Reading Journal || March

This month I ripped through books at a pace that surprised even myself! One week I finished five books in five days. It’s bound to happen, I suppose, because I read so many books at the same time that I can finish a bunch in a row.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot resist reading less than eight books at once:
  • Audiobook
  • Poetry
  • Fiction
  • Non-fiction
  • A Portuguese book for fluency
  • A Portuguese book for vocab study
  • Something on the ‘backburner’
  • In Search of Lost Time
But I’ll focus on what I completed in March, not what I’m in the middle of.

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are a duology by Octavia E. Butler that were written in the 1990’s and set in a dystopian America in the 2020’s. Usual dystopias that I read feature oppressive government control; these show a country on the verge of anarchy. Poverty, substance abuse, vandalism/robbery/rape/murder, and extreme drought are the backdrop for Olamina to set out on her own to develop a community based on the principal of a religion that she leads called Earthseed. The mantra of the religion is “Change is God”, and her goal is to advance the community so much that they start a fresh life on another planet. The novels don’t reach that far into the future, and the mostly focus on how hard it is to inspire trust and win commitment in relationships when everyone is hellbent on self-preservation. What was most interesting to me was how Butler predicted the appearance of a Donald Trump/Ted Cruz character, down to the line of “make America great again.” Butler herself is an interesting person—an African-American female science fiction writer who earned a lot of awards for her work.

I continued the Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer with reading Scarlet. I was let down by the cartoonish new characters and predictable plot. Probably not going to finish reading the series.

Though there are literally hundreds of people waiting for the e-book copy of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, no one seems to want to listen to the audio (even though it’s read by Reese Witherspoon). So I snatched that up and was proud of myself for keeping my vow that I wouldn’t read the book until after Ms. Lee had passed. My brief responses to the FAQs:
  • I believe that Harper Lee did not intend for the book to be published. Many passages are standalone short stories or underdeveloped dialogue—more of a polished writing exercise than material that moves the current of the novel forward.
  • Atticus is racist, and no, it doesn’t appear to be an alternate universe Atticus.
  • Reading GSAW did not change how much I like TKAM. Though it’s not set in an alternate reality, since I really believe that Harper Lee wasn’t finished developing this novel, it’s easy for me to categorize it as something totally separate, in its own box.

I made a conscious decision to read more female authors this month, and want to continue with that for the rest of the year. I should have tried to take a history of feminist lit class to fulfill my gender studies requirement in college… though I am thankful that such an abundance of material exists on the subject that is totally easy to find and read for free online. I started making my way through feminist classics with A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf . If you haven’t read it already, you should know that it is an extended essay that was fleshed out from a talk that Woolf gave to a girls’ college about the absence of female authors in literature. Woolf makes surface-level observations, but it’s a perfectly good place to start to lay a foundation for future readings. It reminded me of feminist art in the 1960’s-70’s (Judy Chicago, et al)—very blatantly obvious about what it was trying to communicate, but it was appropriate for the time, place, and context.

Immediately after, I read A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean. Maybe you don’t see the connection between an extended essay about women’s exclusion from literature and a romance novel, but the connection exists in my mind. The heroine in A Rogue by Any Other Name is fighting for her rights to make life decisions for herself instead of her father, fiancé, or society to make them for her. The point is that females can do things too and don’t need the peanut gallery to make a running commentary about it! I picked up this romance novel on Amanda Nelson‘s recommendation and because I thought, “Hey, I’m an adult, I can read what I want and I don’t need society shaming me into reading or not reading something.” I did feel proud that I read that book, silly smut and all, because it felt like cutting one more string to caring about doing things because it’s what people want me to do instead of what I actually want to do. I'm working towards my goal of becoming the Honey Badger.

Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott) and It Chooses You (Miranda July) approach the same subject in slightly different ways. What do you do when you want to write something but you are procrastinating on actually sitting down and doing it? Both books were a delight to read, well worth waiting for years on the waitlist, and I reviewed them together because they are so closely related.

I finished Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman in Portuguese. My boyfriend keeps telling me to read Neil Gaiman stuff, and I keep doing it, and I keep not liking it. He and I do have similar tastes that often overlap, but there are many cases where they don’t. Dear readers, should I trust him once again and give a final try on American Gods?

