The Week of Getting Back to Reading

Work has been busy this month, and I've struggled to find energy to read in the evenings. It has even been difficult to stay awake long enough to watch a TV show. But yesterday I was finally able to take a day off and relax enough that I could immerse myself in a good book. I slept in, read for a bit, ran a few errands, read some more, saw friends, and continued reading after Kevin made me a delicious dinner. So finally, after four weeks, I have a recommendation to share.


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Part of the motivation for getting back to reading was that this morning I attended a book club discussion of Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing. The novel follows two branches of a Ghanaian family for seven generations, alternating back and forth between the descendants of two sisters. One sister (Effia) and her descendants remain in Ghana, and while the other sister (Esi) is captured in her village and and sold into slavery in the United States. The lineage of Effia traces the history of African and British slave trading, British colonialism, and Ghanaian independence, while Esi's lineage experiences the indignities of enslavement in the cotton fields of the American South, the chain gangs sent into the coal mines of Alabama, and the discrimination and segregation of northern cities after the Great Migration.

Homegoing excels in four ways:

1) By evoking empathy for the intergenerational trauma that Africans and African Americans have experienced (and continue to experience) as a result of slavery, colonialism, and racism. 

2) By covering 300 years of history on two continents in a way that, while not comprehensive--how could it be, in only 300 pages?--is broadly representative of each generation's particular social norms, legal freedoms, and motivating interests. It's quite a feat. The nearest comparison I can think of, Chimamande Ngozi Adiche's Americanah, manages to cover two continents but is mostly set in the twenty-first century. 

3) By challenging the binary of edenic, righteous, genuine Africa and the corrupted diaspora. Mostly notably, in addition to addressing Africans' complicity in capturing and selling their enemies into slavery--and thus profiting from the transatlantic slave trade--Gyasi manages to weave into this family drama an acknowledgment that even in the nineteenth century the world was small enough that the Asante and Fante tribes knew exactly what was happening to slaves once they reached the Americas.

4) Finally, the form of the novel is interesting to dissect. Despite following fourteen different characters with minimal overlap between their stories, each chapter shares a fundamental core: the marriage plot. Each must end with a man meeting a woman and--through love or, too often, through violence--conceiving the next generation. In this way, they are all love stories, be it love between two partners or between parent and child. 

Despite these merits, at times I felt that the balance between trauma and agency tipped towards the former to an extent that undermined the book's ultimate emphasis on resilience. There is also a motif of fire vs. water that runs unevenly throughout the book, and I'm unsure whether it needed to be highlighted more or pared back. But overall, this book will leave you marveling at how many stories and how much history can be packed into 300 pages without it ever feeling clunky or bloated.

I'm listening to: An old favorite.

I'm watching: "Nanette," Hannah Gadsby's Netflix stand-up special. This is one of those recommendations where the less I say, the more you will enjoy it. It's truly one of the most radical pieces of art I have ever experienced, and I strongly urge you to drop everything and watch it now. You will not regret it. Between Homegoing and Nanette, you'll be left with a lot of thoughts about the power and politics of storytelling. 

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! If you're interested in sampling a bite, I currently have a public post up that introduces the theme for July: Cityzenship.

The Week of Publishing My Favorite Thing I've Ever Written

Today's post is late because this morning was the annual Pittsburgh marathon. Open Hand Ministries asked me if I would be willing to volunteer at the fluid station they man every year, and so I spent the first part of the day cleaning up used cups thrown on the ground by marathon runners. Some time ago I read on the internet that races are ecological disasters, and I can now confirm that is true. I picked up hundreds of half-eaten goo packets and even a big hunk of watermelon. 

So it was a dirty and gross end to a week that started off on a fairly high note. I put the finishing touches on my essay about YouTube decluttering videos and launched the second issue of Brisket out into the world. I've never been happier with anything I've written. Part of that is due to the generous but firm guidance of expert editor Beth Anne Macaluso, but it's also because solving the mystery of why 600,000 decluttering videos exist on YouTube brought together my interests in pop culture, political economy, mental health, and makeup. It was a joy to struggle with the narrative and the argument of this essay each and every morning during my #shutupandwrite sessions.

I've now moved on to writing about feminist entrepreneurship, which grew out of a spectacularly thought-provoking and productive conversation with a friend who has years of experience working in tech start-ups. It's giving me the opportunity to finally write about the Kardashian-Jenner family and their history of entrepreneurship, so I'm stoked. I think I'm trying to turn myself into Anne Helen Peterson.


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Not much, honestly--I barely read anything this week. I did so much writing most days that by evening all I wanted to do was watch television. But I did read another issue of True Story and a few articles in the most recent New York magazine. I'm hoping to finish a few books this coming week, so I'm tentatively promising a more robust write-up next Sunday.

I'm listening to: Childish Gambino's This Is America

I'm watching: Videos of marbles racing down elaborate tracks. I discovered this genre by asking readers of Brisket what they watch on YouTube. Someone said that she watches marble racing videos, and after my shock subsided I devoured (and greatly enjoyed) a number of them. The swooshing of the marbles down the tracks and the clacking of marbles against obstacles is reminiscent of other ASMR triggers. Indeed, I found that these videos can be quite soothing. That's why I wasn't surprised to find that marble racing videos are just as popular as decluttering videos, also numbering around 600,000. If I've piqued your interest, I recommend the channel Jelle's Marble Runs

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! 

Brisket Vol. 1, No. 2: On Relieving Anxiety with YouTube

Yesterday I published the second issue of Brisket, a meaty essay of almost 4,000 words that asks (and answers) a hard-hitting question: why in the world are there so many videos on YouTube of people decluttering their stuff, and who the heck is watching them?

