Churchill’s Empire: The World that Made Him and the World He Made by Richard Toye

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(Caidyn)

4/5

I’m sure that if I had to ask most people for the name of a British PM, Churchill would be one of the names that came up. He’s famous for many things. His books, his speeches, his leadership during WWII and the bombings in England, The Crown, his very forceful personality. One thing that never came to my mind was his imperialistic point of view. Sure, I realized he had it, like most British men in that time period, but it never stuck out as something to examine in depth. But, that’s probably why Richard Toye is around.

While I’ve always admired Churchill for all the things he did during his political career, his imperialism bothers me the most. It reminds me of the primitivism, racism, sexism, and sexualization that you see during that time period, especially in works of literature that mirror the perception of that age. And it bothers me, seeing people framed as “savages”. Churchill is no different in that respect.

Toye approached this topic perfectly. Imperialism is bound to upset people no matter what, yet Toye comes at the topic from a middle ground. He portrays Churchill as the man he was. A person who was shaped by the things going on around him, then the feedback that he got from the world as he helped shape it. Churchill was a product of the Victorian age and his politics show that his whole life.

Everything was very narrow and focused, which I appreciate. I know next to nothing about Churchill’s personal life and if Toye had come in, talking all about things that happened in his life, then it would have overwhelmed me like Victoria: A Life or Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire. I would have wound up not finishing it or just stopped paying attention as I listened. Churchill’s Empire narrowed in on Churchill’s policies about this one issue, only mentioning major life events when prudent. While I sometimes got lost without years as reference, I appreciate the narrowness of the topic. It’s hard to narrow a topic this specifically, but Toye made it look easy.

If you find modern British history interesting or just want a specific read on this political topic, I suggest you check this out. It was very interesting even when the topic seems that it would be dry.

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Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Openly Straight Cover

(Chantel)

3/5 – This is a funny and frank book that explores different points of view when it comes to exploration, sexuality, male friendship, and labels. As a female, that was really interesting to read.

This book is about Rafe, a gay teenager from Colorado who is tired of being “the gay kid” at his school, so he enrolls at an all boys school on the East Coast and decides not to tell anyone he’s gay.

First off, this book had me laughing out loud in multiple parts and I love that. It was one of the best parts of the book. I will always pick up a funny book over a depressing one and the reason I finished this book so quickly was I needed a bit of levity. This book had a lot of charm to it and even though it wasn’t perfect, I enjoyed it overall. I can normally excuse flaws if I enjoy a book and nothing really was terribly off-putting.

One thing that was refreshing was seeing a book written about high school kids that didn’t seem watered down. I definitely cringed at some of the things said, but I can remember saying stupid shit when I was younger.

The main character, Rafe switched between likable and whiny for me and even though by the end of the book he seemed to have learned his lesson I didn’t completely buy it. It seemed rushed. As someone who has switched her labels and avoided labels until I finally found one I was comfortable with, I get it, but I don’t think I was ever on his side. I don’t think I ever understood his desire to get away from being “the gay kid”. Perhaps this is because I’m not in high school anymore or because it’s tied into his male identity, even if I didn’t understand it, I found it interesting to read.

However, I found the character of Ben far more interesting. There is a sequel to this book called Honestly Ben and it’s through his point of view. I was hoping it was a continuation and not a retelling through his point of view, and I’m glad it is a continuation. I’m hesitant to read it, however, because he goes on a very different journey and I don’t know if I’m interested in reading about it. He is a very interesting character and I don’t want to spoil too much, but a lot of the exploration comes from his character. I’m just not certain I want to read a book that continues that arc.

In the end, I was satisfied with the book and felt it read quickly and was a funny, cute YA book with a gay main protagonist. I’m just not sure if I’m invested enough to keep reading about these characters.  

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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(Caidyn)

5/5

When I heard about Homegoing, I wasn’t expecting to read it. I don’t enjoy jumping on bandwagons and those things. Not my thing and usually the books come out unsatisfactory.

When I decided to actually read it, I didn’t expect to like it. Maybe I would like it, but it wouldn’t hit me hard.

