This book reminds me so much of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Two women obsessed with unsolved murders to the point where their lives become intertwined with the stories. Becky Cooper, a Harvard undergrad, hears bits and pieces of a story about a murder that occurred forty years ago. Jane Britton, a 23-year-old grad student in Harvard’s anthropology department was murdered in her apartment, but the rumor mill spins out a different version where she was found dead in the Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, killed by a professor after threatening to reveal their affair. Cooper begins a slow descent into researching Jane’s life and death becoming so enthralled with finding the truth that she begins merging Jane’s story into her own. In addition to searching for the truth for Jane, Cooper also uncovers an unsurprising amount of misogyny among the elite academics at Harvard. She relates story after story of women’s attempts to climb the academic ladder thwarted by men in positions of power and the silencing culture that an institution like Harvard seems to cultivate. I enjoyed the mystery of Jane’s life and death, but Cooper clearly devoted a huge chunk of her young adult life to this story, and she certainly does it justice but in excruciating detail. I was ready for things to move faster about halfway through, but it just kept slogging along. I applaud Cooper’s dedication and due diligence but can’t say I felt enough of the same mystique and draw to keep me entertained the whole way through this.
I’ve been a big Davis Sedaris fan for the last few years after only discovering him embarrassingly late in life. His sarcasm, wit, and self-deprecating humor slay me in every single thing he writes. The Best of Me is a compilation of some of his best work; some I’ve read before and some were new to me. The thing I love the most about Sedaris is that in addition to writing about the outrageousness of every day observation, he also sneaks in these really poignant thoughts about life, death, family, love, and general human behavior. Although many of his stories are tinged with darkness, he’s an open book about family details, infusing absurdity with deep melancholy when relating anecdotes about his mother’s alcoholism, sister’s suicide, and the rocky relationship he has with his father. My favorite parts of this collection include “Me Talk Pretty One Day” when he tries to explain Easter in French to a Moroccan student; his sister, Lisa’s pet parrot that he refers to as the “little fatso living in my sister’s kitchen”; the neighbors who have no TV and show up for trick-or-treat on the wrong night forcing young David to give up some of his own hoard; and the beach house called the “sea-section.” My all-time favorite story was included in this collection and is a riotous scene where Sedaris is living in the French countryside when some tourists stop for directions as he’s trying to drown a rat in a bucket of water on the front porch. After the tourist comes through the front door, Sedaris starts to realize all of the ways in which his home reflects that of a serial killer. I’ve come across this one many times over the years, and I crack up over and over again. An enjoyable collection that just further cements Sedaris as a master humorist in the literary world. It’s David’s world, and we’re just laughing through it.
This contemporary novel reveals the voices of twelve different Native characters living in Oakland, California as each struggles to come to grips with his or her identity, history, and heritage while living in an urban community. Tommy Orange interweaves the experience of modern urban Natives with the calling of tradition as all of the characters make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. They’re all connected in one way or another and reflect the true complexity and variety of Native culture. I really could not get into this. I appreciated the overall theme of the book, but felt disoriented by the shallow characterization and lack of historical background. For example, one of the characters discusses her experience during the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, and I was completely lost. I don’t know enough about this historical event and felt adrift because it wasn’t explained. I guess I would have a better appreciation for this one if I had more historical context, and It did inspire me to do some research. There are a lot of characters, and this is a short book. I just couldn’t really connect with them, and it read more like individual short stories than a novel with the exception of the very end when things come together. I think the goal was to show all of the characters’ varied lives and experiences in a modern setting and not focus on history as much, but I still felt disconnected along the way.
The Wheelan family are my heroes. They quit their lives for nine months and traveled around the world on a gap year adventure. Not only were their experiences hilarious and exciting, but Charles Wheelan also details how they managed to make it happen along with the disastrous and wonderful parts of each leg of the trip. The trip included Charles, his wife, and their three teenage children. Now of course, a trip like this comes from a certain amount of privilege, and Wheelan does discuss this when explaining how they made their arrangements. They rented their home to relatives who also wanted an adventure in a different state. They found people willing to keep their family pets. The oldest daughter took a classic gap year before her first year of college, and the other two teens completed online school from various parts of the world. Wheelan and his wife take sabbaticals from their jobs in the academic world. They crafted a strict budget and stuck to it. The amount of planning this trip must have taken sends my head spinning but also excites me to another realm. I had daydreams about doing this before I read this book, and now it’s a full-on obsession. Wheelan is funny and presents as the typical embarrassing dad-joke kind of guy. His kids (like all teens) are equal parts bratty, intelligent, loving, sentimental, kind, and all-around great young people. Wheelan doesn’t shy away from sharing the tough parts about adventure travel. One of his daughters gets a flesh-eating bacterial infection. They get swindled in India. They lose two kids (temporarily) in Colombia. Wheelan’s banter with his kids is so familiar and made me smile over and over again. If you like travel, this book will stir your spirit.
