Bookstack for #ComicsFebruary

IMG_2841.JPGI know, I know. I’m supposed to only be reading the books I own until the end of March. But everyone started posting pictures of the books they plan to read for #ComicsFebruary and I got bookstack envy. So off to the library I went.

I tend to be drawn to nonfiction when it comes to comics so the majority of the titles I picked up are from that section of the library. The one exception is Diana Gabaldon’s The Exile, which recounts the events of Outlander from Jamie’s point of view. Yes, please!

#ReadHarder in 2016

Earlier last month, I was poking around BookRiot and stumbled across the #ReadHarder Challenge. I’m normally rubbish at challenges. Put a book on a list and I pretty much lose all desire to read it.

But I started reading through the list of twenty-four prompts and realized that I had either already read or was in the middle of reading a book that counted towards six of those prompts. Twenty-five percent of the way there! So why not challenge myself to go for the full 100 percent?

2016 Read Harder Challenge List

  • Read a horror book — Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
  • Read a nonfiction book about science
  • Read a collection of essays
  • Read a book aloud to someone else
  • Read a middle grade novel
  • Read a biography (not memoir or autobiography) — The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
  • Read a dystopian and post-apocalyptic novel — Pure by Julianna Baggott
  • Read a book originally published in decade you were born
  • Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award
  • Read a book over 500 pages long
  • Read a book under 100 pages
  • Read a book by or about a person that identifies as transgender
  • Read a book that is set in the Middle East
  • Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia
  • Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900
  • Read the first book in a series by a person of color
  • Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years
  • Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie and discuss which is better — Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally (the movie is better)
  • Read a nonfiction about feminism or dealing with feminist themes — My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
  • Read a book about religion (fiction or nonfiction)
  • Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction)
  • Read a food memoir
  • Read a play
  • Read a book with a main character with a mental illness — Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Some of these topics won’t be a stretch for me as my reading is pretty focused on the Middle East, religion, and politics. But I would love suggestions for the other incomplete titles!

My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem

Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Random House, 2015. 304 pgs. Purchased.

In this collection of anecdotes from the road, Steinem’s premise is that the only way to understand one’s fellow citizens and, therefore, enact change is to hit the road and engage in face-to-face conversations. Which makes the book a rather ironic choice for Emma Watson’s online, feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf.

The book begins with Steinem sharing about her own childhood — the father who never settled and the mother who never had a choice — and how these experiences shaped her into a person who longs to travel, to live out her life as she wants to. And she touches briefly on how this is a rather revolutionary concept for women are often discouraged from traveling alone either out of concerns about their safety or because such acts would bring shame upon the family. If a women can go out on a self-willed journey and be welcomed warmly when she comes home, then perhaps the world is less restrictive and patriarchal than it has been in the past.

It’s said that the biggest determinant of our lives is whether we see the world as welcoming or hostile. Each becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have often heard Steinem and other mainstays of the feminist/women’s movement in America be lambasted for their lack of interest in intersectional feminism. That is, by focusing on gender pay gaps, political representation, and access to education, feminists too often ignore that a person’s identity and, therefore, oppression is multifaceted. I can no more change my skin color than I can change my disabilities or my sexual orientation. Reading this memoir, though, makes it apparent that this charge does not apply to Steinem.

…one of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak.

There are two moments in Steinem’s life on the road that had a profound influence on her — a conference on women’s rights in Houston in the 1970s where state representatives were directly elected by women and her time in Oklahoma with a Native American activist named Wilma Mankiller. In both instances, Steinem devoted her time and efforts listening to the stories and desires of women of color so that feminism and the women’s movement could address the issues within their communities.  And, in fact, the biggest lesson I took away from reading Steinem’s memoir was that I need to increase my own understanding of life in Indian Country. I need to listen and learn. I need to be a better intersectional feminist.

…the most reliable predictor of whether a country is violent within itself — or will use military violence against another country — is not poverty, natural resources, religion, or even degree of democracy; it’s violence against females. It normalizes all other violence.

