This Month in Reality: I stumble through a review of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

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I finished listening to this read-by-the-author audio book well over a week ago and I’ve been trying to decide what exactly I wanted to say about it. On the one hand, it was a touching memoir about surviving with grit, perseverance and the support of your family (or, at least, the pieces of your family who had gotten themselves together enough to provide support). On the other hand, the wider cultural moment that this book was released into has kind of positioned it in this place where people can trot it out to say, “Look! White people suffer, too!” whenever a person of color points to some systemic issue that is causing a lot of suffering. And, while it does make some good points about the wider culture and how people are struggling and the systems we have in place aren’t adequate to support us, they were points that I had read elsewhere. Drug abuse, incarceration, broken families, and intergenerational trauma are things that have definitely been subjects of discussion for awhile, just maybe not in the mainstream.

But, that’s maybe not a problem of the book itself but its reception?

So, on the one hand, I shouldn’t blame a book for its reception and its use or misuse by its readership. On the other hand, if we’re not going to have these conversations now about how, “yes, there are class issues in America, but no they are not entirely independent of race and ethnicity and engaging with one without engaging with the others doesn’t paint the full picture”, then when are we going to have them?

So, I’m in this weird place where I was really touched by the narrative, and happy to have been given an example of another American life (because J.D. Vance’s childhood is pretty far away from my Suburban middle class upbringing). But, I still see this book in a wider context in which, if we addressed some of the race-related structural issues scholars, activists and politicians have highlighted over the years (for example, here, in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow), people like Vance would also benefit. I mean, if we decriminalized drug addiction and made more money available for treatment and support, maybe Vance’s story would be a little different.

So, I don’t know. It was a really touching story and it has given me a lot to think about. This is a worthy result for any book, but especially a book of non-fiction. And, its not that I don’t recommend it, it’s probably more that there are other things that I’d recommend about class, family and culture in America before I recommended this.

Review: West Cork by Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde

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This podcast is an audible original and I picked it up for free when it first became available. My carpool buddy and I listened to the Dirty John podcast last fall and were really taken in by it, so when we heard about this one, we thought it might be something we would try. True crime isn’t really a fave genre for either of us, but it is nice to try new things.

West Cork is the story of a murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier that happened around Christmas in 1996. It is also about the town of West Cork and the prime suspect. We were definitely taken in. The murder of Sophie is so tragic and the progress of the case was part infuriating and part just plain upsetting (which seems like a feature of true crime). It was interesting to be reminded about how technology has progressed so quickly. This was a time before cell phones and everyone having 6 email addresses and facebook. Sophie was out at her quiet vacation home in the middle of nowhere without any of the technology we have to stay connected today. Not that it would have made a difference necessarily, if the crime had taken place ten years later.

Some of the descriptions did get a little graphic, but overall Bungey and Forde do a really nice job of showing you the community of West Cork, the crime, and why the conclusion to this case so far has been no conclusion.

So, if you’re into true crime or you want to try something investigative, this is something you might want to check out!

Quick Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado

This is a memoir about what it is like to be working poor in America that addresses many of the myths about being poor. Tirado has a blunt style that is sometimes funny, sometimes touching and that I found grating in places. This is a very real perspective on poverty from someone who has lived it, and I think it’s a perspective that is often missing from our economic discourse. It was an interesting read and a quick one. The audiobook was read by the author. So, if you’re looking for a little perspective on class in America, you may want to give it a try.

This Month in Reality: Book lists and Syllabi

A lot of terrible things have happened…well, all of human history might accurately categorized as action and reaction when terrible things happen. One of those actions that people can take is educating oneself and trying to be a better person and/or not be as much a part of the problem. I have been heartened to see what might be a new trend in book lists: the syllabus. (Can a tool for teaching in the classroom be thought of as a “new” trend out of the classroom?) I am always happy to see thematic lists and I’m always looking for new things to read, so I have been collecting them. Some of the following are actual syllabuses for college courses and some of them are just curated lists on a topic. I’ve got them and I’ve been looking back through them now that I’m aware of how far behind I am on my reading challenge. While I was looking at them, I thought I might share them with you.

