What I’ve been reading

dont call us deadDon’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith — I compiled ten lists of the “best poetry collections of 2017,” and this was the most commonly recommended, on five of the lists. With good reason. Smith writes tragic, beautiful poems about black men killed by the police, living black and gay, being HIV+, and more. I highly recommend this collection.

i spent my life arguing how i mattered
until it didn’t matter.
who knew my haven
would be my coffin?
dead is the safest i’ve ever been.
i’ve never been so alive.

absurdistanAbsurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart — In this all satirical / all the time novel, Misha Vainberg, a Russian who studied “multicultural studies” at Accidental College in the US, can’t get a visa back to the States after his father killed a businessman from Oklahoma. So he travels to former Soviet republic Absurdistan in hopes of making his way to Europe. Mayhem ensues, big time. The book had many funny parts, but I never fell in love with it. (Also, too much obesity-based humor for my taste.) Particularly amusing to me was Misha’s charitable foundation (“Misha’s Children”) which sounded like all too many sort of well-meaning foundations established on the whimsical ideas of their benefactors’ sense of what it means to do good in the world. Walter Kirn of the New York Times writes: “This novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself.” Nothing is sacred in Shteyngart’s world: here’s an absurd scene in which Misha proposes a “Holocaust for Kidz” exhibit:

Through the magic of Animatronics, Claymation, and Jurassic technology, the inane ramblings of underqualified American Hebrew day school teachers on the subject of the Holocaust will be condensed into a concise forty-minute bloodbath. Young participants will leave feeling alienated and profoundly depressed, feelings that will be partly redeemed and partly thwarted by the ice-cream truck awaiting them at the end of the exhibit.

harry potter sorcerer stoneHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by JK Rowling — I was reading this to my daughter, and I realized that Harry is ultimately unnecessary in the climax of this book. (Super spoiler alert!) After Harry has retrieved the sorcerer’s stone, so Quirrell / Voldermort weren’t able to get it, Harry asks Dumbledore how he was able to get the stone when Q/V couldn’t. Dumbledore says, “Ah, now, I’m glad you asked me that. It was one of my more brilliant ideas, and between you and me, that’s saying something. You see, only one who wanted to find the Stone — find it, but not use it — would be able to get it.” So Q/V wouldn’t have been able to retrieve the stone even if Harry hadn’t been there. [Sad trombone.] My daughter argues that it was just training for the future; possible. I’m reminded of the episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Amy demonstrates that Indiana Jones is totally unnecessary to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

beverlyBeverly, by Nick Drnaso — Before Drnaso wrote Sabrina, the first graphic novel ever longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, he wrote Beverly. It’s a collection of interconnected graphic short stories — graphic is in “graphic novel”) — that paints a dark, sad portrait of youth in America. Kids’ dark visions spill out onto the page; parents and children communicate and don’t at the same time. It’s a quick, worthwhile read. Janet Potter writes for the Chicago Reader that “Drnaso’s stories and characters, and perhaps his view of the world, are like that—difficult to watch, achingly realistic, and all too familiar.” Dan Kois writes for Slate that “Drnaso’s stories are full of moments in which the bubbling reservoir of anxiety or feeling or darkness boils to the surface. I read it in big enthusiastic gulps, then felt a little sick to my stomach afterward.”


all the answersAll the Answers, by Michael Kupperman — What’s the legacy of a child celebrity? During World War II, Joel Kupperman was a regular on the radio show — and later, the TV show — Quiz Kids. In this graphic memoir, Kupperman’s son tries to understand how being a child celebrity ruined his father. Useful insights into how child stars are exploited for the purposes of others. On Vulture’s June list of the best comics of 2018 so far.


The Washington Post’s list of 100 notable books is out. Two are by African writers.

The Washington Post has its annual lists of 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction and 50 Notable Works of Fiction. Lots of great writing, but not much by African writers. On the fiction list, we have Lagos-based Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’m excited to read and comes out in a few days. On the nonfiction list, we have The Girl who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, by Rwandan-born Clementine Wamariya (and Elizabeth Weil).

Honorable mention to Tomi Adeyemi — American-born but of Nigerian parents — for Children of Blood and Bone, also on the fiction list.

What other fiction and nonfiction books by African writers — released in 2018 — should be on this list?

