I decided to do these reviews in a pretty ad-hoc way, so I selected September as a good stopping point for the next installment of marathon reviews. Writing these is hard!!
Vagina, Naomi Wolf. This book was pretty disappointing - I started off liking the idea and the pitch but it was very “white woman tries on different cultural and historical hats to fit her ill-conceived pseudo-sciency narrative”. I liked some of the discussions, and I would not say it was a net negative, but there were definitely some highly questionable opinions and cultural impressions presented as fact that should not have been. Also, this book starts right off the bat with the caveat that the philosophy only holds for cis het women, a notion which doesn’t really hold up too well these days.
I’m the One That I Want, Margaret Cho. I really like the work of comedian/actress Margaret Cho, so I was a little disappointed at the quality and style of her memoir – her narrative jumped around and there was lots of foreshadowing that could have been avoided with a linear narrative. Cho is obviously an iconic comedian and worked very hard for her achievements, and I think she does a really nice job acknowledging the mental and physical toll her drive for fame and success wrought, and also presents her story pretty clearly without survivor’s bias or an unhealthy outlook. It’s not consistently strong the whole way through, but there are some really strong chapters that really carried my impression of the narrative.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu. Charles Yu built a very cute and clever world, and I really enjoyed the protagonist and how he lives his days in this world. This is a science fiction book, obviously, but I think Yu does a nice job spending time between building the key relationships and building the world (my primary metric of if a science fiction book is a real story or not). It made me very uncomfortable that neither woman in the story has any self-actualization: the only actual woman in the book is content to live her life in a monotonous cycle, and the other woman is a robot who makes some pretty bad decisions for a pile of code… I would have been much happier reading a self-contained meditation on father-son relationships than I was after having to also engage with all the side women characters who have no agency or narrative after having to carry all the emotional and physical labor in the story (I am being vague for spoiler reasons, happy to complain further in person!)
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua. I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. Amy Chua has an honest and earnest perspective on being a “Tiger Mom”, and was much more levelheaded about her approach than I expected. I personally did not grow up with significant “Tiger Mom” treatment (although maybe I had a “Tiger Piano Teacher”), but as I grow older and kind of see how this notion relates to Asian America at large I find myself much more interested in the stories of immigrant and next-generation Asian Americans and how they approach exceptionalism and raising non-white kids in America.
Sorry Please Thank You: Stories, Charles Yu. After How to Live Safely, you might wonder “Why did you read another one??”, but, dear reader, I had checked out a pile of books during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and wanted to read them all. I actually felt like Charles Yu’s writing style worked better and was way more fun in story form than novel. Some of the stories are pretty cute but often the execution ruined the interest of the idea.
Dead Letters, Cait Dolan-Leach. I think the library recommended this book to me as “Mysterious Novels by Women Writers”, but I could be wrong. This book was a pretty good page turner - explored mental illness, family relationships, classic coming-of-age issues, while also being a medium-engrossing mystery. I stayed up all night to read it, and while I wasn’t thrilled with the ending, I was satisfied that it was a well-crafted narrative.
Startup, Doree Shafrir. This acclaimed satire of the tech scene, set in New York City, is pretty much pitch-perfect. This one is set in a more recent world than Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens, and has every startup benefit and drawback package contained within its funny, accurate world. The only critique I can give is that, like many things in the year 2017, life has seemed to replicate this satire so closely that I wish it was a bit more of a caricature than the pretty clear pool reflecting the garbage parts of the startup scene in New York. Recommended.
The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf. THIS BOOK MESSED ME UP!!!!!!!! Very good and important book. Unlike Vagina, this book aged much better and was much more scathing about how women are constricted by the myth of beauty. I didn’t fall head over heels over every point, which makes me hopeful that some small things may have changed, but the fact that this book continues to be so truthful 20+ years after publication is scary. Recommended.
Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins. This is a brilliant collection of stories. Riveting, beautiful and sad and dark and desert, really amazing stories. When I think about the collection the first story comes to mind first, always, because I didn’t realize the trajectory and when it was over I was in awe. Recommended.