This first link is an in-depth list but together following the mass shooting in Charleston in June of 2015. This list is amazing in its detail. It provides historical context starting with a general overview before readings on slavery in both the North and the South before going onto the civil war, reconstruction, and Jim Crow. There are readings on race and religion. There are readings on white identity construction and white supremacy in the US and abroad.

The next syllabus I have to offer is the Black Lives Matter 2016 Fall Syllabus. This syllabus was put together by Professor Frank Leon Roberts at NYU for a class. This is a nice syllabus because it includes not only papers and texts to read but it also includes videos and films to watch. The syllabus also includes writing prompts for reflection papers, so while you are reading and watching, you can also do some digesting.

The Standing Rock Syllabus, put together by the NYC stands with Standing Rock collective includes readings on topics like settler colonialism, the histories of indigenous peoples in North America, environmental racism, and readings on Indian sovereignty and treaty law.

The Lemonade syllabus grew out of a desire that many people had to understand and better get all of the references in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade. It was put together by Candice Benbow and is beautiful. It is stunningly laid out, once you’ve followed the link from the site. It is 36 pages and includes space to make notes and to write down the date when you finished reading. The syllabus is divided into topics that include (but are not limited to) fiction, non-fiction, black feminism, womanist theology, photography, music, critical theory and poetry. It is so cool. People had questions, they took to twitter and using a hashtag gave each other answers.  I cannot understate how in awe of this syllabus I am.

The Luke Cage Syllabus is a look at the literature in the netflix show Luke Cage but together by Tara Betts at Black Nerd Problems. These are books that are seen or referenced in the show. This syllabus is my convenient excuse for re-watching the show.

These last two I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to look over yet. One of them is a google doc and I’m not sure who it is edited by but it is a reading list for white people who want to educate themselves so that they can be more informed. It is divided up thematically and includes readings on systemic racism and racist ideology, the history of black lives matter and readings on steps you can take to combat racism. The last one is from Haymarket books and is called the Stop Trump Reading List. This list contains books that talk may help you understand how Trump was elected and it includes a link to a list of books especially for young people.

So, there you have it. Syllabi and reading lists to help you find your next book(s) and  to learn a little about issues in the world and also about references in pop culture you may be missing!

If you have any suggestions or have seen any reading lists/syllabi out there that I missed, please take to the comments and let me know!

 

Review: Crecy by Warren Ellis

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I’m pretty sure that I read this graphic novel when it first came out but, I recently moved and in all the packing I came across it and decided it was time to pick it up and read it again.

 

 

The year is 1346 and then English army is outnumbered outside of the village of Crecy. They’ve run a shock-and-awe campaign, attacking villages and just generally making mayhem but now they have to stand and fight. French forces with mounted knights and hired crossbowmen go up against English longbows and other fighters a battle that would have a major impact on the Hundred Years war. The story is centered around one longbowman as he moves through the French countryside and prepares for battle.

 

This is a quick read about a piece of English history. It is pretty good. A little sweary and sometimes a little gross, but that is in line with the subject material. So, if you’re looking for a little history but you aren’t into reading a long tome, I say give this a try.

 

 

This Month in Reality: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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When I posted my “What I’m Listening to” for this book I said that, just in the first chapters, I kept getting a lot of Tupac lyrics stuck in my head. In particular the line, “Instead of a war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so police can bother me.” This book made me in turns fucking furious, and heartbroken and uncomfortable, and increasingly aware that the U.S. is doing a big thing badly and that big thing is incarcerating citizens.

In this book, Michelle Alexander examines America’s prison systems and makes the argument that mass incarceration is a system of racial control that has taken the place of Jim Crow. And, her argument is pretty convincing. She looks at how, not all at once, but little by little changes have been made that have largely affected poor people and people of color. She looks at changes in the welfare system, changes in policing, the militarization of policing, and changes in drug policy.

Last year, I heard Piper Kerman speak at a local library function and this revisited some of the things that she touched on in her talk (and that at friend of mine touched on in a chat after the talk). We send a lot of people to prison. We send people to prison for murder. We send people to prison for rape (although, not often and not for very long but that’s a topic of discussion for another day). And, we send lots and lots of people to prison for non-violent drug offenses. How are we serving these people by putting them away for non-violent crime? How are we serving their communities by taking them out of the community? How are we serving them and their communities by disenfranchising them after they have served their time? How are we serving them and their communities by making access to welfare and public housing impossible after being convicted of a felony? I get it, if people do “bad” things, you don’t want to feel like you’re rewarding them. But, if you have nothing because you’ve just spent many years in prison and you want to do right and get back into the world, how can you do that with so many avenues closed off to you?

