Wednesday, April 21, 2021

#10 [2021/CBR13] Luster by Raven Leilani

I was very excited to see Barack Obama's reading list come out at the end of 2020, and I immediately added some of his recommendations to my reading list. One of these was Luster (2020) by Raven Leilani. It wasn't just Barack Obama who noticed this one: Luster was also on the best books list of NPR, Oprah, and many others.

Edie is a young, black woman in her 20's. She lives in Brooklyn and does administrative work at a production company. Her mother killed herself and her father is dead. She grew up really religious, and she makes a lot of bad choices. In fact, soon after the book begins, Edie is fired. 

Edie sneaks into the suburban home of Eric, the older, married, white man she met on Tinder (or something like Tinder). She runs into his wife, Rebecca, who is already aware of her, and ends up inviting Edie to a party at their home that night. It seems that Rebecca mainly does this to surprise and confuse her husband. Edie eventually ends up meeting their adopted daughter, Akila, who is also black. At some point Rebecca becomes aware that Edie has lost her job and has no money, and invites Edie to stay at their home.

In some ways, this is a good situation. Edie is a good role model for Akila. She helps her with her hair and gets rid of her racist tutor. She also cleans around the house, and is given money for her work. Edie has a temporary place to stay and good food. 

It is also the most awkward and uncomfortable situation you can imagine. Even recounting part of this book now makes me cringe. You feel like Rebecca feels animosity towards both Edie and her husband, but nothing is said out loud. Rebecca seems to have a lot of unexpressed rage and frustration. Eric handles the situation by mostly ignoring Edie--except when his restraint breaks and he watches her in the shower. Akila is half aware of all of this, and doesn't want Edie breaking up her family, or as much of a family as she's ever had. There's no discussion of how long Edie will stay or what she will get paid for what chores. There are no ground rules regarding who can have sex with whom. Edie snoops around the house in a bizarre fashion, and I was afraid they were going to kick her out. 

Edie is also a pretty dark character. She seems to mope around without direction or plan besides immediate survival. She was constantly making her life worse, and she often had no hope for herself at all. This book was definitely challenging to read, and I wouldn't call it enjoyable. However, it was original and memorable. I also found myself highlighting line after line as I read. See below for some of the lines that caught my eye.

"The last time I painted, I was twenty-one. The president was black. I had more seratonin and I was less afraid of men."

"It's that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void."

"She still rearranges herself, waiting to be chosen. And she will be. Because it is an art--to be black and dogged and inoffensive."

"This was the contradiction that would define me for years, my attempt to secure undiluted solitude and my swift betrayal of this effort once in the spotlight of an interested man."

"The sort of high-yellow woman who believed her fair complexion was the result of an errant Native American gene, but who was, like so many of us, walking proof of American industry, the bolls and ships and casual sexual terrorism that put a little cream in the coffee and made her family loyal to the almighty paper bag."

"Having already been in the process of filing him away, burying him with the other men who evaporate after pulverizing my cervix, I am relieved, and yes, I am ashamed."

"I think of all the gods I have made out of feeble men."

"They were dying inside their own bodies, and now all these dead components are my inheritance."

"I am inclined to pray, but on principle, I don't. God is not for women. He is for the fruit. He makes you want and he makes you wicked, and while you sleep, he plants a seed in your womb that will be born just to die."

"If I'm honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence."

"Because there will always be a part of me that is ready to die."

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

#9 [2021/CBR13] Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer

My book club has been focusing on short books lately because we've all felt so busy and overwhelmed. A friend of mine chose Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019) for our next book. This book is exactly what you'd think from the title. It might be odd to read a style book for a book club, but we're a bunch of lawyers who regularly argue about this kind of thing. It was really kind of perfect for us. (Dreyer told me not to use "really" in my writing.)

Benjamin Dreyer is the Copy Chief of Random House. He has copyedited many famous people's manuscripts, and he has a lot of opinions on how people should write. I thought his book was sometimes funny, sometimes annoying, and sometimes informative. It did help me one day with the NYT's Spelling Bee game after I learned that you can also spell glamour without a 'u' as glamor.

Dreyer copyedited a posthumous book by Shirley Jackson. He is a huge fan and used her writing as examples (as well as many authors) throughout the book. This was a nice connection for my book club because we'd just recently read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. 

I began this book on audiobook and had to switch to hardcover. Although Dreyer did a good job reading, it is extremely tedious to listen to variations of spelling and punctuation instead of just looking at the text. The most frustrating parts of this book were the constant asterisks and footnotes. These were sometimes funny, but because of the small font I almost always missed them while reading the page. I would get to the end of the page and see a bunch of footnotes and try to figure out where they'd come from. Since they were often quippy little nothings, they didn't make any sense unless you could see what he was referring to. It became a real bother.

