Books of October 2018

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement
- Angela Davis

Everyone should read this book, but if you’re interested in how all struggles for freedom are interconnected, then you would like Freedom is a Constant Struggle.

Freedom is a Constant Struggle is a collection of interviews, speeches, and essays by Angela Davis. It is a wonderful primer on intersectionality and probably the best introduction to the idea that struggles everywhere for freedom are one and the same. Minorities and the oppressed everywhere have things to learn and share from each other, but more than just that, all of these struggles are connected because the source that powers and builds the system that necessitates these struggles is the same. People in Ferguson are connected to people in Palestine not just because their experiences are similar, but also because these experiences stem from the same global system of racism and capitalism.

  • On the importance of people, not just politics:
    What we have lacked over these last five years is not the right president, but rather well-organized mass movements.

  • On the intersectionality of Black feminism:
    Black feminism emerged as a theoretical and practical effort demonstrating that race, gender, and class are inseparable in the social worlds we inhabit. At the time of its emergence, Black women were frequently asked to choose whether the Black movement or the women’s movement was most important. The response was that this was the wrong question. The more appropriate question was how to understand the intersections and interconnections between the two movements. We are still faced with the challenge of understanding the complex ways race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, and ability are intertwined—but also how we move beyond these categories to understand the interrelationships of ideas and processes that seem to be separate and unrelated. Insisting on the connections between struggles and racism in the US and struggles against the Israeli repression of Palestinians, in this sense, is a feminist process.

  • On feminism as a methodology:
    I often like to talk about feminism not as something that adheres to bodies, not as something grounded in gendered bodies, but as an approach—as a way of conceptualizing, as a methodology, as a guide to strategies for struggle. That means that feminism doesn’t belong to anyone in particular.

  • On foundational work and hope:

    • Sometimes we have to do the work even though we don’t yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it’s actually going to be possible.

    • movements require time to develop and mature. They don’t happen spontaneously. They occur as a result of organizing and hard work that most often happens behind the scenes.

  • On intersectionality of struggles, not identities:
    the greatest challenge facing us as we attempt to forge international solidarities and connections across national borders is an understanding of what feminists often call “intersectionality.” Not so much intersectionality of identities, but intersectionality of struggles.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing - Hank Green

If you are interested in a very millennial book then read An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (I use “millennial” here purely as an apt adjective and not at all intended as an insult).

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is about a girl April who finds a giant alien robot, names it Carl, and becomes incredibly popular. I read it because I follow John Green on twitter and I kept seeing people getting really hyped about it, but I thought it was alright? The story was pretty interesting, but my primary gripe is I found the main character super annoying. This book is an interesting case because the reason why I didn’t like April is completely unrelated to the writing (which is rare), and Hank actually did a great job creating April and making her feel real. He really makes the book feel contemporary, not just because he throws in social media references (especially because if poorly done really fucks up the mood), but because of how the characters interact and think. Nonetheless, and I hate to sound old, I just found April’s character kind of annoying. I get the struggle between wanting to be popular versus the destructive spotlight of popularity, and the painful disparity between the constructed, social media you versus the real you, but I just don’t find that problem that engaging.

Inclusion Dividend: Why Investing in Diversity & Inclusion Pays Off - Mark Kaplan

If you are a middle manager and kind of care about diversity but also not really then read The Inclusion Dividend.

I was recommended The Inclusion Dividend by a coworker who was recommended it by another coworker. It’s a bit of a dry read, but relatively simple, and covers a lot of really basic stuff about diversity and inclusion, mostly focused from a corporate point of view. The book is written for managers (he explicitly refers to the audience as “CEOs” and “managers”) which is fine… I guess… but I think if you’re actually interested in diversity and inclusion then you should probably just read the actual source material, and learn about the historic and current struggles and experiences of minorities and the oppressed rather than read a book for businessmen to explain why diversity is good for business. Sure, diversity is good for business, but diversity is also good for people???

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus.jpg

If you like well written love stories with a lovely element of magic then read The Night Circus.

I will forever use The Night Circus and all of the Shopaholic books as my primary defense in my case that I Don’t Hate YA and I Don’t Hate Sappy Romantic Love Stories, because this book is both, and this book is GOOD. I’ve read this a few times over the last couple of years, and it’s been super fun and satisfying to read every time. The premise is about two people bound to each other and set up from a very young age to face off in a challenge to determine which of two very different, clashing approaches to magic is superior (so obviously a love story). The events of the book take place mostly in a circus, although it also traces other characters and their backgrounds (primarily Bailey, who plays a prominent role in the latter half of the book). The circus is designed in all black and white, hence the artwork of the cover. I won’t even mention the other cover again after this, because it’s so fucking bad… I firmly believe YA gets a bad rap also because the covers are so bad.

