Category Archives: america

Mini Review: We are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby

IMG_8203I read this collection of personal essays while I was visiting family for the holidays and IT WAS A TREAT and welcome reprieve from family drama. The author, Samantha Irby, is fed up with a lot of things, and if you, too, are feeling disgruntled with everyone around you and obligations forcing you to be a human with workplace duties, etc., when you just want to lay in bed and eat chips, this is the book for you. Irby’s tales are punchy and delightful and I loved reading her point of view. Plus it takes place in Evanston, my current locale, so I found myself cackling at some of the location specific digs and jokes, especially because my friend’s dog’s vet is the office where Irby used to work. If you want a lil’ taste of Irby’s work, check out her blog, bitches gotta eat, where she posts essays. You don’t have to be a frequenter of her blog to enjoy her humorous tales though.

Publication Date: 30 May 2017 by VintageFormat: Paperback.

Author: Samantha Irby blog/@twitter

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Mini Review: You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson

youcanttouchmyhairIf you’re not familiar with Phoebe Robinson yet, she’s a comedian and hilarious person who is one of 2 Dope Queens, Black Daria (Blaria), and as she refers to herself in this book, a cross between Miss J from America’s Next Top Model with a dash of Ta-Nahesi Coates. A lot of Robinson’s essays spend time discussing black hair, her own historically, and through memorable pop culture moments. The Not So Guilty Pleasures section of the book had the most laughs from me, along with her repeated references to some of the nonsense of Carrie Bradshaw and Sex and the City, whilst loving the show and constantly making fun of it simultaneously. I listened to You Can’t Touch My Hair as an audiobook, which was very entertaining because Robinson is great at using her voice to tell a good story; I’m not sure her written words would have jumped off the page in the same way her voice jumped through my ears and mind.

Here’s a lil’ snippet from the book, regarding Robinson wanting to f*ck Bono from U2.

“I have issues. We all have issues. We’re all like a year subscription to Vogue magazine. We’ve got twelve issues each. It’s fine.”

Publication Date: 4 October 2016 by Plume Books. Format: Audiobook.

Author: Phoebe Robinson web/@twitter/@instagram/facebook

 

Educated by Tara Westover

educatedThis memoir had an effect on me and I want to recommend it to everyone. Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir about family obligations, systems of control, and the power of education. It was a hard, but good read. 

Westover grew up in a strict, Mormon household in rural middle America with parents who had their own interpretation of Mormonism that they proselytized to their children and used to condemn others’ interpretations of divine faith, including other Mormons. The parents did not trust the government, which extended to not birthing most of their children in hospitals because they were part of the evil “medical establishment”,  not legally recording most of their children’s births until many years later, not immunizing their children or permitting them to visit doctors for care in favor of homeopathy, and not enrolling their children in schools for fear the schools would brainwash their children with nonsense. The denial of all of these things to their children, particularly access to an education as the children weren’t really schooled at home either, was a way to indoctrinate the children into the parents’ belief system, bound the children to their parents’ sphere of control so that the children may never leave, and limit the children from access to other ways of thinking that would allow the children to be able to question their family’s way of life. 

Westover’s tale highlights how important access to an education is as she details the life circumstances of her siblings — those who managed to be admitted to college, after secretly studying for standardized testing, went on to receive doctorates, whereas the others never received high school diplomas or GEDs and subsequently had limited job options and continued to be employees of their parents’ businesses as they had been since they were children. The memoir is broken into three parts, beginning with Westover’s childhood, transitioning into Westover’s teen years when she enrolls in an undergraduate program, and the last pieces include her venturing to another part of the world for education purposes and having her worldview expanded even more than her undergraduate experiences initially opened. While education definitely plays a central role in this memoir, a large part of Westover’s story involves controlling family dynamics, the emotional abuse that often rains down from the controlling heads of household, unfettered physical abuse that family members conveniently ignore or outright deny because acknowledgement of its actuality could challenge their pleasant forms of reality, and outright misogyny about a women’s place in the family and in the world that is shielded from question by religious morales. 