On the other hand, Dreyer was really (sorry, kind of) funny. He brought up a little politics, mentioning Hillary Clinton and Trump. He also made a joke about teabagging that I don't exactly remember, except that I recall being impressed that he worked it into a grammar/style book.

Besides being opinionated and occasionally funny, much of this book did not really sink in. I'm not going to remember the spelling of all those words Dreyer listed out, so reading through them felt like an exercise in futility. I also wish he'd been a little more reader friendly when he described grammar rules, instead of copying the rules in their most academic form. I've read other books that made me understand and remember these grammar and style rules much better.

What I found most memorable and useful about this book were Dreyer's general tips on writing. Specifically, you want to make your writing clear and understandable. Your sentences might be confusing even if they technically adhere to all the grammar rules, so change them to make them more readable. Feel free to break the rules, but break them intentionally and for a purpose. I also enjoyed the parts where Dreyer discussed his job. It was interesting to get a glimpse into a copyeditor's life.

This book is a good choice for those of you who like reading grammar and style books. You know who you are.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

#8 [2021/CBR13] Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen

I saw that Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Text Book Got Wrong (2018) by James W. Loewen was available on audiobook from my library, and I decided to give it a try. I took AP U.S. History and AP European History in high school. I did well in those classes, but I didn't love them. I've enjoyed reading in-depth biographies about historical people, but the grand sweep of those classes was boring. Fortunately, I took enough history classes in college that this book wasn't wholly a surprise to me. However, it still changed my perspective.

Loewen's basic premise is that high school history text books are so focused on minimizing controversy and promoting patriotism that we end up with bad, boring history that minimizes the opposition to and contributions of minorities. In fact, history is the only college class that doesn't build on what you learned in high school but has to go back and fix what you learned before. For this book, Loewen read twelve different high school history text books, looking at how they were written, and what they chose to focus on..

Loewen has plenty of examples to bolster his theory. He began his book talking about Helen Keller's radical socialism and Woodrow Wilson's racism. Both historical characters feature in his example history books, but their arguably more important contributions to history are ignored. Loewen goes on to discuss Christopher Columbus, the myths surrounding him and perpetuated by history books, as well as his true legacy. I'd already learned about how Columbus treated the people he "discovered," but some of the primary sources were still shocking to hear. Loewen has many other examples, including U.S. anti-democratic intervention in countries around the world.

Loewen also discusses how racism is erased from the history books. Beginning with Columbus's changing perspective of the people he encountered, the racism deeply entrenched in justifying slavery, and maybe barely, if at all, recognizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in World War II, he has many examples. The problem with this, along with denying a large portion of Americans their story, is that it is difficult to understand the cause and effect of many historical events when you try to explain it without mentioning racism or racist motivations.

Another large portion of this book is dedicated to why our history books are the way they are and how we can change them. It's a worthwhile discussion although I probably appreciated the historical discussions more. On the whole, I found this book very interesting and enlightening. Loewen has given me a new appreciation for history.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

#7 [2021/CBR13] A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet

I first saw A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet on NPR's Best Books of 2020. It immediately caught my attention, but then I saw it was a finalist for the National Book Award and was one of the New York Times Best Books of the Year. It felt like fate was telling me to read this book. All I knew going into it was that it was some kind of allegory for climate change.

Evie is our narrator. She's probably fifteen or sixteen years old. Her parents have gotten together with a number of other families in a "great house" on a lake for summer vacation. All the kids sleep up in the attic and avoid their parents as much as possible. In fact, their parents are so embarrassing that the kids have started a game where they try to avoid anyone else figuring out who their parents are. Evie has a younger brother, Jack, who she looks out for since her parents aren't paying any attention. I felt an eerie sense of unreality while reading this book. On the one hand, everything that occurs is basically believable, but something also felt off. Why did the parents not care about their children? The disgust the teens felt for their parents felt familiar but also extreme.

The kids head down to the ocean for a camping trip on the beach and meet some incredibly wealthy children staying on a yacht. Shortly after they get back, they are deluged by a terrible storm. A tree falls onto the great house, crashing through the roof and soaking the attic. The parents react by getting high and having an orgy.

Evie's brother, Jack, is a sweet, sensitive kid. One of the parents gave him a children's version of the Bible. He's been reading it and interpreting it on his own. He and his friend, Shel, take it upon themselves to save the animals from the rising floodwater. When one of the older kids tells him that he needs two of every animal, he answers that other people would be saving animals, too.