When I started it, I didn’t think it would get above three or four stars. Four stars tops.

When I got to the end, I had no doubt in my mind that this was a five-star book, that I need to own it, and that I’d be willing to shell out money for a hardcover copy.

This book is the simple story of one family from the 1700s to present day. It starts with a split of mothers, then a split of marriage, and finally a split of fortune. All within this single family. And it’s beautifully written. I highly suggest the audiobook because it’s a story that almost needs to be told to you, not read. It’s melodic and the narrator captures accents beautifully, along with the tone of it all. This story travels through years of strife in a family that was split before the story even began, yet all about coming home. Yet, where is home? And who will be the one to find it? The ending completely choked me up. I had to go to the bathroom for a minute to compose myself. (Working at a warehouse + being male = crying not allowed.)

I’m so glad that I jumped on the bandwagon. It’s definitely a book that you people will either love, hate, or be ambivalent towards, but the most I can compare it to is something like Toni Morrison. Not as violent or confusing, but straight up beautiful.

Have you ever read a book that told such a sweeping generational tale, one that impacted you on every level imaginable? I’d love to hear which ones you guys have read.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Cricis by J.D. Vance

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(Caidyn)

4.5

I think that this is one of the most informative books I’ve read this year. You might ask, how so? It’s a memoir, so how is it informative? It’s about a guy who’s not famous, not done anything groundbreaking, and he’s writing about his hillbilly family!

Well, let me tell you.

This explains the mindset about all of the people who voted for Trump. It tells me how he tapped into their fears and worries without ever experiencing things that they went through. He found their fear, their paranoia, their pain and exploited it. Now, I know that these people are well meaning. They’re fundamentally good people if you meet and get to know them. I live in a small town. A lot of my friends have families like what’s described in this book. I grew up around this honor code, one that is utterly foreign to me despite living in this town for most of my formal years.

J.D. Vance lays out a great case study in his family. He lays out what he saw, what he experienced, and how his life radically differed in trajectory when compared to others who went through the same life he did. It’s full of great characters that make you want to laugh, then you take a step back and think to yourself: “If I ever saw these people, I’d be sneering.” He humanizes the people that liberals, myself included in this, mock and tease for their insane beliefs. And all of those beliefs are ones that Trump tapped into. Obama’s birth certificate. Barack Hussein Obama and his ties with Islam, the dreaded nation trying to bring our great country down. He’s the one who is systematically destroying the country from the inside out. Taking working class jobs.

I mean, all of this sounds familiar. To a point where you scoff and roll your eyes at those crazy hillbillies.

Vance states in his introduction that he didn’t write this book to make you sympathize or pity them, or to make you hate them. He just wants you to understand them and their radically different lives. But, I have to say, it brought a lot of things into perspective and I gained a lot of sympathy for them. They’re human, just like you or I. And they most certainly need our help and support.

What do you guys think? How did Vance make you feel about hillbillies, the national joke in America?

Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Everything Leads to You cover

(Chantel)

4.5/5 – If you are looking for a great book with a lesbian relationship, then definitely check this book out. I highly recommend it.

I’ll get my only negative criticism out of the way first. I was planning on taking off a whole star, but I loved the book so much, I took off half a star because this is really a nitpick. I’m not sure why the characters needed to be eighteen, they easily could’ve been twenty and it would’ve made the fact that two of the characters worked in the movie industry a lot more realistic. I had to suspend my disbelief, especially early on in the book.

There was one point where I thought I’d get annoyed if a specific thing happened because it was too perfect for my liking and even though it did happen I wasn’t annoyed. I’m being intentionally vague on purpose. I think that says a lot about how well the book was written and how well the characters were written.

Now, I loved all of the characters except the few characters you weren’t supposed to like. I adored Charlotte and Ava and Jamal, they were just as interesting as Emi and I enjoyed how they spent a lot of time together. It wasn’t just the two love interests. They hung out together as a friend group which is a lot more realistic. Even Emi’s ex-girlfriend who doesn’t come off very well at first ends up being really likable because things don’t linger for long. Once it’s over, it’s over and I appreciated that.

