What I read in November

October went so well (reading-wise) that I decided to keep forging ahead in November.

A couple of these are super short, but having a very fast read mixed in with longer reads was nice. Not pictured: the three or four other books which I started and which will probably comprise most of my December pile (I hope).

We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is based on Adichie’s TED Talk of the same name. I read this as a refresher, and I’m glad to have a physical copy. However, if you’re interested in the content of this essay, go watch the talk instead. You will treat yourself to a humorous and illuminating presentation on modern feminism. If you have no idea what feminism means, I could find no better introduction.

Side note: I absolutely loved her novel Half a Yellow Sun, set in the 1960’s during the Nigeria’s Biafran War. It is on my list of greatest contemporary novels. Americanah is high on my list of reading for 2017 (if I don’t give in and read it sooner).

The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot

I read this twice, back-to-back, the second time out loud. It’s a poem, so you can get through it in less than half an hour, but that won’t be enough time to appreciate it. I can see why people compare reading poetry to taking shots: the good stuff can leave you feeling a little drunk.

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, Ben Yagoda

Brilliant and entertaining, I strongly recommend this to anyone who writes, reads, or does neither but still feels inclined to comment on other people’s grammar. Yagoda treads a confident line between grammatical prescriptivists (those sanctimonious pedants who correct idiomatic speech in casual conversation like they think the world will end if you say “feeling good”) and linguistic descriptivists (my my bent: so focused on describing the whys and hows of actual usage, that the final picture is too granular to be useful—we’re so focused on detail to allow that one person’s idiosyncrasies do not a broader trend make).

I liked Yagoda for the fun he had with language. He’s not shy about having opinions, even strong ones which he defends with passion and humor. But at the end of the day, you can still disagree with him, and feel like he would be OK with you disagreeing with him, because he’s a chill guy that way, and language is meant to be fun.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Woah. I read this in one 3-hour marathon, and it felt at times like a punch in the gut. Coates wrote this as a letter to his teenage son, and as such there is much here which is passionate, frightening, and tender. He opens describing an interview he had with a TV host where she asked him about words he’d written on race in the United States. And this request stirred up an old feeling that this white woman, along with her white audience, was asking him to wake her from a dream, and how the differences between that dream and the lives of black Americans lay at the heart of the problem our country has about race.

There’s a lot here to digest, but one of the points Coates made in his story which struck home for me has to do with the illusion of race. In his words:

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

And again:

In my survey course of America, I’d seen portraits of the Irish drawn in the same ravenous, lustful, and simian way. Perhaps there had been other bodies, mocked, terrorized, and insecure. Perhaps the Irish too had once lost their bodies. Perhaps being named “black” had nothing to do with any of this; perhaps being named “black” was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.

Again, this was an incredible book, and I feel any summary I could give would be incredibly inadequate. I would encourage everyone to go give it a read.

Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance

Reading this straight after Between the World and Me was exactly the right decision. I cannot help but compare the two, for better or for worse, but mostly for better, I think.

The theme these books hold in common is poverty. One deals with poverty and race, the other with poverty and class. Obviously, the two are related, but Vance spends very little time talking about race.

The key difference I noticed between these two memoirs (beyond the obvious), is how Coates describes his own African-American heritage as something pervasive, something which he has been conscious of at almost every turn. Vance, on the other hand, though living in a world shaped by his hillbilly ancestry, remained in many ways unaware of it until he reached a more mature age and saw more of the world.

Vance also makes a compelling point about hillbilly culture: no one feels any particular qualms about leveling scorn and derision on poor white communities. You do not have to look very far to find self-described, “open-minded liberals” openly ridiculing “white trash” for their idiocy, dysfunctional home lives, drug abuse, etc.

While Vance does not excuse people in his culture from their social failings, he does make several important points. The first is about learned helplessness: that the more chaotic and unpredictable and environment is, the less control people in that environment feel they have over their lives. This becomes a learned mindset—one which is all the more powerful because of ways in which their lived experience enforces it. The second is about governmental approaches to poverty, and how many of the people making laws intended to help poor people don’t understand enough about their situation to make effective laws, and actually end up doing more harm than good. Finally, Vance talks about the difficulties of transitioning out of poverty when no one in your community has “made it,” specifically how many things middle and upper class people take for granted which poor people don’t know how to do because no one has ever been around to tell them about it.

Many people have described this one as essential reading, and I concur. Again: read it alongside Between the World and Me. You won’t regret it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Screenplay)

This suffered greatly from the lack of Eddie Redmayne. I was mostly curious to see how a screenplay read, and I’m now even more curious to see how similar it was to the one they had in place before they started filming. I didn’t notice any discrepancies between the final, published screenplay and the movie, yet I’d always assumed that some things change between planning them out in a document and then filming and editing them.

As for the story, it’s meant to be seen on screen (again: Eddie Redmayne), so I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. I did, however, like the illustrations. I felt they made the book a neat thing to physically own.