I simultaneously hated these characters and loved them beyond words. Jayne is a hot struggling mess of a person. She moves from Texas to New York City to attend fashion school bringing a collection of baggage that new scenery can’t shake off. She lives in a dump of an apartment, illegally rented and mostly disgusting. Her boyfriend is a tool who continues to use her, and her friends are inauthentic. She’s honestly just a sad sack with zero motivation to pull herself out of suffering. Her misery is raw. She’s a real character with deep self-loathing and pain that seeps out of the pages like blood from a wound. Jayne is emotionally estranged from her Korean parents and avoids her sister, June at all costs even though she also lives in New York City. She struggles to make sense of the disconnect she has with her culture, her body and the eating disorder she slowly reveals, her sibling bond or lack thereof, and the painful childhood she endured while living in Texas with immigrant parents. June reveals that she has uterine cancer, and Jayne has to come to terms with what this means for her family, her sister, and herself. June lives in a high-rise, has expensive clothes, an impressive city job, and is everything that Jayne is not. June’s cancer diagnosis not only reveals her fragility, but it also gives way to the cracks in her exacting veneer.
Although this is ultimately Jayne’s story, the sisters are each portrayed in all manner of real characterization: good, bad, and sometimes really ugly. They’re each hilarious, vulgar, self-involved, sensitive, impulsive, loving; they’re all of these things and more. I appreciate how the author, Mary H.K. Choi, doesn’t paint each sister in one single hue but rather shows each dappled in her own colors that vary by day and mood like real people are in ordinary life. This book is moody for all the right reasons, and I found it to be odd, repulsive, mesmerizing, and wonderful. It’s unique in a way that it’s not quite comparable to anything else I’ve read, and for that, I’m smitten.
The Killer's Shadow: The FBI's Hunt for a White Supremacist Serial Killer by John E. Douglas, Mark Olshaker
This was an interesting look at how criminal profiling got its start and ultimately helped track a white supremacist serial killer in the 1970s. Joseph Paul Franklin robbed banks, bombed targets, and killed people sniper-style. He targeted interracial couples, Black, Jews, and anyone he deemed the antithesis to his racist and Anti-Semitic views including Larry Flynt and President Jimmy Carter. Author, John Douglas was the profiler who hunted Franklin. He and Olshaker discuss Franklin’s background and how his hatred turned criminal. Douglas’ detailed analysis and detective work narrowed Franklin’s escape options until he was finally caught and eventually executed. It’s so amazing how profilers can make strikingly accurate predictions about serial killers by studying every detail of their lives and crimes. Douglas discusses other killers in comparison to Franklin and used all of his interviews to further hone the craft of criminal profiling. Franklin is not a name talked about much in the sensationalized crime media world. It was also disturbing to read how many Black lives were taken over the course of so many years before the FBI got really serious about stopping Franklin. It took suspicions about him targeting President Carter before Franklin became a larger priority. Douglas makes sure to point out how quickly words of hate can escalate into deeper criminal behavior and how this is playing out in today’s social media culture.
Stamped is one of the most meticulously researched books I’ve ever read. At almost 600 pages, it’s one you really need to own in print so you can underline and take notes for future reference. Ibram X. Kendi lays out the history of racist thought in America, revealing strategies that have failed to produce change and those that have perpetuated racism. He emphasizes that the self-interest of intelligent people creates policies that are racist and in turn preserves racist ideas. Racism has not and will not be eliminated or explained away through education. As long as racism continues to benefit the people who have the power to abolish it, they will never choose to eliminate it. America can only be antiracist when antiracists are in power and their policies become law.
Kendi examines this through the lens of five prominent people in history including Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. Mather founded a philosophical society and crafted racist ideas as the first assimilationist. Mather pushed the religious justification that Christianity could make blacks better slaves, and by turning to this Christian God, blacks could be uplifted toward whiteness in their souls. Jefferson loathed slavery but feared losing his way of life filled with lavish hypocrisy. His views were contradictory, both abolitionist and racist as many of his writings included his thoughts on black inferiority. Garrison was considered radical because of his beliefs for immediate emancipation, yet he still shared the racist belief that blacks were inferior. The racial science theory of polygenesis begins to push the agenda that blacks are a different species. Black features are bad or ugly, and white is better. I found Kendi’s examination of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be really interesting. He points out the racist views that this book categorized blacks as soulful and whites as the source of intellect. Although black, DuBois consumed racist ideas. He went to a white owned college with all white professors and believed that racism could be educated away. His famous book, The Souls of Black Folk enforced the racist idea of blacks having different characteristics – soulful and having a simple faith, whereas whites are portrayed as smart and strong. A new strategy develops that in order for blacks to change racist minds, they have to command white respect. When positive portrayals of blacks were used in media, racist whites often just dismissed it as extraordinary exceptions. DuBois spent his whole life urging blacks to uplift to white standards, but by the age of 65, he had turned to an almost completely antiracist viewpoint. He saw his life’s work urging moral uplift and education had changed virtually nothing when it comes to racist ideas in America. He began arguing for black empowerment instead of education and integration. Davis became active in the black power movement and is one of the most famous female antiracist academics.
