After my haunted house marathon in October, I decided November would be a good time to catch up on my nonfiction stacks…
What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City written by Mona Hanna-Attisha is an account of the Flint water crisis by is the relentless physician who stood up to those in power in order to address a gross environmental injustice and save the city she loved. Dr. Hanna-Attisha writes compellingly, compassionately, and with such an intensity, that you feel like you’re there in the trenches with her, just trying to get somebody, anybody, to pay attention to her urgent findings of the elevated levels of lead in her tiny patients’ bloodstreams…
Alongside What The Eyes Don’t See, I read Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp, and this, too, is a wonderfully gripping, engaging book–but in a very different way. Flint’s inhabitants, especially the children, need lead-free water for all kinds of important health and developmental reasons; that is a book about water, the vital role that it plays in our lives, and the unconscionable negligence on the part of the government to keep it safe. Floating Gold, however, follows one man’s obsessions and adventures concerning ambergris, a kind of disgusting substance that is basically impacted dung, forcefully expelled from a sperm whale and used at one time to flavor rich people’s food or as a component in posh fragrances. Ambergris is an astoundingly expensive ingredient, sometimes costing more per ounce than gold, and an element in certain luxury items for people who, I imagine, would never have to worry about lead in their water. That’s probably a sweeping generalization, but in comparing these two books–both about stuff happening in water, both fascinating and informative, yet in the end so very different–it’s a conclusion that I couldn’t ignore.
Adrift: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea by Tami Oldham Ashcraft I guess the inadvertent theme for this month was “water”? I saw the trailer for this film maybe half a dozen times earlier this year, and although my interest was slightly piqued by this story of love and loss and survival at sea, ultimately, I knew it was nothing I would ever sit and watch in a theatre. I probably wouldn’t even watch it if it was on Netflix and I didn’t have to leave the house. Movies like this (romance? adventure?) are generally not my cuppa. When I found out it was based on a book (originally titled Red Sky In Mourning), ah–well, that’s a different story, so to speak. It’s weird, but I’m totally okay with spending two days reading what I wouldn’t even consider spending two hours watching. Tami, an adventurous young woman and experienced sailor, meets and falls in love with Richard, an equally spirited, thrill-seeking guy. They set out from Tahiti to deliver a yacht to San Diego, and two weeks into their journey they find themselves in the midst of a catastrophic hurricane, during which Tami is knocked out while down below deck, and Richard is swept overboard. From there on it’s a 41-day day of survival, in a crippled boat, out in the middle of the Pacific ocean. With a whole bunch of flashback scenes to spice things up, because being stranded alone doesn’t actually make for exciting reading, I guess. Now, the movie trailer would have you believe certain things that you immediately find out are not true at all, if you are reading the story in the book. That’s all I’m going to say about that, because maybe you want to read this or watch the film, and I don’t want to spoil it entirely. I feel like an asshole after reading the glowing reviews; I can’t deny the author’s vast courage and resourcefulness, but I’m a picky reader and something about the author’s tone and the way she told the story just…annoyed me. I think this book could have benefitted from a ghost writer.
How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals Sy Montgomery If Sy Montgomery’s name rings familiar, it may be that you recall I mentioned her book The Soul Of An Octopus in our late summer installment of Stacked this past August. Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and author with a great passion for animals and the world around us, whose words and voice and tone, unlike Tami Oldham Ashcraft above, I quite enjoy. I suppose that’s a little unfair; Tami Oldham Ashcraft was a sailor with a tremendous story to tell, but who, as far as I know, is not actually a writer; conversely, making words say things to connect with people is how Sy Montgomery earns a living. I guess she had better be good at it! In How To Be A Good Creature, she reflects upon thirteen animals, both of the commonplace and exotic variety, who affected her life in profound and surprising ways. It’s a very charming book, and while not exactly revelatory in the information it puts forth regarding the various creatures, it’s written very personally with a lot of heart, there are some lovely illustrations, and overall, it’s just a wonderfully sweet book. I do think this would be a perfect hexmas holiday gift for that dear animal-lover on your list.
