and let you explore worlds, countries, and backgrounds different from your own. Why was I limiting myself from such amazing pieces of literature, just because I assumed it wouldn’t be relevant to me? This is why Trump won, people!

In any case, I could not be more thrilled that I finally gave Americanah a go. Pretty much everyone I know who has read this book is obsessed, including the book community – it was one of the 10 Best of the year by the New York Times, won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award, and a host of other accolades and accomplishments.

WHAT I READ:

Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 star-crossed lovers, I give this 5 Ifemelus and Obinzes.

#FirstFifty Synopsis:

Ifemelu is traveling to Trenton from her home in Princeton to get her hair braided at an African hair salon. It’s clear that this is a big day for her, as she mulls over recently hearing more about her long-lost ex-boyfriend, Obinze; breaking up with her current boyfriend, Blaine; and making plans to move from the United States back to Lagos. Obinze, too, can’t stop thinking about Ifemelu as he goes through the motions as a middle-aged wealthy Nigerian man living a slightly corrupt life in Lagos. With that groundwork laid, we are brought back a few decades to Ifemelu growing up in Nigeria and the beginning of the relationship between the two.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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Don’t make my mistake, people – find a copy near you (preferably at your local library or bookstore, because we need to support those communities now more than ever) and enjoy sinking in to the worlds and lives of Ifemelu and Obinze.

Birthday Memories, aka not about books

2009: The big one – 21. I’m fresh off the plane from the United States and spending the semester studying abroad in London. Even though I’ve only been in London for 11 days, I cleverly brought one of my best friends to study abroad at the same school, so between the two of us we are able to wrangle up a few new friends to help me ring in the year.

While I’ve been able to drink legally in this country already, the bartender couldn’t be more thrilled to help me celebrate my official U.S. legal-ness and promptly hands me a tequila shot. Not much more of the night can be said.

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2011: I’m traveling for three weeks in Turkey on a short-term study abroad trip. Once again, I find myself celebrating my birthday with a group of people who really just started to get to know me in the last ten days and shouldn’t feel particularly obligated to make me the birthday princess. Luckily, I spent the last week intensely advertising my upcoming birthday and look forward to what they might have in store.

And that day was, well… kind of normal. Our educational activities that day in Konya were blah. We couldn’t even do anything fun that evening as we have an overnight train ride back to Istanbul.

I’m a little bummed as I sit in the train station, secretly wishing the day had been a bit more glamorous. As the train pulls in, the program director asks me to help with with his stuff and we fall to the back of the group. As I finally get on the train, I’m unable to find my friends and walk down the aisle calling out, “Guys?” Suddenly, the door of the train compartment next to me swings open and my twelve new friends start singing happy birthday as they hold a cake modified into a birthday cake (eventually covered with Nutella frosting) and candles purchased at the nearby gas station.

My birthday ends with a grumpy Turkish man yelling at my friends to stop singing, and all of us (including the program director and his TA) playing
games crammed into a train car.

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2012: I’m back in Turkey on that same short-term study abroad program, this time as the TA. On my birthday we sent the kiddos off to a one-night homestay, and the program director and I celebrated being free by going out to a nice dinner. As I return to my hotel room, I’m surprised to see a beautiful birthday cake with sparklers and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY KRISTEN MCCARTHY” written across the top.

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2014: I’m six months new to Boston and have just started to date someone new a week ago. Naturally, what every guy wants to hear on the first date is, “Oh yeah, my birthday is next week!” He did wonderfully under the pressure, taking me out to a lovely dinner and treating me to crepes and flowers. And joke’s on him, because we’re still dating.

2016: The night before my birthday, I’m in New York City for a business trip and wrangle up a few close friends from different parts of my life to come together in celebration of me. The next morning, alone in my hotel room, I wake up to a voice memo with one of my best friends creepily saying, “Happy birthday,” because I had mentioned to her I was bummed that I wouldn’t wake up next to someone saying that first thing. She rules.

