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.

Medallion Status

By John Hodgman

Medallion_StatusI’ve been listening to a lot of the Judge John Hodgman podcast at work, since it is very soothing. Two funny, smart hosts (Judge John Hodgman and Bailiff Jesse Thorn) adjudicate cases of very little significance. In one of my recent favorites, a husband “sues” his wife to prevent her from getting a worm-based compost bin in their apartment, and it is hilarious, hilariously gross, and charming. In this episode, as per usual, Hodgman charmingly gets at the base issue and finds a solution that leaves both parties extremely pleased, and it is so refreshing.

While mired halfway through Smoke, I put a hold on Medallion Status, figuring it would be the perfect fluffy palette cleanser. And I was 100% correct! While I know Hodgman best from his guest appearances as the deranged billionaire on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, he is most generally well known as the PC in the old Apple ads. He is the first to acknowledge that was the height of his fame, too. With the ads came more regular roles on television shows, and a gold medallion status on his airline of choice.

In Medallion Status, he reflects surprisingly poignantly on the weirdness, seductiveness, and elusiveness of even relatively minor fame. It is also so consistently funny; I was giggling out loud every few minutes in what I’m sure was a very annoying manner. His writing is so deceptively simple that over and over again I would be caught off guard with just how funny it was.

Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results

By Josh Gondelman

Nice_TryWhile I’m talking about funny, kind white men, I also have to recommend Josh Gondelman and his collection of personal stories, Nice Try. He is an incredibly funny comedian – his standup album “Physical Whisper” is one of my favorites – and is frequently referred to as the nicest guy in comedy (thus the title of his book). And he is super nice! His comedy is self-deprecating, but also wildly relatable, about trying your best to navigate increasingly complicated life while feeling like you might be missing some key tools.

The book collects stories his written for other publications and additional personal stories. In one chapter, he talks about struggling with his growing awareness of how problematic the NFL is, both physically and socially, with how love for the game was an important way to bond with his family (this also led him to co-create #agoodgame, tying points scored to donations). In another he talks about adopting a dog that may or may not have been stolen from its original owner, and figuring out what to do about that, with the same amount of maturity and savvy as any of the rest of us (i.e., none). It’s all very funny in a way that is laughing with, not at, all of us about how ridiculous life can be sometimes.

Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton

HarrietTubmanHarriet Tubman: The road to freedom
by Catherine Clinton, 2004
read by Shayna Small, 2017

I put a hold on this book as soon as I returned from the theatre after watching Harriet, the movie, because it was an amazingly good movie and I wanted to know more about the history. Also because I wanted to know if the theme of Joan of Arc parallels was unique to the movie. As it turns out: no, the similarities were acknowledged during her lifetime.

I highly recommend this book.

Also, the audiobook version picked an excellent voice to read the book: clear spoken and academic but with a hint of a southern accent.

And that really typifies the book: it’s an academic biography of Harriet Tubman that addresses where the evidence and documentation comes from and where the holes in that evidence are and why, in a very direct and personable manner. We don’t know what year she was born because there’s no birth certificate and a possible ten year span. There’s a lot we don’t know about the Underground Railroad because anyone keeping records at the time would have been keeping records of their own criminal activity. Tubman struggled to get any sort of payment from the government for her services in the civil war because, despite being at that point a well-known celebrity, the bureaucracy demanded documentation that didn’t always exist. And the implications for how these issues effected other African-Americans is staggering because Harriet Tubman was well-known, well-respected, and well-remembered by highly ranked military personnel.

Apparently during the civil war there was a third category of African-Americans that I had never heard of before: Contraband. These weren’t free blacks or slaves, these were “contraband” who had been confiscated and/or escaped from their masters but were still considered possessions rather than people in the eyes of the law. The whole thing really highlights how insane the slave era was, (and how insane the white supremacy era continues to be.)

Anyway, Harriet Tubman was amazing and doing her best as she could, and her life is an example of: do what you can, when you can, and you can move mountains… but there will always be more to do.

But also, risking your life to change the world doesn’t always end with death, even for someone so similar to Joan of Arc: Harriet Tubman Davis died free, of old age, in a house she owned, surrounded by family, as a cherished and celebrated member of her community.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

By Hanif Abdurraqib

They_Cant_Kill_UsHanif Abdurraqib is very smart and funny on twitter and instagram, but I was unprepared for just how deep his collection of essays would go. When Rebecca asked what it was about, I said “essays discussing different musicians and albums,” which is such the tip of the iceberg as to be completely misleading.

