Stuff You Definitely Missed In History Class

A few years ago, I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class, about a subject I had definitely never been taught: “The Tulsa Race Riots and Black Wall Street.”  I HIGHLY encourage you stop reading this immediately and spend the next 30 minutes listening to that episode. This extremely traumatic episode in recent American history is more than merely a race riot: it is a black holocaust and one that was virtually scrubbed from American history books until very recently.

Essentially, in 1921 a suburb of Tulsa populated mainly by black people was looted and destroyed over a two-day period by a mob of white Tulsa citizens, including law enforcement and National Guard members. Hundreds of people (mostly black people) died, many thousands of black people lost literally everything, and it was deliberately scrubbed from any official historical mention until the 1990s – with no official recognition by the state until 2001. (And, of course, survivors and their descendants have received no insurance payments or reparations to this day.)

All this to say, I had no idea my most recent book club read was about these race riots until I was well into it, sparking my memory from years past that I had once spent thirty minutes learning about this historical episode via a podcast. I am extremely thankful for both this podcast and this wonderful book for exposing me to this forgotten part of our dark history.

WHAT I READ:

Dreamland Burning (Jennifer Latham)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 baby detective teenage girls, I give this 4 Victrolas.

#FirstFifty Synopsis:

SOMEONE (me) returned this book to the library before remembering to do this, so I’ll just copy the Goodreads description:

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past, the present, and herself.

One hundred years earlier, a single violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

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This book does a wonderful job at making ignored history come alive, and I liked both the present-day mystery and the past-day retelling of the horrible events. The few quibbles I had with it (hence the 4/5 stars): first, some of the characters were very one-dimensional. In particular, the present-day lead’s best friend is really just there so she has someone to say her thoughts out loud to, and has no other role in her life. Second, I wish the villain wasn’t QUITE such a caricature. The author gave him some interesting dimension at the end, but I think it would have been more powerful had the villain been a more major character who was nuanced and seemed like a “good guy” whose true colors are revealed when the riots break out.

But, all quibbles aside, this book is incredible for its historical impact and highly recommended.

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Book Roundup: March 2017

NUMBER OF BOOKS READ: 8. A bit of a slow month for me.

NUMBER OF FEMALE AUTHORS VS MALE AUTHORS: All ladies!

NUMBER OF DIVERSE (non-American) SETTINGS: Technically 2 had many scenes set outside of the U.S., but since those two were set in 1) England and 2) various locations visited by an American, I don’t know if it counts. Whoops! What I DO like is a lot of the books I read – especially All the Ugly and Wonderful Things and Dreamland Burning – explore parts of America and its ugly underbelly in ways I did not previously explore.

RATINGS SPREAD: Four 5-star reviews, Two 4-star reviews, Two 3-star reviews. Good month!

 

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WHAT I READ: All The Ugly and Wonderful Things (Bryn Greenwood)

WHY I READ IT: On many Best of 2016 lists.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Incredibly challenging, hard to decide how I feel, but such a well-written slice of life that kept me compelled the whole time.

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WHAT I READ: My Husband’s Wife (Jane Corry)

WHY I READ IT: One of my favorite lifestyle bloggers was reading it!

WHAT I THOUGHT: A fun read, but it could have used some structural readjustment to decide what kind of book it was going to be.

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WHAT I READ: The Diviners (Libba Bray)

WHY I READ IT: A podcast I listen to recommend this (and its sequel) as one of the Best Books They Read in 2016.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Totally scared the piss out of me (I’m very ladylike) and is definitively NSFchildren, but I’m pumped to dive into Book #2.

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WHAT I READ: Lair of Dreams (Libba Bray)

WHY I READ IT: See above!

WHAT I THOUGHT: Still totally scary, but I liked this one even more than the first. Too bad we aren’t closer to October and the release of the third!

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WHAT I READ: A Court of Thorns and Roses (Sarah J. Maas)

WHY I READ IT: I first read this book in 2015 and decided to give it a reread when I was sick and had little brainpower for anything else.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Ugh, I love this book SO much. I’m so glad I decided to give it a reread – it just hits everything I need in a book, AND it turns out the 3rd book comes out in early May so I had good timing in my reread!