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 9.12.42 AM.png

I became completely preoccupied by this question in January, when I realized that I'd been neglecting a very enjoyable book that I was in the middle of reading. Instead of reading every evening before bed, I was watching decluttering videos on YouTube. All I wanted to do at the end of those long winter day was watch one of my favorite beauty YouTubers get rid of old bronzers. 

I've long been a fan of reality TV, and I'm not a particularly discriminating viewer--I'll watch some pretty mindless stuff. But decluttering seemed pretty dumb, even by my usually low standards. So  I began to wonder why, exactly, I kept watching. 

My quest to find an answer led me in some pretty surprising directions. Over the course of my research, I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and several scientific studies about Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). I did a lot more quantitative research than I expected, in search of YouTube viewership statistics. And I watched a lot of videos of people pretending to brush my hair. 

I now finally know why I love watching decluttering videos--but through this investigation into the genre of YouTube decluttering videos I also came to understand YouTube’s ascendent popularity and gained some insight into how anxious people are spending their free time. This issue of Brisket tackles big questions about changing global economies, anxieties, and aesthetics but never loses focus of the fun and pleasurable spirit of YouTube. After all, that's the essence of Brisket: delicious and nutritious. 

Become a Brisket patron to read this month's essay!

The Week of Intentional Restoration

As the days get longer, I find myself waking up earlier and with more energy. This morning I was up and in the kitchen by 7:30 AM, prepping batter for a banana bread. I hadn't listened to Ornette Coleman in a while, so I put on The Shape of Jazz to Come and the improvisational musical approach had an influence on my baking. I added date syrup in place of honey after finding that ours had crystallized, and yogurt to augment the mashed bananas after realizing I didn't quite have the required two cups. Far from it, actually... I only had one. The good news is that it turned out great. I'm writing with hot coffee and a slice of banana bread that's fresh from the oven. 

Yesterday was also pretty heavenly; I took the entire day off. Before leaving the office on Friday afternoon I powered down my laptop and promised myself that I would not turn it on again until this morning. So I spent most of my Saturday reading, but also went to a spin class and took a nice long walk over to a local bookstore to celebrate Independent Bookstore Day. As much as I loved doing the writing retreat last Saturday, a day spent reading is more restorative. I've begun to think about energy in week-long time spans rather than daily ones. I can have several long workdays in a row as long as I'm getting enough sleep, but eventually that exertion catches up to me and no number of evenings spent watching mindless television is enough to replenish my energy. So I'm trying to be intentional about taking off at least one full day per week and two half days.

The result, at least this week, is that I have a lot of great books to report on!


Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: a new essay on women and lying from Adrienne Rich's On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, and I read her analysis of Emily Dickinson's poetry this week as well. I also picked Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel back up and finished the first section, and now I feel sucked into the book's momentum. I doubt I can finish all 600-something pages before next week but I will have more to say about it in the coming weeks. Because that book is so heavy--I mean literally, my wrists start to hurt after reading it for a while, though the content is not light either--I am also reading Stewart O'Nan's svelte 200 page novel City of Secrets. I bought it yesterday at White Whale after the first few pages piqued my curiosity. The main character is a Holocaust survivor and refugee who smuggled himself into Mandate Palestine in 1945 and joined up with the Haganah. I'm positive this one is not going to have a happy ending, so I'm mentally preparing. 

On Thursday night I finished Thomas Mullen's Lightning Men, which was excellent. It focuses on a crime perpetrated by the KKK against another KKK member, and builds on the themes of police corruption, racism, and brutality that were central to the mystery in the first book (Darktown). Focusing on an internecine squabble within the Atlanta Klavern is such a smart move on Mullen's part, because as Officers Boggs, Smith, and Rakestraw investigate the crime their probes highlight ideological divides amongst whites about how to best deal with the changing Jim Crow racial order, and the ways in which both black and white Atlantans turned to violence (by choice or force) to protect their real estate interests. And as a historian I can confidently tell you this book is well researched. You passively absorb a lot of Civil Rights history through this detective mystery. I cannot wait for the next entry into this series.

The other book I read this week was Charles Soule's The Oracle Year, which was my Book of the Month pick for April. The premise is that Will Dando (a nobody musician) wakes up one morning from a dream with 108 predictions about events that will occur over the next twelve months. As the first few begin to come true, he has to decide what to do with this knowledge--and to figure out if his actions can change the future, or if he has no free will and has become a pawn of ... God? The U.S. Government? The Universe? I think this book can best be described as a comic book novelization, and the author is indeed a comic book writer. Will is like Spiderman, a normal guy who one day finds himself with great power and great responsibility. The pacing of the plot is fast, and I got so sucked in that I read all 400 pages of this book in under 24 hours. The ending did not disappoint, and although The Oracle Year asks fairly weighty philosophical questions, it never became pedantic or pretentious. Highly recommended!

I'm listening to: Janelle Monáe's new album, Dirty Computer. Though I have always enjoyed Monáe as an artist, activist, and actor, I have never gotten into her past albums. So far, however, I'm liking Dirty Computer and its raunchy double entendres. 

I'm watching: old episodes of Lip Sync Battle. The show is so dumb, but who doesn't love Chrissy Teigan? The episodes are also only 20 minutes long, so it's hard to get sucked in. I like turning it on while taking a quick snack break. Also, last week's season premiere of Westworld was excellent, and the new season of Silicon Valley is getting better and better. So I've got the high-low covered.

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! Next issue drops this Tuesday, May 1st.