Bringing Asha Home, Uma Krishnaswami. I grabbed and devoured this children’s picture book the minute I saw it at IndyReads Bookstore in Indianapolis (if you’re in town, you should go!). Very sweet story about a mixed family adopting a daughter from India, told from the perspective of the family’s son. Recommended.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. This book is almost perfect. This is exactly the kind of story I daydreamed about when I was a highschooler like the narrator, Blue, and the littered literary references, ethereal friend group, and mysterious thread weaving through the straightforward book are wonderful. There’s one or two off notes that makes the whole story tonally kind of unsatisfying by the end, but I really enjoyed reading this book. Takes a while to get started, but recommended.
This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, Gabourey Sidibe. Gabourey Sidibe is not only a talented and engaging celebrity, but also has a thoughtful and open perspective on her life and career success. What I really enjoyed about this memoir was how unflinching she was about discussing her life growing up, or the impact of her career success on herself, body, and family. This is a great example of how celebrity memoir does not have to be boring or restricted to career gossip, and instead can sing when covering real emotional ground. Recommended.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff, Richard Carlson. I read this book after seeing Susan Fowler’s tweets about it. The book contains 100 brief lessons on how to be more mindful and satisfied with life. This book had a lot of potential to be trite but Carlson’s voice and the universality of most of the lessons made for an effective message. Some of the lessons are dumb (“Do Yoga”?) but I could see myself re-reading this book for years to come. Recommended.
The City Born Great, N.K. Jemisin. This is a “Tor.com Original Short”, which I think just means short story. Anyway, N.K. Jemisin is really acclaimed but I hadn’t read anything by her. This story was a really great place to start. I don’t want to spoil anything about the concept (I didn’t, and every new detail made me react “YES” or “OF COURSE”), but it’s a short story and a very captivating read. Really lovely concept and execution. Recommended.
Rich People Problems, Kevin Kwan. I am a ham for these CRAZY RICH ASIANS books, and even with their flaws cannot get enough. In a real classic “rich people” storyline, the matriarch of the Young family is on her deathbad and drama ensues about who will inherit the throne. Fairly satisfying, better than the last one, but like all three not super deep – if you liked the first you’ll like this one too.
Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe. I think this book was supposed to be funny? I read it because I saw the movie version on a list of top films by the director Brian de Palma, so I took it out from the library. Wolfe is a good writer, and this book is certainly a satirical, sharp look at a certain class of people in the early 90s (I think?) in Manhattan. But geez does this read differently in 2017. It was interesting, but maybe not the kind of topic I’d like to be treating lightly these days.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast. I had some time to kill in SF recently and was pointed to Roz Chast’s exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Part of the exhibit was just many of the pages of her graphic novel (along with some extra background) and seeing her book in the context of her history and work made me really appreciate her style and voice, so I went down to the gift shop and got the full book immediately. Recommended.
The Idiot, Elif Batuman. This book was billed as an “anti-MFA” debut, and I didn’t really know what that meant, but I can tell you that the writing in this book is so clear and refreshing and poignant. The book focuses on a Turkish American freshman at Harvard, who likes writing and studies Russian and makes friends from other European countries while trying to adjust to life away from home. This is the shallow description – Batuman’s writing is very curt and frank and sometimes the sentences seem meaningless and sometimes the meaning of a few words seems so so deep. This book is a fascinating coming-of-age through the lens of shared and unshared languages. Recommended.
Listen, Liberal: How the Party of the People Learned to Love Inequality, Thomas Frank. This book was a tough pill for me because it challenged a number of ideas about the Democratic Party in the 90s that I didn’t realize I believed in so strongly. I didn’t love Frank’s sarcasm or style, it feels like a position that only critics that aren’t strongly affected by policy can put on and I don’t think that style has aged particularly well recently. But there’s lots of good info and analysis in this book.
Little Labors, Rivka Galchen. Galchen’s first novel was one of my favorites, and I got this book not really knowing anything about it. Imagine my surprise to learn that Little Labors was about, well, pregnancy and raising a small child! Anyway, this book is lovely, clever and meditative and shows a wide range of emotions that presumably come with giving birth to a small person. It shared many characteristics with other memoir-style writing I enjoy (varied chapter styles and themes, literary criticism wrapped into memoir) and I found it short and enjoyable. Recommended.
Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I love Marquez, usually, and the writing in this was no exception to the canonical Marquez quality, but something about this novella left me cold. While I found the narrator’s character to be painted very vividly, the rest of the story kind of faded into the background, even as they become increasingly important to him. This may have been a stylistic, intentional choice, it made me feel uncomfortable given the subject manner.
