Thursday, March 9, 2017

Monthly Wrap Up: February 2017

It’s that time again.  Time to take a deep dive into what I read during the previous month.  Overall, I am pleased with my February reading. I read broadly and managed to finish at least one book a week; so, I am on pace to meet or exceed my goal of reading fifty books this year.

How I Read

Here is how the month broke down for me statistically:

  • I read four books
    • One ebook,
    • One print book, and
    • Two audiobooks
  • I read a total of 1103 pages
    • This averages out to approximately 276 pages per book
  • The average rating for my February reads was a four
    • I read one five star book,
    • Two four star books, and
    • One three star book

What I Read

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood [ebook; 4/5 ]: This is another volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a project that sees bestselling contemporary authors re-imaging some of the Bard’s seminal works.  Hag-Seed was my first Atwood novel (though I own four) and my second read in the Hogarth Shakespeare series (last year I read Anne Tyler’s middling Vinegar Girl, a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew) and, if my experience with Hag-Seed is indicative of Atwood’s other works, I am excited to dive deeper into her bibliography.  

If you are unfamiliar with Hag-Seed’s premise, the novel re-imagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Atwood’s version of events Prospero becomes Felix, the deposed artistic director of an Ontario theater festival, forced to eek out a humble existence teaching theater under an alias at a local prison.  When the usurper who fired Felix, now Cultural Minister, plans to visit the prison, a pretense for shutting down the education program, Felix uses the opportunity to stage the ultimate revenge: a production of The Tempest.

Overall, I loved Hag-Seed and found the story easy to read and deeply engrossing.  Readers who may feel overwhelmed by starting elsewhere in Atwood’s bibliography may find, like, that Hag-Seed is an easier entry point into her work.  However, I would warn potential readers that it (obviously) helps to have read The Tempest before Hag-Seed.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman [audiobook; 4/5]: My first audiobook read of the month was Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.  I love the Netflix show based on this book; however, I approached the text with some trepidation.  You see, Piper is my least favorite character on the show and this book is told entirely from Piper’s perspective.  Thankfully, the real Piper is a far cry from her television incarnation.  
In the series, Piper is frequently taken to task for her false bravado, half-hearted attempts at connecting with inmates of color, and her general “basic white girl” in a prison jumpsuit aesthetic.  The most compelling part of Orange is the New Black (the series) is the complex lives and backstories of the non-Piper inmates at the fictional Litchfield prison.  

While the real Piper is more self-aware and likable than her fictional counterpart, the reader isn’t given insight into the lives or experiences of the other inmates, really as you should expect from a first person narrative.  Nonetheless, Piper comes across as having genuine empathy for her fellow inmates and their personal circumstances; Kerman manages to both recognize her own socio-economic privileges while, simultaneously, acknowledge the systemic obstacles her peers encounter.  Rather than simply identifying these obstacles and moving on to the next anecdote, Kerman contextualizes these challenges-- namely mandatory sentencing laws and how they have an inordinately punitive impact on communities of color-- and explicitly advocates for them to be changed.  

At it’s core, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison is a story about one woman’s embarrassing, emotionally exhausting, and often dehumanizing experience in the corrections system and how, with a support system that is atypical of most offenders, is able to both survive and agitate for change. Indeed, since her incarceration, Kerman (in addition to writing her memoir) has worked extensively with nonprofits regarding human rights for incarcerated persons as well as against mandatory minimum sentencing.  

Because of my affection for the show, I started my look at the American prison system with Orange is the New Black; however, I am not going to stop here.  In the coming months, I am planning to continue my reading and documentary with a particular focus on how incarceration impacts communities of color.  I think my next prison-related read will be George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye.  

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain [print; 3/5]: There really isn’t much to say about Tom Sawyer that really hasn’t been said before.  It’s a classic of children’s literature.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a better book.  I had to read Tom Sawyer  for work.  It’s a good ‘un, but not a personal favorite.  

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates [audiobook; 5/5]: Hands down, this is one of the most important books I have ever read (well, listened to, really).  For a long time, I flirted with the idea of reading Between the World and Me but ultimately read other things because I was put off by the hype Coates’ essay collection has received.  Last month, following  through on my commitment to read more diversely and to take a deep dive into own-voices narratives, I listed to the audiobook and was enthralled.

Between the World and Me is structured as a prolonged letter from Coates to his then fifteen year old son, written in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri.  In unflinching language, but in the loving tone of a distraught father, Coates addresses the corporal reality of being an African-American man (or woman, really; see the Sandra Bland case) in America, namely that, at any time and for almost any reason, you can be killed and your death will go unpunished.  If you consider yourself an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement,  if you are curious about the sentiments behind the movement, or if you are one of those white people who shakes police officers’ hands at the end of a protest march, read Between the World and Me.

What did you read in February?  Do you have any own voices or prison memoirs to suggest?  Let me know on Twitter @thelexicondev.

No comments: