Book Reviews: February and March ’20

Hi guys! It’s so nice to be back to writing and putting energy into creating something a few times per week. I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired in February, so I took a break (I don’t want this to be a chore, so I am not too regimented about posting on a schedule). Now we’re almost a month into quarantine during the Coronavirus pandemic and while I’ve had the time, I just haven’t felt it. Now I’m back in the groove and excited to get back to it.

I’ve read so many books in the past few months even before we were staying at home 24/7, and while many of the have been inadvertently very sad picks, some were truly fantastic reads. These are the books I read in February and in the first two weeks of quarantine in late March.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Historical Fiction/Fiction, 2017). This book is a long one, but I finished it while traveling to visit my parents (airports and planes are the best place to read, because what else are you doing?). It clocks in at just under 500 pages. It follows the journey of Sunja – an impoverished, fatherless young girl in Korea in the early 1900s. She is impregnated by a kind, wealthy man who then reveals that he is already married. A kindly minister who is extremely sick is nursed back to health while staying with Sunja’s family marries her and raises her son as his own. They relocate to Japan and the story follows the challenges of being Korean in Japan through World War II and following. The story is heart wrenchingly sad and the entire time you’re thinking, “can’t this girl catch a freaking break?” but it exposed some elements of Korean and Japanese culture and racism that I was not aware of. The overall message of the book is how challenging it is to be born poor, born a woman and born in a country that would be torn apart by war and resettle and restart your life as a foreigner. It definitely makes you think in a current context about how unwelcoming we can be as Americans to individuals who end up here and have difficult circumstances as no fault of their own.

Do You Mind if I Cancel? Things that Still Annoy Me by Gary Janetti (Humor/Memoir, 2019) I had heard this book was funny and rented it from the library despite not actually knowing who Gary Janetti actually was. Gladly, the book is hilarious whether you know who he is or not. The short (159) page collection of short essays follows chapters of Gary Janetti’s youth and early career. He is well known as a writer and producer for Family Guy and Will and Grace, among other shows, and his humor shines through. It was snarky, a bit mean and made me laugh out loud. The best part (in my opinion) was the chapter where he has a near nervous breakdown after being so excited to see Patti Lupone in Evita on Broadway only to find out that the performance he is attending has an understudy in her place. You can read that chapter here, and if it piques your humor, you’ll love this book.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (Historical Fiction/Fiction, 2018). I bought this book to read on my flight home from visiting my parents because I finished Pachinko way faster than I thought humanly possible, but then I made the grave error of starting this book before I left my parents and it was SO GOOD AND CAPTIVATING that I finished 50% of it before I even got on the plane home. The story follows Leni and her parents Cora and Ernt as they move from Oregon to a remote part of Alaska in the 1970s. Leni’s father is a Vietnam era veteran and is clearly displaying some symptoms of both alcoholism and PTSD, but both escape diagnosis in this decade. The family is grossly unprepared for the challenges of life in Alaska, but thankfully they find community and friends in the wild. As Leni’s father unravels mentally, she and her mother face danger being alone with him. This book is hard to put down, parts are difficult to read and trying to wrap your brain around what these women must have felt and feared is terrifying. This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.

WomanCode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive, and Become a Power Source by Alisa Vitti (Health/Non-Fiction, 2013). This book will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as I talked about in a post a few months ago, I’m trying to adapt my diet to eat more intuitively in alignment with my hormonal needs. Without being TMI about things, I went off of the birth control pill after more than a decade of being on it and found this book to be tremendously informative about how to nourish your body with the best foods each part of your cycle and what exercise best serves your energy levels. I skimmed the chapters of interest to me, but photocopied the pages on nutritional information and referred back to them often recently.

Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the “Real” America by Dante Chinni and James Gimpel (Non-fiction/Politics/Sociology, 2010). In keeping with my theme of finishing books ‘too quickly’, I borrowed this book from my mom to read on the plane as I kept completing all of my travel reading ahead of schedule. Such an Ally problem to have, honestly. This book is one my mom has been suggesting I read for years and while the political context was sorely outdated (we truly live in a different world a decade later), she was right – I loved the methodology behind it. The authors attempt to subdivide the United States into non-contiguous “nations” by identifying common traits such as education levels, religion, employment types and diversity. The result are twelve nations and the authors break down at the County level nationally where these nations exist within the boundaries of our actual nation. The book itself, written just as President Obama was first elected, is drastically different than the world we live in now. However, the data on the Patchwork Nation website is up to date and you can learn about the twelve nations and identify which nation your County is a part of. If you’re a mega sociology and politics geek, consider reading the book. If not – check out the website.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Fiction/Short Stories, 2008). This book was acclaimed at the time it came out, but it didn’t really strike a chord with me. The book is a collection of short stories each told from the different perspective of a character in the small town in Maine where they all live. Each character has interactions with Olive – a retired teacher, socially inept and overweight woman in an unhappy marriage. The concept was an interesting one, but it didn’t do it for me.

Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. by Brene Brown (Non-Fiction/Leadership, 2018). We read this book in our work book club (we read books on leadership and organizational dynamics quarterly) and I didn’t love it. It was actually a drag to get through, if I’m being honest. To be fair, if you are writing a workplace self help book, you pretty much HAVE to highlight how great the workplace culture of your company is, otherwise you won’t sell any books. That being said, I was rolling my eyes virtually the entire book. The positive takeaways (see, I’ll be nice!) that I had were that strong leaders lean in to tough conversations and find growth in discomfort. I also want to start applying the practice of “defining what done looks like” in my team interactions. This book is really highly acclaimed and it probably is better liked by non cynical people!

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) (Mystery/Crime, 2014). I just discovered the Cormorant Strike novels in January, which are mysteries by J. K. Rowling, but under the pen name Robert Galbraith. The first, The Cuckoo’s Calling, I read in January and couldn’t put down. The second, The Silkworm, was good, but not as good as the first. I listened to this in an audiobook format and it was harder to get sucked in for me. That being said, the plot was gruesome and unpredictable. If you like mysteries, this one puzzled me and I would not have guessed the ending. The writing style is far less happy and drenched in meaning than Harry Potter, so don’t seek out these books looking for more of that style of writing. I’m impressed by Rowling’s ability to flex her writing muscle in so different of a direction.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Thriller/Fiction, 2020). This book absolutely gutted me. Oprah’s book club pick from January 2020 has encountered some controversy. Critics argue that this book, painting a gruesome picture of a Mexican mother and son on the run from a violent drug cartel that murdered their entire extended family and sought refuge in the United States, is a story that should not be told by a white author. I see the point and recognize that there are cultural implications for stories of persons of color being told through a white lens of perspective, but that doesn’t change the fact that this book was superb. The book was difficult to put down – I finished it in about two days – and made me cry multiple times. I think there are two lessons to take away from this book and from the controversy surrounding it (this is my opinion, so please don’t hate me for it!):

  1. We need to understand that it is important to create space for creators (authors, television producers, movie writers, etc.) who are of color. These inherently white and male-dominated spaces are hard enough for women to break into, let alone persons of color or women of color.
  2. We need to recognize that telling stories of other people’s suffering and profiting off of that telling can be seen as a form of cultural appropriation. These are arguably not our stories to tell.

I did really enjoy this book and would recommend that people read it despite that fact. I challenge people to seek out books by persons of color. I also challenge you, if you read this book, to consider the lens from which you have viewed refugees and invisible communities of Latin-x refugees who have resettled in the United States.

That’s all for this post, I’ll be back soon with a recap of what I’m reading in quarantine.

1 thought on “Book Reviews: February and March ’20”

  1. What a diverse set of books! I really want to read Pachinko, it sounds fascinating, if very sad. I think your two lessons from American Dirt are great – I haven’t read it yet, but the controversy had made me hesitant to pick it up.


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