The characters are also involved in filmmaking which combines two of my favorite things, lesbians, and movies. I’m so easy to please.

Out of all the Contemporary LGBTQ+ YA books I’ve read this is one of my favorites. The couple is one of my favorites ever. I would definitely read more of Nina LaCour’s work simply on the merit of this book.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

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Caidyn – 4/5

I honestly don’t know what I want to say about this book. I don’t even know how I feel about this book. It’s odd because it’s not as if I disliked it. I thought it was very interesting and intriguing and it kept me going from start to finish. Sure, I guessed the ending very early on. Yet there’s just so much more to this book. It’s one of those thrillers that’s not really a thriller. It’s not even a slow burn. Reid almost writes it as if you should know what happens in the end, however, the way that it’s written is that you honestly will want to go back and reread it from start to finish. It’s cleverly written. Who even wrote the book? Who is the narrator? Is it who we think it is or is it someone else? And the ending completely fucks with you, at least it fucked with me.

I didn’t like it, but I didn’t dislike it. I’m in an odd moot point where I’m at a loss for how I exactly feel. The whole book, I felt abstracted and dissociated from the characters. It was as if I was dissociating from the book as I read it, floating above the scene and pages. There was no real emotional pull, yet I wanted to find out what happened next. Yet, I knew the ending. It wasn’t difficult to guess.

The more I talk about it (or type about it, really) the less I feel that I understand the book as a whole. This has to be the cleverest book I’ve read in a long time, at least in the mystery department. This is a very odd little book, and I’m sticking with three stars for right now. Although I may bump it up as I think about it more.

Newer part

The same day I read this, I decided to reread it. And, I took the advice the book gives you (along with the advice of a brilliant review; Ed Lorn is the tops so you should find it). I started from the very last pages of the book and worked myself backward, chapter by chapter, to the beginning. And then, from there, I reread the first page and the last couple of chapters. I never do this with books. If I’ve read it once, I don’t feel the need to reread it right away. But with this one, I had to figure it out. I had to know exactly how it all worked together.

God, this was an amazing book. It was tightly woven, but you can’t appreciate it until you’ve read it a second time. You just have to go through the book multiple times to really understand it, and that’s so rare in a thriller. For that reason, I’m bumping my rating up another star.

Chantel – 2/5

I don’t like thrillers, but as soon as I heard about this book I was interested. I really wanted to like this book and I read it a lot faster than I expected to. I had to know what was going on and for that, I’ll give credit to Reid. He kept me reading until the last page to see if I was right about what was going on or if he was going to surprise me with something new. Up until the point where they arrived at the parent’s house, I was enjoying it, then it got really grotesque, then it lost me completely after that.

I won’t be including any spoilers but the reason why I didn’t like the book was the reveal at the end. I predicted it, then I hoped for something better, and unfortunately it was exactly what I had predicted. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the actual reveal, I think it’s overused and I would like to see new ways of fucking with the audience than this.

I know Caidyn reread the book immediately right after and it was suggested to do so, but I had no interest in rereading the book.

I’m glad I read it because it was on my radar of books I wanted to read and it was a newer book I’d heard good things about, but I was ultimately disappointed with the reveal and wished it could’ve been something more original.

Discussion

Very obviously, we disagree about this book. On Goodreads, the average rating is 3.3 stars. Right in the middle. That breaks down to 15% for five stars, 30% for four stars, 30% for three stars, 16% for two stars, and 7% for one star. Even out of people I’m (Caidyn) friends with or following on there, there’s a huge discrepancy with how people thought of this book. It’s not exactly an easy book to read and not a likable one either. It uses common tropes in the mystery genre and tries to put a unique spin on them.

Discussion Questions (Please try to avoid spoilers or clearly highlight spoilers):

  • When it comes to twists is it better to be surprised or is it better to figure it out and see how it falls into place?
  • What were ways Iain Reid used to convey suspense?
  • What do you think of the ending of the book? Do you fall more with Caidyn, Chantel, or some hybrid of the two?

A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis by David M. Friedman

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Caidyn – 3/5

Hm. How to rate this book? At times, it was very good. And at times, it wasn’t. Usually at the same time, as odd as that sounds.

