Reading Round-Up: September 2018

Happy October! This is one of my favourite times of year — when it finally really starts to feel like fall. The weather is cooler, the leaves are starting to turn, we’ve got a string of family birthdays coming up… it’s a good time of year! I’m looking forward to some good reading this month — but first, here’s what I got to in September:

  1. Educated (Tara Westover)
  2. The Whistler (John Grisham)
  3. How to Think (Alan Jacobs)
  4. A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)
  5. From A to Bee (James Dearsley)
  6. Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling)
  7. The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir (D. Watkins)
  8. China Dolls (Lisa See)
  9. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Frederick Douglass)
  10. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards)
  11. The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America (D. Watkins)
  12. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan)
  13. Sourdough (Robin Sloan)

This month was pretty heavy on memoir; it’s a genre I’ve really been enjoying these days. Human beings are endlessly fascinating! Now, some of these books were pretty heavy, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading them as closely-spaced as I did; I found my mood plummeting after reading The Cook Up, and then China Dolls (not memoir, but saddish fiction), and then Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass all in a row. It was, how you say, a bummer. Worth reading… but not exactly uplifting.

Previous posts have touched on The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, A Gentleman in Moscow, and Narrative of the Life and The Beast Side.

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up with survivalist, “sovereign citizen”-esque, anti-government Mormon parents in the Idaho mountains. She and her brothers were kept home from school, not vaccinated, and spent most of their time either working their father’s junkyard business or prepping for a government assault and/or the end of the world. She didn’t even get a birth certificate until she was nine years old. It’s really crazy stuff. But with the help of one of her older brothers, Tara made it out — she got accepted (by the skin of her teeth) to BYU, and later went on to complete a doctorate at Cambridge. It’s a powerful story, and I appreciate that she didn’t try to tie a neat bow on everything at the end. She is estranged from half her family; things are unresolved; it’s clear that her story has not ended.

Two memoirs on the fun side of things were James Dearsley’s From A to Bee and Mindy Kalings Why Not Me? Dearsley’s book is his account of his first year as a beekeeper; it’s clearly just a blog shoved between two covers, but it’s an interesting read and made me consider beekeeping as a possible future endeavour. (That lasted about fifteen minutes.) Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second book; this one is more personal, I think, than Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? (And Other Concerns), looking at career and personal turning points in her early thirties. It’s a fun read. Oh, and she meets Bradley Cooper.

D. Watkins’s memoir The Cook Up was an incredible read, although not for the faint of heart: it opens with his brother Bip’s murder, and the going doesn’t get easier from there. The Cook Up is ultimately a story of redemption, of Watkins’s journey from a life of crime on the streets of East Baltimore to his current position as a college professor. I would recommend this book over The Beast Side if you want to start with Watkins; because the latter is a collection of essays it reads as fairly disjointed. The Cook Up shows Watkins’s skill as a storyteller; I’m sure this will not be his last book.

Alan Jacobs’s How to Think was the only other nonfiction I read this month. It’s a quick and insightful read. What I remember best is Jacobs’s point that thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum; when we learn to think differently of something it’s usually because we are learning to think with different people. Similarly, when we say that someone has is “finally thinking for themselves” what we usually mean is that they’re “finally thinking like me.” He ends the book with what he calls “The Thinking Person’s Checklist”, which I abbreviate for you here as a useful resource:

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.
  2. Value learning over debating.
  3. As best you can […] avoid the people who fan flames.
  4. Remember you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to […] realize that it’s not a community but an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate … toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with.
  8. […] assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Be ware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

On to fiction! First on the list was The Whistler by John Grisham, which was pretty mediocre. I like Grisham, but this wasn’t anywhere near one of his stronger efforts. I’d give it a pass.

After reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I knew I would want to read more from Lisa See, and so China Dolls was my second venture with her. The novel tells the story of three young Oriental women (as they were then called) working in San Francisco’s Chinese nightclubs in the years surrounding the Second World War. It’s a fascinating look at a world I never knew existed, exploring some big questions about friendship, race and nationalism, and loyalty.

Finally, we come to Robin Sloan. I had read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore some years ago — long enough to just remember the broadest of outlines — and decided to re-read it after stumbling across something or other online that reminded me of his books. Mr. Penumbra’s is a super fun read about books and technology and secret societies and the quest for unending life. There are puzzles galore and his characters are satisfyingly quirky without going overboard. Sourdough is his second novel, following Lois Clary as she moves from to Michigan to California for a programming career, only to find her life turned upside down when she is gifted a (sentient?) sourdough starter and is drawn into the weird world of California food culture. There’s a lot about humanity vs. technology, what makes a culture, and microbiology (really). It’s super strange and super interesting, and I’ll definitely be reading it again one day.