What I’ve Been Reading This Month — August 2018

straight talk on tradeStraight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy, by Dani Rodrik — A few years ago, Dani Rodrik wrote one of my favorite economics books — Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science. Now he’s back with a nuanced discussion of globalization and trade. He lays out how much of the nuance around the impacts of trade gets lost somewhere between economists talking in a seminar room and economists talking to the media, and the profession is less credible as a result. He lays out an agenda for how to increase fairness in trade and how to deal with the losers from freer trade, as well as why trade policy often fails to do so. Rodrik weighs in on a few other topics, too, such as whether or not experts should advise repressive regimes on policy. As always, Rodrik proposes context-specific solutions. [Alice Evans called this book “pioneering, prescient, and likely to catalyse major public debate.”]

dead eyeThe Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea: A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery, by Vannak Anan Prum — A Cambodian man leaves his village to seek work and ends up enslaved on a Thai fishing vessel. He uses his artistic talents to help him survive. When he ultimately escapes, he draws the story of his ordeal. This graphic memoir is his story in his pictures. Heart-reading and terrifying. Highly recommended.

men explain 2Men Explain Things to Me — Updated edition with two new essays, by Rebecca Solnit — Solnit opens with an anecdote of a man explaining things to her that is by turns infuriating, absurd, and sadly hilarious. That essay and this whole collection goes on to discuss a range of gender issues with great fairness and deep thoughtfulness. I enjoyed this passage on the balance between hopefulness and realism: “Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.”

behold the dreamersBehold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue — A Cameroonian immigrant couple struggles in New York City. Fascinating, heart-reading interpersonal dynamics set against the backdrop of the 2007 recession. Jende, the husband, has this to say about intergenerational mobility in Cameroon: “In my country, sir, for you to become somebody, you have to be born somebody first. You do not come from a family with money, forget it. You do not come from a family with a name, forget it. That is just how it is, sir.” Cristina Henríquez of the New York Times called it “a capacious, big-hearted novel.”

your black friendYour Black Friend and Other Strangers, by Ben Passmore — In this collection of comics, Passmore lays out his experience of being black in America, the experience of being imprisoned (briefly), having white, Trump-supporting relatives. He also includes some fiction and even science fiction. It’s sometimes emotionally challenging and sometimes just kind of weird, but it’s well worth the read. Hillary Chute of the New York Times wrote, “when Passmore observes daily life — reporting on its own kind of mutancy — his work explodes with force.”

flintstones vol 1The Flintstones: Volume 1, by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh — Russell and Pugh use Flintstones characters and settings as backdrop for serious social satire, looking at topics from marriage equality to war to consumerism to animal rights. The main characters feel very human (and not at all prehistoric), and the backdrop is littered with artistic humor in Bedrock’s signage (“Tonight! Primitive art!”; “Hominid Resources”; “Neandertall and Big Men’s Clothing”; “Spears and Roebuck”). This was among the best graphic works of 2017.

killing floorKilling Floor, by Lee Child — “If there were some sort of prize for Most Widely Admired Thriller Writer, Lee Child would win it time and again,” writes Sam Leith for the Times Literary Supplement. Hearing him discuss Child’s work on the TLS podcast, I decided to see what the fuss was all about and read the original Jack Reacher novel. Reacher, an unemployed former military investigator, drifts into a Southern U.S. town and kills a bunch of people in the pursuit of justice. This passage sums up Reacher’s philosophy: “I had no laws to worry about, no inhibitions, no distractions. I wouldn’t have to think about Miranda, probable cause, constitutional rights. I wouldn’t have to think about reasonable doubt or rules of evidence. No appeal to any higher authority for these guys. Was that fair? You bet your ass. These were bad people. They’d stepped over the line a long time ago. Bad people.” Both satisfying — in fiction — and deeply problematic at the same time. Reacher does really well in one-on-many fight scenes.

crusader 2Crusader, by Joel Galloway — Crusader opens on a man buried in the desert up to his neck, one eye lying a few feet from him — removed by his torturers — as buzzards circle. In the next chapter, the priest of the modern incarnation of an ancient indigenous religion performs a human sacrifice. In the next, a young man is possessed by a demon and a mysterious priest casts it out. Later, we encounter tricked-out motorcycles and helicopters, a secret cavern of treasure in the wilderness, and hidden labyrinths beneath a cathedral. This first novel by a friend of mine has it all! [I wrote more about it here.]

