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Civil disobedience, art, and exile

I had to run a bunch of errands on Monday, which meant having to hunt down an elusive parking spot in the city. Luckily for me, I found a place that validated parking. All I had to do was…buy some books! What a wonderful win-win!

I only noticed after I got to the checkout counter that all my picks were non-fiction/memoirs. Maybe my mind is trying to tell me something…

  1. You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

    hair
    A hilarious and affecting essay collection about race, gender, and pop culture from celebrated stand-up comedian and WNYC podcaster Phoebe Robinson…As personal as it is political, You Can’t Touch My Hair examines our cultural climate and skewers our biases with humor and heart, announcing Robinson as a writer on the rise.*

  2. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

    carrie
    Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is the deeply personal and revealing narrative of Brownstein’s life in music, from ardent fan to pioneering female guitarist to comedic performer and luminary in the independent rock world. This book intimately captures what it feels like to be a young woman in a rock-and-roll band, from her days at the dawn of the underground feminist punk-rock movement that would define music and pop culture in the 1990s through today.*

  3. The Accidental Asian by Eric Liu

    eric

    Beyond black and white, native and alien, lies a vast and fertile field of human experience. It is here that Eric Liu, former speechwriter for President Clinton and noted political commentator, invites us to explore. In these compellingly candid essays, Liu reflects on his life as a second-generation Chinese American and reveals the shifting frames of ethnic identity. Finding himself unable to read a Chinese memorial book about his father’s life, he looks critically at the cost of his own assimilation. But he casts an equally questioning eye on the effort to sustain vast racial categories like “Asian American.” And as he surveys the rising anxiety about China’s influence, Liu illuminates the space that Asians have always occupied in the American imagination. Reminiscent of the work of James Baldwin and its unwavering honesty, The Accidental Asian introduces a powerful and elegant voice into the discussion of what it means to be an American.
    *

  4. Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics by Howard Zinn

    zinn
    Touching on such diverse topics as the American war machine, civil disobedience, the importance of memory and remembering history, and the role of artists—from Langston Hughes to Dalton Trumbo to Bob Dylan—in relation to social change, Original Zinn is Zinn at his irrepressible best, the acute perception of a scholar whose impressive knowledge and probing intellect make history immediate and relevant for us all.*

  5. Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat

    danticat
    In this deeply personal book, the celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on art and exile, examining what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country in crisis…Combining memoir and essay, Danticat tells the stories of artists, including herself, who create despite, or because of, the horrors that drove them from their homelands and that continue to haunt them. [She] also suggests that the aftermaths of natural disasters in Haiti and the United States reveal that the countries are not as different as many Americans might like to believe.*

I’m making my way through a couple of reading challenge books at the moment, but I’m hoping to sneak one of these in soon! Have you read any of them? What did you think?

*Descriptions taken from Goodreads

Review: Feeding a Yen: Savoring Local Specialties, from Kansas City to Cuzco

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): Calvin Trillin has never been a champion of the “continental cuisine” palaces he used to refer to as La Maison de la Casa House. What he treasures is the superb local specialty. And he will go anywhere to find one. As it happens, some of his favorite dishes can be found only in their place of origin. Join Trillin on his charming, funny culinary adventures as he samples fried marlin in Barbados and the barbecue of his boyhood in Kansas City. Travel alongside as he hunts for the authentic fish taco, and participates in a “boudin blitzkrieg” in the part of Louisiana where people are accustomed to buying these spicy sausages and polishing them off in the parking lot. In New York, Trillin even tries to use a glorious local specialty, the bagel, to lure his daughters back from California. Feeding a Yen is a delightful reminder of why New York magazine called Calvin Trillin “our funniest food writer.”

Rating✈  Travel companion

Long story short: I enjoyed stepping into Trillin’s whirlwind foodie world, where he visits and revisits cities around the globe for the sole purpose of eating his favorite dishes. As a traveler and food connoisseur, I can relate. However, the stories lack depth, and they miss the opportunity to make larger connections between humans and food that would have been interesting to explore, like why we cook what we cook, how food connects us across cultures, and what transformations in food science mean for the future of humanity, to name a few.

