Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America

By R. Eric Thomas

Here_For_ItWhew, this book! I’m a big fan of R. Eric Thomas’ weekly e-newsletter,* and figured this would be a similar collection of essays: a combination of very funny personal anecdotes and political/social commentary. And it was, but just…even better: deeper, more complex, shockingly poignant. I was in awe of how he balanced humor and gravity, and how artistically he threaded themes through his personal life into reflections of our country as a whole.

One sentence, I’ll be laughing out loud, and the next will stop me short:

“The fact that I sometimes enjoyed dating a boy was, to say the least, discomfirming information for a Christian, black-esque straight person who spent his free time carefully curating an Audra McDonald fan page on the internet. And it didn’t feel like there were two sides of me fighting for dominance; it felt like I was coming apart at some basic level, like I was becoming diffuse, like water becomes mist.”

… “like water becomes mist.” Whew!

Thomas has had hard times, as he struggled with what it meant to be black, gay, and deeply Christian in America, but he finds such reflective truths and ultimate optimism that it was an ideal read right now. In his introduction, Thomas talks about his childhood love for Sesame Street’s The Monster At the End of This Book. It’s a funny, light-hearted critique of a children’s book through the retrospective adult lens. By the end, he ties this all into how difficult life seems now, but how important it is to forge ahead (as a very skilled professional writer, he of course does this much more meaningfully than I can). The title of his book comes from his conclusion that he is “here for it,” it being his life, with all its ups and downs, and that is how you save your soul in America.

*I have to plug his analysis of Governor Cuomo’s covid-themed poster, which had me howling!

You Can’t Touch My Hair

By Phoebe Robinson

You_Can't_Touch_My_HairI decided to take a break from reading serious intellectual books about race and racism, and instead turn to a funny book about race and racism! And honestly, comedian Phoebe Robinson touches on many of the points from So You Want to Talk About Race and White Fragility through humor, pop culture, and personal anecdotes, so I really recommend this to anyone who wants to laugh while they learn some hard truths. Actually, I just recommend this to anyone, since Robinson is a very smart and funny writer on a whole range of topics:

  • Do you want to know which Hall & Oats lyrics summarize the entirety of human history?
  • Do you want detailed advice on how to correctly google yourself?
  • How to avoid being the Black Friend? (or conversely and more importantly, how to avoid tokenizing a friend as your Black Friend)

She kicks the book off right away with her titular hair: how her hair, society’s reactions to it, and the affect those reactions had on her evolved over her youth and young adulthood, culminating in a history of black hair in media which illustrates the decades it took for natural black hair to be even slightly accepted today.

For me, one of the most striking stories she tells is about a director she worked with, which quite literally runs down all the hallmarks of white fragility like a checklist: denial of racist words, reassurance of being a good person, burdensome guilt-ridden apology and request to ‘talk it out further,’ and the final cherry on top of turning to a different black person for absolution. It should seriously be used as the prime example in DiAngelo’s book!

My favorite part of the book, however, was toward the end where she writes a series of letters of ‘advice’ to her “all-time favorite person: my two-and-a-half-year-old biracial niece, Olivia.” As a professional comedian, of course she’s funny, but she really shines when she’s also sincere: “Seeing how you view the world makes me happy. Ah! A comedian expressing a genuine emotion and not following it with a joke. Full disclosure: That was really, really hard for me to do just then.”

In addition to wanting to make sure Olivia doesn’t miss such pop culture gems as DMX singing “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” she tells her how great it is to be black, to be a woman, and even tags in John Hodgman for the difficult task of talking up being white without sounding racist! (You’re going to want to read the story of John taking his friend Wyatt—who I assume is Wyatt Cenac—to a gourmet mayonnaise shop in Brooklyn.)

And finally, in her advice on being sex-positive, she goes on a lengthy tangent about the problematic 2014 movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, which first of all, shocked me about that movie since I’d never seen it, but then made me want to read an entire book of her dissecting what does and does not work in movies and tv shows. This book is so chock full of pop culture references that I finally just had to appreciate the ones that I got and let the rest pass, or I would have been constantly jumping over to google.