milk and honeymilk and honey, by Rupi Kaur — In this poetry collection, Kaur discusses sexual violence, love, sex, gender, and loss. The quality is widely varied. Some of the poems seem like lines I might find on a romantic bag of herbal tea (“you’ve touched me / without even / touching me”). But others effectively conveyed raw emotion or simple truth. Here’s one I enjoyed: “what terrifies me most is how we / foam at the mouth with envy / when others succeed / but sigh in relief / when they are failing // our struggle to / celebrate each other is / what’s proven most difficult / in being human.” (It reminded me of Gore Vidal’s quip: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”) Priya Khaira-Hanks writes in the Guardian, “The literary world is saturated with white male voices of dubious quality. Kaur’s poetry should be given the same freedom to be flawed.” Flawed, yes, but not without value.

The Best Poetry Collections of Last Year

best poetry 201.PNGEarly in Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, one practitioner of herbal remedies “believed that poetry could cure, or at least go a long way towards curing, almost every ailment. He would prescribe poems to his patients the way other hakims prescribed medicine.” Later, one woman — Tilo — tells her lover, “Let’s read a poem before we sleep.”

I’ve inconsistently adopted Tilo’s habit of reading a little bit of poetry before bed or sometimes at other times. So where does a decided non-expert find great poetry?

I identified ten lists of the best poetry collections published in 2017. Between them, they recommend a whopping — not a word I’ve read in many poems — 110 collections. But just 10 collections are recommended on at least 3 lists. So here they are, the “top 10” poetry collections from 2017. You can find the full list of 100 collections here. May your soul be either soothed or agitated as you read, depending on the collection!

1. Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith (recommended on 5 lists)

2. Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier (4 lists)

And the remaining 8 of the top 10 are all tied for third, recommended on 3 lists each.

3.1 Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, by Frank Bidart

3.2 When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, by Chen Chen

3.3. My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, by Aja Monet

3.4. Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, by Mary Oliver

3.5. Nature Poem, by Tommy Pico

3.6. Good Bones, by Maggie Smith

3.7. Afterland, by Mai Der Vang

3.8. Phrasis, by Wendy Xu

Have you read any of these? Or others? What do you think?

What I’ve been reading this month – July 2018

July included a lot of family vacation, which — for me — translates to wonderful memories but less reading time. So it’s a short list for July!

The Goldilocks Challenge: Right-Fit Evidence for the Social Sector, by Mary Kay Gugerty and Dean Karlan — With an increasing emphasis on measuring the impact of non-profits and other pro-social organizations, simple monitoring can get neglected. Yet monitoring systems are fundamental to every organization, for understanding whether they’re delivering the services they intend to deliver. Gugerty and Karlan offer a set of clear principles for monitoring systems that aren’t too burdensome nor too slight, but just right. I wrote a fuller review at the Development Impact blog.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack, by Manuel Gonzales — There’s a team of women assassins. And they’re going up against another team of women assassins (the titular “regional office”), one of whom has a robot arm. There are references to the actual mission of the regional office — say, suppressing “a den of werewolves, or a nest of vampires” or battling someone’s “dead wife from the bowels of hell” or a “demon horde” — but the whole novel revolves around one assassin on each side and their stories. It’s lots of fun, full of pop-culture references (She had “one real option — to ‘Die Hard’ it John McClane style”) and life wisdom (“She’d rather they’d just given her her job to do and not this management position because what a pain in the ass managing people was turning out to be”). I found the pacing imperfect, but I had a great time. NY Times review by Kelly Braffet: “it’s rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places; underneath that surface, though, it’s thoughtful and well considered.”

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead — This is one of those books that is technically science fiction, but you wouldn’t know it until you’re well into the book. It opens like a 1970s family drama revolving around Miranda, a sixth-grader, and her single mom. Then anonymous notes start appearing with strange requests. It’s all mysterious, maybe even a little bit eerie, but it all comes together in grand fashion. I listened to the audiobook in the car with my whole family, and once we got going, we couldn’t stop. NY Times review by Monica Edinger: “Smart and mesmerizing.”

Incidentally, the children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time plays a role in both The Regional Office and When You Reach Me, although unfortunately not in The Goldilocks Challenge. (Come on, Gugerty and Karlan!)