I was let down by The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronson), too. I blogged about my disappointment, because I hoped that I would be able to spot the psychos living around me if I read that book. Maybe this reveals a hidden motivation for trying to understand why people in Brazil do what they do (I bet they’re just psychopaths. Let’s find proof.), or maybe it just means that I’m tired of reading books by white British dudes.

I Still Don't Know How to Spot a Psycho

I was disappointed by The Psychopath Test. I suppose that it’s my fault for approaching it with some preconceptions. I always do that to books; I do it to people too, and after 26 years of proving myself to be a poor judge of character based on my impressions, one would think that I would have learned by now. But this why I came to the book in the first place: I am a poor judge of character and in need someone to teach me how to not be such a sucker.

The Psychopath Test starts out reading like a mystery thriller. A select group of academics from around the world each receive a copy of a slim book that is full of cryptic clues and hints just begging to be unraveled. One of the recipients, after conversing online with a group of the others, contacts the journalist Jon Ronson for help solving the puzzle. Is it a marketing ploy? Nutty religious propaganda? A headhunting campaign?

Mr. Ronson solves the mystery in the first chapter, and then he gets to wondering. Is it true that psychopaths make the world go round? After all, this small book made time, money, and effort cross hands and financial markets. This leads him on a journalistic quest to learn what makes a psychopath and how to identify them.

A few misconceptions are cleared up right away. Psychopaths born with a dysfunctional amygdala, the part of the brain that controls empathy, which means that psychopathy is not a mental illness because it cannot be ‘cured’. As it is not a mental illness, it is not listed in the DSM (the psychology checklist bible).

Ronson takes a weekend course led by Bob Hare, the creator of the Hare PCL-R Checklist (‘The Psychopath Test’), so he can learn from the world’s leading expert himself about how to correctly spot a psychopath. It makes sense that Ronson doesn’t teach us, his faithful readers, how to use the checklist. He is not a psychologist, neither are we (I’m not at least, though I did enjoy my requisite Psych 101 in college), and he spends the remainder of the book giving circumstantial evidence about how checklists, even in the hands of professionals, can be misused and abused.

Multiple chapters are devoted to Ronson trying to apply the Hare checklist to both himself and interview subjects who might be good candidates for scoring high enough on the test to be psychopaths. His results are inconclusive, and he goes off on chapter-length stories about people who got their one minute of fame for being mentally ill. His contention is that we are all a little mentally ill, and these individuals got their one minute because they are a bit more ill than the average.

The penultimate chapter critiques the legitimacy of the psychology field as a true science by briefly describing: how the contemporary DSM was made (by a small group of academic psychologists yelling their opinions at each other in a room), the now-infamous 1970’s Rosenhan experiment of sending sane psychologists into mental hospitals to see how long it took them to get released, an incident of when some sleazy big-pharma reps tried to push drugs on a psychologist who didn’t want to hear about them, how children are being inappropriately diagnosed with mental illnesses based on the word-of-mouth of a few well-known psychologists instead of clinical studies, how an important clinical psychologist was revealed to be in cahoots with Johnson & Johnson, and how some psychologists admit that maybe they are not 100% right all of the time.

The subtitle of The Psychopath Test is ‘A journey through the madness industry.’ If that is the case, this one chapter should have been expanded to be the entire book. If the book is about psychopaths, then it should have spent less time reporting conversations with people with mental illnesses (because as we learned, psychopathy is not an illness). I am conclusively judging the book to be another piece of arm-chair psychology, and I have once again been taken in by appearances.

Connections || Bird by Bird and It Chooses You

If you have ever been interested in learning more about the process of writing, perhaps learn some tips about how to braid parts of a story together, or maybe have your hand held along the way, and you expressed that desire aloud or maybe on the internet, someone somewhere has probably referred you to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

This book has been on my radar for years, and I was in line on the waitlist at my library for years, so that culminated in me getting to read the book for the first time this month.

My preconception of the book was that it would be fairly serious and detailed, but in an interesting way. I didn’t really know how it would go about teaching me how to write better, but I just assumed that it would. I think I picked up this notion from the rather academic-looking cover and the way that other people revere this book as the go-to thing for writers in search of direction.

It’s really not a book about practical advice for NaNoWriMo. There are many very good how-to’s and roadmaps available online for that. It doesn’t give advice about common structural pitfalls and how to correct them, ways to write realistic characters, things to think about when constructing fantasy worlds, or how to finish a personal memoir essay with a snappy and relatable ending. But it is a book full of encouragement to start writing, and more importantly, to finish what you’ve started.