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WHAT I READ: A Court of Mist and Fury (Sarah J. Maas)

WHY I READ IT: BECAUSE THESE BOOKS BLOW MY SKIRT UP AND I LOVE THEM!!

WHAT I THOUGHT: May 2nd cannot come soon enough. GIMME MORE!

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WHAT I READ: Dreamland Burning (Jennifer Latham)

WHY I READ IT: Book club!

WHAT I THOUGHT: An incredible and important re-telling of a deliberately hidden historical event. More to come next week.

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WHAT I READ: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding (Kristin Newman)

WHY I READ IT: Even though her name is spelled incorrectly in my opinion, I do like travel memoirs.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Well-written, albeit a little eye-rolley at times as all travel memoirs are, but I still slammed through this book and enjoyed reading it.

 

Need more thorough reviews? Goodreads, baby.

American Strangers

Part of my challenge this year to read more deeply meant picking up books I normally wouldn’t: namely, contemporary nonfiction. Most of the time I view reading as an escape, and nonfiction detailing exactly how and why the world is going to crap doesn’t particularly provide that.

But, I’m growing older and growing up, and added two well-regarded books to my TBR list. These books were chosen specifically because they were publicized as doing a good job at explaining the “rest” of America outside of my liberal coastal elite bubble, and maybe by reading them I could understand why we have a toddler in the White House.

This question still rattles around in my brain on a daily basis as he continues to rampage and tantrum his way through the Constitution, but at least I got to read some good books while everything goes to hell.

WHAT I READ

Strangers In Their Own Land (Arlie Russell Hochschild) and Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance)

SNAPSHOT REVIEWS

On a scale of 1 to 5 voting ballots, I gave Strangers 4 polluted rivers and Hillbilly 5 rust belts.

MY MUSINGS

Some of the most fascinating information I found in either book were the stats explaining the socioeconomic, cultural, or historic background of regions of the country existing the way they do. Hillbilly had less of that by virtue of it being a memoir, but Strangers did a fantastic job at tying in the rise of Trumpism with a variety of factors in America (in this case, Louisiana). The three reasons for the rise of Donald Trump, according to Strangers In Their Own Land (which profiled white, largely Christian, Louisianans) :

  1. They are on shaky economic ground
  2. They believe they are culturally marginalized and “held up to ridicule in the national media as backward.” The author paints a story of them standing patiently in line for the American Dream, and suddenly others are unfairly allowed to cut in.
  3. They believe they (white Christians) are on a demographic decline.

While I logically understand this point, emotionally I find it absolutely absurd that these privileged people (yes, they are privileged, regardless of their economic status) are getting so crabby because others are being given basic human rights like equal marriage, self-determination, and the essential right to your own body. It’s like being pissed because you were given a whole pie to eat, and then found out you actually have to share the pie. Sure, it sucks that you don’t get the whole thing, but if you don’t share, I get no pie. 

After reading Strangers, I wrote the following:

Despite the author’s best efforts, I still found myself unable to understand the ways in which the people she was profiling (white, Christian, heterosexual, many male) believe themselves to be unfairly culturally marginalized. I want to mull it over a little bit more and read other similar narratives like Hillbilly Elegy – I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to empathize with a privileged individual feeling marginalized just because others have more basic human rights, but perhaps I’ll be able to sympathize more.

Welp, I’m still not sympathizing more, but I remain intrigued to learn more about these cultures so different from my own, even though we are all American.

These books are excellent reads if you are looking to learn more about today’s American culture. Strangers is good if you want something more research-heavy (but easy to read), and Hillbilly is excellent for the personal narrative.

Join Me In My Depression

Last week, one of my eagerly anticipated 2017 reads came in to the library: The Year of Living Danishly (Helen Russell). Part travel memoir and part research non-fiction, Russell moved to Denmark from Britain for one year after her husband’s job transfer and decided to spend that year figuring out why Danes so consistently ranked at the top of the charts for being the happiest and the best educated.