The premise is cool but not anything earth shattering. Why I like the book so much is it is so well executed!!! Specific phrases and sentences are an absolute joy to read, and the pages just fly by. Stuff like

It takes her three courses to determine which of the Burgess sisters Mr. Barris favors, but by the time the artfully arranged plates of what appear to be whole pigeons spiced with cinnamon arrive, she is certain, though she cannot tell if Lainie herself knows.

I admire every time I read, because it’s so easy to just give that information to the reader all ham fisted. The story is also so cute! I am a sappy romantic and I love a good love story, and it is to my great chagrin that I find most love stories end with the greatest of ass pulls. Not The Night Circus though! The ending is tremendously satisfying and appropriately cheesy, and stays within the logical confines of the book.

Unfortunately, just like 等一個人咖啡, this book greatly contributed to my childish notions of romance and love when I was younger, which I guess is also a testament to how good this book is. It’s nothing revolutionary, but within its lane it absolutely kills it.

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris

If you are interested in a sarcastically and sometimes caustically funny collection of short essays, then read Me Talk Pretty One Day.

I read this book a few years ago and felt like reading it again because I really wanted to read the short poop story again, so we might as well get that out of the way first in this review because that story looms pretty large in my remembrance of this book. The poop story is tremendously fucking funny. It’s so short, just a few pages long, but it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. The source material is pretty good but what really makes the story work is the way it’s written. It traces a perfect arc of the dramatic structure, culminating in a perfect punchline, but more importantly, it is a gift for writers to be able to send the audience into the story, and I felt and empathized with his helplessness, all the while laughing at how absurd the entire situation is.

The rest of the stories are pretty funny too, and he’s had a lot of cool experiences that he makes a lot funnier through his observations, his wit, and his descriptive ability. Some of my favorites include: Go Carolina, Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities, You Can't Kill the Rooster, The Learning Curve, Big Boy (the aforementioned poop story),, Jesus Shaves, Make That a Double, Picka Pocketoni, and Smart Guy.

The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus - Paul Zanker

If you are interested in Augustan era Roman art (unlikely) or if you are interested in the power of art to influence society (much more likely) then read The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus.

I read this book for a paper in my Roman art and architecture class at Columbia, and specifically I mostly remember reading it on the way to the Met on the bus (I think maybe for the same class??). I remember that experience so vividly because I remember how much this book changed my perspective on art. I always understood that art could be influenced by politics, with lots of examples in contemporary art, like Warhol’s prints, and old pieces of propaganda (especially cartoons) that I studied in history, but this book helped me understand that in turn, art also has a huge influence on politics and society. Augustan art in particular is interesting, because it is pretty ugly (also the first thing my professor said in the first class). It’s just not that interesting to look at— they repeat a ton of very similar motifs, and there’s some creativity but very very restrained. What makes it interesting to study is how pervasive Augustan art was, both in depth and breadth, because it wasn’t at all an absolutely directed program of propaganda. Especially in the Roman provinces, people adopted that imagery because it was a way for them to Roman-ly flex, and as a result exposed themselves organically to the themes and stories Augustus wanted to portray. It shows that art is powerful!!! It can influence how people behave and think, and it is more than just a manifestation of society, society is also a manifestation of art.

Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets - Debra Satz

If you are interested in why some things should not be for sale then read Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sometimes (and this is especially true with non fiction) the titles are pretty descriptive…

Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale is about the moral limits of markets, specifically what she calls “noxious markets,” and provides a framework to explain what constitutes a noxious market, why some people inherently find certain markets distasteful, like selling organs, prostitution, or child labor, and what we should do about them.

Satz spends the first few chapters laying out some context and explaining previous theories on capitalism. She focuses mostly on classical liberal economics and the LTV, and specifically on how those theories considered the economy as more than just a set of exchange relationships between people, but rather understood the economy as having important effects on relationships with one another, democracy, and society. This means that even though some markets might drive us towards optimal efficiency, based on that there might be still reason to limit some markets or outright ban them (related to the idea of pareto efficiency).