In discussing her efforts to increase representation of minorities both within the movement at large and at Ms. Magazine, Steinem does fall into the trap of proclaiming herself as “I’m not like those other women”. She wrote earlier in the book about how important is to resist ranking instead of linking humans, and it was disappointing to see her repeatedly set herself up as the anti-power activist to Betty Friedan’s desire to serve on one board after another. Do I agree that there need to be more voices and more people within the feminist movement? Obviously. But I so loathe segregation perpetrated by comments about not being like “other girls”, which are far too often used by people across the gender spectrum to put down women as shallow and stupid, that it was disappointing to see Steinem fall into this trap herself.

Aside from that quibble, I was greatly heartened by Steinem’s confession that she loathes public speaking even after all these years of being an activist. (Organizer, as Steinem would probably correct.) But she explained that she looks at her talk as a way to open the door to a greater conversation. If she can get the audience to engage with her afterwards, then she has done her job as a speaker. If she can get the audience to engage with each other but answering questions asked to her, then she has done her job as an organizer. This approach may not directly translated into the business world, especially since women are routinely talked over or disregarded, but it is certainly a different and rather inspiring way of approaching a presentation or lecture.

The selection of this memoir for January was particularly well-timed as the public is being re-reminded of Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affairs and Hillary Clinton’s response to them. In discussing her decision to support Clinton in the 2008 presidential election, Steinem discusses how she listened to and conversed with numerous “Hillary Haters” — white, well-educated feminist women who did not want Clinton as president — and learned that their hatred stemmed from Clinton’s refusal to leave her husband over his affairs. They wanted to see Clinton eviscerate her husband because they were unwilling to leave their own husbands and jealous of the equality within the Clintons’ marriage. This reasoning does not exactly jive with my recollection of the 2008 nomination process, and I admit that I dismissed it out of hand. Yet, two days after I finished this particular section of Steinem’s memoir, there was an article in the New York Times about how Clinton is losing support of feminists over Bill’s 1990s affairs.

In describing this memoir to family and friends, I said that it was a bit like getting coffee with Steinem and listening to her recollect moments in her life. She does seem to jump from one event to another, and the book switches from being arranged topically to chronically and back again. But it was one of the better coffee dates I’ve had in some time as it reaffirmed the importance of intersectional feminism and pointed out the places I still need to visit and learn from. Time to go on my own self-willed journey.

Pure by Julianna Baggott

Fiction — print. Grand Central Publishing, 2012. 431 pgs. Purchased.

Fifteen-year-old Pressia survived the Detonations, a nuclear fallout that wiped out most of the Earth’s population and fused the survivors with the animal, rock, or thing closest to them. Pressia fused with the doll she was holding whilst waiting for her grandfather to pick her and her Japanese mother up at the Baltimore-Washington airport, and the doll now covers her right hand — its eyes flipping open or closed depending upon the angle of her wrist — rendering the hand useless. A small, battery-operated fan fused to her grandfather’s neck making it difficult for him to breathe the thicken, ashen air of the post-Detonations world.

Yet, for nearly ten years, Pressia and her grandfather kept each other alive. Pressia’s butterfly trinkets, which she fashions from pieces of junk metal, and her grandfather’s flesh sewing skills as a former taxidermist are traded for food and other necessary items. Now, with her sixteen birthday only days away, Pressia’s grandfather has created a hidden cabinet with an escape hatch so Pressia can avoid reporting to the dreaded OSR. Previously known as Operation Search and Rescue, OSR has turned into a paramilitary organization that patrols the destroyed city and engages in a biyearly competitions to see how many survivors they can kill.

The ranks of the organization are filled with people like Pressia; one of the main leaders, El Captain, fused with his brother so he is perpetually giving his brother a piggyback ride. The organization is supported by those survivors who were lucky enough to be in the Dome — a test facility built in response to climatic change, environmental degradation, and a escalating Cold War — when the Detonations occurred. The residents of the Dome promised they would return to help the survivors when the time came, but no direct interaction with the Dome has occurred since leaflets with the promise were dropped.

That is, until Partridge escapes outside the ventilation system after learning his mother may still be alive. Partridge’s father always claimed his mother died trying to help people into the Dome, but the story has never jived with Partridge’s memory of his mother taking him to a beach and slipping him a pill. The pill has rendered him non-codeable; a process that his brother went through in order to make him a stronger specimen of a man and that Partridge wonders is the reason why his brother killed himself. Outside of the Dome, Partridge teams up Pressia determined to unravel the secret of what happened to his mother.