This was perhaps not the best book for me to read as I cringe on a daily basis, fearful of what my president will do, and as my country becomes more divided than ever. More than anything, this book had me instantly Googling, “How do you get a visa to Denmark?” (Alas, my work in international education means I know way too much about the Schengen visa process and it’s not something I want to navigate quite yet!).

WHAT I READ:

The Year Of Living Danishly (Helen Russell)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 hygges, I give this 4 candles.

SYNOPSIS + WHAT I THOUGHT:

The quick-and-dirty on what I learned – these were my favorite bits:

  • Denmark has amazing work-life balance: the author’s husband (who worked in a traditional office environment) noted that people worked extremely short – read: actually do-able – hours like 8am to 4pm. Additionally, they were unlikely to feel impressed if you were the type to take work home or stay late. In fact, they would be more judgmental that you weren’t able to complete your work in the proper time allotted.
  • There is a huge emphasis on family (paternity and maternity leave being mandatory), community (volunteering and joining societies are hugely popular), and coziness (we all know about hygge)
  • It has an amazingly built out welfare state that, yes, taxes most citizens between 35-51%, but in return you get a strong healthcare system, free education (they pay you to go to university), and guaranteed unemployment/welfare benefits.

Admittedly, it’s not all sunshine and roses. One of the most interesting things the author discovered is that while the genders are equal in the workplace vis-a-vis pay and expectations on child-raising (with each taking an equal role), there is still a lot of casual sexism.

I tore through this book, excited to learn more about a country I know little about, even if it depressed me to read about this close-to-utopia. Absolutely recommended for travel lovers and people of the universe in general.

 

Book Roundup: January 2017

This was the first month into my 2017 resolution to read harder books more deeply, and I expected that each month my total number of books read would be a little lower than usual. But at 9 books read this month, I was actually pretty on-par with my normal reading schedule, and I still feel like I had a good combination of heavy and light books. On to the stats!

NUMBER OF BOOKS READ: 10

NUMBER OF FEMALE AUTHORS VS MALE AUTHORS: All ladies this month!

NUMBER OF DIVERSE (non-American) SETTINGS: 3, although two of those are in Ireland (well, technically one in Ireland and one in a apocalyptic probably former Ireland).

RATINGS SPREAD: Two 5-star, One 4-star, Five 3-star, Two 2-star,

Want more? Goodreads, baby.

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WHAT I READ: The Wonder (Emma Donaghue)

WHY I READ IT: Big fan of her Room.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Meh on my end. Good atmosphere-building, but as a full-length novel it dragged.

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WHAT I READ: Spare and Found Parts (Sarah Maria Griffin)

WHY I READ IT: Book club!

WHAT I THOUGHT: If not for book club, I don’t think I would have kept reading it. I just didn’t get a lot of why the characters did what they did, and it was hard to get into the world.

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WHAT I READ: Today Will Be Different (Maria Semple)

WHY I READ IT: This book was all over the blogs as super-good, and I did mostly enjoy her Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

WHAT I THOUGHT: I liked the book, but didn’t love it. I wanted it to be a better exploration of adult mental health, but it didn’t do a deep dive into a whole lot.

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WHAT I READ: Talking As Fast As I Can (Lauren Graham)

WHY I READ IT: Love me some Graham crackers, and especially Gilmore Girls! 

WHAT I THOUGHT: It was very similar to a lot of other celebrity memoirs – some interesting chapters (mostly about the making of GG) but ultimately just a lot of fluff that was clearly written to get her a boost in sales coinciding with the new episodes.

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WHAT I READ: This is Where It Ends (Marieke Nijkamp)

WHY I READ IT: Another one popular on the blogs.

WHAT I THOUGHT: I REALLY did not like it.

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WHAT I READ: Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi)

WHY I READ IT: One of those “must-reads,” lent from a friend.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Really more of 1.5 stars than 2 stars for me, I really did not like it. It just wasn’t compelling enough to read to the end, and I ended up skimming a lot.

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WHAT I READ: Strangers In Their Own Land (Arlie Hochschild)

WHY I READ IT: Part of my read harder pledge, this nonfiction narrative explores the “Great Paradox” of conservative America (specifically in Louisiana).

