What I read in October

I got a lot of reading done last month.

In fact, it was about the only part of last month where I truly succeeded, instead of just treading water. I started and finished three major reads, while also clearing a history book which had been weighing down my non-fiction progress for months, then polished off a light motivational book for good measure. Most of this is the product of my “read for a half-hour in the morning” rule, but I’ve also noticed that reading tends to create its own momentum: the more you get through, the more you want to keep going.

I meant to publish this earlier and keep my review of each book pretty short, but obviously that didn’t happen. And now that it’s nearly December and I’ll soon have to publish my review of November reading, I thought I should get this out there. So, that said, here’s the run-down:

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

I’d wanted to read this for a long time. I remembered a friend of mine raving about this back in high school, and ever since it’s been gnawing at me. At the end of August I went out to New York for a family reunion, and my cousin pointed at this in a bookshop and said it was a favorite. So I bought it. And then I read it, because I wanted to be able to tell her I’d gotten to it promptly, and because the timing seemed propitious.

I devoured the first half. The book has one of the best first sentences in literature, and a lot of what followed after felt incredibly close to some of my own experiences of the past few years. For the whole New York segment, I felt ready to declare this one of my top favorites.

And then the second half hit. Hard.

It isn’t that the second half of the book is somehow worse than the first, it’s just that you can’t enjoy it in the same way. Which is largely the point, I believe. You come to empathize with Esther in the first part of the book, and then when the bell jar descends (the metaphor Plath uses to describe depression), you feel as if you are inside it yourself. The book becomes stifling, all the impressions alien and disjointed. Reading it made me feel a little sick at times.

The Bell Jar gives you a chance to feel what clinical depression is like on the inside. It’s not an experience you’re meant to enjoy, but incredibly valuable nonetheless.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

Another cousin recommendation. I can’t believe I didn’t read this sooner, and I am not surprised by the number of people who have told me since that it is their favorite book.

I love Francie, and I have nothing but awe and respect for Katie. At first I thought the book would remain a somewhat rambling account of daily life in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, which I enjoyed for the first fifty pages, but the more the book went on the more I felt drawn in and unwilling to leave it be. Definitely it had some exciting moments that went way beyond the level of intensity I expected, given the subject matter. Again: Katie is my hero.

The book is full of memorable moments, but the two that hit me most are the scene between Francie and her teacher when the teacher tells her that her subject matter in her writing assignments is sordid, and asks her to write about more beautiful topics. Man, I feel all of Francie’s anger in that moment, and then the story she tries to write when she goes home cracks me up. But my favorite bit is when she comes back to wish Miss Gardner goodbye after graduation:

“In time to come, you’ll see I was right, Frances.” Francie said nothing. “Won’t you?” Miss Gardner asked sharply.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Francie went out of the room. She did not hate Miss Gardner anymore. She didn’t like her, but she felt sorry for her. Miss Gardner had nothing in all the world excepting a sureness about how right she was.

Damn. I know some people like that. Shit, am I like that? Damn.

Anyway, my other favorite part is when Francie gets her heart broken. That sounds cruel, but it also resonated with an experience I’d had once, so that made for some good catharsis.

Two side-notes that have nothing to do with the book’s literary merit in any way:

1. I’ve long been an advocate for using singular they as a useful and convenient gender-neutral pronoun. Honestly, it’s not like we don’t already have a pronoun that doubles as both singular and plural (you), and singular they has a rich usage in English literature, appearing in many of our greatest works. Sadly, Betty Smith was not such a fan, and I found her decision to adopt a male pronoun irritating to the point of distraction in this passage:

“I don’t know, Mother. I don’t know anything. And I don’t want to talk about anything any more. Please go away. Please go away and let me alone.”

Katie went back to bed.


Well, a person can cry only so long. Then he has to do something else with his time. It was five o’clock. Francie decided it was no use going to bed; she’d have to get up again at seven.

Seriously. This doesn’t even require the epicene pronoun. Even though we’ve moved from a conversation between two women to a wider statement about people generally, the specifics of the statement signal to the reader that we’re still really talking about Francie here. Why not just use she/her?

2. SPOILER ALERT: the book ends with Francie going to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I guess Betty Smith lived in Ann Arbor for a while. Even though I know that U of M is a famous institution, it never ceases to feel strange to hear it referenced elsewhere as a famous institution.