While Westover’s education granted her access to many things, it also created many conflicts with her family and led to estrangements from certain members. Becoming “educated” isn’t always cost-free and Westover’s story illuminates some of the challenges that can be associated with advancing oneself, whilst one’s family tries to hold them back. This was a book that I needed to read and I hope that it is enlightening for others. 

Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Random House via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Random House or NetGalley.

 

Publication Date: 20 Feburary 2018 by Random HouseFormat: ARC e-book.

Author: Tara Westover web/facebook/@twitter

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

evictedEvicted by Matthew Desmond is 100% a must read and hands down one of my favorite books of the year. Don’t just take my word for it though — the book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction this year which is no small feat!

Sociologist Matthew Desmond spent years immersing himself in the lower end of Milwaukee’s housing market, observing and interviewing those living in poverty and mostly terrible conditions perpetuated by landlords, the local government, and more. He often lived alongside his subjects, experiencing the daily occurrences that happened typically in a trailer park and later in the “ghetto” of Milwaukee. Throughout his work, Desmond mostly follows a small cast of characters, though he interviewed an incredible number of people, to give the reader a very in depth look at the cyclical suffering that many people with unstable and unreliable housing have been forced to accept and expect. 

While this is a necessary read to help people understand how those in control of housing perpetually disadvantage those in poverty, this is also just generally worthwhile reading for anyone who has ever been a tenant (aka someone who has ever rented their housing). While living in New York City, several of my friend’s and my housing frequently had issues that were unacceptable, dangerous, and repeatedly ignored by landlords despite multiple requests for maintenance or assistance. This is an important read to understand what your rights are as a tenant, the systems that make it essentially impossible for tenants to challenge their landlord’s actions, the typical issues that occur for those who are tenants within very in demand housing (either because of limited housing for the number of people in a city or because there is limited housing that will allow you to reside somewhere because of the nature of evictions, etc.), and to try to understand why landlords will choose to repeatedly ignore a problem that impedes a tenant’s standard of living and quality of life. 

From a research perspective, I really enjoyed that Desmond spent time detailing how he gathered his qualitative data and his rumination on the challenges of conducting this type of research. Despite this book being written by an academic, this book is incredibly accessible and is written to be enjoyed by a wide array of readers. 

And here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties; it was possible to skimp on maintenance if tenants were perpetually behind; and many poor tenants would be perpetually behind because their rent was too high.” (p. 75)

“The techniques landlords used to ‘keep illegal and destructive activity out of rental property’ kept poverty as well.” (p. 89)

On why defending yourself in eviction court is difficult, “but also [she] would have to defend herself against someone who was more educated, more familiar with the law, and more comfortable in court.” (p. 99)

“When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised.” (p. 293)

If you want another taste of the topic before committing to the whole book, you can read the excerpts that were published in The New Yorker. Don’t let the page number dissuade you from picking up this book! 100+ pages of this book are notes pertaining to the quotes and observations that Desmond incorporates and are not necessary to reference to understand the story unless you want to dig in deeper to his data. You can read more information about the book from the publisher by clicking here.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a physical copy of this book for free from Broadway Books via Blogging for Books. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Broadway Books or Blogging for Books

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

eightyearsinpowerI was thrilled when I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of We Were Eight Years in Power from Random House because I love LOVE loved Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and even included it in my list of 5 favorite reads from 2016! Coates has a wonderful style of writing that will leave you breathless (intentionally so as the author mentions in one part of this collection) and I will continue to gobble down his pieces.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of 9 pieces that Coates has written for The Atlantic in the past 9 years, thus if you’ve been following Coates’s online articles, you’ve likely read some or all of these pieces before (they’re all still available online too). Before each piece begins, Coates ties each of the pieces to where he was personally, blending in some of the memoir style exemplified in Between the World and Me, and where America was socially, culturally, economically, and politically. This means that he often connects his pieces to the Obama administration (pre- and post-) and mentions how it influenced his articles, even if not explicitly stated in the features.  I often found the justifications and positioning of when the pieces were written to be more interesting than the earlier pieces in the collection, probably because I found myself more interested in Coates and his reflections than Bill Cosby’s weird and harmful conservatism regarding the black community (something I hadn’t read about before now). It would have been nice if the dates that the pieces were originally published had been included next to their titles, in order to help the reader position when it occurred; this would also help this book stand 20 years from now if something happened that wasn’t common or accepted knowledge at the time of first publication (such as the widespread depths of Cosby’s transgressions, which Coates does acknowledge in the introduction for that piece, but would be missing for things uncovered in the future).