This is a good travel book or lighthearted read, but don’t expect to get much out of it (much of the information is dated and few specifics are given re: restaurant names and places). Have you read Feeding a Yen or any other work by Calvin Trillin?

Update: books bought in the last three days!

The wonderful thing about having your boyfriend in town is that every day becomes a “treat yo’ self” kind of day, or in my case, a “treat yo’ shelf” kind of day.

Two cities, three days, four bookstores, and thirteen books later, I present to you: my recent loot.

Powell’s City of Books (Portland, OR)

On Sunday I spent a good chunk of time exploring the many lovely floors of Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon (I would be lying if I said the distance to Powell’s didn’t factor in my decision to attend school in Washington).

This bookstore is fantastic in more ways than one, but I especially appreciated how they tagged books written by Writers of Color (WOC) throughout the store. Given my reading goals this year, it made it easier to head for the content I was really interested in.

Continue reading “Update: books bought in the last three days!”

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.

Rating✈  Travel companion

Long story short: My expectations for this book were largely shaped by reviews that heralded J.D. Vance’s work as an explanation for the way the 2016 elections turned out. That is not the case. While Hillbilly Elegy is an interesting look at Vance’s childhood, it’s also a book written in a vacuum that can’t be applied to any community outside of Vance’s working-class Appalachia.

Perhaps the most telling critique of Hillbilly Elegy is the fact that Vance wants us to look at how class and the family environment affect the poor without filtering our views through a “racial prism” (8). This is problematic because it’s an incomplete story. Yes, their struggles are valid, but it’s also important to acknowledge that their race didn’t add an additional barrier to them being successful.

The fact that Vance chooses to ignore racial tensions is especially ironic considering that he spends about a quarter of the book talking about how hillbillies were immigrants in their own rights. For example, when his grandparents moved from rural Kentucky to the moderately populated community of Middletown, Ohio, they had a difficult time adapting, and were often called out for behaving differently than Middletown “natives”. The reason they moved in the first place? To give their children a better life. Cue major eye-rolls. That’s basically what immigrant parents want for their children: to give them the opportunity to be more successful than they were. The fact that many current residents of Appalachia seem to have forgotten this history (along with the fact that their distant relatives literally came from a different continent) is not only extremely hypocritical, but a form of immense privilege.

When attempting to justify why working-class Appalachia largely didn’t relate to Obama in 2008 Vance says, “Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him” (191).

First of all, while there may have been some overlap between Obama’s and your community’s adversity, because of his race Obama had to overcome a lot more. Even after taking office claims that he was Muslim or a Jihadi terrorist persisted. No White president has ever been accused of being a terrorist, even though most attacks in the U.S. are carried out by White, Christian males.

Second, of course he faced adversity before you knew him. Being in a position to run for President implies that you’ve overcome certain obstacles to be there in the first place! And why does somebody have to currently be going through a hard time for you to empathize? Aren’t you asking the reader to understand what motivates you now because of all that you’ve been through? Can you not extend that same courtesy to somebody else?

But it gets better: in the same breath, Vance asks for our sympathy: “I am a tall, white, straight male. I have never felt out of place in my entire life. But I did at Yale” (201). I don’t say this lightly: I literally can’t even.

I’m going to end my review there in case my brain implodes. If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy I would love to hear your thoughts. I have more things to say, but need some time to unpack it all.

Pre-review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I’m going to do something I haven’t done before and write a “pre-review” for my next reading challenge book. I picked up a copy of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance from the library today.

“From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.” Goodreads

We all have a way of seeing the world that enhances our own survival, a “framework” of sorts. This framework helps us understand, relate to, and learn from those around us. When we stop training our frames to recognize new patterns—for example, by meeting new people or reading about new ideas—we risk narrowing the way we think.

One of my reading goals this year is to hear more from voices that are too often silenced. That means authors of color, as well as less-than-popular political opinions. In reading Hillbilly Elegy I hope to better understand the framework that drives 41.6% of the country, while at the same time broadening mine through self-reflection.