Reading Through the Pandemic

So, it’s been a while. 2020, huh? I may have aged 20 years since February. Everyone hanging in there?

While I have definitely spent my share of this pandemic doom-scrolling, playing a truly astounding amount of Thirteen, and watching every episode of the Great British Baking Show again, I have actually read a fair amount. My book list from the last five months is an odd mix of romance, non-fiction, and literary best sellers as I keep trying different kind of books, looking for the perfect thing to help me either forget the world or understand what is going on around me. I don’t know that I have yet to find a book that genuinely helped on either front, but I did read some smart, touching, fun things that kept me off Twitter. It’s all I’ve got today, but I’m going to offer it to you: some books that might take you away from the current hellscape for a few minutes.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips
A while back I read Reservoir 13, a novel about how the disappearance of a young girl affects the residents of a small town. It got rave reviews, but I found it deeply unsatisfying. This book is everything I had hoped Reservoir 13 would be. I also really enjoyed a peek inside life in a far-flung Russian province, including in its indigenous communities.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
People absolutely adore Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, but I thought it was just pleasant enough and Anna was even less impressed. But it’s a pandemic, I’ve got nothing but time, so I thought I as might as well tackle her second one. It’s another long, sprawling magical realism story with lots of characters and multiple time frames, but I was much more caught up in the characters and the magical world she created this time around.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
I made so much fun of Anna for reading this at the beach a few years ago, but she was totally right! This is a smart, readable book that provides a sense of hope that there are concrete things we can do to improve the world.

Open Book by Jessica Simpson
I know! The Jessica Simpson book! It is actually very good!

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Massey wrote a series of mystery novels about a Japanese-American woman solving crimes in modern-day Tokyo, which I liked a lot, but this book kicked of an even more interesting new series about a female lawyer working in 1920s Bombay. The story was interesting, but I was most impressed with the level of research that Massey must have done, which allowed her to create this world that felt so real, even while being so far from anything I’m familiar with.

Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch
Have you been wanting to read a linguist discuss how people on the Internet communicate? You want to, whether you know it or not. This can get a little dense at times, but McCulloch is funny and the phenomena she describes will be familiar to anyone who has spent significant time on line over the last 25 years. Having an expert take a specific Internet language thing (a meme, an acronym, ellipses) and then explain exactly what purpose it serves actually gave me a lot of respect for how we create the forms of communications we need in real time every day.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
This last one isn’t cheerful, I’ll warn you, but it was compelling. I think I found this book in a round-up of WWII stories, but it actually has an interesting twist. The story follows two timelines–a female spy in France during the first World War, and then a young American girl in Europe in the years immediately following the end of the second war. Anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction ends up reading a lot of WWII stories, and that’s all fine, but they often focus exclusively on the war years and little before or after. I liked how Quinn’s story showed how close and connected the wars, and individuals’ experiences of them, were and how Europe had begun to rebuild in the late 1940s.

White Fragility

By Robin DiAngelo

White-FragilityWhite Fragility is written by a white woman very specifically for a white audience, to help us all process our feelings in a way that does not burden Black people around us. DiAngelo is explicit about this in the introduction: “This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color.”

DiAngelo writes in a very academic manner, which makes sense given that she started as a professor, with a matter-of-fact and somewhat dry style. She is now a consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice, and it’s quickly clear that she is very good at metaphorically holding white people’s hands while they slowly, and often grudgingly, wake up to systemic racism. (At one point, as she walks the reader through a common strawman argument, she requests that the reader take a calming breath.)

And by starting at the beginning, I mean she really starts at the very beginning: “Yet a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does). Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility, and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race.”

DiAngelo’s parallel of white fragility vs. racial stamina really speaks to me, since I want to be the strongest, most self-sufficient person I can be. Through occasionally excruciating detail, she makes it clear that avoidance of race issues is very much a weakness, and you only get stronger and more resilient by facing these truths head on. I admit that she is so methodical about walking the reader through the process of understanding white fragility, acknowledging it, and then combating it that it can be somewhat exhausting, but it has to be that way. As she describes, white supremacy is so deeply entrenched that we must be able to recognize it and combat it in every aspect of our society: “To say that whiteness is a standpoint is to say that a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race—“just human.”

