The Self-Help Shelves

By Helga Weber via Flickr Creative Commons

For some reason the last time I went to the library I binged out a little on self-help books. There was Uncertainty, a book about working through your fears around creative endeavors; as well as The Highly Sensitive Person, which talked about how to navigate the world as someone who is easily overstimulated by common activities; and finally The 4-Hour Work Week, which will supposedly teach me the magic formula to work productivity.

I’m not in any particular crisis, and I didn’t feel any deep need to be reading self-help books this October, but for some reason these all piqued my interest. I realized that I enjoy breaking up my fiction and heavy nonfiction reading with a little supportive, easy-to-follow self-help. Sure, these types of books seem to start repeating each other if you read too many of them at once, but every now and then it’s nice to get a little reminder of ways you could be making your life run just a tad more smoothly.

Do you ever find yourself browsing the self-help section for no real reason?

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Review)

There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.
From Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The more I read of Adichie’s work the more I fall in love with her prose and the type of characters she creates. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie takes us to Nigeria at the beginning of a devastating civil war in which one half vies for independence from the other.

Enter three main characters (yep, not one, not two, but three) — Ugwu, a servant from a small Nigerian village; Olanna, an attractive, wealthy Nigerian woman whom he serves; and Richard, a white British expat who finds himself involved with Olanna’s family.

I was sure at first that I would get incredibly confused and bored by the number of main characters Adichie brought into the book, plus a number of ancillary and important secondary protagonists. But Adichie wields her characters with ease, developing them through long sections in the beginning and then interspersing them with each other more freely as the novel progresses.

Olanna and her twin sister Kainene remind me of Ifemelu from Americanah, for those who have read other books by Adichie. But they are also subtly different, with different baggage and ambitions in life. For a work that is over 400 pages, the words really flew past, and I found myself halfway through before I realized it.

The war itself is fascinating and horrifying. I was surprised (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) that I had never heard of Biafra (which fought for independence from Nigeria) or much at all really about internal conflicts between different ethnic groups in the country. It makes me remember how limited of a history education we Americans receive in grade school.

I love Adichie for fully absorbing me into another place and another time with her well-crafted work.


An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Review)

In An Untamed State, a Haitian-American woman named Mireille is kidnapped on a visit to the country of her heritage and held for ransom. Her father refuses to pay the ransom and as a result she is subject to all manner of atrocious cruelties. When she is finally set free, she must figure out how to find her way back to herself.

Almost as soon as I started reading An Untamed State I wanted to know if Roxane Gay was writing from fact of fiction. And while I may never know the full answer to that question, there is definitely some fact involved. Gay was gang raped at a young age, and I can’t but imagine how creating this book must have been both incredibly challenging and incredibly necessary for catharsis.

I am almost unsure how to review this book. I can’t quite say that I liked it, given the terrible situations and subject matter that surrounds Mireille. But at the same time, I’m am glad that I read it. The book is about not just the terrible things, but also how to come back from tragedy and trauma in an ever-uncertain world. Mireille is not someone who gives in to life easily, and she strays from the typical “damsel in distress” female protagonist.

One interesting aspect of the book was the way it was able to engage in a class, race, and gender conversation. Mireille and her husband are deeply in love, but at times their different cultures divide them. Mireille loved the Haiti of her childhood, but she also knows that it was coated in privilege and the necessity of keeping others out. Mireille’s gender makes her vulnerable to men in a way she will never be able to completely control. Gay explores all of these tensions with compelling, clear prose.

I also love the cover on this work. The image of an attractive woman looking backward while running away from something that you can’t see captures the essence of what the book is about. I’d love to know how others felt about reading this work, particularly women. I will definitely be reading Gay’s other book out, Bad Feminist.


Virunga by the Stanford University Graphic Novel Project (Review)

I’m going to preface my review by saying that this book was put together almost entirely by a bunch of undergraduates taking a class in college. I say that not because I’m about to give it a bad review, but because I’m actually about to give it quite a good one, and I want to acknowledge that it means a lot.

I’ve owned a copy of Virunga for a loooong time. I picked it up for free at the release party years ago, but, while it seemed interesting, I pretty much put it on a shelf for years until rather recently when I watched the documentary of the same title (but no affiliation) and re-remembered the graphic novel. The movie had struck me with the visual beauty and scale of the giant national park, as well as the intensity of the conflict over resources and money in the region.

The graphic novel follows a young girl named Malika who lives in a refugee camp. Her uncle makes coal from old growth trees, which is illegal, but helps keep the refugees alive by giving them much needed heat for cooking and other life needs. Malika draws gorillas and the people she encounters to help deal with the loss of contact with her parents and the daily stresses of the refugee camp.

She meets a bunch of rangers one day in the forest, rangers who are keeping tabs on a different armed rebel groups and trying to stop poaching. All of these characters rely on each other in some way in a complicated ecosystem where right and wrong are hard to decipher.