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2017: One of my best friends graciously decides to get married two days after my birthday, which works very well in my favor as that means all of my favorite people in the world – bridesmaids in her wedding – are also in town to celebrate my birthday. We have a low-key day of Top Golf, cocktails, and massage appointments (for me) but I keep the party going on the wedding night when the bride surprises me by having the bandleader officially announce me as “The birthday girl!”

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One of the things I love most about my birthday is getting the chance to reflect on the year past, as well as the years past. What I’ve learned most from this reflection exercise is that I am lucky enough to have had some amazing travel opportunities and incredible people in my life dedicated to making my day special – things I want to keep in mind as I go through the last year of my 20s.

 

How I’m Marching On

On January 20, 2017, I semi-watched the 45th President get inaugurated with a pit of fear in my stomach.

On January 21, 2017, I joined 150,000+ humans in Boston Common as we gathered and drew strength from each other. We listened to the inspirational messages from our government representatives fighting for our basic human rights, and leaders of groups and movements from across Massachusetts.

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I didn’t participate in the march itself (just the rally) due to time constraints, but I did do my own personal 1 mile march from my subway stop to my home reflecting on the day and on the days following. Over and over, we’ve been hearing that this march isn’t enough. It’s a wonderful show of unity, as over 3 million people in every continent (including Antarctica!) came together to demonstrate for basic human rights and dignity. But just as important is staying informed (and keeping intersectionality front and center), staying loud, and staying involved. Here’s how I’m going to do that.

Staying Informed

I’m trying to get out of my liberal echo chamber by challenging myself to read books and articles that explore the nuances of all of America – not just the America I live in.

I’m also trying to grow my own intersectional feminism through informed research and exploration. Two podcasts that are helping me do that, and understand the fight women have had for generations and the fights we are still conducting, are Stuff Mom Never Told You and Call Your Girlfriend.

Staying Loud

I’ve saved the numbers of my government representatives in my phone and plan to be on a first name basis with their staff. I’m thankful that my representatives reflect my viewpoints that A) Cabinet officials should have a basic understanding of the job they are seeking; B) women’s rights are human rights; C) science is real; and D) universal health care is crucial to save people’s lives. But I still want to stay loud by thanking them for representing the rights of everyone, not just those who give them the most money, and also to ask what I could be doing to support them.

Staying Involved

The day after the election, I set up a reoccurring donation to Planned Parenthood, an organization that has saved millions of women’s lives and continues to be a top defender for human health and human rights – and personally has been an excellent educational resource for me.

In addition to donating my money, I’m going to be donating my time. I’ve been discouraged trying to find the best place that fits my abilities – with an unpredictable travel schedule, it’s tough for me to find somewhere that is okay with a non-weekly commitment, especially since many places prefer you to volunteer during the workday. But, on my personal march I reflected on the issues that are of crucial importance in my life and decided women’s rights fit that for me.

And so, I’m learning more about the Boston Doula Project, which provides compassionate support to women experiencing abortion and pregnancy loss. I’ve also signed up to volunteer at a women’s shelter that allows for unpredictable volunteer sign-up, and I’m going to work with my employer to see if they will allow me to take off 1 or 2 half-days per month for this commitment.

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I marched on Saturday for a lot of reasons, and my feet continue to carry me now towards positive change and peaceful resistance to a kleptocracy.

What’s next?

My 2017 Bookish Resolutions

This is my first year setting resolutions specifically linked to reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader but in the past year I’ve gotten more deeply involved in the book community than ever – following blogs and podcasts, joining a local bookstore bookclub, and keeping a finger on the best new releases from multiple genres. And so, what better way to start 2017 (which will probably be a terrible year for a lot of other reasons) than by setting intentional and varied book goals?