WHAT I THOUGHT: I’ll have a lot more to say in a later post, but I LOVED this book – both as a piece of writing (very well done and compelling) and as a piece of research.

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WHAT I READ: Dear Mr. You (Mary-Louise Parker. Yes, that Mary-Louise Parker)

WHY I READ IT: One of my favorite (travel) bloggers highlighted this as a favorite of 2016.

WHAT I THOUGHT: My god, I loved this book. One of my two five-star books of the month. This is the most unique celebrity memoir I’ve ever read, as Parker uses a combination of prose and poetic prose to convey key moments in her life via a series of letters to men – some significant men in her life, like her father and grandfather, others seemingly less significant (but you come to see how they keyed into her being) like a cab driver or a firefighter she passed on the street. So beautiful, so tear-worthy.

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WHAT I READ: Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

WHY I READ IT: I was tragically behind the curve on this beautiful book.

WHAT I THOUGHT: One of my other five-star books for the month; I can’t believe I waited this long.

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WHAT I READ: My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout)

WHY I READ IT: Her Olive Kitteridge is something I moderately enjoyed.

WHAT I THOUGHT: I bumped this up to 3 stars, but it was really more like 2.5. Beautiful writing, but pretty meh.

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.

When You Don’t Love What Oprah Does

Some books you hear about over and over again in a year. Everyone proclaims this is THE BOOK of the year as it makes all the “Best of” book lists. That book this year was The Underground Railroad. It actually had its publishing date pushed up a month as Oprah selected it for her Book Club – and when Oprah says jump… (At least, I remember hearing that fact once and just assume it to be true. No research here!).

And so, I diligently put it on my TBR list, and had a slightly comical affair this fall trying to read it (it came into my library pick-up pile twice and both times I had to return without reading it – the curse of a 7-day hold/no renewal possible book coming in the day before you’ll be out of town!). But third time’s a charm and I finally was able to read it.

WHAT I READ:

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead.

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

My impression was a shaky 4-star book (more like 3.75 but I rounded up to 4). Perhaps I’m just a cold-hearted person, but in short I felt the plot and basic structure of the book to be VERY strong and the character development to be slightly less strong. For me to rank it as a 5-star read, I need it to have both.

#FirstFifty Synposis:

This sweeping story starts with the main character’s grandmother getting kidnapped from Africa to be forced into the slave trade. We go through the first few decades of Cora’s life, including her mother, Mabel, escaping and leaving Cora on the plantation as a ten-year-old; Cora establishing herself as a potentially-crazy-but-not-to-be-messed-with-force to the other slaves; and the plantation thrown into confusion when their (relatively) kind owner dies and his much stricter brother is poised to take over. Just when things seem to be getting even worse, Caesar approaches her with a proposition: attempting to escape via the Underground Railroad.

 

And nwo, skipping the gifs in order to move on to my next “sorry everyone in the world that I didn’t like this one” book – The Mothers.

Immediately after finishing The Underground Railroad, I picked up The Mothers – another oft-praised book of 2016. And once again… I found it a little wanting. #sorrrrrry

WHAT I READ:

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett.

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

This one had the opposite problem from the above book – I found the characters to be really interesting, but the plot (while full of very serious and well-handled topics) to be not the MOST compelling to me. This one I gave 3 stars, but consider it more like a 3.5.

#FirstFifty Synopsis:

Nadia, a super-smart 17 year old destined for greater things than her small coastal Californian town, is grappling with the recent suicide of her mother and finds comfort in the arms (i.e., bed) of Luke, the local football star whose college career gets cut short when he suffers an injury. A few weeks before she is due to leave for college, she discovers she is pregnant, and makes a choice that will set into motion the remainder of her life, Luke’s life, and the lives of the mothers around her.

 

So, what did I learn from this experience? Even the books you’re meant to like just might not tickle every fancy needed. I REALLY enjoyed reading them and heartily recommend to others, but sometimes a book can fall just a little bit short. Even books aren’t perfect, my friends.