To acknowledge white fragility, one must recognize the myths of individualism and objectivism which are so key to American society in particular. These myths deny the degree to which we are all influenced, even subconsciously, by cultural messages that for the most part work to bolster white supremacy. (This was also where I gave myself a mental pat on the back for already rejecting Ayn Rand’s bullshit.) It is no wonder she has to go into such meticulous detail; it is a huge undertaking to unravel these patterns of thought that have been reinforced since birth. DiAngelo is attempting with this book to remove the centering and the blindness that comes with it so we can see more clearly what whiteness means in our society.

She has somewhat repetitive wording, using similar phrases and going over the same topic in multiple ways, which can be a bit of a grind when reading, but does its job. Her guidance has continued to stay with me, reinforcing what I’m reading/hearing/seeing from people of color and giving me strength when I fear I’ll make something worse through ignorance. You are a far better ally if you acknowledge your inevitable mistakes and gratefully accept correction than if you try to avoid, by either inaction or unaccountability, ever falling into racist patterns (which doesn’t fool anyone anyway).

“Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it.…Unlike the heavy feelings such as guilt, the continuous work of identifying my internalized superiority and how it may be manifesting itself is incredibly liberating. When I start from the premise that of course I have been thoroughly socialized into the racist culture in which I was born, I no longer need to expend energy denying that fact.”

So You Want to Talk About Race

By Ijeoma Oluo

So_You_Want_To_Talk_About_RaceHonestly, I did not want to read about race right now, let alone talk about it. I wanted to keep reading the historical mysteries and romances that have kept me moderately distracted during this pandemic, but they started to feel tiresome, and I knew that I couldn’t ignore this national dialogue any longer.

When faced with all the recommended readings, So You Want to Talk About Race was an easy choice, since I already follow Ijeoma Oluo on twitter and instagram, where she is very smart, funny, honest, and occasionally posts beautiful makeup demos. I’d been meaning to get to her book for longer than I like to admit.

Also, white complacency is insidious! I’ve done enough reading over the years that I’m more or less comfortable with terms like “social construct” and “intersectionality,” but this also means that I too often fall into the mental trap of thinking that I don’t need to do any of this recommended reading.

And boy, did Oluo school me fast! She writes So You Want to Talk About Race in the same accessibly conversational tone that she uses in her social media, so I’d initially thought it would be a pretty quick read. It came as a shock the first few times I had to set down the book for a day so that I could think through everything she had laid on me in the chapter I’d just read.

I can’t resist sharing a few passages that I highlighted:

From the chapter “Is it really about race?” on how our country’s economics is intrinsically connected to race:

Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for nonracialized people—you will get more because they exist to get less.

From “What is racism?:”

Systemic racism is a machine that runs whether we pull the levers or not, and by just letting it be, we are responsible for what it produces. We have to actually dismantle the machine if we want to make change….

Continue reading

Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women

sayhernameSay Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women
by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Andrea J. Ritchie, Rachel Anspach, Rachel Gilmer, Luke Harris
Published by: African American Policy Forum, Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies
2016

Breonna Taylor, a 27-year-old EMT, was shot and killed by three armed intruders who broke into her house at 1am on 3/13/2020. The intruders, it turns out, were police officers, which makes them different from any other armed intruder breaking into a house at 1am in that they may well get away with murder.

There’s a long history of police officers getting away with murder. Most of the time it doesn’t even make the news. This report, that’s only 124 pages long, is an attempt to address that issue, because black women are being murdered and even their deaths are being erased.

I read this report because as difficult as it was to read, it felt worse to be the person reading only escapist fiction right now.

Most of the statistics collected about police killings of black people are gender neutral studies: how many black people are being killed. But the reporting of those studies often shift to talk about how many black men are being killed, even though the actual breakdown, according to this report, is actually pretty evenly divided between black men and black women.

A lot of black people’s deaths go unremarked in the news, their murderers unpunished, but when one of those deaths does get deemed news-worthy, it’s almost always a boy or a man. This report is an attempt to remind the world that it’s not just black men who are dying, it’s not just black women who are left to mourn.