The Boss, Aya de Leon. Can we make these books into movies yet?? They are SO good. The Boos follows the characters and scenes of Uptown Thief, but focusing and going deeper on a different character. One might expect that the same world with the same style would get boring, but de Leon masterfully teases out new issues and threads from this world. Social justice work rarely gets the glamour and action treatment that other kinds of vigilante stories might, and de Leon does a great job making it all plausible. Recommended.
The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Amy Chua. I don’t feel like I gained too much from having read this book. The authors try to demonstrate that certain traits made cornerstones (i.e., hard work, societal insecurity, group pride) for cultural groups are dominating factors in their success in America. It’s a tenuous claim, with shaky research to back it up, and also engages very little with the actual factors of racism and sexism in America that drive groups to rely on those traits specifically. It’s similar in motivation to Chua’s personal memoir, but I felt that the argument was really shaky once generalized.
I Love Dick, Chris Kraus. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to read this great book! Yes, it has a funny name, but is about a married woman’s fascination with another man named Dick. Initially, I was taken mostly by the letter form and how funny it was, but slowly started to “get” what Kraus was doing. There’s a lot to be said and critiqued and analyzed about Kraus’s literary and artistic feminist critique wrapped up in an eat-pray-love-style coming of age, but the work itself is so open and honest that it made the book worth reading regardless of my actual opinion of the story. Recommended.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay. This is a lovely memoir of Roxane Gay’s life and her life in her body. There is discussion of her very traumatic assault, and how she used her weight and food to kind of hide from coping with the emotional consequences of her assault, but the really meaningful thing is how frank and thoughtful Gay is on how we discuss women and their bodies and weight, specifically hers. Some of the conversations were familiar to me as a fan of her who follows her writing and interviews, but some were new and I feel much more conscious having read them. Recommended.
Night Film, Marisha Pessl. This is like the grown-up version of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Like 3 notches darker and 3 notches less playful, but as well-developed and medium-exploring and complex as Special Topics. Also, unfortunately, just as dissatisfying a conclusion. Also, it’s weird to me how poorly developed Pessl’s mysterious leading women are – they don’t seem to have interior lives at all, are just agents of their environment and mens’ actions. It’s especially frustrating because they are the closest to the kind of delicious, eerie, intellectual mystery I crave. Flawed but recommended.
Always and Forever, Lara Jean, Jenny Han. GREAT NEWS: these amazing books are being turned into [a movie] with REAL LIFE Song sisters! This is so exciting. Like all the other books in the trilogy, Always and Forever is sweet, earnest, so truly captures the excitement and anxiety of high school, senior year specifically here, and the Song family is so endearing and truthful to me. A perfect, so sweet ending to the Lara Jean trilogy. Recommended (but read the other two first!!).
The Art of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh. This is one of many audiobooks I requested when I began my internship with a 1 hour commute each way. It is a series of teachings from the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who has a sweet and concise way of communicating his lessons. I really enjoyed listening to this and his words were quite memorable.
Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Helene Cooper. I heard about this biography on the Call Your Girlfriend podcast, which made me feel comfortable enough to read this book that is decidedly different from what I usually read. But Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is such a compelling, amazing person, and Helene Cooper such a great writer, that it really made the book read like an amazing, powerful story and not a single woman’s life and career! I also did not know a lot about Liberia and its politics, and I felt like Sirleaf’s life was a pretty good vehicle to learn all of it. Recommended.
Human Acts, Han Kang. I loved The Vegetarian. Reading Human Acts was like a deeply horrifying prequel, or context, or background primer to the mysterious drama of The Vegetarian, like the trauma and fear made real and concrete. I learned a lot about events in South Korea’s history that I did not know before, and but also feel that the story I read is truly Han’s own, really uniquely hers. Recommended.
The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi. Roxane Gay reviewed this book in an intriguing way on Goodreads so I picked it up from the library. It started out in the precise style I hate for scifi/fantasy, all tell no show, all world building no characters. The idea for this world is really clever and thoughtful and challenging, and Baciglupi did a good job doing right by all the characters in the realistically flawed society he’s crafted. The more intense scenes are a bit laughable, and the writing isn’t strong, but I didn’t hate reading this one.