Essentialism, Greg McKeown

Most of this book I already knew, but it served as a good reminder to keep my priorities straight. You can sum this up as: put first things first. Also: focusing your energy on one thing will get you a lot farther than dividing your energy among a number of other things.

My biggest gain from this book was that it helped remind me to think more carefully about all the things I’m trying to do in my life. I know I do too much. I know I can’t be awesome at everything. I’m definitely on track to be a “jack of all trades, master of none,” but I can’t seem to give anything up. I want to know everythingdo everythingbe everything. And unfortunately, if I could name a definite thing I think I should be, that thing requires developed skills across multiple specialties, so…

Bottom line: I’ll be mulling on this for a while as I try to figure out my priorities.

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

This was a Christmas gift, and boy was it a timely read. I’d heard it originally described as “Scout goes back to her home town and finds out Atticus is kinda racist.”

As a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, that didn’t sound too appealing.

Then someone else suggested that it is about the importance of forming your own moral compass, rather than outsourcing your conscience to someone else. This is much closer to the novel’s actual subject matter, and it’s something that resonated with me a lot.

Bigotry, specifically Scout’s bigotry, forms another key theme, and one especially worth reiterating. Scout, in all her self-righteous furor, spends much of the novel storming around town, casting moral aspersions on beloved family members, and refusing to let other characters finish a sentence. While she has the moral high ground, she’s still a a bigot.

Bigotry is a mindset. It’s a mindset that tends to harness itself to more identifiably repulsive attitudes (racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.), but it can also be found right alongside nobler world views. Scout holds strong beliefs, and her intentions are commendable. But she has also come from a bubble which has prejudiced her views toward people from her own hometown. It’s made her just as close-minded—and therefore hypocritical—as those she rages against. That’s what makes her a bigot.

On the whole, the book is under-written, which makes sense: Lee wrote it as the original draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and never intended to publish it. Some scenes seem out of place, others don’t align with what we know from the chronologically earlier novel. Boo Radley isn’t ever mentioned, and Scout has an uncle who seems to have played a significant role in her childhood, but who never makes an appearance in Mockingbird. There are also one or two poorly-considered clichés, and some moments that feel oddly and painfully dated considering the longevity of its prequel. So it suffers by comparison, but is still worth the read.

The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, James C. Scott

I had this one most of the way finished when the month started, so polishing this off was really a matter of getting through the last two chapters and conclusion. I struggled a lot here trying to keep straight all the Zomian hill tribes he talks about, but it’s been a useful reference point for some of my other reading.

The book focuses on the relationship between ungoverned hill societies and their “civilized” valley counterparts. Scott focuses on a region of southeast Asia comprised of parts of China, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, and maybe some other countries in there, all of which has been dubbed Zomia by some other historian whom I haven’t read.

Key takeaways:

  • Lowland narratives tend to equate civilization with governance. However, from the hill perspective, foregoing “civilization” in order to avoid state rule is a perfectly reasonable political statement. This is true whether you’re speaking of highland vs. lowland clans in Scotland, the hillbillies of Appalachia, or the inhabitants of Zomia.
  • The barrier between governed and non-governed peoples is quite porous. People from the hills come down to the cities for various motives, but the reverse also happens. While many lowland societies like to form a narrative that depicts stateless peoples as remnants of an older, not-yet-civilized ancestor race, the truth is that many of these people can be much more recent transplants, formed of those seeking to leave civilized society in preference for the hills, who bring with them some of their lowland ways. In one language, lowland societies refer to the civilized vs. the uncivilized as being “cooked” vs. “raw,” the implication being that once something raw becomes cooked, it can never go back to being raw. Research shows that, in reality, “cooked” peoples often do choose to become “raw.”
  • I was fascinated by the role of agriculture and geography in facilitating governed vs. ungoverned lifestyles. Certain grains (in this case: wet rice) require more cultivation, and produce dense yields. This allows for densely-populated groups of people with very low mobility, and a grain yield which can be easily measured and taxed. Many hill tribes, by contrast, grow food that do not require much cultivation and which are hard to tax. As one example: sweet potatoes can be planted in a clearing and then basically abandoned until harvest. And, because they’re below ground, they’re very hard to count and subsequently tax.
  • The bit about writing and oral histories was most fascinating for me. Especially how many hill societies have mythologies about writing and literacy being either lost or stolen from them at some point in time. Also, the way in which they may intentionally bend an oral history to be politically expedient.

Overall: dense reading, but valuable if the topic is of interest to you.