Read fewer books than I did in 2016

Last year I read the most books I ever have – well over 100, peaking at about 135 books. At a rate of about 2.5 books a week, that makes sense to me. If it’s a normal work day, I usually get about 3 hours of reading in between my commute and my lunch – and you can get a lot of pages read in 3 hours, never mind what I add on when I get home.

But, I found that reading so many books meant I read a lot of fluff books. I detest when people decry Young Adult literature or use the demeaning phrase “chick lit,” so I’m not referring to my propensity to read books in those genres. In fact, most of my favorite, most meaningful, and oftentimes very serious books come from those categories. But, there were still many books that were instantly forgettable, and I regret that I can’t remember anything about the book when someone asks me about it later.

So, this year I’m trying to read fewer books. I’ll accomplish this by picking meatier books (more below) and reading a little bit more slowly and more deeply.

Read one classic novel written by a female every three months

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I did all your usual high school reading list books (To Kill a Mockingbird, etc), but there are so many classic – and, by all accounts, excellent – books that somehow have either gone unread by me or I only know it via the zeitgeist. So, I’ve pledged to read a classic oversight every quarter, and to stick to books written by women because I’ve had just about enough of white men (more below).

So far I’ve pegged Jane Eyre, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Age of Innocence for this project, but am always looking for more ideas!

Read more nonfiction

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As part of my resolution to read more deeply, I’m adding in more nonfiction to my repertoire – particularly nonfiction about contemporary America. I fully admit to living in a mainly liberal bubble, both online and in real life (hi, living in Boston and working in higher education). So, I want to understand more about how the hell we got to where we are today.

As I write, I’m finishing up Strangers in Their Own Land -a sociologist’s attempt to understand “The Great Paradox” in Louisiana based around the question: “why do the people who would seem to benefit most from ‘liberal’ government intervention abhor the very idea?”  I’m also excited to read EvictedHillbilly Elegyand All The Single Ladies. 

I also really enjoy recent-history nonfiction and have put In The Garden of Beasts and First Women on my TBR.

Be more discerning and wide-ranging

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In general, I’m going to be pickier about what I put on my TBR and much more careful in putting a book on hold at the library. In the past, I’d put a book on hold at the library the second I read about it and would usually get about 5-10 books come in all at the same time – which would put the pressure on me to read incredibly quickly. So, I’m going to be a little pickier about what I read, write it down instead of put it on hold, and then check out books in an organized fashion (Do I sound cool or what?). Two books I’m especially excited to read soon are A Gentleman in Moscow and My Name is Lucy Barton.  

I’m also going to be intentional about picking more diverse books set in locations besides the United States and Europe, and written by diverse authors. In my TBR pile next to my bed as we speak is Americanah – I can’t wait to report back on that.

 

So, there you have it! I’m interested in seeing how many books I end up reading this year, but mostly I’m excited to see how I end up liking them. And don’t you worry – I’ll still be reading way too much YA and female-centric literature.

Is This A Good Book?

It’s rare that I read a book and don’t instantly know how I feel about it. Looking back at my Goodreads reviews, I tend to like most things (3 stars), love some things, and hate (2 stars or less) just a few others. In fact, in all my Goodreads reviews I have only given three books a 1-star review. So, finishing up a book and not instantly knowing how I want to rate it isn’t something I usually face.

That’s exactly what happened when I finished This Is Where It Ends (Marieke Nijkamp). In a nutshell, it shows the perspectives of four different students over fifty-four minutes as a high school shooting occurs. Just from that description you can probably guess why I’m so uncertain how I feel about it. Do I feel uneasy and not-liking-it because it made me feel icky and sad, or do I feel uneasy and not-liking-it because of the way the author wrote it?

In short: both. School shooting narratives are just never something I’ll like reading (is ‘like’ the right word for such a challenging topic?). But, there was also a lot narratively missing from this: framing it over fifty-four minutes means that you don’t get a lot of background or a lot of resolution (there’s about a three-page epilogue). It was also incredibly black-and-white in the characterizations, particularly of the villain.