But because of the lack of reporting, the women who are dying are even harder to identify than their male equals. Their deaths pass unnoticed by the public outside of their local communities. These authors searched what newspaper archives they could in order to create short bios and summaries of the murders of thirty-five women, knowing that they would only be able to find those that made at least some newspaper give them attention.

Even before the current protests pointed a spotlight on police violence, I was already becoming uncomfortable with the way fictional police were so often shown performing vigilante justice and being dismissive and unfriendly to their own internal affairs officers. It’s more recently that I’ve become aware of how much worse the real police are. Policemen casual in their disregard for black lives because they can be, because they don’t face any repercussions. The police protect their own from any harm without caring that their own is the cause of harm to the people they are supposed to be protecting. As someone on tumblr put it: “If there are 1,000 good cops and 10 bad cops, but the 1,000 good cops don’t arrest the 10 bad cops, then there are really just 1,010 bad cops.”

One of the patterns that I noticed in this report because I’ve noticed it before in the news, is how scared the police are, or at least say that they are, of their victims. How the judges and juries let them get away with the murders because, “regardless of how real or not the danger was”, what mattered was the policeman’s fear. At the same time, many of the victims were killed trying to get away from the policemen who were presenting a very real and obvious danger to them. Their fear, their pain, their capacity for emotion, wasn’t even acknowledged. It’s an infuriating bit of hypocrisy.

The bios of the women were divided into sections based on the circumstances of their deaths: driving while black, policing poverty, the war on drugs, mental illness, death in custody, guilt by association, responding to a call for help, and sexual profiling, with a further sections to address serial rapist policemen, the treatment of black mothers, and the treatment of black survivors of police violence. Then a short conclusion with recommended further reading and recommendations for societal change.

Say her name: Alexia Christian, Mya Hall, Gabriella Nevarez, Miriam Carey, Shantel Davis, Malissa Williams, Sharmel Edwards, Kendra James, LaTanya Haggerty, Sandra Bland, Shelly Frey, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, Eleanore Bumpurs, Kathryn Johnston, Alberta Spruill, Danette Daniels, Frankie Ann Perkins, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Pearlie Golden, Kayla Moore, Shereese Francis, Tyisha Miller, Natasha McKenna, Kyam Livingston, Sheneque Proctor, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Meagan Hockaday, Janisha Fonville, Aura Rosser, Yvette Smith, Duanna Johnson, Nizah Morris, …

Keep in mind, this report was published in January 2016, a full year before the Trump presidency ushered in a spike in racial violence and fascist behaviors.

Spellbound

By Allie Therin

SpellboundI feel like this review is the complete opposite of my previous one. The writing and plotting are not terribly polished, but it is just so charming that it provided a really excellent reprieve from our current world. This is the first book in Therin’s Magic in Manhattan series, set in 1920s New York and featuring a wealthy society man, who moonlights as an investigator of magic objects, and a young ruffian from Hell’s Kitchen, who uses magic on the sly as an assistant at a small antiques shop. The two cross paths over a dangerous magic ring, and thus kicks off mystery, magic, and romance! (The romance is PG-13 at most, I’d say, with implied sex but a literary fade-to-black with every scene.)

Our two main protagonists are also surrounded by various family, friends, and even antagonists who are interesting and sympathetic characters in their own right. Therin gives the reader peeks into their lives, which adds even more charm and richness to the book. The second book, Starcrossed, came out earlier this month, and was even more delightful, so I highly recommend them both for a fun distraction!

In my attempt to limit how much money I give Amazon, I decided to buy the ebooks straight from the publisher. Somewhat to my embarrassment, these are published by a Harlequin imprint, but I persevered, which necessitated getting the Harlequin reading app on my phone. This all felt like a lot of trouble and I was grumpy, but then the app was very easy to use and having it directly on my phone was convenient, too.

Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer

CatfishingcoverCatfishing on CatNet
by Naomi Kitzer
2019

Naomi Kritzer wrote the Hugo-Award-winning short story, “Cat Pictures Please” in 2015 about an AI that woke up on the internet and wants to do good but struggles a bit with how people work. And decides that their currency of choice is cat pictures. Send cat pictures, get help fixing your life. The help is a bit hit-or-miss but the internal ethical debate about what help should be provided is a combination of interesting, adorable, and hilarious.