The book would have been interesting even as an ordinary novel, but the fact that it is a graphic one of course adds something extra. The illustrations lend extra personality to each of the characters and help control the pace of the story — when to pause over a dramatic moment, and when to keep reading onto the next frame.

After reading Virunga I really want to pick up another graphic novel, maybe Persepolis, which I’ve been meaning to get to for a while as well. Anyone else got suggestions for graphic novels that are must-reads?


September Book Finds

Fall has started and while I’m a little sad to be ushering in colder weather soon, I’m also enjoying the change and the freshness to the air that the season of seasons brings. This month I found myself adding a bunch of books to my list of to-reads. Here are a few that I decided to highlight:

Horrorstor: A Novel by Grady Hendrix
This is one of those books that I probably never would have found on my own. But through the network of other book bloggers I encountered this kitchy visual mystery. The format of the book alone and the graphics (modeled after an IKEA catalog) are enough to make me curious about what’s inside.

Hardwiring Happiness: The Practical Science of Reshaping Your Brain–and Your Life by Rick Hanson
Happiness. It’s what we all want, right? And what if that happiness or at least a better sense of well-being is actually something we can move toward with a change in how we think? That’s an idea I’ve held onto as a life philosophy for a while, and I’m curious to see the analysis and suggestions that Hanson has for how to perceive–and live–better.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow
I read an excerpt from this book somewhere, now I can’t remember where, and I was taken away by the powerful prose that Blow uses to talk about his past. I’m always on the search for memoirs by people of color that diversify the literature of our life experiences, and it seems that this one will definitely fit the bill.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (Review)

Savannah is quite a quirky place. At least that’s the impression I got from reading John Berendt’s work of creative nonfiction, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This one had been on my reading list (and my bookshelf) for several years, and I’d heard a bunch of great things about it, so it was high time I got down to reading.

You meet a lot of funny and interesting people through this book, including snooty high society women, a voodoo doctor, a drag queen, and an eccentric antique-collecting bachelor.

The interesting thing is that the book is sort of a combination of society intrigue and murder mystery, with a switch between the two about halfway through the work. I liked having both parts, because the character profiles alone probably wouldn’t have carried the book all the way home.

The one issue I had with the book was the fact that it was pretty focused on the elite life of Savannah. While a few of the characters did have stories of poverty and missed opportunity, the majority were living in a secluded world of wealth. Not to say that doesn’t make a valid topic for a book, but it did feel incomplete at certain points. In particular I really wanted to “see” the elite from a wider variety of perspectives, especially in such a black/white city.

Berendt clearly wanted to keep his own voice in the background of the story though, with only brief explanations for why he was in Savannah in the first place. He notes some of his reactions to his characters’ more scandalous goings-on, but for the most part he tries to put his characters forward first.

I liked that this book built a picture of Savannah for me. Before I didn’t really have anything to associate it with in my mind, because I simply didn’t know very much about the city, even what it looked like or where it was located within Georgia. Now at least I have some sense of the place, and a lot of interesting stories to relate it to!


Wednesday Quote: John Berendt

Rule number one: Always stick around for one more drink. That’s when things happen. That’s when you find out everything you want to know.

From Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Welcome to Savannah, Georgia, site of John Berendt’s famous work of creative nonfiction. Check back on Friday for the full review.

You know what I love? I love sharing my reading. And these past few weeks I’ve been sharing my reading in a new way than usual, I’ve been reading a book aloud with my partner. We picked something light and fun and started to read it on longer drives and when we have a few minutes of down time in the evening. It’s a great habit I’d say, reading aloud makes you appreciate an author’s writing style even more, as well as slow down and really take in what’s going on.

New Books?

You know the feeling. You’re browsing in a bookstore. You’ve come in “just to look.” Mostly because you can’t imagine passing the now-rare breed of small bookstore that you’ve stumbled across in the urban wilderness without going in. At least for a moment. Just to see what they have.

And suddenly you’re holding the book in your hand. That one you’ve been looking for at least a year, absently, the title emblazoned on a small wall in the back of your mind, in storage for this very moment when you should see the cover peeking out at you from the corner of the fiction section.

What do you do?

By DS via Flickr

Every bookworm I know has a backlog of books that they intend to read, because we simply love books so much. How strict are you about stopping yourself from buying new ones?

I’ve been pretty good recently if I do say so myself. (If “good” is characterized as holding back a little in the bookstore and overlooks copious library visits.) I went a good few months without purchasing a new book at all, and only recently did I pick up one — Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin (We tried to watch season two of Game of Thrones and couldn’t bear not having read the book). This is one that I know both my partner and I will get through so that was extra justification in our minds.

The flipside of my bookstore “restraint” though is that I don’t end up doing a lot of supporting of my local bookstores. It’s not that I’m always on Amazon buying books, just that I don’t often buy books at all. I usually am surfing the library websites for what I need or trying valiantly to whittle down from what I have on my shelves at home. So I do hope that I’ll keep up my habit of buying something every now and then when I’m browsing nearby book shops.