This book was insanely long and tedious to read, but I also felt enlightened in a whole new way from slogging through this dense history. It helped me understand how the complex issue of racism has been able to keep its grip on this country and a better approach for the future. Angela Davis really sums it up best. “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
Oof. This book is absolutely crazy but not in a good way. It’s sheer nonsense; a psychological thriller that turns an about-face on itself so many times that it becomes a swirling dervish of nonsensical plot. What did I even just read? I will say that it started off exciting. I was immediately intrigued as the book picks up with a woman whose husband has two other wives. All of them are assumed white. She’s aware of the other women, and each one gets a day of the week to spend with Seth. Thursday is the wife telling the story. She agreed to the arrangement from the start and knows nothing about the other women, not even their names. This must be some kind of man. Sheesh. Eventually Thursday turns curious about the other wives after finding something in Seth’s pocket with a woman’s name on it. She tracks down one of the wives and befriends her without revealing her identity. Thursday discovers that this other wife who is also pregnant has bruises all over her arms, and she begins to question if Seth is really the man of her dreams. Now all of this sounds exciting right? Polygamy, sleuthing, abuse, jealous wife… all the makings of a good thriller. Not so fast reader! You start to realize early on that the narrator is unreliable. But as this is developed, you also start to realize that this book has every trope and the kitchen sink. It’s too much: unreliable narrator who also drinks a lot, a mental institution, domestic abuse, plot twists, blah, blah, blah. There are much better titles out there in the pysch thriller genre, but this reminds me of something you’d find in an airport that you’d only grab if there are no other choices and you’re a little desperate, cranky, and about to be late for your flight.
Colin Jost has somehow mastered the human race – handsome, hilarious, intelligent, self-deprecating, and then he writes this book filled with poignant and outrageous musings and life experiences in a way that compels me to read it multiple times. I never re-read books. Ever. But I would for this man. I’ve always found him funny and likable on SNL, especially when Leslie Jones was involved on Weekend Update, but now I find him admirable. His life story is really interesting, and he tells so many ridiculous stories that sometimes it’s hard to believe they’re even real. I laughed out loud throughout the entire book and really enjoyed the format. He moves somewhat chronologically and saves the SNL parts for the end, but I snort-laughed over the sour cream museum (name he gives to an old couple he was forced to live with while abroad in Russia), waking up in a graveyard after mistaking it for a park, and the references to his whiteness including mayonnaise yeti and milquetoast. I teared up over the section where he talks about his mom’s heroic actions and miraculous, near-death moments when the towers fell on September 11. I was also thoroughly grossed out by the numerous injuries he shares details about; the crowning glory being that time he got mysterious bites on his legs while in Central America, and they turned into festering egg nests. I appreciated the laughs and the intelligence of the whole book. I’m definitely a Jost fan now.
This verse novel left me wrecked. Safia Elhillo’s writing is so elegant and intense that I had chills the whole way through. I’m not typically into verse novels, but I wanted to pick one up in honor of National Poetry Month for April. What a standout. Run to the book store or grab your digital reader; it’s worth the rush. Nima lives in America but feels like an outsider. She struggles with identity and clings to the idea of a life she was meant to have instead of this one filled with isolation and post 9/11 harassment. She wears the same dirty sweatshirt every day, doesn’t engage with her classmates, and endures bullying and physical harassment. Naima’s mother was an immigrant from an unnamed Muslim country, and as Nima feels detached from both her mother and her American life, she begins to imagine a parallel universe ushered by her alter-ego, Yasmeen. Yasmeen’s father is alive and lives in their Arabic-speaking homeland filled with family, friends, music, and dancing. Nima is disillusioned and adrift in her present life. She’s angry and unable to accept why her mother brought her to this country. In America, she views her mother from afar with sadness and frustration, but when she travels “home” with Yasmeen, she sees her as a dancer full of life and promise. But as Yasmeen pulls back the curtain of this past life like the spirits in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Nima begins to also see the cloudy, wavering parts of the mirage. This life she thought she was meant to have is not what she had conjured up in her longings. Yasmeen reveals a darkness that helps Nima embrace her present, reconnect with her mother and family in America, and discover her identity in ways that satisfy both her love for nostalgia but also her desire to belong. Nima’s home is what she makes for herself. I can’t stop thinking about the beauty of this book. It’s both gentle and shocking at the same time. I ached for Nima and her mother as they circled their distant relationship, never quite reaching one another. Elhillo’s book provides countless avenues for thoughtful reflection and is going straight to my “new loves” shelf.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.