WHAT I READ:

This Is Where It Ends (Marieke Nijkamp)

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SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

I ultimately decided to give this 2 stars. Not for me.

 #FirstFifty Synopsis:

We are introduced to four different narrators who are in various places in their high school: Sylv and Autumn are in the auditorium listening to the principal’s speech, Tomás is skipping to break into some administrative offices; and Claire is training for a big track race coming up with the rest of the varsity team. We learn tidbits of each of their lives, until the chapter opener reads that it’s 10:05 and someone appears in the auditorium with a gun.

 

 

Turns out I’m not alone in this uneasy feeling – I brought up this book at our book club tonight and the others agreed with me on the general “eeee don’t thiiiink I liked it” feeling (and they are booksellers and librarians, so they know more than I do).

What I learned from this book is that it’s hard to know what makes a book good or bad. Just because a book covers serious topics doesn’t mean that it’s a terrible book (See: A Little Life, which is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read). But, in this case, there just wasn’t enough to make it a worthwhile piece of literature.

 

 

 

 

 

2017 and 29

I’ve had some incredibly exciting starts to the past several years: In January 2009, I moved to London to study abroad; in January 2010, I was shaking myself alive from a NYE Times Square reverie and prepping for my final year of college; in January 2011 and January 2012, I traveled to Turkey; in January 2013, I jumped on a plane to Bangkok to spend the spring in Asia; and in January 2014, I met my gentleman caller (we just celebrated three years!).

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However, once I settled in Boston in July 2013 – and especially starting mid-2015, when I found a lovely apartment that I refuse to ever leave and a wonderful job that continues to challenge me – I started to fall into a, how do you say, a rut. Especially when I just look at my life history from 2009-2014. When reflecting on my 2016 a few weeks ago, I realized that for the first time in over a decade, 2016 was the first year in which I didn’t move and/or get a new job.

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I don’t necessarily need the big life changes or exciting passport stamps to prove to myself that my year is worthwhile; sometimes, internal changes are just as important. I’ve always appreciated that my birthday is relatively close to the start of the New Year – it means that New Year resolutions nicely align with my “new age” resolutions (although, to be VERY clear, I hate when people give me combo presents. “This is for Christmas AND your birthday!” Okay, you wouldn’t pull that shit if my birthday were in July, buddy). Since I’ll be ringing in the last year of my 20s next week, I figure it’s now or never to make those internal realignments to my mind, spirit, and relationships.

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So, some of my personal resolutions?

  • Keep in touch with my friends: It’s so easy in the Facebook age to assume I’m up-to-date on my friends’ lives. I’ve also been lucky that my work travels have taken me to cities where I’m able to visit with old friends. But, I want to be intentional about checking back in with friends. I love sending snail mail for no reason, so my goal is to send a couple of random postcards a month just to say hello, and occasionally even (GASP) pick up the phone and call someone just to catch up. 
  • Focus on wellness: I ain’t gettin’ any younger (see: birthday next week). While my eating and exercise habits have been better this year than ever before, I still know I could be doing better. I’ve also gotten more colds and other minor illnesses than I feel comfortable with (likely because I travel so often, my body gets worn down and exposed to other people’s grossness). So, I want to talk to someone about overall nutrition and wellness and establish a good plan for myself – even and especially when I’m traveling.
  • Charity: More than ever I want to turn my attention this year to local, state, and national causes that are under attack by an out-of-touch, misogynistic, narcissistic despot of a President. I have a lot of privilege, and I want to use it to shout as loudly as I can for my rights and the rights of others. Still contemplating how to get this done, but I’m excited to kick it off – and, more importantly, keep it GOING – at the Women’s March in Boston on January 21.

I have a few more on the work and finances front, but I think that’s a pretty good place to start. Book resolutions to follow! I can tell you one thing: this year, I’ll be focusing less on reading a LOT and instead read more deeply.

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