Baggott’s dystopian world captivates the imagination. Each time I would think of the book, I would look around and wonder what object, animal, or person I would fuse with should the Detonations occur in that moment. A book, my laptop, my cell phone? I also told multiple friends about the book explaining how I hope a film adaption will eventually be made because the book conjures up such visually stunning scenes in my mind. It’s not just the visuals of these fused beings moving throughout the destroyed city. Rather, it’s the way Baggott describes the smoke moving through the gaps in the buildings or the glint of the stars through the darkened sky. It’s a captivating world, and I practically devoured the book.

The novel draws on a unique explanation of cellular biology to underpin the “fusions” that occur throughout the novel and this explanation is provided by a character in a rather heavy-handed monologue. The same can be said of the revelations about what happened pre-Pressia and Partridge finding one another — the founding of the Dome, the reason why some people made it in and others didn’t. I would have liked these details to be sussed out over time rather than being doled out in a series of sort history lessons, and I’m hoping many more will be given in subsequent books because I was still left with so many questions. What happened to the old governments? Are there other domes?

Given the plot and the numerous villains included within the tale, I was surprised at how slowly the story unfolds. It isn’t quite the fast paced, action packed dystopian novel I was expecting to be.  There were sections I thought could have benefited from tighter editing, and dropping a point of view could have possibly help. Lyda, a young girl who served as Partridge’s unwitting accomplish to his escape, was obviously included to keep the reader up to date on what was happening in the Dome. Yet she was separated from the community at large so I never really felt like I understood the Dome. It’s still some magical entity where answers are hard to come by.

That said, I do plan on continuing with the series. The setting — the Dome, the Dustlands, the Meltlands — was such a wonderful spark to my imagination that I’m not quite willing to let that go.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

21546135Fiction — print. Broadway, 2010. 350 pgs. Purchased.

In the 1980s, seven-year-old Libby Day’s mother and two older sisters were murdered by her brother, Ben. Each of Ben’s victims were murdered in a different manner — Michelle was strangled in her bed, Debby was cut by an axe, and their mother, Patty, was killed with a shotgun. Libby, who escaped and hid outside during January in Kansas, lost several of her fingers and toes to frostbite.

The tragedy captured the imagination of locals and the nation, who considered the mass murders to be one of many done in deference to Satan during the 1980s. Now, twenty-five years later, there are still a handful of people who are obsessed with the crime — people who doubt Libby’s account of the night and believe Ben is innocent. In their minds, no killer would murder his victims in three different ways during a single night.

Out of funds, Libby agrees to work with this group for a series of small payouts — a couple hundred bucks for finding her deadbeat father (the aptly named Runner) or for selling off personal items owned by her sisters and mother. Agreeing to work with this group, though, means Libby must face her brother and rehash the worst night of her life together.

This novel jumps back and forth between the past and the present; each chapter changing both the time period and the character being followed. At one point, we see where Ben had gone in the hours leading up to his mother and sisters’ death and then — skip ahead a chapter — the reader is shown the frantic worry of his mother during this same time period. The narrative structure is not entirely uniform backtracking in order to explain or examine or place into context a fact Libby has learned in the present.

Yet, somehow, this novels feel like the more “traditional” of Flynn’s three crime novels that I have read. (Her fourth was published in November of last year.) She’s fixated on the whodunit rather than the psychological, which is surprising given her other two novels and how the novel is set up to be a response to the so-called “Satanic Panic” or “Satanic Ritual Abuse Scare”of the 1980s where daycare workers were accused to abusing children in acts of worship towards Satan. Sounds nutty, but true. Elements of this are utilized in the book — ritual Satanic practices either occurring or being rumored to have occurred, young girls accusing Ben of abusing them — but Flynn never really goes into the psychology of these events. They happen or they don’t; they move the plot along or they don’t.

The end, though? Flynn pushes her horribly unlikable characters (a staple of her novels) off the cliff of believable happenstance and wreaks the whole novel. It’s almost as though Flynn grew to like her characters, but realized she wasn’t allowed to like them after making the reader hate them so settled for a hodgepodge ending with a “twist” to keep her from having to pull the trigger, so to say. If this has been the first novel of hers I read, I certainly would not have lunged across the table at a used book sale to grab her others.