I don’t know.

This book raised way more questions than it answered for me but I am glad that I read it even if it means I now have to spend time thinking about these issues and how I can help set them right.

The Past Couple of Months in Reality: I listened to a Feminist Classic

So, I had a moment earlier this year where someone referenced the feminist classic the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and I realized that I hadn’t read it. It seems like something I should have read. So, I used one of my audible credits and I picked it up. And, then I spent hours cooking, cleaning and walking on the tread mill while Parker Posey read it to me.

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Isn’t that the creeepiest image?

Anyway, this classic was originally published in 1963 and it addressed a problem that women who bought (and a society that sold) the fantasy that the most fulfilling thing a woman could do with her life was get married and have children and how that not only affected those women but also had ripple effects within society. I can see, looking back, how this was a revolutionary book. It is important to know and remember that women are people and that women, all women, have capacities and interests and being stuck in and reduced to one or two roles for any person is potentially trapping.

But, this book was definitely written in a different time and was focused on different issues than the feminism is now. For one, every time Friedan wrote “women”, I found it was almost always easier to take if I added “Middle Class White” before “women”. While Friedan was probably trying to write about an ideal (and, a societal image of what a “woman” should be is certainly something everyone woman-identifying person has to contend with much like the idea of what a “man” should be is something all men-identifying people have to contend with.) most of the data she presented was about a very particular kind of woman. As already mentioned, middle class white women. And, that’s fine, but the problems that middle class white women face are not always the same as the problems that working class white women face. Or, Middle class African American women. Or, working class African American women. Or, Trans women. Or, Asian American women. Or, Native American women. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

I am glad that I read it, though. It is nice to be able to look back and think about how much we have accomplished and to note how much work we still have to do.

This Month in Reality: Shonda Rhimes is my hero. 

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Welcome to a March 32nd tradition. I am posting this month’s in reality on the last day of March! 
This book, man. It’s life changing. Life affirming. It’s… I don’t even know where to begin. Except I do. At the beginning, I had to stop listening halfway through the introduction because I was crying my eyes out. I’ve never felt so seen…by an audiobook. I guess this is why Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday nights. 
This book is a memoir about a year in which Rhimes chose to say yes to everything that scared her. And, it would seem, a bunch of things that scare her also scare me and so hearing about how she faced her fears and won was transformative.  The book is read by the author, so, if like me, you listen to books a lot with headphones on, Shonda Rhimes is literally whispering in your ear telling you how she overcame her fears and leading by example. 
I want to say yes to everything now. I even want to say yes to saying no to things that are bad for me. 
This book, man. I loved it. 

This Month in Reality: Tidying Up

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When I get home tonight I’m going to take off my shoes and thank them (they are super cute and have done the hard work of keeping my feet out of the mud today). My wallet, essential oils bag (yes, I’m that kind of dirty hippie that brings her own aroma therapy with her everywhere she goes), my planner and the notebook I always carry with me will be taken out of my purse and I will thank them and put them in their new spots. I will hang my purse up and thank it. Then, I will feed my hungry, hungry monsters. Finally, I’ll try not to feel silly for expressing gratitude to inanimate objects. Hey, you know how I said I was done reading self-help books? Well, I lied to both of us. I read The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. All of this thanking is Kondo’s idea. I’m down with expressing gratitude as a regular practice. It’s allegedly good for you. Thanking things isn’t a problem. (It feels weird, but I do all kinds of weird things so what is one more?)

So, I read this book and now I feel like I need to divest myself of half of my possessions. Which, on the whole, is probably not a bad thing. I am kind of a pack rat so I hang onto things longer than I need to. (And, I’m on the job market expecting that a move is in my future if I want to stay in my field, so having fewer things to move would be pretty awesome.)