The collection includes pieces about (1) Bill Cosby, (2) Michelle Obama, (3) The Civil War, (4) Malcolm X, (5) Fear of a Black President, which is commentary on how Obama talked about race during his first presidential term, (6) The Case for Reparations, a viral piece that’s widely assigned on my college campus according to my undergrads, (7) Mass Incarceration, (8) My President was Black, a feature on Obama and reflections on his presidency, and (9) White Supremacy and Trump, a piece that serves as the epilogue and also recently went viral under the title The First White President.

The pieces become progressively longer as the reader progresses through the collection, presumably aligning with the growth of Coates’s readership and The Atlantic assuming that their digital readers would stay along for the ride and full length of the pieces. In my opinion, Coates’s writing strengthens throughout the collection, building upon his years of writing experience. In the introductions, Coates also corrects some errors that were in the previous publications of pieces or properly acknowledges sources that were neglected in the original publications.

At times, We Were Eight Years in Power could feel like reading an accessible textbook, but a textbook nevertheless. The readings are dense and cannot be pored over in one sitting. I really liked the collection, but if someone were completely unfamiliar with Coates, this would not be the first piece of his I recommended. Instead, I would thrust Between the World and Me into their hands and emphatically encourage them to read it immediately. It’s a bit more accessible and shorter and, within this collection, Coates perfectly sums up Between the World and Me with this description of his mindset at the time of writing, “I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion (as James Baldwin), meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years.”

I recommend We Were Eight Years in Power to people already familiar with Coates and who haven’t read each of these pieces online yet. If you’re not familiar with Coates, make Between the World and Me the next book that you read.

We Were Eight Years in Power will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on October 3, 2017! 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Random House or NetGalley.

 

Chuck Klosterman X by Chuck Klosterman

xI haven’t read any of Chuck Klosterman’s collections before, despite them hanging on my TBR list for years. When I received an email indicating I could review his soon to be released work, I thought it would be the perfect time to explore Klosterman’s writings. Aside from a GQ profile here and there, I didn’t know much about Klosterman’s favorite topic areas or style. Before reading this, I had no idea that he was also a prolific sports writer or a general culture critic since I had only read his music pieces. This collection is a mix of all of those flavors and because of that, I didn’t feel compelled to read each and every piece, but I did read most – even those that I wouldn’t have initially if I had known the topic area without context.

But the contextualizations work and drew me into reading about things that I would have dismissed otherwise. For most of the essays, Klosterman introduced them and describes the time, place, and subject that is captured in the essay. I read each of these introductions and used them to help me determine if I wanted to read a piece even if I thought I wouldn’t have (like the first chapter on an obscure and mostly forgotten junior college basketball game, the piece on Noel Gallagher, the profile of Jonathan Franzen, or an article about attending both Creed and Nickleback concerts in a single evening). Not every piece has this introduction though, which caused me to skip out of the essay if I wasn’t ensnared by the first paragraph.

My favorite standalone piece was “Everybody’s Happy When The Wizards Walk By (Or Maybe Not? Maybe They Hate It? Hard To Say, Really,” which is about actively choosing to not engage with a piece of media that is dominating culture (Harry Potter) and the ramifications this may cause, especially for a culture writer. It was also hilarious to read someone discussing Harry Potter, and what they believe the franchise to be, without having read the novels since Harry Potter was a big piece of my life (and my body – shout out to my predictable Harry Potter tattoo).

