janemarieprice's 2018 reading
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I made a big move last year from New York to Chicago and hoping the more settled lifestyle will get me back to a consistent reading and posting schedule. I'm an architect and interior designer and am now working for a firm that does a lot of exhibit design also so that's been fun to learn about. Outside of work and reading I enjoy the outdoors from just sitting outside to camping and hiking, anything art/design related, cooking, and watching sports.
Winnesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
The Burning Stone by Kate Elliot
You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katharine A. Harmon
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing by D. Bradford Hunt
Anarchists's Guide to Historic House Museums by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Open City by Teju Cole
Why now: self-assigned homework for work.
I came into this looking for a good history of Chicago public housing in particular but was happy with how well Hunt tied the specific topic into the national story. This is not a riveting text - it is very academic and heavy on public policy and political battles. However, it was very informative and did a good job of balancing a combined chronological and thematic narrative. He does a great job in looking at all angles of the formation, large growth, and subsequent structural problems and dismantling of the Chicago Housing Authority.
The public discourse around public housing in the US has generally revolved around oversimplified generalizations of what went wrong. This does a good job of going over all the complex and interwoven issues that combined to be particularly devastating to public housing in Chicago - institutionalized racism and corrupt politics that resulted in limited site selection which forced building locations into racial minority neighborhoods, piss poor management that led to huge budget shortfalls and delayed maintenance of building stock, prioritization of the lowest income applicants resulting in concentrations of poverty, high youth to adult ratios in the largest projects which strained community policing, and many more.
Overall I can’t say I recommend this to any but those with a large interest in Chicago history and/or public housing in general. But if you are one of those people, it is required reading.
I plan for this year to start including an image with each review that is related to or evokes a feeling of the book. This is a photo of the demolition of Stateway Gardens constructed in the mid-late 50s and housing 1644 families. This has been replaced with a mixed-income development with “475 total units, of which 108 are mixed-income, 37 are rented at market rate, 34 are for affordable housing and 37 are designated public housing” (note: numbers are from the city so of course they do not add up and defy analysis).
David Schalliol, 2007
And the demolition of Cabrini-Green, one of the more infamous of Chicago's housing projects, consisting of 3607 units and peak population of 15,000 people. Currently a vacant site, plans call for an eventual 2340 mixed-income units in a mixed-use development; 604 units scheduled to be completed by 2020.
Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune, 2010
Why now: also self-assigned homework for work.
Part workbook, part slightly irreverent working treatise; this was a fun one. Some bits are sort of obvious - house museum tours are all generally the same, you can’t touch anything or take pictures, and thus they aren’t that interesting unless you are seriously interested in period furniture. So a lot covers what I would say are obvious fixes for museums to gain new visitorship - engage with the neighborhood and it’s potentially changing demographic profiles, have more engaging programming not just static tour guide led events, if pieces are recreations let people sit on them, don’t feel the need to be so fixated on a time period, etc.
But I found a few choice bits in here the most interesting of which was thinking about what time of day it is supposed to be. Most museums spend tons of research time on which time period to restore to or recreate and interpret but little to what is supposed to be “happening” in these rooms at whatever time of day. Enjoyable but very focused so not for the casual reader.
Image of the book: Installation of objects from the New York Historical Society. Pictured - busts of George Washington and Napoleon displayed alongside authentic slave shackles.
Fred Wilson, Liberty/Liberté, New York Historical Society
It's quite a dramatic and stunning space but I'm not sure how I feel about the books spines applied to each layer. "Real" books are only on a few levels. It certainly adds to the affect but seems a little...I don't know...odd and pointless in some ways.
This is a book that I think Stockett needed to write, had to write. But perhaps, like love/hate letters to jilted ex/unrequited love/old boss, it needed to be written as a kind of emotional purge and put away. There seems to be to me here a huge element of white wish fulfillment. To live in a time when so many were wrong but you know what’s right and can fight the good fight. Would I have such a negative reaction if Stockett had actually lived through the Civil Rights era? Possibly not. But I see much of my own struggles in her approach here. Struggles with the legacy of being a white southerner; a legacy which would be much different if I had been alive during the 60s when I could have made an impact, and done meaningful work, and music was better, etc, etc. Living in the now everything is messy and complex and uncertain and often feels helpless and how do you know if you’re woke or not. So the whole thing ends up feeling a little Gone with the Wind style love letter to a past gone by (which was pretty shitty to begin with) and a people you never really knew.