This idea first came to me after the debacle that was November 8. To say I was “distraught” is an understatement; I was numb, I was frustrated, and I was fearful. Two days later I attended a public forum hosted by Chris Vance, a former chair of the Washington State Republican Party, and Christian Sinderman, a political consultant. There they discussed the results of the state and federal elections, touching on polling results, what happened in the election, and where the two major parties seem to be headed from here out.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but the forum was the first time I paid attention to the conservative anger that helped elect a man like Donald Trump. Like others living in predominately blue or liberal states, I underestimated their resentment and strong desire to “realign” America.

There had been a growing stagnation with Rust Belt* voters due to 30 years of bi-partisan alienation. It began with Reagan’s anti-union, anti-government posturing, continued through Clinton’s NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement), and culminated with Bush and the Great Recession. While Democrats offered voters less Wall Street and more employment and training services, the GOP offered lower taxes and easier answers. Trump gave constituents a socially conservative, anti-immigrant, anti-establishment clarity they lacked with previous corporate-backed Republicans.

According to Vance and Sinderman, most voters were rational and not all were racist, bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic or xenophobic (did I leave anything out?). Their choosing Trump was a rational expression of frustration with the “rigged” establishment and economy. In Trump they found somebody that gave voice to their struggles.

This is where I have a hard time empathizing with conservatives and Trump supporters, and this is what I hope Hillbilly Elegy explains to me. I understand why someone would act in their own self-interest, but not when it’s at the expense of almost everybody else. Electing a man who spewed nothing but hatred towards many individuals and groups because he promised you would have your steel manufacturing job back is just cruel. Supporting a candidate who has proven both by his words and by his actions that he will not ensure the health and safety of so many is deeply disturbing.

I say all this because I hope Hillbilly Elegy will give me some clarity. I hope it can offer practical suggestions about how to move forward. I hope it will help me reconcile my empathy for a group of people who are losing their way of life, and my anger at (what appears to me as) their insensitivity.

If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy I’d like to read your (non-spoiler) thoughts about it. If you haven’t yet, will you pick it up? Check back later for my full review.

*The Rust Belt is a term for the region from the Great Lakes to the upper Midwest States, referring to economic decline, population loss, and urban decay due to the shrinking of its once-powerful industrial sector.

Review: Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer by Una LaMarche

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): In between highbrow and lowbrow, there’s Unabrow.

As a girl, Una LaMarche was as smart as she was awkward. She was blessed with a precocious intellect, a love of all things pop culture, and eyebrows bushier than Frida Kahlo’s. Adversity made her stronger…and funnier. In Unabrow, Una shares the cringe-inducing lessons she’s learned from a life as a late bloomer, including the seven deadly sins of DIY bangs, how not to make your own jorts, and how to handle pregnancy, plucking, and the rites of passage during which your own body is your worst frenemy.

For readers who loved Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and for fans of Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, and Amy Schumer, Unabrow is the book June Cleaver would have written if she spent more time drinking and less time vacuuming.

Rating✈  Travel companion

Long story short: At times I find memoirs and personal essays a little hard to get through. The writing style and tone are sometimes better suited to a verbal telling, so after a while the words grate a little and I have to go do something else for a couple of days. I found this to be the case with Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance (it was hard not to read everything in his voice, kudos to his editor) and to some extent with Amy Poehler’s Yes Please.

This was also true with Unabrow, though since the book was relatively short I powered through it. LaMarche’s collection of personal essays offer a glimpse into her colorful world. Naturally there were things I could relate to (eg., worrying about gym class back in middle school) and things that made my eyes glaze over (eg., almost every reference to the 80s), but overall it was a fun read.

My favorite chapter was probably “Death Becomes Me”, where LaMarche walks us through her (and her parents’) macabre obsession with death when she was a child. This included writing letters to both her and her sister when they were out of town in case one or both of them “didn’t make it back”. At one point they opened them out of curiosity. Their dad’s had instructions about his memorial service along with a music playlist, and their mom’s had contact information for their mortgage broker. “What a downer,” said LaMarche to her sister, “I didn’t know we would still have to pay for the house.” (55)

The familiar essay is one of my favorite genres, and I would recommend giving it a try. If you haven’t read any yet, I’d start with At Large and At Small by Anne Fadiman; it was the book that got me hooked!

Have you read Unabrow? What do you think of personal essays?

Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

lolita

Brief synopsis (back cover): Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi’s living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.