It’s a very informative book. It starts in the BCE and makes its way through to modern times. A whole scope, or as much as one can over in an overview of the history of the penis. There are many things that Friedman left out, I’m sure. Otherwise, this would have been a six-volume book rather than six chapters.

So, this was good. Informative, accessible, easy to understand. Hallmarks of a well-done nonfiction book that’s marketed to the general population. This isn’t one for academics alone. Anyone can understand it if they open the book and go ahead and give it a try.

However — and I’m sure anyone reading this expected this — it wasn’t great. What this book needed, for all the nice things I said about it, is a damn good editor.

For one, the chapters are far too long. Almost all of them top out at 50+ pages per chapter. If it’s not a textbook or a properly literary novel, those chapters are far too long for a book meant for the general public. I can’t think of anyone who just picked this book up for a bit of light reading would stick with something this long chapter-wise. So, there’s one thing.

Not only that, but the chapters are way too rambly. They start at one point, then they go to another that’s loosely connected to the first. And then off to another topic. And another. And another. Because the chapters are too long. A good editor would have shortened the chapters, then also split up the chapters into briefer topics.

There were more than a few things wrong besides chapter length and the issues with staying on topic. The other thing was with having no introduction or conclusion. Any good nonfiction book has a point to it, one that’s made and summed up in those. It establishes the credibility of the author, then lets me know the thesis of the whole thing. It’s pointless to have something without a thesis statement, and this book completely lacked any sort of focus, starting with not having an introduction.

A good editor, in my opinion, would have done one of a few things.

1) Had Friedman add an introduction and conclusion to it, then probably made little mini-thesis statements for each chapter so I knew what to expect. That’s just Nonfiction 101.

2) Don’t add those things, but shorten the chapters down. Keep all of the topics, but make it so they’re like mini-essays. You know, keep it focused and like a small essay on a specific topic.

3) Not jump around in the chapters. Again, keep the different topics and how they spaced out, but actually make it so it was time specific. One chapter on BCE times. Another on the Middle Ages specifically. Another on the 1900s. I mean, talk about all the conflicting viewpoints that were going on at the same time, not just focus on specific things and I have to make the connections that happened about 100 pages ago with the huge length of chapters.

So, to sum my thoughts up, a good and interesting book, but it needed some work to tighten it up before being published.

Chantel – 3/5

I added a star for the interesting topic alone.

Overall, I found the topic interesting but it was really the formatting of the book itself I had a problem with. The chapters were far too long, over fifty pages each, when they could’ve been condensed to smaller chapters that were easier to digest.

There was also a lack of citations. There were statements in the book that stood out, just a few, without citations that made me question their validity. That’s just something to be aware of when making such statements. Even if it might be statistically true, a citation where I could go look up that article or study would make me doubt it less.

There were some horrific things in this book and some really interesting things. Starting at the beginning of history to modern day is a huge amount of time to cover and I think this was a good overview, but when it comes to specifics a book could’ve been written on every chapter in this book. I found that the earlier chapters where he explored the earlier moments in history were far more interesting than his exploration of modern history.

I do think that books about men are important to feminism and gender equality as a whole, but I would’ve preferred something that was better structured. Really, it was hard to get past that.

Discussion

In a world that is largely patriarchal, men get overlooked in writing about specific history. All history books tend to focus on the conquests of different men, women being tacked on as a side topic to explore for perhaps a paragraph unless a woman was linked to a famous man. However, books don’t typically feature cultural conceptions of the penis. Many books have been written about vaginas, from histories to politics to cultural studies. Penises have contributed much the world, good and bad, and usually when they’re attached to a specific person. However, is this the best book to tackle such an expansive topic? No. A deep lack of editing, focus, and credibility mars the book from our perspective, no matter how much of an important topic penises are to feminism and gender equality.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How is the penis viewed in the modern day, and how does this change depending on what race/ethnicity you are?
  • Are we more divided as a gender now or were we more divided before?
  • Will we ever get to a point where gender and genitalia do not define us?