I must note that I was not bothered by a white person writing from a black person’s perspective. However, I was particularly bothered by a quick point in which Skeeter’s parents are watching the LSU/Ole Miss game the weekend after James Meredith enrolls at Ole Miss and the ensuing riots. Meredith enrolled on October 1st, 1962 and the LSU game was November 3rd (and it was an away game) - I looked this up on Wikipedia and there’s an excellent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about this exact topic so not obscure knowledge. If you’re going to go out on a controversial limb with this literary technique, you (or your publisher) should better double check you’ve got your I’s dotted and T’s crossed. And this one moment left me with the feeling that the legacy and history of these maids were not treated with the kind of care needed to really pull this off.
With all of that being said, I didn’t hate the book in of itself. I liked many of the characters. It was exciting. I wanted to get back to it to find out what would happen. So as a book it’s entertaining, but probably unnecessary without a lot more thoughtfulness.
Sign on Laundromat, New Orleans 1963, John Kouns
>9 janemarieprice: While I did not read the Help, I knew of it and had read enough reviews to know I didn't want to read it. I felt, as you note, it was a kind of "white wish fulfillment." I really enjoyed your thoughtful review, though.
>9 janemarieprice: Wasn't a fan of The Help at all, but I do like your review. That's an incredible photograph.
>13 SassyLassy: I know nothing of Tianjin so I'd be interested what else is around also. There are tons of these kinds of big capital A architecture project going up in China now and it's a little curiously integrated typically.
Re: The Help: I feel a bit badly that the review is so negative since as I said I actually did enjoy reading it. And I think art/discussion around what is often consider smaller (i.e. domestic) issues gets pushed aside a lot and these issues tend to especially historically be feminine. So I think it had great potential but just hit the wrong note a bit and needed to bounce around for a bit more in Stockett's mind/writing for a while longer.
I first read this in grade school when I was first getting into fantasy/sci-fi and the story always stuck with me though I could not remember the title. I somehow tracked it down and was quite glad I did. The story follows a family who travels to a distant planet fleeing a dying Earth. This particular family and their compatriots were not well off so they are sent with limited resources on a ship not designed for colonization. The planet is one of crystalline structure - rocks, trees, plants all appear glass-like. It was this aspect of the world building that so caught my imagination as a child. Overall not a groundbreaking or amazing book, but it was nice to revisit it.
>18 fannyprice: Yeah, these aren’t really required reading for work, but I’m trying to educate myself some more about issues that we’re discussing. I can’t describe how exciting it is to have a job where I’m compelled to read and learn more about things outside of work. It’s nice to finally be creatively stimulated!
>19 Tess_W: I know, it's always tricky to reread something, especially if it was a childhood fave. I wouldn't say this one was great, but it gave me great memories of shopping the school book fair and finding new and exciting things.
Some interesting photos of the Mardi Gras festival in Mamou, LA which is quite unique and different than anywhere else in state. There’s chicken casing, crazy costumes, and general weirdness.
Why now: more (sort of) work homework.
I will not do a synopsis for this as it’s been widely publicized and the title sort of gives it away. What I will say is this is a book of two parts. The first is a highly personalized account of the lives of several people whom the author meets and lives with in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee. The second is the set of notes at the back of the book containing research methodology, statistics, references, and all the other things one expects to find in notes. What makes this book so brilliant is that each supports the other so well. The very detailed research and stats reinforced and heighten the impact of the very individual stories in the text.
The other thing I really liked about this book, and that flipped a switch in my brain, was how present the author's voice was. So much of that has been edited out of nonfiction in the name of objectivity. It’s nice to see someone stop and say, no actually we shouldn’t be totally objective about this topic because it’s tragic and preventable. I’m seeing this more in public discourse and am glad that it seems activism is no longer a fringe movement.
- African American women are disproportionately affected by eviction - 9% of Milwaukee’s population but 30% of it’s evictions.
- Patrice, age 24, lived 4 miles from the shore of Lake Michigan (1 hour walking, 30 minutes by bus, 15 by car) and she had never been.
- Housing voucher tenants are generally charged above market rate due to the maximums allowed by the program at approximately $3.6 million a year (or an additional 588 families that could be served by the program).
- Jori, age 13, has decided he wants to be a carpenter when he grows up so he can build his mom a house.
- Lots on the effects of poverty on mental health, the texture of scarcity, the transitory state between stability and instability - individual choices being made by “exhausted settlers” not rational actors.
- A stat on children (which harkens back to my reading about Chicago’s public housing) - 1% increase in children in a neighborhood = 7% increase in evictions - high youth to adult ratios putting strain on community policing and support.
When evicted one has two choices - have your belongings trucked to a storage unit (for which you have to pay), or leave them on the curb.
>23 janemarieprice: Truth!
Why now: The worst of reasons - I wanted to watch the show.
