Currently reading: Lead From the Outside by Stacey Abrams and can not wait to read The War on Normal People by Andrew Yang
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. A toast to the author for investigating Henrietta’s life for it went unrecognized for far too long. In short: Henrietta Lacks was a black woman whose body was exploited by white scientists. She died in 1951, but the cell tissue removed from her body without her knowledge live on today. Those cells were and are still today named HeLa cells (after the first 2 letters of her first and last name). They are the most immortal cell line used in scientific research, ever, and they continue to live on today. We owe thanks to Henrietta for the polio vaccine plus so much more. Next time you sign that HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) think about Henrietta. She didn’t have such a right. August 2019
To discourage slaves from meeting or escaping, slave owners told tales of gruesome research done on black bodies, then covered themselves in white sheets and crept around at night, posing as spirits coming to infect black people with disease or steal them for research. Those sheets eventually gave rise to the white hooded cloaks of the Ku Klux Klan. (excerpt from the book)
Adam Curtis made this documentary in 1997 for the BBC – called The Way of All Flesh – which told the story of Henrietta and her cells.
In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation. Not a book, but an article that explains American capitalism is a way that I was never exposed to. This was not taught in school and it should be. Image credit from the NYT: An 1850 inventory of enslaved people from the Pleasant Hill Plantation in Mississippi. From Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, La. Link to read here.
Emotional First Aid by Guy Winch
My emotional toolbox was feeling deficient. This book is like Neosporin and a band-aid for your brain. Good stuff. August 2019
Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff
This was a treat because it was a REAL paper book that Michelle loaned me (most of my books are read on the Kindle). Loved this and learned a lot. It’s historical fiction, takes place in 1944 (the year my dad was born so that made it doubly interesting for me). It’s about the women who served in Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II. These women were sent to France as undercover agents to help the French Resistance fend off the Nazi German invasion. These women were incredibly valuable, savvy, fluent in French and as you can imagine far more covert than men. Two things really stood out to me (1) Many of these women died in concentration camps and/or under Hitler’s chilling “Nacht und Nebel” (night and fog) initiative meaning they were never heard from again. (2) Women were not given the same rights as men under the Geneva Convention treaty – which was to give humanitarian treatment rights to those wounded or captured during war. There were 4 Geneva Convention treaties which improved upon one another: 1864, 1906, 1929 and 1977. Germany signed the 1929 Convention, but didn’t honor it. This is an incomplete list of the brave and smart women who served. I’m curious to read more so I placed a hold on “A Life in Secrets” by Sarah Helm which is about real life Vera Atkins, one of Britain’s premiere secret agents (which inspired this Lost Girls book). May 2019
The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight
For some reason really needed this in my life when I read it, but now, as I’m writing this I can’t remember why. It’s a fast read. I swing between living this life really well to flunking out terribly (depending on the day). My takeaway: We all have a use them carefully and don’t blow through them all by 9:00 am (unless it’s absolutely necessary). Spread the love! Use your fucks wisely and appropriately. I burn up a lot of fucks on people who least deserve them. As my sister wisely told me, “Sarah, just stop caring so much”. I’M TRYING!
Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
Hands-down one of my favorite authors and a prolific one at that. This is the fifth book I’ve read of his (scroll down to see others), which I seem to have got hooked on since I moved to Taiwan. This is yet another captivating, highly visual and magical read. Like most of his novels it takes place in Japan, which has been a favorite place to travel since here. The protagonist (told in first person) is a portrait artist who knows artistic expression can never be a one-way street. His characters are phenomenally interesting and the plot weaves in and out of reality – “navigating the interstice between presence and absence”. Leave it to Murakami to create characters that are an “Idea” and a “Metaphor” and make it work. He’s a genius with words. February 2019
Pachinko by Min Jin lee
New York Times Top Ten Book of the 2018 and National Book Award finalist. This is a historic novel of four generations of a Korean immigrant family living under Japanese rule. It’s written from the perspective of a young woman named Sunja beginning in 1900. This story helped me better understand the relationship between S. Korea and Japan – which are our close neighbors here in Taiwan. I certainly have more empathy for the South Korean generations who were under the rule of Japan for 35 years from 1910-1945. Taiwan was also under Japanese rule, but for 50 years, from 1895 to the end of World War II in 1945. Despite that, Taiwan and Japan have a strong relationship today. South Korea and Japan have a more complicated relationship today, one sensitive topic is Japan’s mistreatment of World War II comfort women from Korea.
