A Country Divided

By coincidence, two pieces of media I recently consumed simultaneously scared the shit out of me (sorry for the cursing, mom, but it’s true). It’s no secret that I’m scared and furious at our current administration and spend most mornings reading the paper while rolling my eyes at their latest lies. No one can know what will come out of this presidency, but a new book and a new TV show do their best to show how a divided country can lead to ruin.

I’m surely not the first person to talk about either of these, but I would recommend not consuming them at the same time because it truly meant a lot of dreary, negative thoughts for me. American War takes place in the latter half of the 21st century (around 2075-2095) in a United States fighting a Second Civil War, with most of the coasts (and Florida – sorry, Florida) flooded due to climate change and the southern states fighting for the right to use now-illegal fossil fuels. As I read this book, I also started watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. I’m sure there is no need for me to summarize it here, but to be brief it shows a United States that has been toppled by a theocracy and places women in subservient roles in which the “fertile” ones are ceremoniously raped on a monthly basis by high-level men in hopes of producing more children.

So, yeah. As far as The Handmaid’s Tale goes, I’ve been too horrified to watch more than one episode so far, but all signs point to it being an incredible show – at least, incredibly written, directed, and acted; incredibly scary to watch and consider how this could become reality.

As for the book, I am the Cutthroat Reader after all…

WHAT I READ:

American War (Omar Al Akkad)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 rebel states, I give this 4 assassins.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.

Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

wlzq_f-maxage-0

To be perfectly frank, I really gave this book 5 stars for concept and 3 stars for execution. As stated above, I love the idea of the book, but found myself at times interested and at times bored by the actual writing. Setting this book up in vignettes had some unfortunate flaws. We see life in pre/mid war border states; life in a refugee camp; a bit of life as a sniper for the rebels; a bit of life in prison; and a bit of life afterwards. But with these bits I never got a full picture of the countries, the war, or life for everyone, and most of it was a bit slow. We are tracing Sarat’s evolution into the North-hating person she becomes, but even with the intense eye focused on her, I didn’t get why she was quite so filled with hate.

I devoured the book and still recommend to others – but I suspect the topic of the book and its timelienesss will elevate it a tad more than it really should be.

Even though I didn’t love American War, I still think this book and The Handmaid’s Tale should be required viewing and contemplation for everyone. A book I was reading this morning struck me with the following line (discussing living as a gay man in modern America):

But you know we’re always going to have to rely on the goodwill of those of you who are straight for our survival. And that’s the damned truth.

This sad and beautiful line keeps sticking in my mind. It’s incredibly true for all marginalized communities – essentially anyone who isn’t a white, cis, straight, white wealthy male in America. The LGBT community, immigrants, lower class, women, non-Christians, etc etc – and all intersections of those groups – are just holding our breaths and crossing our fingers that those in power allow us to hold on to (or obtain) basic human rights like equal marriage, liberty, and the rights to our bodies. And the message of what could happen if those rights are taken away are perfectly captured in these two pieces of art.

A Tale of Two Books

Completely by coincidence, I read two books this month with remarkably similar set-ups – coming-of-age male LGBTQ characters – back to back. Neither book had really been on my radar, either: I picked up Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe at a bookstore after getting shamed at book club for not having read it, and the next day decided to pull More Happy Than Not from my local library without really looking at its plot.

I finished Aristotle first, delighting in its simple but beautiful language and the relatively straightforward set-up of two teenage boys and best friends discovering their feelings for each other (I also loved the secondary plot of these boys being Mexican in a 1980s Texas border town and what that means for their lives and life journeys). The cover alone is also incredibly gorgeous, may I say. Diving into More Happy Than Not, I was surprised (although not upset) when I discovered it was going to be remarkably similar – a teenage boy discovering his feelings for his male best friend. Even its setting in modern-day New York, with a Latino protagonist, allowed for similar motifs to float through.

But then… the *TWIST* in More Happy Than Not occurs, and I was COMPLETELY gobsmacked. It’s hinted in the summary – which I had ignored – but it really takes the book in a different sci-fi direction.

WHAT I READ:

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Benjamin Sáenz) and More Happy Than Not (Adam Silvera)

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 coming-of-age stories, I give Aristotle 5 Texas summers and More Happy 5 mysterious neurological procedures.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

More Happy Than Not:

In his twisty, gritty, profoundly moving debut—called “mandatory reading” by the New York Times—Adam Silvera brings to life a charged, dangerous near-future summer in the Bronx.

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again–but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.

Why does happiness have to be so hard?

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

unnamed-111giphy1excited-baby

 

In short, even though these books seem to be very similar, they take off in wildly different directions – and I thoroughly enjoyed both. Must-adds to your reading list.

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.

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.

The Tragedy of Sequels

I try my hardest, I truly do, when I know I’m reading the first book in a duology or a trilogy. I take detailed notes on the synopsis to remind me of the plot in the future; I request the next book from the library as soon as it comes out; I find in-depth anaylses online of the previous book and dive into them right before reading the sequel. (I’ve found this website to be really helpful).

But, despite my best efforts, I totally failed in my read of Wayfarer (Alexandra Bracken), the follow-up to one of my favorite books of 2016, Passengergushed over Passenger when I read it: I loved the time travel, going to different eras, the dichotomy of pairing a white present-day woman traveling with a black 18th-century man through different eras. I even convinced my mom to read it, wrote myself a tidy little synopsis so I’d remember what happened, and got Wayfarer from the library almost as soon as it came in.

And yet… Wayfarer just never really grabbed me. Partially it was because I had a busy week and was reading in snippets, instead of in long swaths of (commuting) time like I normally am. But I’m not sure if the author – to be clear, one of my favorites – did a fantastic job at bringing everyone back into the world.

I still enjoyed reading it, but found myself confused most of the time, disinterested part of the time, and kicking myself for not giving the first book a full reread the rest of the time.

WHAT I READ

Wayfarer (Passenger #2), Alexandra Bracken

SNAPSHOT REVIEW:

On a scale of 1 to 5 confusing time travel devices, I give this 3 astrolabes. When combined with the first book, it gets 4 eyepatches.

#FirstFifty Synopsis:

We’re immediately thrown back into chaos. In a flashback scene, a young Rose experiences the traumatic event that will set her against Cyrus Ironwood forever. Etta, orphaned in a different timeline (maybe, this part always confused me) makes her way through early 20th century Texas and then San Francisco. Meanwhile, Nicolas chases clues trying to find her in 18th century Nassau, even though he’s probably (maybe) in a parallel universe.

HOW IT MADE ME FEEL:

dvjnujlvs6yeyeyhtjil_confused20mark20wahlberg

giphy1

giphy

 

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.

51iiwylu-al-_sx327_bo1204203200_

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.

81xan4c0mcl

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.

28449270

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.

51jqqolltjl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

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.

24529123

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.

18079683

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.

28695425

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.

dear-mr-you-9781501107832_hr

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.

americanah

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.

5673317a160000b300eb92ac

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.