One of my favorite lines in the whole collection was, “Here’s something I wrote in Europe in 2008, when I was pretend depressed” and I can’t even remember which essay that introduced now. The collection closes with a piece on collective mourning over celebrity deaths (specifically the loss of David Bowie and Prince in 2016) and ends with the line “I could not psychologically compete. I could not compete with the collective unreal, so I decided to think about something else.” This seems like a profound statement to end a collection of cultural commentary – like maybe Klosterman is finding himself more disengaged with popular culture than he used to be and feels like it’s time to transition to a new topic, just as he moved from covering death to culture. Because I haven’t read most of his work, I’m not sure if this is on point or not, but it seemed very intentional. We’ll see what’s to come from his future works and you can count me in as a regular reader.

Chapters I Skipped:
1) The Light Who Has Lighted the World (Tim Tebow), 2) Liquid Food (Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin), 3) C’mon Dave, Gimme a Break (Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen), 4) The (Unenthusiastic) Return of the Thin White Duke (Stephen Malkmus of Pavement), 5) User Your Illusion (But Don’t Bench Ginóbli), 6) The Drugs Don’t Work (Actually, They Work Great, 7) Brown Would Be the Color (If I Had a Heart) (Cleveland Browns), 8) Democracy Now! (Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy album), 9) Metal Machine “Music” (Lou Reed-Metallica Lulu album), 10) Advertising Worked on Me (KISS).

Disclaimer: I was provided with an Advance Reader Copy of this book for free from the Penguin First to Read program. All opinions expressed in the following review are my own and have not been influenced by Penguin.

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

hillbillyelegyI began reading this book for fun and then found that it was relevant to some of the work I’m doing so yay — a very pleasant surprise! A lot of people have chosen to read this book to understand the “hidden right” post-election cycle. I chose to read it to see how the author’s experience lined up with my own background. Despite not growing up in Appalachia, many of the situations that the author described were extremely familiar to me. I grew up in a working-class family and spent 5 years of my childhood in a rural town, population: 800. While the author categorizes his experiences as being particular to Appalachia, I would say they also extend to rural southern living conditions, including my area of Northeast Texas.

I related a lot to Vance’s description of trying to learn how to portray himself as being of a different social class than the one he was born into — like Vance, I was the first in my immediate family to go to college, becoming upwardly mobile, and I found myself struggling to fit in when ‘everything from your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.’ (p. 207)

He also spends time detailing Christianity in Appalachia and how he (at one point) and many of the churchgoing people have (either at one time or persistently) felt like persecuted minorities by ‘elite liberals’ who some believe are making the world a scary and foreign place. His commentary on Christianity and many of the contradictions present in Appalachia were revealing in that many of the residents don’t belong to a church, but vastly report high church attendance because of perceived social pressures. His own experience emphasized that the persecuted minority feelings are salient in the churches, but less so in how individuals believe and practice faith in their own homes.

Chapters 14 (particularly) and 15 were most relevant to the work that I do, but the links from the previous chapters are needed to feel the full heft of the messages in those later chapters. These chapters discuss the traumas that working-class children regularly experience because of a myriad of factors: unreliable income, inconsistent parental support, violence in the home, etc. and the massive effect they have on child outcomes and development of mental and physical health conditions later in life. I also found the writer’s description of his limited relationship with his parents for survival purposes particularly refreshing — it’s something I have also adopted for my own self-preservation purposes, but haven’t read detailed in another work so precisely.

I’ve read many similar books that attempt to describe the plight and lives of America’s working-class through studies and home observation vignettes, but I found this memoir to be the most revealing and authentic… perhaps because it was written by someone who experienced this lifestyle rather than being written by a researcher looking in and trying to understand class and lifestyle differences. While the author doesn’t push for specific policy changes, he does admit that we collectively need to strive to make things better, particularly for working-class youth while their worlds and expectations for themselves are still malleable.