This book developed from short story and the AI has set of a social media site CatNet where people can go trade in cat pictures. Our main character, however, is Stephanie, a teenage girl who’s mother is moving her again because they are always moving because the mom is spooked that Steph’s father might have found them again. Steph is mostly resigned to the whole situation, with no particular memory of her father but going along with the constant moves and always being “the new girl” and having all of her friends in a chat room on CatNet.

But then things begin to happen: Steph makes an actual friend at her terrible new school and she begins to test some of her mother’s rules, the AI is enjoying having friends on CatNet too and is beginning to think of “coming out” to some of them, and the world at large is struggling with the ethical considerations of robot teachers and self-driving cars, both of which have the potential to be hacked.

There’s also a diverse cast of characters that isn’t the point of the book but also shows how diversity of a variety of types is really the foundation of putting together a group of semi-outcasts: the main friend group is all people who have made their main friendships online for a variety of reasons. And as I was writing that I realized I had to skim four years back through my reviews here because this book is reminiscent of WWW: Wake, but just so much better.

The one problem is my growing pet peeve with a lot of books and how it sets up the next book in the series immediately, the new mystery starting even before the main conflict concludes. I’m still going to read the next book as soon as it’s available in 2021, but I’m annoyed at the set-up.

Anyway, I definitely recommend this book, and if you have time to be browsing this review, then check out the short story immediately!

The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster Bujold

physicians of vilnocThe Physicians of Vilnoc (Penric and Desdemona story #8)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2020

I love the Penric & Desdemona stories and this is no exception. I also love the meta that these are stories Lois Bujold is writing to entertain herself in her retirement and self-publishing as e-books. They’re the reason I check her website regularly to see if there’s a new one out because there’s no marketing and no schedule. This novella wasn’t available last week, and then it was there yesterday and I bought it and I read it and it was great!

The first part I found a bit wearying because it’s about an epidemic (as I imagine an increasing number of stories are going to be) but the later half was so satisfying as they got it under control and figured it out. Also the characters are wonderful, the situation is fascinating, and the world-building that went into the details of what it’s like to share a life with a demon of chaos is enthralling.

As always, I highly recommend it.

Sentinels of the Galaxy by Maria V. Snyder

NavigatingTheStarsNavigating the Stars (Sentinels of the Galaxy, book 1)
by Maria V. Snyder
2018

chasing the shadowsChasing the Shadows (Sentinels of the Galaxy, book 2)
by Maria V. Snyder
2019

Every so often I see that this author has written the start of a new series and I go to check it out. It’s always worth checking out and I really enjoyed this one, which is more science fiction than her normal fantasy, and also slightly younger with our main character still a minor under her parents’ guardianship. She also has all the internal emotional drama of a teenager while being remarkably mature about dealing with that emotional drama. I like her.

I also really liked the world building which has archeology and distant planets and potential aliens and reminds me of The Ship Who Searched by Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey. I was also reminded of Artemis but in the way of: this is how an extremely smart and talented but still inexperienced girl is written without being irritating.

One of the really interesting parts of the book, that’s both the premise and woven through the narrative is how the time distortion of space travel effects relationships and experiences.

The one downside of this book is that it does the thing that’s increasingly a pet peeve of mine: has only a minor conclusion at the end of the book, to create some sense of closure, while actually just being the first part of a larger plot arch. It’s annoying. However, in this instance, it worked and I pretty much immediately bought the sequel.

And then about halfway through Chasing the Shadows, the pandemic hit and my ability to concentrate on reading also took a hit. So I took a break and read a massive amount of self-indulgent fanfic instead before coming back to this and finishing it for completeness.

It was more of a slog than the first book, but that could very well have been just my state of mind. However, I’d noticed in previous series that Snyder’s first books are a lot better than her follow-up books as she delves ever more into complex world building beyond what the characters can support and raises the stakes of the conflict beyond what I can follow. However, it did end with an interesting twist that probably means that I’ll go back for book #3 in the series whenever it comes out.