This is my first read of this wonderful novel, and only my second Atwood. I’ll have to work on improving that in the near future. The best description I can come up with for it, is it is like a leaky faucet. You get little drip, drip, drip of information - slow, methodical, just a bit, drip, drip, consistent, and ultimately nerve-wracking. You get little bits of information and backstory and history of this place, but no large reveals.
I was completely drawn into Offred’s world and could barely put it down. Atwood has a way with developing the texture of the setting - bolstered by realistic characters - which really lends to the believability and fear that this could really happen. A line that particularly stuck with me was (on her husband finding out that all women’s property has been taken and given to fathers/husbands and assuring her he will take care of her). “He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it.” I had to put the book down when I got to this point and really think about how the men in my life would react to the situation.
Highly recommended for anyone who likes distopias, gender studies and human rights, or character based novels.
This is a lovely collection of posters from the show "Women's Rights Are Human Rights: International Posters advocating an end to gender-based inequity, violence and discrimination." Organized and curated by Elizabeth Resnick.
Why now: I read it in preparation for a talk Teju Cole was giving at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago for the opening of a show of Otobong Nkanga’s work*.
I am not totally sure how I feel about this book. I was a bit rushing with the novel to finish it before the lecture,, and it perhaps suffered as a consequence. I will say I found it very male, and like I couldn’t quite access it. It reminded me of Hemingway in that sense - very sparse, well written, and (to me) wholly without emotion.
For instance toward the beginning there is a scene where he learns of the death of his neighbor’s wife. He is talking about how upset he is about how he didn’t know about this monumental thing that happened on the other side of the wall.
“As I put away my groceries, I tried to remember when, exactly, it was that he had knocked on my door to ask if I played guitar. Eventually i satisfied myself that it was before, and not after, his wife’s death. I felt a certain sense of relief at this, which was taken over almost immediately by shame. But even that feeling subsided; much too quickly, now that i think of it.”
Maybe this disassociation is part of the point of the novel, but it just comes across as feeling like I should pat you on the back for recognizing it. Perhaps men don’t need to work on these things?**
All that said, there is a lot of good here. The depictions of the scenery and events are vivid and beautifully described. There are moments that perfectly capture the joy in discussion and companionship. The wandering around the cities narratives are descriptive and evocative of what it’s actually like to do that. (Another grating aspect for me is I quite happily moved from NYC a year ago so all those parts felt very name-drop-y and made me roll my eyes).
A few beautiful and true lines:
about the confusion in waking in a strange place - “The effort of gathering this ballast for my identity…” - lovely.
“We experience life as a continuity, and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities. The past, if there is such a thing, is mostly empty space, great expanses of nothing, in which significant persons and events float.”
“I wonder why so many people view sickness as a moral test. It has nothing to do with morals or grace. It’s a physical test, and usually we lose.”
“Each person muse, on some level, take himself as the calibration point for normalcy, must assume that the room of his own mind is not, cannot be, entirely opaque to him. Perhaps this is what we mean by sanity: that, whatever our self-admitted eccentricities might be, we are not the villains of our own stories. In fact, it is quite the contrary: we play, and only play, the hero, and in the swirl of other people’s stories, insofar as those stories concern us at all, we are never less than heroic.”
So all in all I didn’t come away with a clear feeling about this one. I guess I recognize it as good literature but never really saw past the veil.***
From Otobong Nkanga: To Dig a Hole that Collapses Again at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
* The talk was interesting though a bit above my head. There was a good bit of discussion about catastrophe and if we are heading for one. A lot of her work is discussing ground and the bodies relationship to it which I find intriguing, but her work is very centered on rock and crystallization while my sort of feeling or ethos or whatever you want to call it is decidedly soil and water-centric.
** Every relationship I’ve ever had laughs at this.
*** Rebeccanyc reviewed this shortly after it came out and seems to have had a similar feeling that I did; at least I’m in good company.
Yes I'm also excited about watching the show now that I've read the book! I haven't started it yet only because I know that the World Cup will use up all of my tv time.
>27 janemarieprice:, >29 lilisin: I'm now three episodes in and various things are getting in the way of my watching the series as quickly as I might. Here in the UK, the second series is also being broadcast, so I have a lot of catching up to do this summer!
I just finished another dystopia (I read a lot of dystopias!) due out about a month from now which owes a bit homage to Handmaids Tale. In this one, language and silence is at the forefront of what ends up becoming a thriller. Still, very thought-provoking, especially at the beginning. Review on my thread.
I have liked reading his essays, and I need to move his collection of them, Known and Strange Things, higher on my list of books to read soon.