Reading Round-Up: August 2018

Happy almost-September! I usually wait until after the end of the month to do these round-up posts, but since I just started my latest book last night, I know I’m not going to finish it before we’re into September. And while I guess September technically isn’t the fall, and it certainly shows no signs of cooling down where we live, it still always feels like a new beginning to me — that’s what all those years of school will do to you, I guess. And so I bid a cheerful adieu to summer with a look at my last summer books:

  1. Present Shock (Douglas Rushkoff)
  2. The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football (John J. Miller)
  3. The Quiet American (Graham Greene)
  4. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self (Manoush Zomorodi)
  5. Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh)
  6. Every Bitter Thing is Sweet (Sara Hagerty)
  7. Golden Age and Other Stories (Naomi Novik)
  8. Open Mic Night in Moscow: And Other Stories from My Search for Black Markets, Soviet Architecture, and Emotionally Unavailable Russian Men (Audrey Murray)
  9. Uprooted (Naomi Novik)
  10. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See)
  11. Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Laura Hillenbrand)
  12. The Wife (Meg Wolitzer)

This was probably my most balanced month in a while in terms of fiction and non-fiction reads: if not in number of books, then probably in terms of rough page count. I think I would like to fall into a pattern of where I’m reading at something like a 1:2 ratio of non-fiction to fiction. I get itchy when I read too much of the one or the other in a row — alternating a little more deliberately gives me a constant, rotating mental palate-cleanse which I find refreshing.

Bored and Brilliant and Uprooted have already been touched-on in their own posts.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock — I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but at this point its contents seem to have slipped completely out of my head. Except one thing, which is when he points out how weird it is to have Facebook flatten all of the relationships we have gathered over the years into an eternal present where we’re interacting with current coworkers and friends from grade school and everything in between. Yes; that is weird. But that’s all I remember. Sorry, Mr. Rushkoff. Maybe I can’t remember this book because I am suffering from a case of present shock.

The Big Scrum was a fun read. I care very little for sports in terms of sitting down and watching them, but I love sports writing and I love a good sports story. This is a fascinating account of how football came to occupy the place it does in American culture, and taught me basically everything I know about Teddy Roosevelt (not hard to do when you’re starting from zero!).

And speaking of sports writing, man oh man: Seabiscuit. It’s no surprise to me that Seabiscuit was a best-seller; it was easily the most engrossing thing I read this month. Laura Hillenbrand is an impeccable historian and a fantastic storyteller — at one point I found myself actually getting breathless as I read the account of one of Seabiscuit’s races. And sure, that race happened eighty years ago, but Hillenbrand made it come alive. The best part is that because the story takes place in the 1930s, you can find newsreel footage of at least some of the events covered in the book. Here is Seabiscuit’s 1938 match race against his half-uncle, War Admiral, which is widely hailed as one of the best horse races of all time:

Last month I read Sara Hagerty’s Unseen, which is her second book; this month I read her first book second, Every Bitter Thing is Sweet. The title is an allusion to Proverbs 27:7, “One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” This book is more of a memoir than Unseen, going into a lot of detail about things that were only referenced in the second book: the deep struggles in the early years of her marriage, the pain of a decade-plus of infertility, the trauma lurking behind her children’s adoptions. These are all bitter things — but, she writes, can be sweet to us when we let them feed our hunger for God.

The last non-fiction I tackled this month was Audrey Murray’s Open Mic Night in Moscow, which slots nicely into one of my favourite genres: amusing travelogues. The book follows Murray as she travels through the former Soviet states over the course of about a year. It’s surprisingly vulnerable at times, and sneakily educational — but most of all it’s very, very funny.

As far as fiction goes, this month was a pretty good mix of serious and silly. I very much enjoyed The Quiet American, and it will go back into my pile one day; I have a feeling it’s one of those books that gets better with subsequent readings. Decline and Fall will doubtless be another one to revisit in a year or two; it’s satirical and preposterous and thoroughly enjoyable. And if I read it enough I may finally be able to keep Evelyn Waugh and Edith Wharton straight in my mind. Those E.W.s are confusing.

I’m a huge fan of Naomi Novik’s nine-volume Temeraire series, which is probably easiest to explain thus: the Napoleonic wars, but with dragon-based aerial support. Golden Age and Other Stories is a collection of short stories set in the same world, each one inspired by a piece of fan art (pictures included, of course!). That’s a neat way for an author to interact with her fandom — I’d love to see more of that kind of collaboration.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane was the first selection of a new book club I’ve been invited to join. Except then it was un-selected in favour of something else, but since I already had a copy from the library I read it anyway. This novel is set (mostly) in China from the late 1980s through the present day and touches on a lot of themes: education, international adoption, the interaction between Chinese and Western culture, the relationship between majority and minority ethnicities in China, and woven throughout, a whole lot of the history and production of pu’er tea. It’s tremendously sad — I cried a bit — but the ending is perfect. And I now have another Lisa See book waiting for me on my to-read pile.

Last but not least was Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, which I (and everybody else, judging by the library holds list) read because it’s been recently made into a movie. I guessed half of the surprise ending when I was about halfway through, but didn’t see the other part coming at all. It’s a quick, engaging read with lots of stuff to chew on.