The 1619 Project

I wasn’t planning to borrow from Kinsey’s occasional tendency of reviewing something that everyone has already read and talked about, but Rebecca assured me that it hadn’t crossed her path until I told her about it.

So…the 1619 Project:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

The more I read as an adult, the more I realize just how sanitized the history I was taught was, and most particularly when it comes to slavery. This project is a collection of writing looking at the history of slavery, how it has roots in every sector of our country, and the ongoing harm it does today. It includes over a dozen pieces – mostly written essays but also poems, short works of fiction, and photo essays. It is large in scope, both in size and range of topics, and it is a daunting read that I honestly wasn’t sure I could manage.*

Then I started seeing some of the buckwild responses from conservatives who very clearly had not read any of it, and decided that I had to read it, out of spite if nothing else (for proof of what I’ll read out of spite, see Atlas Shrugged). And no lie, it is a hard read, though I suspect less difficult for black readers, who may mostly feel relieved to see published acknowledgement of what they already knew. I’ve set myself to read just one of the entries each day, so I’m only four in at the point of this review, but I feel like every sentence hits me like a ton of bricks:

This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin.

— from “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” by Nikole Hannah-Jones

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Havana Nocturne by T. J. English

HavanaNocturneHavana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution
by T. J. English
read by Mel Foster
2008

This was another audio book on my commute and it was interesting. It left me both extra cynical and moderately reassured about politics: that politics have always been extremely shady and the extremely wealthy are always trying to take advantage of their positions to make more money while accomplishing less and less with that money.

The book is really like a verbal flow-chart/timeline, describing the people involved in the mob’s financial invasion of Cuba and how they make connections and how those connections changed over time. This is not a negative review — I do love a good flow-chart — but perhaps a bit of a warning to potential readers who don’t. But it’s a fascinating situation and interesting characters and the author does a good job of laying it all out and showing who the players were and how it all came together.

While not a proponent of the time-period, per se, the author is clearly a fan who loves it*, which leads to him using some pretty purple prose and hollywood gangster-slang in an unironic way. English also has a habit of switching up how exactly he refers to a given individual, so it was a bit confusing in the beginning until I’d memorized the various nicknames, for instance, Meyer Lansky = “The little man” = “the Jewish mobster” = “the Jewish mobster from Brooklyn”. When English is feeling particularly dramatic, he stitches them all together: “Meyer Lansky, ‘the little man’, the Jewish mobster from Brooklyn”. The author was having a bit too much fun with all the gangster talk.

He’s also discussing an extremely sexist time period without any particularly acknowledgement of that, so the whole book comes across as sexist. Women and women’s attention are treated as desirable commodities that get bought and sold, both in and out of official prostitution.**

While the focus is on the American mob’s rise and fall in Havana, Cuba, their position was entwined with that of Fulgencio Batista and thus in conflict with Fidel Castro, so that regime and revolution were discussed as well. What I found particularly heartbreaking is how much potential both Batista and Castro had to do amazing amounts of good, that they each threw away in their rise to power, although Batista more than Castro, if only due to the fact that Castro only came into power in the final chapter of the book.

The epilogue discusses how involved the American Mob was with the CIA in their attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and how bitter the mob was about the massive losses they had to the loss of their gambling empire in Cuba. The author seemed moderately sympathetic for the loss. I was less so: they gambled and they lost. That’s part of gambling and they should have known it.

* It would not surprise me at all if he had the entire Godfather trilogy memorized. He certainly references The Godfather, Part II often enough.

** Although it’s kind of amazing how heterosexuality is still the norm (with the acknowledgement that homosexuality exists but to the side) while the main porn star that *everyone* wanted to see was a guy with a massive dick. I’m like: the women are interchangeable but all the guys wants to see this one guy’s dick in action? That’s… something.

 

Nimona

By Noelle Stevenson

NimonaNimona has been highly acclaimed in graphic novel circles for years now, and I don’t know why I resisted it. Sheer contrariness, I guess. But, ah, it is so good! It starts off very Tumblr-y: manic pixie dreamgirl Nimona breaks into the secret lair of a stereotypical villain Ballister Blackheart to insist on becoming his sidekick. He flatly refuses until she reveals she’s a shapeshifter, which he can see would be very useful. It is funny and cleverly written, if not especially original.

Which is the insidiousness…the setup is similar to so many other comics that I’d read that I made assumptions and the heart of the story really caught me off guard. Before I knew it, I adored Nimona and Blackheart, and even felt exasperated affection for their hero foe, Ambrosius Goldenloin (which is rather how Blackheart feels about him, too).