The Konmari method seems to work as follows: Go through all your possessions one category at a time and get rid of anything you don’t need. Don’t move it to your Mom’s. Don’t put it in storage. Straight up give it away or sell it or throw it away. No longer have it within your reach. Keep the stuff that makes you happy. Not the stuff you feel like you should keep, not the stuff that you have “just in case”. Just the stuff that makes you happy. If you use your stuff as a barrier between you and the world to keep you safe, this is going to be an awful process. However, she gives you something to deal with the anxiety-inducing trash-fest. She wants you to start by thinking about what you want from life. How do you want to be seen? How do you see yourself? What are trying to radiate? How does your space reflect that? So, the life-changing art of tidying up is not just about divesting yourself of possessions. It is also about divesting yourself of ideas, thoughts, and patterns that no longer serve you.

In short, this is going to be a rough ride.

I think this is a great way to approach tidying up your space and your life. But, I also think that confronting your feelings and thought patterns is rough work and that it might be easier when you have Kondo there in the room with you. So, I recommend this book. It was an interesting read. But, if you’re going to use the Konmari method to get rid of stuff in your life you may also want to be in therapy or keep a journal of the process so you can work out your feelings as you throw out your stuff.

 

 

This book counts as my book by an Asian author in the Diverse Stacks, Diverse Lives Reading Challenge.

This Month in Reality: Witches, Midwives and Nurses! Oh, My!

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2016 has really started off with a bang. You could maybe tell by my lack of posting? I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. But, I have managed to get a little reading done (just not a lot of review writing. I have been writing, but that’s another story.)

The bang 2016 started out with was a family member in the hospital. (They’re fine now.) While they were in the hospital, I tried to do my best and not panic. If I’m calm, they had no reason to not be calm, right? They had to be taken out of the room for various tests (Again, they’re fine now) and to occupy myself while they were out of the room I read a book on my phone. I read Witches, Midwives, and Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English.

I thought that was an appropriate thing to read in a hospital.

This is a short pamphlet of a book written in the 1970s. It discussed midwifery, the rise of medical professionals (as opposed to healers), the popular health movement of the 1830s and 40s, and feminism and the need for women in medicine today. This was a really short book; it was only 59 pages, but I learned a lot from it. I didn’t know about the popular health movement. Or, I knew about it tangentially because I know a little bit about patent medicine from visiting the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta. (And, even though there was probably a lot wrong with some of the ideas the popular health movement was spreading, there was also probably a lot right about it.) Ehrenreich and English tell us a story about the movement pushing the equivalent of know-your-body courses (still a good idea) and also supporting a lot of self-advocating amongst patients. (The movement is described as espousing the virtues of frequent bathing, loose-fitting clothing for women, temperance and eating whole grain cereals. Any of that sound familiar?) The movement they describe also seems to have been initially supportive of women and minorities and in line with the cause of civil rights. While some of the professional societies out right banned women and minorities from their ranks, schools in the popular health movement did not do so (at least with the same frequency.) Unfortunately, from the description that Ehrenreich and English give, it would also seem that women threw other minorities under the bus in order to gain legitimacy and when favor to their causes. No cool, bros. So, I learned a little about the insidious underbelly of the history of the women’s rights movement.

What I found most interesting about this book (and also incredibly sad) were the conclusions. They conclude that the medical profession isn’t just an institution that discriminates against women, it is one that has been designed to exclude them. That was probably true in the 70s and it is still true today. Last year I reviewed the book the First Twenty Minutes and one of the things I found hardest to swallow about that book was the amount of research the author presented that was done only on male bodies. Women and men are different! There is a fairly large amount of scientific evidence to support that! (Also, there’s probably not just men and women! Gender as a binary is probably not a real thing!) Just as examples from recent news: women have different heart attack symptoms than men (and new research shows women aren’t aware of this) and women with ADHD present differently than men. They also conclude that we have become mystified by science and don’t know how to argue for what we need in the face of a scientific (or scientific sounding) argument. (Recent blow ups of twitter about whether or not the Earth is round seems to show that we still have a lack of scientific literacy.) They suggest that there needs to be an opening of the medical profession so that all women can have access to medical expertise when they need it. I still think that’s true.

So, this was a good read and a quick read. Not a bad way to start out the year in reality!