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.

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Book Roundup: February 2017

Another month down, folks! Not quite as many books as usually but most of them were pretty good, and a few were excellent. 

NUMBER OF BOOKS READ: 7 + one re-read

NUMBER OF FEMALE AUTHORS VS MALE AUTHORS: 3 females, 4 males. Off my game!

NUMBER OF DIVERSE (non-American) SETTINGS: Well, 2 were set in Europe, 1 in a fantasy world, one throughout time and space, and one on Mars, so, a bit hard to quantify this time around…

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

 

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WHAT I READ: History Is All You Left Me (Adam Silvera)

WHY I READ IT: Praised for being a realistic YA LGBT novel.

WHAT I THOUGHT: I was skeptical for most of this book that the characters would do something I didn’t want them to do, but Silvera did a good job at keeping it grounded (and sad).

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WHAT I READ: The Year Of Living Danishly (Helen Russell)

WHY I READ IT: I desperately want to live in paradise, aka Denmark.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Mostly it made me depressed to live in the U.S. God bless Denmark, apparently.

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WHAT I READ: In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Erik Larson)

WHY I READ IT: I’m not sure, but I assume it was on one of those “Read this to learn how to live in our new autocracy” listsicles.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Fascinating and well-written narrative nonfiction of a time period I thought I knew about, but this book taught me so much more.

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WHAT I READ: Wayfarer (Alexandra Bracken)

WHY I READ IT: As a follow-up to one of my favorites, Passenger.

WHAT I THOUGHT: I definitely should have re-read the first book more recently.

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WHAT I READ: Spindle (E.K. Johnston)

WHY I READ IT: Book club book!

WHAT I THOUGHT: Way too much “road trip” narrative and not nearly enough action. The author clearly wanted to make spinning/a spindle the central part of the story, and concocted a fairly weak explanation to make it so.

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WHAT I READ: The Martian (Andy Weir)

WHY I READ IT: Well you know, the movie was good.

WHAT I THOUGHT: Absolutely do not get the hype. The math and science seem incredible (I skimmed past a lot of it) but the dialogue was stitled and the characters not nearly layered enough.

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WHAT I READ: Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance)

WHY I READ IT: 2016’s “It” book.

WHAT I THOUGHT: This one WAS absolutely worth the hype. Easily read and a compelling topic; I only wished it had slightly more research/stats to back it up (but the author was clear from the start it wouldn’t). Left me wanting much more.

 

Re-readBig Little Lies. I first read this book a few years ago and with the HBO mini-series launching, decided to give it another go. Just as good as the first time!

How To Dig In To Paranoia

Or, Join Me In My DepressionVol. 2.

WHAT I READ:

In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Erik Larson).

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 telegrams, I give this 4 Marthas.

 

As part of my pledge to read more deeply this year, I challenged myself to read more nonfiction than I have in previous years. Already I’ve tackled Strangers In Their Own Land (fuller review coming soon), and this month I cracked open In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Erik Larson). I’m not quite sure why I put it on my to-read this considering it was published in 2011, but surely it was on one of those “Read these to learn more about living in an autocracy” listsicles that have been going around recently.

I’ve read Larson before – Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania – and thoroughly enjoyed his narrative nonfiction writing style. (He’s also the author of the tremendous popular Devil In The White City). This book, as the lengthy title suggests, takes a magnifying glass to the experience of U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, as he and his family move to Berlin for his posting in 1933.

I know a moderate amount about that period in time, but certainly have not revisited the topic of Nazi Germany as our new regime has taken hold. Larson narrows in on the experiences of the Dodd family mostly in 1933-1934 (Dodd was in his position until 1937, when he was effectively forced out by Roosevelt and the State Department due to Dodd’s loud belief that the Nazi Germany was extremely dangerous to European stability. WHAT AN IDIOT, FIRE HIM).

Throughout most of the book, there’s just this feeling of uneasiness. Until the summer of 1934 and the Night of the Long Knives (which I had never heard about before this book), there’s some unsettling instances (American tourists being beaten for not doing the Heil at a passing parade, for example), but even Dodd’s own family is somewhat amenable to the Nazi party and exhibit their own anti-Antisemitism. (And boy, is anti-Antisemitism rife in this book). But, it covers the American perspectives – both those wishing to remain isolationist and those who were staunchly anti-Nazi from the start – in this time period leading up to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the launching of WW2.

Martha Dodd is the other “main character” in this book, and is she ever a character. The 20-something daughter of Dodd, she sweeps through Berlin taking on numerous – and highly-placed – lovers and even is introduced as a potential love interest to Hitler at one point. (She ends up become a Soviet spy, naturally). I loved learning more about her story, too.

In all, this book is extremely easy-to-read, non-Gifable due to its serious subject matter, and made me want to read more Larson and think more about how my own country may look in 60 years.

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.