For the simplicity of the illustrations and storytelling, the world building, plotline, and even characters (despite their ridiculous names) are surprisingly complex and nuanced. The ending was a series of reveals that really got me in the feels (to retreat to Tumblrisms, again).

It reminded me just a bit of Carry On, taking archetypal characters and narratives and giving them more depth than they usually get, which makes sense, in that Rainbow Rowell is a prominent blurb on the front cover.

I told Rebecca that she had to read it, and when she started it, she said it was ‘adorable.’ I just agreed, thinking, oh, just you wait…

Unmarriageable

Unmarriageable: A Novel by [Kamal, Soniah]

I think it’s safe to say that we here at Biblio-therapy are connoisseurs of all formats of Jane Austen tributes/adaptions/updates. In the past we’ve raved about the Lizzie Bennett Diaries and Longbourn, and I quite enjoyed Eligible, the most recent modern-day version of the story I’d read. The latest entry into the Pride and Prejudice but with X catalog is Unmarriagable,  which initially struck me as just a relocation of the classic but ultimately turned out to have a little more going on underneath.

This telling of the story takes place in Pakistan in 2000-2001, and positions the Bennetts as a family that slid from the upper-middle class after some business disasters. They’re now trying to maintain respectability in a small, backwater city. The two oldest girls teach at the English language high school in town, while their mother clings to her old status through the connections of family and friends. The author sticks very, very closely to the original–essentially every character and plot point has a direct translation to the new setting. This made the book feel a bit rote as I read through the very familiar beats: now we’re at the first ball, now it’s the first proposal, now Lizzie (Alys in this version) is traveling with her aunt, etc. But it was fun to see how names and clothes and celebrations were adapted to twentieth-century Pakistan, and I found myself doing a lot of Googling to make sure I could accurately picture the shawl a character was wearing, or the food they were eating.

So it was an enjoyable read, but I wasn’t sure if I initially felt it was adding anything new to the genre (at this point, I think retellings of Jane Austen is its own genre). However, as the book went along, it became clear that the author was using this story and setting as a vehicle to explore colonialism and culture. Alys teaches literature at the English school, which mostly consists of teaching her Pakistani students classics of English literature. But is this their culture? British colonization of India resulted in generations of Pakistanis who speak English and were raised on English classics, so these are their stories as much as anyone else’s. But how can Alys and her students also see themselves and their lives and cultures reflected in the cannon? Unmarriagable doesn’t necessarily have answers to these big questions, but watching Alys try to work them out for herself forces the reader to face them, as well.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Elizabeth Bennett in Pakistan!

You might also like: Other than the many other Pride and Prejudice-adjacent materials I’ve already mentioned, I’m going to recommend two widely different books. First, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon is a charming YA story about teenagers whose parents may have planned for them to marry and how they choose to deal with that in present-day San Francisco. Second, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is literally 1,000 pages long and reading it felt like entering a long-term relationship, but it is a classic story of love and class and gender in 1950s India.

Defying Doomsday

defyingdoomsdayDefying Doomsday
edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench
2016

It was probably not my best idea to read this anthology of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic short stories while dealing with a local black-out caused by heavy storms. It’s the type of situation that’s all the worse for the stories being really well-written and interesting. Beyond just dealing with the apocalypse (“just”, I say), the theme that brings these stories together is disabilities.  The heroes and heroines of each story have some disability — physical, sensory, and/or mental.

The introduction made a really good point about how so many post-apocalyptic stories act like people with disabilities will be the first to die and are a burden to those around them. The stories in this anthology refute that. A few of the authors look at how something that our modern world calls a disability could well be an adaptive feature in a massively changed one. Most of them, however, look at how people who are used to living in a world that doesn’t cater to their needs have experience and practice that more abled people don’t get in our modern world. Reading my kindle by candle light was already highlighting to me how unprepared I was for any sort of harsh living: I live a very catered-to life.

I’m not going to write individual reviews about each story, although I certainly thought about it since the stories are all very good, but also all significantly different from one another. Instead, here are my top three:

“Something in the Rain” by Seanan McGuire is probably my favorite. I find the apocalypse situation particularly terrifying and I like the heroine the best with her ruthless perseverance. And spoiler: the cat lives.

“Given Sufficient Desperation”, by Bogi Takács, felt like a wonderfully subtle modern take on Gordon R. Dickson’s classic, “Danger-Human”.

“No Shit”, by K. L. Evangelista, is an subversion of a couple of classic post-apocolyptic tropes that also directly addresses the issue of how just the idea of roving bands of robbers would impact the people who survive.