Chemistry, Weike Wang. Full disclosure - I found myself defending this book before even having read it, arguing against the idea that the story sounded boring with “what other fiction about STEM PhDs have you read, ever? the concept might be boring but it’s also rarely been told”. After having read the book, my argument still holds (and I am, if anything, more impassioned about it), but this book is also much deeper than its subject matter – tackling Asian-American pressures, mental health, the trials of grad school but also academic relationships in general. Recommended.
Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton. Why did I read this book?? On audiobook no less? Who knows. It is very long. It details all the “hard choices” Clinton made during her time as Secretary of State and after (up to her presidential bid), of which there are many. This book made me especially cognizant of how many spinning plates the US government has spinning, how these plates bump into each other and spin on top of each other and how much pressure these jobs have. It was also kind of depressing to read now, as you might guess.
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen. This book took me FOREVER to read. I kept getting it from the library and having to return it before I really got into the groove and cranked through it, so then I bought it and never read it. And now I FINALLY have finished it! I would say the back half is really worth reading at one time. The whole book probably is. What a great, smart, clever, harrowing, beautiful book. We don’t need to read any older Vietnam books anymore, probably. Recommended.
The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy. Ariel Levy is a noted feminist and New Yorker writer who had a very traumatic thing happen to her and wrote a stunning essay about it (if you don’t know what that thing is I’m not going to spoil it for you but her essay won awards so you may already know). I would argue the expanded narrative around the events of that essay was the best part of the book. Levy is a beautiful writer and I enjoyed reading the book, but I felt underwhelmed with the central theme, that there are rules and expectations in life that everyone has and she learned through her unique obstacles that the rules don’t really exist, because that’s the kind of thing that you’d think anyone with an iota of perspective would realize isn’t really true.
White Tears, Hari Kunzru. This book is like the popcorn emoji for the first half and then the dizzy emoji for the second half. Tonally two very different halves, but reads altogether like some sort of experimental thriller with a very sharp racial commentary at its core. I kind of hated the way some woman-centered tropes played out, but otherwise I really enjoyed reading this.
Troublemaker, Leah Remini. This is a celebrity memoir but also an “escape from religious cult” memoir, and maybe both. Leah Remini essentially grew up in Scientology and has written a gripping, informative recollection of her rise to success and her time in and leaving Scientology. One could argue this is a pretty shallow subject but she makes a good case for how destructive and prevalent the temptation to join and spend your whole life in it is. After hearing the buzz over the documentary series Remini produced after this book, I decided to read it and was surprised with how clear and even-handed Remini was as well as what a strong writing voice she had.
M Train, Patti Smith. Patti Smith’s writing feels like a slowed down introspection that seems impossible in the rapid-fire technological age, even when she’s talking about wholly modern topics like binge-watching detective TV shows or struggling with an airline printer kiosk. Really lovely perspective and stories. Recommended.
Bloodchild and Other Stories, Octavia Butler. I didn’t love PATTERNMASTER, which I read last year, but a friend encouraged me to read this one and I’m so glad I did. First of all, I loved the nonfiction essays in this. But second of all, the fiction stories were so deep and powerful! Much shorter than many other short stories I’ve read recently, but still each one is a wallop. The titular story is brilliant. Recommended.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg. Don’t read this in public unless you’re okay with crying in public. I liked this book much better than LEAN IN because it suffers less from the “light narrative around statistics and generalizations of academic research” ailment. It still has some of those characteristics, but Sandberg focuses more on her own personal growth and narrative, and when her recommendations are rooted in her own experience they ring more strongly than when she tries to lump in some policy that is vaguely related to her grief journey.
The Body: An Essay, Jenny Boully. Picked this one up waiting for a family member at the bookstore. This book is so curious, and you’ll understand why once you open the book – it’s written entirely in footnotes. Don’t let that discourage you, it is a deep and coherent (to me, at least) piece of experimental essay that covered a lot of intellectual and poetic ground. Recommended.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, Suki Kim. Suki Kim writes a beautiful narrative around what she observed as a SECRET JOURNALIST UNDERCOVER IN NORTH KOREA. I wrote that in all caps because the circumstances, as well as the content of the book itself, are unreal. The actions Kim took are stunning, and the writing she used to capture it is stunning. Some people debate the ethical merit of Kim’s motives, but I will say that this book humanized a North Korea I knew very little about, which was her intent, so I believe she was successful. Recommended.