Lamott repeats herself a lot: Write a first draft, no matter how bad it is, because it is only by writing the first draft that you are able to arrive at a better second draft. If you are facing writer’s block, go do something else for a while to fill yourself back up with fuel. Keep index cards handy to jot down ideas and quotes. Form a habit of writing a little bit every day. And write about your childhood.

The day after I finished reading Bird by Bird, I read It Chooses You by Miranda July.

I have been following July’s career for years, and I am fascinated and awed by how she views the world. She is able to turn the most mundane things into something interesting, important, and magical. She’s openly Proustian in the way that she actively looks for secret messages or symbols in her interactions with the world around her, and when you absorb any of her work you are left with the feeling that you too can be a creative person if you just pay attention to the messages. It Chooses You is more of that magic.

July is writing the screenplay for her film The Future, and she is stuck. Not only does she have plot and procrastination problems (I’m not immune! I’m just pointing out that she also is not immune), but she has a dread finishing the project because of all the things that will come next. So she devises a project that will solve so many of her problems at once: It will give her ideas for her movie (like Lamott says to do), she will feel productive instead of like she is procrastinating, and it will help her avoid having to work on writing.

During the height of the Great Recession, July contacts people who place free classified ads in the PennySaver and asks them if they would be willing to let her interview them and her friend Brigitte Sire to take photos. The people who agreed to this are unique and um… special. The book, It Chooses You, is the documentation of the interviews, the photos, and how each person helped July in her process of finishing what she started.

At first I couldn’t tell if it was all staged or not. The photos looked like sets sometimes, the people were perhaps actors. That’s a lot of what Miranda July does. She stages performances or interactions that blur the lines between what is real and what is performance art. See, for example, this video on how to make buttons. In her writing it’s much harder to see what is true and what is merely inspired by what is true. It wasn’t until I reached the final character’s story that I believed it as all real. He convinced me because this character makes it into the movie, The Future, playing himself.

See Also
An excerpt of the book featured in The New Yorker
My 10 Favorite Books: Miranda July
A review of It Chooses You by Head Into the Heavens

Reading Journal || January & February

This blog is turning into more of a reading journal and less of a YA book review blog, and I’m okay with that. This year in general I’ve been focusing on expressing my thoughts because I want to express them and not because I want other people to know them. When I read my posts from last year, I was really happy that I took the time to write them and I was glad that they look pretty and easy to find in the format of a blog. So, I want to keep up my blog for those reasons.

Let me recap my 2016 reading journey so far.

After listening to The Heart Goes Last (Margaret Atwood) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey) during the turning of the year, my mood swung to things that were equally disturbing but in a slightly different genre. Horror manga.

I read both the Uzumaki and Gyo series by Junji Ito. Ito is known as the patriarch of horror manga, and really, these books are bad dreams. Each chapter in Uzumaki functions almost independently and focuses on a spiral pattern that drives people to mental and physical insanity. The Gyo series is about a mutated fish invasion, and if you weren’t already jumpy about things touching your feet while you are swimming… this will convince you.

I think each person has their own idea of what truly inspires fear and horror. When I had a book club that discussed The Shining (Stephen King), the three of us discussed which parts of the book were the scariest for us personally. I am claustrophobic, so the part where Danny gets stuck underneath the snow in a small tunnel was the part that got the most sensory reaction out of me. For me, Ito’s nonsensical illustrations are disgusting (imagine my facial expression when I watch a medical show on TV), but the stories are not scary. In my mind, manipulative stalkers are true horror.

Speaking of true horror, I listened to Dark Money: The Hidden History of Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Political Right (Jane Mayer) after I heard an interview with the author on NPR. It’s loquacious and has its flaws (not citing sources of minor information), but it legitimizes the feeling that US politics has become more polarized than it used to be. This book made me feel more wary of “organic” political movements and skeptical of opinion articles. It also made me think more than ever before that I am being manipulated by a system that is out of my control, and the only solution that I have in my grasp is to read and write (or create) more. If you love hating Monsanto, Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Seven Sisters, then read this book.

After that glut of heaviness, I read a bunch of fluff: How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are (Anne Berest et al), some smutty manga in Portuguese, and Carry On (Rainbow Rowell). Carry On makes my second m/m romance read, and though I still haven’t heard a good explanation for why straight women like to read it, I guess I fall in that group.