The whole anthology a love song to the old adage: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. What doesn’t kill you can make you more broken, but it also gives you the experience of carrying on anyway. I definitely recommend it.

The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold

OrphansOfRaspay1The Orphans of Raspay
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2019

Yay! Another Penric & Desdemona short story by Bujold! For the first time, Amazon’s update email was actually useful to me despite going out a full week after the novella was published on July 17th. Normally I stalk Bujold’s listing much more carefully but I’ve been busy recently and thus only learned about this title on the 24th when Amazon finally got around to emailing me.

It is a delight! It’s also a novella of extreme self-indulgence, with both plot and character arc being mostly absent, but adventure and swashbuckling in quantity!

This is also an amazing example of what you can get away with if you set up the world-building right. Because in this fantasy world, there are five gods (father, mother, son, daughter, and bastard) and Penric is a devotee of the Bastard: literally the god of luck (good and bad) and all things out of season. And thus, it actually makes perfect in-universe sense for Penric to have amazingly good and bad luck in all things, especially when one takes into account his demon Desdemona who sheds chaos even as she also provides him with extraordinary powers.

The story starts with his ship being attacked by pirates and continues on in wacky hijinks after he’s taken on the temporary guardianship, as best he can, of two young orphans who were also taken by the pirates.*

This is an utter delight and I have no idea how comprehensible it is to anyone who hasn’t read the rest of the series but I’d be interested to know if it’s so indulgent that it actually can stand on its own. It’s essentially a day-in-the-life (or, in this case, week-in-the-life) of a temple sorcerer in a fantasy world.  And I love it!

* While I love this story, here’s a warning for pirates being pirates and actually genuinely bad and there are threats of sexual assault.

Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson

StonesIntoSchools coverStones into Schools
by Greg Mortenson
read by Atossa Leoni
2009

What is particularly wonderful about this book is the pervasive optimism. At a time when I often feel hopeless in the face of atrocities I can’t fight, this is a story about a guy who figured out how to fight. And by fight, I mean arrange the building of schools for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I may be the last person to know about this book since it’s a sequel to “Three Cups of Tea”, which I vaguely recall from that having been on the New York Times Best Seller list for a gazillion weeks some years back, but I never read. I now probably need to do so. But I picked up “Stones into Schools” kind of randomly as one of the few audiobooks at my local library that looked like an interesting read for my work commute. And it really was.

Apparently, in the first book, Mortenson talks about having been a mountain climber who got lost in Pakistan, winding up in a small rural village where a very goal-oriented young child wrangles a promise out of him that he will return and build her a school in her village. There’s some extreme mission creep, as happens, and he winds up with a nonprofit that builds a number of schools in a number of rural villages.

The second book, this one that I’ve just read (ie, listened to), starts with Mortenson checking in on one of these schools along the Pakistan-Afghan border, when horseriders come down from the Afghan mountains to meet him. They explain that they had heard he was in the area, and by area, they meant a mere six-day horseride away, and had come to ask him to build a school for their community of nomadic yak herders in the heights of the mountainous Wakhan Corridor. This was in 1998.

The book covers the next ten years of Mortenson’s attempt to get that school built, through the rise of Taliban and the complex series of relationships, favors given and owed, with all the people and communities along the way.

The book does an amazing job of introducing the people he meets and works with, in all their complexities of personal histories and motives, and how, in the end, they align in trying to bring literacy to rural girls. It also really introduced me for the first time to exactly how horrific the Taliban was to the people it claimed as its own, and how few they truly numbered for all their viciousness. The Taliban created an unsustainable society that hates its own women, but the women and the men who cared for them continued to strive for better.

This book makes me feel hopeful. And that is something I desperately need right now.

When I checked my library catalog to make sure they had “Three Cups of Tea” for my future reading/listening (they do), I discovered another book “Three Cups of Deceit” all about how Mortenson is a liar and a fraud and just the title felt like a slap in the face after such optimism. I looked up both that book and Mortenson on Wikipedia to figure out what the actual truth was and, as far as I can tell, the “Three Cups of Deceit” guy was angry that Mortenson isn’t perfect, nonprofits are always weird, rural schools for girls haven’t immediately created peace in the middle east, and decided to ride the coattails of fame with a clickbait title, while doing his best to turn optimism into cynicism and hope into despair. Mortenson promotes his successes and talks less about his failures and there’s no more financial shenanigans in his nonprofit than in many others. I think the ultimate lesson here is: you don’t have to be flawless to still be good. Find a quest, like-minded people will join you on the quest, and do as much good in the world as you possibly can.