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness coverCaidyn- 4.5/5

Now, I’m not a huge sci-fi person. Let me explain, though. I really like sci-fi when it’s done well. However, most books I’ve read that are sci-fi aren’t what I want. A lot of them are pretty misogynistic and, well, that’s not my thing. Either the books are misogynistic themselves or the authors are, and I am the type of person who doesn’t want to support the work of people who are like that.

But, this one was very good. It’s a really good look at a planet and the political tensions in it. That’s what most of the book is comprised of. Just explaining political tensions that then lead us down the rabbit hole to something bigger. Gender. A huge discussion on gender and gender roles. And it starts off hinting at it, then it continues on, going further and further in until the end when you’re left with a profound statement. Does gender truly matter? It impacts everything that we do and are allowed to do in our culture, but does it matter?

That was a huge topic back in the 1960s when this was written. Today it’s still a big topic as more people come out under the transgender umbrella. Transsexual (which is a dying term that some transpeople find offensive — I obviously don’t), non-binary, demigender, genderfluid, gender variant/nonconformity, Two Spirits, the Third Gender, etc, etc etc. There are so many that I can’t keep track of them. And, obviously, it’s a huge talking point in politics. Look at North Carolina’s bathroom bill. (And the one being proposed in Texas. And various other states, including Kansas.) The debate still rages even between the traditional binary of men and women, leaving out the trans part of it.

And this book is still relevant for all of it. I highly recommend it and I’m definitely going to have to read it again.

Chantel – 4.5/5

I gave this book a rating of 4.5 stars because it has a slow start with a lot of political intrigue because of this it took me some time to get into the book. Once I did, I was amazed. There were also POV shifts that weren’t obvious right away and was quite jarring. However, I’d highly recommend as an important piece of science fiction literature written by an incredible female author and as a look at gender from a 1960’s point of view.

My first exposure to Ursula K. Le Guin was a story called, “The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas”. I highly recommend it. It was an amazing story about a utopia that has a moral dilemma, and that’s all I’ll say because I encourage everyone to go read it. It was an incredible story and sticks with me to this day. From then on, I wanted to read more by her and when I heard what The Left Hand of Darkness was about I was immediately interested. A planet where there are no assigned genders and no gender roles? Of course, I’m intrigued.

As I was reading the book, I found myself getting annoyed with the protagonist and his views on the people of Winter. As a progressive Millenial living in 2017, I thought the idea of a genderless planet was incredible and would be a wonderful place to live. It’s so easy to think of how people thought then and criticize, but I constantly had to remind myself of when the book was published and how people thought back during that time. Le Guin is simply reflecting the thoughts of her time and trying to open people’s minds. I felt that Genly’s journey through the book was excellent character development and it didn’t feel unnatural or forced.

For me, this book picked up about halfway through. There’s essentially two parts to this book and once that second part hit, I was sucked in completely. From that moment on until the end of the book was a beautiful story. The writing and world building that Le Guin provides us with is remarkable. She did in this novel what I felt she accomplished, on a smaller scale, in a short story and I know this book is very popular and well respected in the science fiction world and it’s deserved.

Discussion

While we both agreed on the merit of the book, we looked at it from different perspectives. Chantel wasn’t a fan of the political aspects of it whereas Caidyn was. Caidyn looked at it from the point of view of a transman while Chantel saw it from the perspective of a liberal, progressive, cis-woman. This book is open to many perspectives beyond those two. During the time period Le Guin wrote this, sci-fi was largely dominated by male writers and readers. Having a book that asserted a genderless world and had a main character imposing his gender pronouns on characters reflected the way most readers came from, taking not only Genly through dynamic character growth but also the reader. The reader would have to be engaged in the book and perhaps be repulsed by these “men” who are feminine. In a world that grows more and more inclusive (we hope) of different gender identities and expressions, Le Guin’s book offers a glimpse into the past and a reflection on how many people feel today as gender becomes more and more muddled in the eyes of the public.

Discussion Questions:

  • How is this book is still relevant?
  • Did Genly’s POV contribute to the book in any way other than what we named?
  • What themes would be similar or different if the book was published in 2017?