The kids eventually ditch their useless parents and take off with a groundskeeper, hoping to make it to the safety and comfort of the home of the richest kid in their midst. They are sidetracked by bad roads to a farm where they meet up with four "trail angels" from the Appalachian Trail. A lot more happens to the kids. Their parents get sick, they face some bad guys, and a baby is born. Some of these things seem to come directly from the Bible, but it was hard for me to understand why. A baby is born, tracking the birth of Jesus, but she doesn't have much to do with the rest of the story. Jack decides that his Bible is in code; that God is actually nature, and Jesus is science. And if we believe in Jesus (science), he (it) will save us.

Eventually the kids and parents reunite at the rich kid's house. The kids plan for the worst, dragging their parents along with them. Even though the story of Revelation is not in Jack's Children's Bible, the older kids understand that's where they're heading.

I'm not sure how I feel about this book. It's a fast read and kept my interest, but it also just felt weird. There were enough odd things going on that this book did not feel like the real world. And the connection with the Bible--besides Jack's remarkable interpretation--felt somewhat random. Characters weren't acting as I would expect and they appeared and disappeared without warning. However, when I heard about the snow storms and power outages in Texas, the first thing I thought of was this book. I think it's one of those that's going to make more of an impact on me than I initially realized. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

#6 [2021/CBR13] The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

My boyfriend read The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) by Isabel Wilkerson and suggested that I read it. I trust his judgment, but it didn't hurt that it was named the best book of the year by a ton of publications. It also just sounded interesting.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a non-fiction book about The Great Migration that occurred from 1915-1970. Coming into this novel, I was vaguely aware that a large number of Black Americans had moved up North after slavery ended, but that was about the limit of my knowledge. Wilkerson goes into much more detail about the numbers, the reasons, and the effects of this huge population shift on both the northern destination cities as well as the South and the people left behind. 

Wilkerson interviewed thousands of people in writing this book. One of my favorite aspects of this book was that she followed the stories of three different people who moved out of the South. They moved at different times, arrived at different places, and came from various locations and social strata. But their personal stories humanized the enormous numbers involved in the migration. Wilkerson also included enough big picture information that you could understand the context of the individual stories.

Ida Mae Gladney was probably my favorite person in the book. She left Mississippi with her husband and two kids, pregnant with a third, in the fall of 1937. They were sharecroppers under a relatively fair (for the time) white farmer, but they decided to leave after Ida Mae was threatened and a cousin was badly beaten by some white men because they thought (wrongly) that he'd stolen some turkeys. They didn't want to live under that violence and fear anymore. Ida Mae was a hard-working, sweet woman who cared deeply about her family. She met Barack Obama when he was a state senator and came and spoke to her Chicago neighborhood. I wish she had been alive to see him become President.

George Starling lived in Florida. He'd wanted to graduate from college, but his father wouldn't pay for more than one year. George found himself picking fruit in the plentiful Florida groves. But he wasn't satisfied with the bad working conditions and measly pay--especially during the war when workers were scarce and fruit prices were high. Starling and two of his friends helped to organize the pickers and request higher wages. Some days this worked, but it was dangerous to defy white people in Florida. Starling heard that men were planning on killing him, and he fled to New York City in 1945.

Robert Pershing Foster grew up in the tiny town of Monroe Alabama. His father was principal of the local school, and his mother was a teacher. His brother went on to become a doctor and Robert faced similar expectations for himself. Robert went on to marry the daughter of the President of Morehouse College, putting himself in the middle of Black high society in Atlanta. Robert felt a great need to live up to his father-in-law's expectations. Robert also could not face the constant disregard and disdain he faced in the Jim Crow South. In 1953, Robert drove across the country to Los Angeles, California to start his medical practice. Eventually he became very successful, bringing his wife and daughters to come live with him and becoming very prosperous. Ray Charles was one of his patients. Robert definitely had his demons, though. He cared very much about image, controlling his wife and nephew down to what they should wear. And he was big into gambling. I would have liked to know more about what was going on inside his head.

Wilkerson presents the migrants almost as immigrants from another country--giving up almost everything for a chance at a better life. In some ways life was better up North. They didn't have to "sir" and "ma'am" all the white people or step off the sidewalk. They also voted, and were encouraged to vote. However, there was still plenty of racism. Black people were forced to live in a very small area of the city. If they tried to live in a "white" neighborhood, they faced incredible opposition and violence. Thus, housing in Black neighborhoods was significantly more expensive and of lesser quality. 