The Indifferent Stars Above & Under a Flaming Sky by Daniel James Brown
If you love historical non-fiction, these are TWO must reads! The Indifferent Stars Above: I for one didn’t know the emotional depth, grit and perseverance the emigrants and pioneers in 1846-47 possessed as they traveled west for a better life (this story focuses on the 87 people in the Donner Party). Under a Flaming Sky: Minnesota, 1894. The fire in Hinckley was literally the perfect fire storm of unfathomable proportions. At the time The U.S. Forest Service (established in 1905) only suppressed fires. It wasn’t until the 1960s that this was questioned. We should have listened to General Christopher Columbus Andrews. He worked to stir public sentiment for responsible logging and forest practices, but without much success until this Great Hinckley Fire… and it still took six decades. Science should never be ignored.
Promise me, dad by Joe Biden
This is what public service to the American people (and beyond) looks like, talks like, and walks like. 100%.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (books 1, 2, 3) by Alexander McCall Smith
Easy breezy reading! Everything about this story from the cultural escape to the country of Botswana to the protagonist’s savvy business sense is delightful. You’ll fall in love Precious Ramotswe, owner of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. And if you can’t get enough, don’t fret, there are 18 books in the series.
Child Free and Loving It by Nicki Defago
Refreshing read especially as more and more people ask me, “Do you have kids?”. If the conversation presses on I find myself explaining that I’m happily childfree, not interested, etc. This is a supportive read for those considering a childfree lifestyle, validating for those that already know and a grounding pick-me-up for those fatigued with a childcentered society (depending where you live). Having kids is a lifestyle choice, not a duty. It’s simply not for everyone.
Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk by Danielle Krysa
Quick, easy read to quiet that inner asshole voice that suppresses the creative juices from free-flow.
The Nordic Theory of Everything, In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen
Refreshing and somewhat depressing after Hillbilly Elegy. There are countries that treat their people (rich, poor, single, married, with kids, no kids, sick and dying) all with the same respect and dignity. Mind blower!
“If you want the American dream,” Miliband quipped at the conference, “go to Finland.”
We as Americans often think our way is the way and worse yet, the only way to govern. It’s not. For example, why is USA’s health care linked to employers? Why don’t we offer National Health Care? Free education? Why do married people file taxes together? You will likely think differently about these topics after this read. The author also runs the numbers for the socialist nay-sayers. It works. America simply chooses to govern in a way that intentionally does not provide everyone the same footing and start in life. Everything we do is tied to a zip code, a job, a wallet, your parents wallet or your spouses, etc. We think we are SO free in America, yet we are tethered to more things-people-institutions than most first world countries. Kudos to the Nordic countries for their smart governing. It offers their people total freedom.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance – A memoir
I’ve been struggling with what the next four year will be like under a president who is inept at human empathy, who discredits and bullies journalists, women and anyone who is marginalized. He doesn’t support science (aka facts), and staffs his office with wealthy, white businessmen. His resume is void of political, humanitarian and diplomacy work which is probably why he mirrors the governing styles of North Korea and Russia the most. I’m scared of this retrograde. But many people voted for him. People who have children. People who think this person is an acceptable role model. People who think they will be saved from despair. It’s chilling. Since I can’t understand “him”, I’m attempting to better understand those that voted for “him”. This book is a good start. We need to better understand one another to move ahead.
Animal Farm by George Orwell – A satire or as Orwell wanted to label it, “A Fairy Story”
I read this because Yeonmi Park (below) wrote this after escaping North Korea: “… it was discovering George Orwell’s Animal Farm that marked a real turning point for me. It was like finding a diamond in a mountain of sand.” This book is a satire on the Russian revolution, published in 1945. The horrid parallels to North Korean’s dictatorship, power and greed are glaring.
The 7 commandments of “Animalism” (an allegory to communism):
Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. No animal shall wear clothes. No animal shall sleep in a bed. No animal shall drink alcohol. No animal shall kill any other animal. All animals are equal.
In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park – Nonfiction
I wish this story was not true, but it is and it’s happening today. This is the haunting and harrowing story of the author’s escape to freedom (at age 13) from North Korea. A place I knew was terrible, but had no idea just how so. North Korea is to many people who live there, a huge prison camp, people are left to die on the street, starve to death and taught from day one that their ruler, the Kims, are the only gods and they must worship them. It’s hard to believe a place like this exists in this day and age. When a North Korean is able to attempt an escape, across the border to China, there’s the threat of human trafficking awaiting them. Women and young girls are raped and sold like bags of potatoes. China is a huge part of the problem. The Chinese government arrests and forcibly repatriates North Korean refugees. These refugees are fleeing one hell and entering another, all for a taste of freedom.
“In North Korea, it’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world.”
To all the Americans and our next president who want to ban any refugees from finding solace and freedom in America: Read this book and get a heart.
Until there’s a free North Korea, consider facilitating a human’s freedom this 2016 holiday via LiNK. 100% of donations fund rescues and refugee support.
