January Reads: Crime and Punishment and Thanos, Self-promoting Your Career, Crying on BART, and Educated

Happy February everyone!

I read four books this January: two physical books and two ebooks. My initial goal in the beginning of the year, as part of my Shopping Ban, was to read only the books that I already own. But lo and behold, I got a new San Francisco library card and went a bit crazy. Also, I seem to have joined the ebook bandwagon about 10 years late. I think I bug Ratik about 10 times a week exclaiming how amazingly far technology has come because I can highlight, take notes, and look up words from the comfort of my Kindle app. Grandma Dina is finally wrestlin’ those darn compooters.

The genres I read last month were a bit scattered, which I really enjoyed. It kept things interesting and also challenged me to flex my reading muscles because I had to switch how I analyzed and consumed text. I guess it’s like rotating your muscle groups when you work out so you make sure that 1) you’re less likely to get bored and thus more motivated to work out/read and 2) if you only did chest and back and only read melancholic Russian literature, you will end up top-heavy and melancholic.

Image result for how women rise"How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith

I read this book for work as part of our internal Women’s Network. I volunteered to co-organize a presentation this quarter on how to self-promote your career because I’m obviously hella qualified to do so, and my partner recommended this as one of our topics. Helgesen and Goldsmith are professional coaches who help people identify habits that may keep them from getting where they want to go. How Women Rise is a self-help and empowerment book because it identifies some habits that women specifically tend to hold on to, and gives tips on how to let go or transform these habits in order to advance.

The book is actually targeted to women around middle-management who are trying to move up into executive or upper-management positions, so I found that some of the tips may not apply to people who are starting out in the career. I did, however, find some tips quite helpful for anyone in any part of their career that I will highlight during our presentation:

  • Claiming your achievements and contributions
    • Many of us wait to be acknowledged by our peers and bosses about what we’ve accomplished or how we helped the team, but we can’t rely on others to do this. Women especially are taught to be humble and soft-spoken as virtues, and that highlighting our own achievements would be bragging or being arrogant. But in order to ensure that we are being recognized for our hard work and talent, we should be proactive in highlighting what we’ve done and what we do.
  • Leveraging relationships
    • This was a hard pill to swallow, because I’ve always been terrified of my friends and acquaintances thinking that I’m taking advantage of them for personal gain. But the fact of the matter is, everyone has skills or relationships or expertise that can be helpful for you, and the reverse is also the same. If you ask someone for help, that’s establishing a two-way relationship where you could return the favor father down the line.

I gave this book 3/5 stars, meaning that I didn’t find it life-changing or profound but I thought it did have really good and helpful tips. It also gave insight into learned behavior that is usually instilled in women and how to navigate away from it. I  recommend this for anyone who feels stuck in the middle of a corporate job and wants to re-examine and evolve their habits and behaviors in order to move forward. Perhaps the protagonist in my next book could have used something like this…

Image result for crime and punishment arc classic"Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevksy

[Avengers and I guess Crime and Punishment spoilers for those of you who have heretofore lived under a rock and JUST NOW decided to join society]

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this. It was heavy at times because hello it’s about a murder, but I found that it read like a psychological thriller and at times couldn’t put it down because I was so enthralled in the building anxiety and drama. The story follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a young and impoverished law student who turns to murder as a means of escaping his state in life. He kills and robs an old pawnbroker–as well as her sister, accidentally– and then spends the next few hundred pages being paranoid and anxious of being caught and dealing with his conscience (characterized by the overtly pious women in his life.) The plot takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia during the summer, where the stifling heat add to Rasky’s stifled conscience and growing claustrophobia and paranoia.

I gave this 3.75/5 stars because I really enjoyed the story and really diving into old Rasky’s mind. He has an interesting ideology in that men of great intelligence and original ideas are above the law, and that murder in the name of social progress is justified. This reminded me of my old friend Thanos from the Marvel Universe, who eliminated half of society for the good of the world. Whether these men (and they’re always men…) are right in their philosophies is another topic for another day, but I found a great difference in the two characters.

Where as Thanos does have an original and progressive idea (addressing overpopulation and the damage its done on natural resources), Rasky doesn’t seem to have a clue. I read that Dostoevksy wrote this character as a caricature or criticism of utilitarianism, the idea that actions are justified if they’re for the overall betterment of society, and nihilism, the rejection of religious and moral principles because life in a practical sense is meaningless. Rasky definitely had nihilistic views in his disregard for human life, but I found it hard to believe his act of murder was utilitarian. Before the events of the novel, Rasky had published an essay in which he presented his ‘utilitarian’ ideas that some men, like Napoleon, cannot be judged by the law on the same level as other men of lesser importance and intelligence. I’m not going to debate whether utilitarianism is a morally or intellectually sound philosophy, but I found it hard to believe that Rasky had any sort of progressive ideas or plans. Sure, he talked about the good he was going to do once he had the money to finish law school and be a part of society. He talked about how some men are justified their actions because of their original ideas, but he never really had any original ideas except to murder (and then to justify it).

Rasky talked the talk, but did not walk the walk. 

Another issue I had with the story was its depiction of women. This was not at all surprising, but I’m going to hold authors of the past just as accountable as I do modern and contemporary authors when writing about women. Rasky’s mother, his sister Dounia, and love interest Sonia were interesting characters on their own, but they were pretty flat and really only existed to move the plot and his character development along. On the other hand, we have characters like Ramuhizin and Porfiry who are dynamic and have ideas and motivations of their own. Why do they get to be so much more interesting, Fyodor?

Despite these issues, I’m glad I read this because it really made me think and chew over Rasky’s character and the different topics and ideologies that are brought up. If the main character were Thanos instead, and we had female characters like Gamora or Captain Marvel then this might have been a 5 star read.

Image result for there there tommy orange"There There by Tommy Orange

This book was everywhere last year and I regret not having read it until now. In short, it wrecked me.

The story is told through different perspectives, following the lives of Native Americans from Oakland, California as they navigate through turmoils and challenges of identity, addiction, abuse, gentrification, and overall disillusionment. Their paths converge as they all attend the Big Oakland Powwow, where chaos and trouble ensue.

I gave this book 4/5 because I was absolutely captured and moved by the characters’ stories and voices. They felt so real, in their struggles and flaws and relationships. For the characters who were dealing with addiction and identity, Orange had a way of depicting their wounds and struggles in a way that felt so visceral to the reader. The characters had real, believable flaws and they dealt (or didn’t deal) with them in real, believable ways. 

Orange also talked about being a Native American in a way that is so important for us to read in a postcolonial (is it really though?) world, especially in a country that was built upon the institutionalized genocide of their people and culture. Mainstream media often portrays Native American culture as something of prehistoric or ancient times, rarely ever acknowledging that there are Native communities living and breathing and evolving.

One of the characters, Calvin, says that he “feels bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. I just feel like I’m from Oakland.” This is during an interview held by another character, Dene, who is holding open-ended interviews for Natives to tell their stories without prompting the subjects with questions or suggestions, so that “content directs vision.” This is what it felt like Orange was doing with his characters, letting their stories come to life without being tied to a specific theme. I think often when we see Native Americans in literature or movies, there’s usually a central theme that directs and ties down their stories. Either that, or they don’t even have stories to begin with and are limited to caricatures of their people and culture. The characters in There There don’t abide to a certain expectation of who they should be; instead they force the reader to see their stories and lives in all of their flaws, prayers, triumphs, and failures.

I was also incredibly impressed by the author’s grasp of language and pacing. As the characters’ paths draw into the Big Oakland Powwow, the chapters become shorter and more focused on action. It felt like watching a movie and seeing the characters from a bird’s eye view as they drew to the converging of their stories. Orange grew up in the Bay Area so he definitely had an advantage, but his use of Bay Area diction was so genuine that it felt like I was talking to people from my high school. They felt so familiar that I genuinely miss them now that the story is done.

Image result for educated tara westover"Educated by Tara Westover

Westover’s memoir follows her journey from living in isolation on her survivalist family’s farm in the mountains of Idaho to going to college and eventually graduating with a PhD from Cambridge and acknowledging the trauma and hurt that had been inflicted on her during her adolescence.

I rated this 3.5/5 stars; I would have rated it higher if not for some choices in editing that I thought could have been improved. That being said, I was absolutely mesmerized and inspired by Westover’s story and storytelling. What moved me the most was how honest and forgiving she is, while still unyielding about her writing and her voice. As she began to confront her family and the abuse and neglect inflicted upon her, they gaslighted her for succumbing to the devil and living in sin and telling lies. Westover was explicit in relaying her memories but was also transparent in giving disclaimers that they were disputed within her family. This reinforced her integrity as a memoirist and daughter/sister (even despite being excommunicated by most of her family) because she could have easily given her side. Instead, she acknowledged the voice of others that had hurt her.

Her honestly and compassion shines also in her relationship with Mormonism, which she studied as part of her dissertation. She found a balance between the blind, zealous faith of her childhood and disregarding the writings and beliefs as irrational and wrong; instead she examined the religion and ideologies as major contributions to history. As a writer and as someone who grew up in an extremely religious family, this was important for me to read because it gave an example of making peace with the past  and acknowledging beliefs respectfully while still staying firm in what I believe and don’t believe.

I really enjoyed the books I read last month and will continue varying the genres I’m reading. My reading this goal is to read 40 books, and to explore new genres and writers (with the help of the library because SHOPPING BAN!)

Have you read any of the books above and if so, what are your thoughts?

What are you currently reading? Do you have any reading goals this year?