Calypso by David Sedaris I discovered David Sedaris from the BPAL forums at just precisely the right time in my life. I was newly released from a two-week stay at, well, I don’t know what they call it in New Jersey– but in Florida, where I grew up, we always referred to it as the 1400 ward…or, I suppose, it is better known as “Behavioral Services”. Over a decade later, I still haven’t decided how I feel about calling it my reason for being there a “suicide attempt”, although from a certain perspective…or any perspective, really…I am not sure what else you could call it. At any rate, I was home again. And just as sad, and lonely, and miserable as before I left. The one thing getting me through the joyless gloom of my days were online interactions with my friends on the one forum on the internet that I felt most comfortable frequenting. I would often lose myself in various random threads on this online space for weird perfume oil enthusiasts , and in doing so, I found solace in various recommendations of the titles that some of these similarly bookish folks were currently reading. I checked out a few David Sedaris books from the library, and quite all at once, a great love–instant and utterly electrifying–was born. On so many levels I identified with his absurd stories of his deeply fucked up family and his bitter, clever, eccentric humor, and I can’t deny that laughing until I thought I might pee myself felt loads better than crying until I was hoarse and wishing I were dead. Calypso, his latest offering, is more of that same perverse intimacy and sardonic wit and biting observations (some so stark and cruel that you feel guilty for laughing, but you can’t help yourself), as he reflects on aging and mortality…and feeding tumors to turtles. I guess what I’m saying is that if you are a horrible person, like me, you’re probably going to enjoy the hell out of David Sedaris’ new book.
I’m afraid my reviews must be be brief this time around as I seem to have injured my left thumb. That’s what I get for trying to open eldritch portals before I’ve had any coffee. I should be icing the offended digit, but first I have books to write about!
Feminasty: The Complicated Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy Without Drinking Herself to Death by Erin Gibson This book made me furious. And I was already mad. But that’s part of the reason it was written in the first place. There’s so much going on this is world that’s beyond infuriating! And the only way to really deal with it, both on personal and societal levels, is by being as informed as possible. If you aren’t incensed by most, if not every essay in this book – and please forgive the cliché – you aren’t paying attention. Scathing, whip-smart, exhaustively researched, and fucking funny, this book is here – Erin Gibson is here – to inform and educate us and call us to the front lines of already raging battles to change this breathtakingly messed up country, one chunky necklace and one misogynist at a time. And the thing is, with women like her helping to lead the charge (and pointing us to many other amazing women doing their damndest as well), I think we have a chance. Also, follow her on Instagram. Again, you’ll just get mad (and often laugh while you’re raging). But we’re long past the point where any of us, especially those of us privileged by any number of factors, can afford to look away.
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc I wish my stupid thumb didn’t look like a taloned Vienna sausage right now, because I want to wax poetic at you about how thoroughly creepy and unsettling this book was. The title, of course, refers to the tale, but it just as easily describes the experience of having this book in your own two hands. Its claustrophobic atmosphere of disconcerting strangeness will not let go of you and you won’t want to let go of it until you’ve turned the last page. And once you’re done, I can assure you, the book isn’t. Not only were there moments that made me actually gasp, this book genuinely messed with my head a few times as its menacing weirdness bled into my non-reading life. If you’re looking for a haunted house/ghost story to thoroughly distract you from the world for little while – and you’ve already read The Haunting of Hill House – this is it.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Vol. 1: The Crucible by Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa (Writer) and Robert Hack (Artist) I wish I’d read this before the Netflix series came out. I’d watched that three times before reading this and what stands out most to me is how much the show improved on the comic, right down to the casting. The show is far more diverse and the plot feels more polished. Now, having said that, I did enjoy the story, which is significantly different in places and much darker. I intend to continue reading the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, because I’m very curious to see how the comic’s story progresses, but I think I’d have been more taken by it if I hadn’t already fallen hard for the television series.
Featured image by Caitlin McCarthy