What I’ve been reading this month – May/June 2018

PachinkoPachinko, by Min Jin Lee — This captivating epic follows a Korean family over decades during the Japanese occupation of Korea, migrating to Japan early in the novel. Tash Aw (Guardian): “A long, intimate hymn to the struggles of people in a foreign land.” Krys Lee (NY Times): “Each time the novel seems to find its locus — Japan’s colonization of Korea, World War II as experienced in East Asia, Christianity, family, love, the changing role of women — it becomes something else. It becomes even more than it was.” I loved everything except when a character warned me, “If you like everything you read, I can’t take you that seriously.” Hey, I don’t like everything I read.

freshwaterFreshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi — When Ada is born in southern Nigeria, she brings a spirit along with her. Not her spirit, though. It’s another, who shares control of her thoughts and actions. Over time, more spirits appear, one after a sexual assault in college. The result is wild swings of personality and shifts in gender identity. Emezi (who has told their own story of gender dysphoria) provides a potent voice to depression and despair. Emezi writes, “After you have let the wilderness in you come out and play, after you have spilled your darkness in front of a stranger, it can be difficult to look at them in the sentience of daylight.” And later, “it was as if staying alive just gave everyone else time to leave you.” I never completely got lost in the story emotionally, but I respected it. Susan Straight (LA Times): “Emezi’s lyrical writing, her alliterative and symmetrical prose, explores the deep questions of otherness, of a single heart and soul hovering between, the gates open, fighting for peace.” Tariro Mzezewa (NY Times): “Remarkable and daring… “Freshwater” builds slowly, but that only crystallizes how fractured Ada and her personalities are. As the voices in her head get louder and grow hungrier, the story gains momentum.”

dionne 1Doomed Interventions: The Failure of Global Responses to AIDS in Africa, by Kim Yi Dionne — Through a healthy mix of ethnographic fieldwork, original survey collection, and large-scale survey analysis, Dionne shows that international donors care a lot more about HIV/AIDS than African do. And yes, that includes Africans who have family members with HIV. One reason is that even Africans who are infected with HIV share a lot of their needs with their neighbors — clean water and good jobs, to start. “By privileging donor priorities over citizen priorities, global elites cripple states’ abilities to implement policies representing citizens’ interests.” The title is overstated: Internationally funded AIDS treatment has saved countless lives. But “looking at our failures to improve the human condition can help us formulate better strategies and approaches going forward.”

therecoveringThe Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, by Leslie Jamison — I just loved this mix of recovery memoir, an exploration of the historical link between addiction and literary creativity, the racial and class divide of addiction public policy, and more. “All my life I had believed — at first unwittingly, then explicitly — that I had to earn affection and love by being interesting, and so I had frantically tried to become really…interesting.” A little sprawling but I really enjoyed it. As an added bonus, development economists Dean Jamison and Julian Jamison make cameos in the book. “My oldest brother, Julian, taught me how to solve an equation for x when I was seven. ‘Great,’ he said, ‘but can you solve when x is on both sides?”

three shadowsThree Shadows, by Cyril Pedrosa (translated from French by Edward Gauvin) — How far will a parent go to save their child from death? This is an urgent little fable in a graphic novel format. “In this our springtime there is no better, there is no worse. Blossoming branches burgeon as they must. Some are long, some are short.”

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, by Kate Raworth — Raworth proposes that the field of economics has led to a narrow global focus on economic growth, and that instead we should focus on a social foundation for all the world’s citizens, as well as protecting the environment. The book is filled with nuggets on the history of economic thought (“At the end of the nineteenth century, the sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen berated economic theory for depicting man as a ‘self-contained globule of desire'”) and the power of a good diagram (“if drawing new pictures sounds frivolous to doughnutyou — like mere child’s play — believe me it is not”). Raworth includes lots of policy proposals (including LOTS of taxes) with little consideration of the incentive effects of taxes, and I sometimes felt like she was attributing self-interest itself to economics — whereas I’m inclined to believe it predates the discipline. I also didn’t feel like she reckoned with how attractive a single goal — or a handful of goals — is to get your mind around (more stuff — i.e., GDP growth! less poverty!) as opposed to a long list of items (social equity! clean water! housing! protect ozone! something about phosphorous!). Still, I admire her consistent optimism, boldness, and creativity, and as she quotes the poet Taylor Mali, “Changing your mind is one of the best ways of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

crazy rish asiansCrazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan — An untenured economics professor at NYU takes a ten-week summer vacation during which she doesn’t once think about her research? Now THAT sounds like fantasy! Seriously, it’s a fun, light book about a Chinese-American economics professor who doesn’t realize that her boyfriend — also a professor — is one of the wealthiest (and sought-after) men in Singapore until she joins him on a summer vacation. Lots of drama ensues!