Quiet by Susan Cain – Nonfiction
This book was validating. For one, I am an introvert and desperately need my alone time, to be thoughtful and to recharge my human batteries. I’ve always felt this way, but never knew just how common is was for introverts to feel this. American and European cultures have a tendency to provide more comforts and perhaps even opportunities for extroverts. This book illuminates so many examples that begin in our primary school days all the way up to how offices are designed and suggests that the global financial crisis was due to forceful extroverts. Imagine if our culture could appreciate quiet people instead of thinking they need to “fix them”? What if our politicians were more introverted verses the current state of affairs and our with a soon-to-be elected fierce extrovert at the helm?
“The study’s authors speculate that the decline in empathy is related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and “hyper-competitiveness.”
This book isn’t a slam on extroverts in any way, as both sides must be acknowledged. There’s a beautiful relationship between extroverts and introverts that I personally could not live without. Many of my closest friends are extroverts and this book helped me understand this dynamic. The other reason I was drawn to this subject is Taiwan. I’ve observed that humans interact differently here and I like it. To my delight, Cain writes specifically on this subject.
“East Asian classrooms, the traditional curriculum emphasizes listening, writing, reading, and memorization. Talking is simply not a focus, and is even discouraged.”
“The Americans emphasize sociability and prize those attributes that make for easy, cheerful association. The Chinese emphasize deeper attributes, focusing on moral virtues and achievement.”
I think everyone could glean from this book and come to appreciate (not fix) that perceived socially awkward person or child sitting alone, being quiet. Celebrate and nurture this. The planet could use more quiet.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – Fiction
This book was first mentioned to me, in person by Jay Rubin (who translated it from Japanese) some 20 years ago when I lived in Boston and I finally read it! It’s loaded with multiple story lines and characters. Some connect, some don’t… or do they? One never knows with Murakami! Loved May Kasahara, the alley, and the water well. I will never look at a water well quite the same now.
Gulp by Mary Roach – NonFiction
Fast and fascinating read! If Mary had taught my 9th grade health class, I’m sure I would have studied medicine instead of design. Three things: (1) Elvis did not die from a drug overdose. (2) Rats eat 45-100% of what they excrete every day. As do mice, swine and poultry. And if owners could get over the ick factor so would rabbits, guinea pigs and dogs. Why? To get the full absorption of critical minerals and vitamins via the small intestine. (3) Mütter Museum – OMG! How have I not been here yet?
IQ84 by Haruki Murakami – Fiction
After three library loans, I finally finished this sucker. Despite my lack of plowing through in one swoop, I loved this story and all the characters. I won’t spoil it, but the protagonist is one cool and mysterious chick. As with his other books, you always get schooled in music with Murakami. The book begins with this song, playing in a taxi: Janáček’s Sinfonietta.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami – A memoir
I was hooked on Murakami after reading Kafta on the Shore. He’s a prolific writer so there are no shortages of his books to read. I picked this one because the title was intriguing and memoirs aren’t his typical gig. It surprised me because it’s more personal than I expected, as if he’s chatting with you at a cafe about his thoughts on running and writing and how they’re so connected for him. I was inspired to run more while reading this, something I hope sticks because it’s a welcome break from all the cycling. I was also pleasantly transported back to my years living in Boston (1998-2006), as the author lived there as well (and Japan at times). I never knowingly crossed paths with him, but I did find myself stuck at the airport late at night without a ride. A kind, older gentleman offered me a ride and it turned out to be Jay Rubin who is most well known for translating Murakami’s books from Japanese to English (I didn’t know this at the time). He has his PH. D in Japanese Literature and worked at Harvard University until 2008. I remember he spoke of his work on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, which I still haven’t read. Ah, human connections. It’s all synchronicity, baby.
Kafta on the Shore by Haruki Murakami – Fiction
My mom has been recommending Murakami to me for years. It wasn’t until I moved here that I got the Murakami bug. I was sharing some of my new Taiwan experiences with my mom and she said, “It sounds like you’re in a Murakami novel”. I was intrigued by this so I ordered up Murakami on my Kindle right away. This was the beginning of my Murakami book bender.
Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows – Nonfiction
A good friend from Portland gifted me this book before we moved to Taiwan. I read it on the flight over. It’s an easy and enjoyable read. Culturally, it transported me to my soon to be new life. I also learned some Mandarin. If you’re planning on spending time in Asia, definitely read this. Thank you, Kerry!
How do we access books living abroad?
In Taiwan, bookstores are plentiful and there’s a modern public library within biking distance, but the English selections are often limited, therefor we access digital books through our public library membership in Portland, Oregon and download the majority of books to our Kindles. If you have a membership to any public library (and a Kindle or iPad), you too can do this. It’s a reading lifeline while living overseas. We’re grateful that public libraries offer e-books to check out!
In addition, we have the Taipei Times newspaper (in English) delivered to our apartment every morning and just like back home, a stack of New Yorkers piling up, begging to be read.
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