Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad 
by Colson Whitehead
Published: August 2016

This depiction of slavery in the South and the hopeless illusion of freedom in the North was genuinely hard to read. Cora's frantic travels across the country drag the reader through different regions, exploring complex perspectives on race relations, never quite escaping the moral necrosis of manifest destiny.

4 out of 5 stars: This is a tough book to review. On the one hand, it was difficult for me to get through it and for the most part was thoroughly unenjoyable. The gruesome treatment of slaves, free folk and sympathizers was obviously extremely unsettling, but more subtly, I felt a distance between myself and the main character and her dispassionate narrative. But when I think about the story itself, of course it's not going to be enjoyable, it's about slavery for fuck's sake. And Cora's tone throughout the novel just reflects the detachment she feels from the journey, from her surroundings, from her life. What an awful blemish on the history of the States.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
by J.D. Vance
Published: June 2016

Man, this book had A LOT of hype. Well-read friends and raving articles alike have touted it as the beacon of light into the darkness that is the downtrodden, forgotten working class of Rust Belt / Middle America. While it definitely offers a glimpse into that, first and foremost this book is a memoir of the author's family's struggles. The personal aspect grounds the sociological studies and census reports that he dispersed throughout, and I do appreciate how he has offered up his family history as a representative of the hillbilly culture that can be foreign to those outside of it. Vance's story really really captures the essence of the American Dream and shows how someone can rise from a culture of violence and poverty to become a marine and Yale Law School graduate (though, spoiler alert: he graciously acknowledges that his doting but hard-ass grandmother made this possible and takes almost no credit for himself)

4 out of 5 stars: I was expecting a slightly different balance of anecdotes-to-epidemiological narrative. Which is really no fault of the book! That's on me. It was still a very informative and moving read.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena 
by Anthony Marra
Published: May 2013

Interwoven narratives of civilians in a rural village of Chechnya and how their lives progress amidst the first and second Chechen wars. Beautifully composed, heartbreaking, and optimistic in the strength people find when pushed to their limits. While this is a work of fiction, many of the stories and experiences come from nonfiction work - which honestly makes the story's impact that much more devastating.

5 out of 5 stars: I maybe cried. Quite a bit.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist
by Roxane Gay

 A well packaged bundle of criticisms. Gay's essays range from openly vulnerable self reflections, to combative social commentary with some pop culture deconstruction sprinkled on top. At times she contradicts herself or comes off a bit severe, but that's part of the point she is trying to get across: no one is a perfect feminist idol to everyone and it's unfair to expect that of anyone.

4 out of 5 stars: There were definitely times I felt myself pushing back against her harsh tone, but it was a good opportunity to think critically about why it struck a nerve in me and what biases or ignorance I bring to the table.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Lost at Sea

Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries 
by Jon Ronson
Published: October 2012

Super fun read- it's like the tapas of investigative journalism. Each chapter is a bite-sized exploration: from the Insane Clown Posse's conversion to Christianity to Stanley Kubrick's meticulous collection of noteboxes; from the 'geodemographic' computer program that decides who to inundate with junk mail based on zip code to people who donate their kidneys to strangers. And everything in between.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian 
by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
Published: October 2007

A deeply unsettling tale of a woman who stops eating meat and incidentally has her marriage and family life unravel around her. The Vegetarian explores some of the darker, more disturbing pits of human motivation and desire...not for the faint of heart.

4 out of 5 stars: Packs quite a punch for such a short book. Does a fantastic job of blurring the lines between mental health and magical realism.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Girls

The Girls
by Emma Cline
Published: June 2016

A fascinating glimpse into the dynamics of a 1960s counter-culture commune (heavily inspired by the Manson Family) all through the eyes of a disenchanted but hopelessly naive tween caught up in the raw, electric momentum.

4.5 out of 5: I reeeeally enjoyed the framed narration: the story is recounted decades after the events took place, capturing the reckless desperation of youth paired with the gentle admonishment of middle age.