In the next few chapters, she explains the four dimensions of her framework, split into two sources: weak agency, exploiting the most vulnerable, and two outcomes: extreme half to self, and extreme harm to society. If any market scores high on any of these dimensions (and several of the ones we mention score highly on multiple) then they can be considered a noxious market. In the rest of the book, she uses that framework to examine a bunch of different examples. I found it a really interesting read!! If any of that piqued your interest I think it’s definitely worth a shot because I really oversimplified her argument, and the book definitely changed my mind on free markets. Satz does a good job of making the concepts digestible, but this was still definitely a pretty difficult read and I had to reread a lot of sections and/or stop and google things while reading.

Tonight I’m Someone Else - Chelsea Hodson

If you are interested in moody short essays about desire and commodification and identity then read Tonight I’m Someone Else.

This is a really weird book to review, because I read this on the plane and I really like this book, but I also have no idea what this book is exactly about. It is a collection of personal essays, most of them relating in some way to desire and commodification. In these essays, Hodson explores feeling like a person and feeling like an object, and the ways in which desire, so deeply personal to everyone, can sometimes erase your identity when commodified (although honestly I have no idea if that’s right, like I said I’m not really sure how to pin down the themes of this book).

I like it a lot though because despite its weirdness, the essays feel deeply intimate, and they read in a really genuine way. Her personality and character shine through in the book, and it feels obvious that she really pored herself into these essays. She also writes a bunch of lines that are just wonderful to read and chew on, and even just the title of the book is great!! “Tonight I’m Someone Else” is so wonderfully evocative of the intoxicating thought of being able to transform yourself and become a different person, if only temporarily.

I don’t think me and Hodson are at all similar or that I would even like spending time with her, but I loved this tender distillation of her.

Some quotes I enjoyed (and I only went through 1/3 of my highlights):

  • Against all logic, I perceived touch from a burned hand as a form of greatness. I hope to make a mistake like that again someday.

  • Money can do that if you let it—if you close your eyes and enter its dream, the one where you are well dressed, fit, successful, in love with exactly the right person. The gym I used to belong to cost $30 a month, but sound judgment gets lost so easily in unhappiness: the new price seemed justifiable because I would have paid almost any price to become a new person.

  • I buy what I can’t afford; I idolize people who have nothing to do with me; I refuse to believe one thing leads to another, which is to say I don’t believe in logic, not all the time—not the way this world rotates and orbits. I feel slower than it, too poor to live in it; I want to sleep until I’m someone else.

  • I have listened to music I hated until I loved it. I have looked at ugly clothes so long they began appearing as desirable objects. I have lived in America so long that money started to seem like a good idea.

  • When I rode my bike alone at night in Tucson, it seemed as if I were the last person on earth. That’s a wonderful feeling if you’re a certain kind of person (I am).

  • I never remember feeling the pain of not sleeping. I just remember the joy of being awake with my friend when everyone else had given up.

  • I once loved so hard I almost lost everything, including his life, including my own. Only then did I realize: perhaps love’s physicality is death itself. I think I was taught that love, in its ideal form, is like a newborn baby: full of possibility, still warm from the heated privacy of the womb. But I think, at the end of my life, I won’t see a figure cloaked in black velvet or a swirling void waiting to take me—I will see the face of love. It will be a recognizable light, the one that lived behind all those other faces I knew up close, the light I suspected but could never prove. When I see the face of love, I won’t be afraid. I will see what I’ve been searching for all my life.

  • I think loving him that year was one of the best things I ever did.

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

If you like Gaiman’s particular brand of realistic mythology then read Anansi Boys.

I always like Gaiman's books because they’re wonderfully moody. He creates a really good atmosphere in his books where the fantasy easily coexists with reality, and intermingles in ways that make you believe magic and mythology are still alive and just around the corner, especially because so many of his protagonists are painfully ordinary. Anansi Boys is just like that. Charlie Nancy, a perfectly normal dude, finds out on a trip home that his dad was Anansi the spider and he has a brother that inherited all of Anansi’s godly powers. His brother enters his life, totally fuck its up, and Charlie has to figure out a way to restore normalcy to his life.

Like all the Gaiman books I’ve read so far, the premise is very cool, he knocks it out of the fucking park with his characters, his story telling, and his writing, and he wraps it all up in this very satisfying but not ass pull-y way, where things aren’t necessarily happily ever after but at least it’s good in a very gritty and real way. Anansi Boys is much more condensed than American Gods though, and also much more fleshed out than his short stories, so if you liked either types of his writing you’ll definitely enjoy Anansi Boys.