Rating: ✈  Travel companion

Long story short: As a professor and a writer Nafisi expounds on what she knows best: trying to make sense of her reality through works of fiction. She juxtaposes literary analysis and narrative to help reshape her life under the Islamic Regime in Iran, to reassemble parts of her identity that had been broken or stripped away because of the religious fanaticism that engulfed the country.

Continue reading “Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi”

Review: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Brief synopsis: Yes Please is a memoir composed of pivotal moments that shaped the life of comedian and actress Amy Poehler. Born from a need to challenge herself, the book becomes more than just an autobiography as Poehler passes on advice that helped her in times of need. In her essays she talks about divorce and being a mother of two, how her time as an improv actor prepared her for the lead role in Parks and Recreation, and why growing older has never felt better.

Rating🌴 Island collection

Long story short: I’m a fan of Poehler’s comedy so naturally Yes Please was high on my TRL, and I’m happy to report it didn’t disappoint. As it is whenever I have a lot to say or feel overwhelmed about a particular subject, I’m going to write up my thoughts in bullet-points:

  • The book was funny in the right places and at the right times. Poehler is a natural entertainer and I thought the book was well-balanced when it came to humor. Not all of it is ha-ha funny, and it’s not really meant to be. I also liked that while she mentioned the sad or not-so-fun moments in her life, she didn’t dwell on them for too long but used them as learning tools.
  • I was reading the book in her voice. I know I’m fully immersed in a book when I read words and dialogue in the characters’ voices. When it comes to celebrity memoirs/autobiographies I always wonder how much of the book is actually written by the famous person and how much is filled in by a group of hired guns. Yes Please definitely channels the real-life Poehler.
  • She acknowledged her privilege. As a heterosexual Indian-American woman born in a middle-class family and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I see the world through a particular set of lenses. I try my best to recognize my privilege and be an ally for others when I can, so I appreciated that throughout her book Poehler made efforts to do the same.
  • The book was as much about Poehler as it was about the people who shaped her. She talked a great deal about her coworkers from her time in improv, SNL, and Parks and Recreation. Her praise and love for everyone she connected with both in front of and behind the camera are so genuine that you feel really, really sad that she isn’t your friend too. It was also exciting to read about other celebrities in the context of Poehler’s life, since most of the information we hear about them can be so one-dimensional.
  • It takes hard work to be famous. While this isn’t necessarily true for all famous people, Poehler had a lot of shitty jobs before her SNL break, something I wouldn’t have known had I not read the book. She lived in a rat-infested basement apartment, was living paycheck-to-paycheck (that’s when she had a stable job), and  didn’t get any real recognition for decades. It’s nice to think that meeting the right people is all you need, but you need to have something to show them when the time comes. Louis Pasteur said it best: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Whew, that was quite the mini-brain dump. If you’ve read Yes Please, what did you think? If you haven’t, is it on your TRL?

P.S. Shout-out to Sam who let me borrow this book too!

Review: How to Grow Up: A Memoir by Michelle Tea

Brief synopsis: In her memoir How to Grow Up, Michelle Tea shares her struggle to understand a world just out of her reach: adulthood. She argues that certain markers of adulthood—living on your own, paying taxes, reproducing—don’t apply to everyone (they certainly didn’t apply to her), and as such are impractical standards when it comes to determining if you’ve got your life all figured out. Tea examines the life she’s lived by trial-and-error, and illustrates that being an adult is really about recognizing and becoming the best version of yourself.

Rating🏡  Left behind

Long story short: For someone whose path to adulthood is on the conventional side (I went to college → I got a job → I eventually want to settle down and start a family), Tea’s non-linear journey feels raw and compelling. At times her (painful) honesty about her past as a junkie and alcoholic is uplifting, because it shows that even your vulnerabilities can unearth certain strengths.

I like the overall message—”being an adult means knowing what you want and letting yourself have it”—but Tea’s narrative voice is a little too preachy for my taste. After a while the memoir starts reading more like a self-help book that’s trying too hard to prove its point. This is not a book I can read over and over again, but do see myself referring back to certain sections on days when I want to compare myself to an ex-alcoholic and know I have my life together.

Continue reading for a more in-depth review (note: spoilers below).

Continue reading “Review: How to Grow Up: A Memoir by Michelle Tea”

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