Also in the romance category, 11/22/63 by Stephen King surprised me in all the right ways. The only other King book I’ve read is The Shining, and that book disappointed me in a mass-market paperback sort of way. Forty years of prolific writing later, 11/22/63 completely redeemed King. Every single aspect of it is en pointe—characters, pacing, action, feelings, plot rhythm, originality. As a plus, the audiobook narrator was mindbogglingly fantastic. I can’t recommend the audiobook enough.

After over a year of being on the hold list, it was fiiiiinally my turn to listen to Cinder (Marissa Meyer). I’m a few years behind on The Lunar Chronicles bus, but I’m glad I got to see for myself what all the fuss is about. Cinder was good. I thought it was cute, creative, and I adored the characters. Scarlet and Cress came in soon after, and I was excited to listen to them as well. Scarlet had some big issues for me regarding character development (the thing I loved the most about the first book) or rather, lack thereof. The plot was yawningly predictable, and I almost didn’t stick it out to the end. I kept finding more things that annoyed me, and that’s when I decided I probably have had too much YA in a row. I’m going to wait to read Cress until the next time I feel like being in a tub of book fluff.

My ongoing project of reading In Search of Lost Time has been progressing very slowly. I keep getting caught up in other books! I’m a chronic multi-book reader.

How I Learned to Like Poetry

Three years ago I made a new year’s resolution to learn to understand and appreciate poetry. I went about it in a fairly academic way. That’s how I learned to adore contemporary art—taking art history classes with some brilliant and endearing professors until I was one class short of an art history minor. Those classes were a great investment of my time, because I learned a hobby (devotion? meditation?) that I have taken with me around the world and continue to use to enrich my mental health and personal life.

I figured since that since the academic route to enjoying visual art was so successful, poetry wouldn’t be much different. Western art survey classes usually start with those famous cave paintings in Lascaux, France, and go forward from there. Poetry’s equivalent of cave painting is Beowulf, I supposed, so that’s where I started.

I supplemented my Norton Anthology of Poetry roadmap with The Poem and the Journey. I’m sure, as advertised, it’s a fantastic book that teaches people a lot about the beauty of poetry. I didn’t get past chapter 2.

I heard a poem on the radio by Billy Collins, the then U.S. Poet Laureate. It was funny, accessible, easy to take in while hurling through space at 80 miles per hour. My poet friend Jeevan Narney chose to look at the wall rather than my face when I told him that I had checked out all of the Billy Collins books from the library. He pursed his lips and suggested that I try Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Li-Young Lee.

I did, and he was right. I read white-bread poets because they were easy to get ahold of, not because I actually enjoyed them. I enjoyed the act of appearing to enjoy poetry. But honestly, there’s a whole world of poetry out there that is more intriguing than your garden-variety hothouse-tomatoes poetry, and that’s when I started to be able to fulfill my resolution.

Three years later and here’s what I’ve come to learn about my tastes:
I like poems like I like art. Preferably written after WWII. Knowingly and carefully breaking the rules. At least two paths of discussion from one object. Aware of history, yet not ostentatious about it.

I like poems like I like authors. I am fascinated by Asian and Asian-American authors. I know the word Asian encompasses millions, literally millions, of cultures, and I haven’t found a boring one yet. I like how Asian religions and cultural priorities tinge the perception of the world in a way that is very different from my own.

I like poems like I like puns. Two meanings for the price of one. A period in the middle of a line is just divine. If you don’t read poetry very much, oftentimes punctuation in the middle of a line means that the words that come before the punctuation finish the thought of the previous line, and start the thought of the next one. For example:
The river is raw tonight. The river is a calling
aching with want. The woman walks towards it
(excerpt from How to Prepare the Mind for Lightning by Brynn Saito)
I like poems like I like scriptures. When I read the Bible in the mornings, I usually need to read a passage two or three times, just to get my mind to settle, to focus, to absorb its density. When I meditate or run, I can usually only think about a few heavy words, and that’s enough for me. If I don’t want to read a poem twice or three times in a row, I probably just don’t want to read that poem.

I subscribe to A Poem a Day in my email and it’s been wonderful. You get contemporary poetry during the week, and more traditional poetry on the weekends. It’s become meditative for me to read it in the mornings. This morning on the bus I was so happy that I was able to be mentally closed off to everything that was going on around me (it was chaos, I assure you), and I focused on the poem for 20 minutes without breaking my concentration. Not because I was forcing myself to do that, but because it happened naturally. Because I learned how I like poetry.