The Warmth of Other Suns is pretty long and goes into a lot of detail, both about the individual stories of Ida Mae, George, Robert, and other migrants, as well as conditions and circumstances of the time. It is impossible to even mention everything covered in this book or do justice to it in a book review. It is much better just to read it for yourself. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

#5 [2021/CBR13] The Body by Bill Bryson

I know Bill Bryson from listening to his audiobook, A Walk in the Woods, over ten years ago. I remember enjoying it, so when I was looking for another good audio book for my commute and saw that The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019) was available, I checked it out. I found it consistently interesting and sometimes illuminating. It is a broad book that covers anything and everything related to health and life. 

This book is divided into sections and chapters discussing: skin, the head, the heart, the lungs, diseases, the skeleton, sleep, and death--among others. Bryson includes a mix of biology and history. I learned a fair bit about doctors taking and getting credit for things they did not deserve. 

Some things that Bryson hit on that I appreciated are the lack of women in drug studies. I've read about this problem in other places, and it has a significant and negative impact on healthcare for women. Bryson also discussed the overuse of antibiotics and how dangerous that is for all of us in detail I had not read about before.

The Body also tackles nutrition. Bryson mentions a number of competing studies, but it is such a large, controversial topic, that it would take a whole book to get into it properly. I still appreciate that he tackled the subject with so much other stuff going on in this book.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book for me were bits of history that Bryson brought up in relation to some part of the body that Bryson was discussing. The first was Rosemary Kennedy, sister to JFK, whose father had her lobotomized when she was a young woman. The ending is tragic. Despite the lack of science, lobotomies had grown popular at that time. Rosemary's lobotomy did not help her, but left her institutionalized for the rest of her life.

I had also never heard of Unit 731 in Japan that perpetrated horrific war crimes against thousands of prisoners, women, and children during WWII. The Japanese in Unit 731 did "medical" experiments just as bad if not worse than the Nazis in Germany. No one survived and the abuse they suffered was beyond my comprehension. The United States agreed to keep it quiet and not try anyone involved for war crimes in exchange for the information the Japanese learned from the experiments. Everything about this story makes me despair for the human race, including the role the United States played in keeping it quiet.

Bryson also included some interesting, but not quite as dark bits of history. Nicholas Alkemade of the Royal Air Force survived a two-mile fall after his airplane was shot down over Germany. I never knew the details of Typhoid Mary and how she came to her name until this book. I also did not know of the rare genetic condition called fatal familial insomnia where people cannot fall asleep. It slowly kills them over a period of about three weeks.

It is eerie when Bryson starts discussing the number of diseases in birds and mammals and how easily they can jump over to humans. He also talks about the damage this kind of disease can do, which we are much more aware of since 2020.

Finally, Bryson talks about the end of life. We will all get old and sick and die, and it's something that we all will face. A little depressing and scary to read about, but a fitting end to this book.

P.S. Bill Bryson read this audiobook. Occasionally his intonation reminded me of the Moira Rose character on Schitt's Creek.

Friday, February 12, 2021

#4 [2021/CBR12] After Hello by Mhairi McFarlane

I slid After Hello (2017) by Mhairi McFarlane into my reading pile as a little break. It's a short novella and a follow-up to another McFarlane romance novel, You Had Me at Hello. Rachel and Ben didn't have much time together at the end of the first book when they finally got together. After Hello allows them a slightly longer happily ever after. However, it's hard to have a novel with no obstacles to overcome, so Rachel and Ben do face some challenges in this second story.

Rachel and Ben met their first day in college and were best friends throughout school. After an unexpected "sleepover" and some misunderstandings split them apart at the end of college, they didn't see each other for years. But when Ben moved back to Manchester with his new wife, Rachel and Ben reconnected. As I mentioned in my review of You Had Me at Hello, I had a hard time with the romantic lead being married for most of the book. I really liked the main characters and their interactions, but it was my least favorite of McFarlane's novels so far.

After Hello occurs a couple of years after the end of the first book. Rachel and Ben have bought a home and are living happily together. Mindy and Ivor, Rachel's friends that got together in the last book are getting ready for their wedding.

Rachel is very happy with Ben. But then she hears that one of Ben's coworkers has a crush on him. And Ben seems to spend a lot of time with her. And he strongly defends her when her name comes up. Rachel still remembers that Ben was married when they got together. She's afraid that it's Karma, and now she understands what it's like to be on the other side. Maybe Ben was just never the type to settle down. Why would she think her relationship with him would be any different?

Rachel's fears manifest in her lashing out and she and Ben fight for the first time. Fortunately, this is still a romance novel, however short. Rachel and Ben figure out their differences, strengthening their relationship. Rachel's friends end the book with a beautiful wedding.

Even though the original wasn't my favorite book of McFarlane's, and I probably would have preferred an extended story for a different book, I still enjoyed this. Once I started reading, it was hard to put down and I couldn't help but get caught up in their story.