Truly Madly Guilty, by Liane Moriarty — Three families attend a barbecue in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. Something bad happens. The effects ripple. This multi-family drama reveals itself bit by bit with great humanity. Moriarty truly madly guiltyemploys rotating narrators but focuses on two women who have been uncomfortable friends since childhood. On childhood: “No one warned you that having children reduced you right down to some smaller, rudimentary, rudimentary, primitive version of yourself, where your talents and your education and your achievements meant nothing.“ On white collar malaise: “Sam felt himself break out in a cold sweat at the thought of how little he was achieving at work. He had to get something done today. This couldn’t go on much longer. He was going to lose his job if he didn’t find a way to focus his mind.”

chastGoing into Town: A Love Letter to New York, by Roz Chast — Chast — whogoing into town - detail you might know from her New Yorker cartoons — writes that “this book is a sort-of guide and also a thank-you letter and a love letter to my hometown and New Yorkers everywhere.” It’s fun and useful. I laughed aloud repeatedly, and I will surely give a copy to future New York-bound friends. Chast loves New York! She shows that you can do ANYTHING in that city.

shadeShade the Changing Girl (Volume 1): Earth Girl Made Easy, by Cecil Castellucci et al. — Okay, so a bird creature (Loma Shade) from another planet steals a “madness coat” from a museum and uses it to take over the body of an teenage earth girl in a coma. It turns out that the earth girl was manipulative and mean, and people on Loma’s home planet are after her — they want that coat! Occasionallyshade - detail confusing but gorgeous visuals and fun story, with a healthy appreciation of poetry: “There is a poem for every feeling. It’s what gets me through when fear threatens to overwhelm.” Included among the “best graphic books of 2017.”

Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor — In this, the climax to binti masqueradethe Binti trilogy, Okorafor fuses taut, tragic action and surprises while furthering the themes of alienation (in this case, with actual aliens!) and personal growth.

Ms. Marvel: Mecca, by G. Willow Wilson et al. — If you haven’t read the meccaadventures of Kamala Khan — aka Ms. Marvel, Pakistani-American Muslim superhero — then go do it right now! Start with No Normal. Mecca — volume 8 in the series — continues the tradition!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling — I just read this harry potterto a couple of my kids. It’s still a great read!

Imagine Wanting Only This, by Kristen Radtke — “There is little linear plot in Imagine Wanting Only This, even though each of the eight chapters finds Radtke at a slightly different stage of her life … becoming obsessed with the history of ruins and disasters. At each point, she seeks answers to her nagging life questions while alsoimagine attempting to escape her reality” (Arnav Adhikari in The Atlantic). I had trouble engaging with the existential questions at the heart of this book, but Radtke captures perfectly the reason that I go to sleep listening to things — to escape the million thoughts in my head (see picture). Included among the “best graphic books of 2017.”
imagine - detail

How I retain insights from my reading

I read and listen to a fair number of books. Yesterday I received this query.

I tend to remember little of what I read. That’s why I write it all down. In the words of Henry Jones, Sr., “I wrote them down…so that I wouldn’t *have* to remember.”

I have two strategies for remembering. First, I take notes. I use the note-taking and note-managing app Evernote. For each new book I read, I create a new note. As I listen to an audiobook or read a print book, I pause and make a note of a line or passage that I find particularly insightful. If it’s an audiobook, I’ll use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to search for the exact wording. At the end of reading the book, I have a list of the lines and insights I learned from. I’ll often label them with a topic. Evernote has a good search function, so it’s relatively easy for me to find those lines later, even if I don’t remember what book it was from.

Second, I try to write a short review of each book. Nowadays I post those here on this blog. The micro-review allows me to crystallize my main takeaways and whether I’d recommend the book to others.

What do you do to remember what you’ve learned from books?