Abdurraqib is first and foremost a poet, and it shows in these essays. Every word is carefully chosen, which leads to very dense and evocative prose, and slow but engrossing reading. Just about every essay starts with a musician or album (ranging from Carly Rae Jepsen to Future*), and uses that music as an access point to discuss something about humanity or society that the music is trying to address.

As a black boy growing up in Ohio and super into the punk scene, and then an esteemed music critic trying to sell all his friends on Jepsen, Abdurraqib is well experienced in finding his own place in scenes that are not often created with people like him in mind. He talks about the tension that often exists between the artist, the art, and the audience, any of which can be alternately be welcoming or alienating. The funny thing is that Abdurraqib talks about music in such a way that I got all excited to actually listen to it, but then it inevitably wasn’t as interesting or complex as his analysis. So, while I didn’t get introduced to any new favorite musicians, I’m definitely keeping tabs on Abdurraqib’s future writing.

*It took me a good five minutes of flipping through the book to select two, since I kept being like, oh, I should mention The Weeknd; no, My Chemical Romance; no wait, Migos; or Fleetwood Mac, etc. etc. Abdurraqib has an awe-inspiring range of interests!

Graphic novels on systematic oppression

I was in a mood the last time I was at the library and these are the three other graphic novels I got along with Freedom Hospital, and all of them are about dealing with systematic oppression. Not necessarily successfully, but trying to. They are none of them cheery.

RunforitRun For It: Stories of slaves who fought for their freedom
by Marcelo D’Salete
2017

There’s four chapters, telling four somewhat interlinked stories of black resistance to slavery in Brazil. And it’s just heart-breaking. Individuals could and did fight for their freedom, but unlike a game of tag, there was no home base, no safety or home free. There was just constant risk of staying, even greater risk of trying to leave, and no alternatives.

And trying to organize for a rebellion against the structure itself was just more courting death.

It also really shows how slavery-based societies actively promote viciousness and suppress empathy, among everyone involved, slave owner and slave alike. And possibly the greatest rebellion that the slaves managed to (sometimes) win, was to maintain a sense of worth to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

girlcalledechoA Girl Called Echo, Vol. 1: Pemmican Wars
by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk
2017

This a beautifully done YA comic about Echo, who has been placed in a new school and a new foster care house. In school, she’s learning the history of the Métis, the local indigenous tribe, from which she is descended but not raised with. She’s in a position where she doesn’t fit in with the people around her or even with the people who should have been her people, but about whom she doesn’t know anything.

But in an odd experience that comes with no explanation (in this volume, at least) she is transported back in time, for short periods, to the era that her modern history class is talking about. And that’s where she makes what looks like her first a friend, Marie, a young Métis girl. But Marie is experiencing the time that Echo is learning about in school: the series of conflicts between Métis and colonists that largely destroyed the Métis way of life.

veraxVERAX: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance
by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil
2017

Pratap Chatterjee is a journalist and the graphic novel follows his years-long investigation into governmental mass surveillance and drone warfare. So the slow start and surprisingly long time it takes to get anywhere might be a realistic portrayal of the frustration of the investigation but it makes for a book that spends the first half alternating between victims speaking about their loved ones being killed in drone attacks and Chatterjee speaking about his editor not properly appreciating his nose for a story. Chatterjee does not look good in the comparison.

That said, about two thirds of the way through, it starts to pick up with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. At that point the story shifts from following an investigation to explaining the implications of the information found, and that was much more interesting.

VERAX brought up two things that I hadn’t given much thought to before:

First:

That unmanned drones are not actually unmanned: they have a crew of 180 people stationed around the world, keeping them in the air, flying them, analyzing the data, examining the video feed, and making the calls to fire. It means that Air Force enlisted kids right out of high school and sat them down in front of screens with crappy surveillance video (this is not the high def videos shown in the movies) and has them watch the grainy videos of people dismembered and dying from the missiles they helped launch. Rates of PTSD among drone pilots who never leave their offices is amazingly high.

My dad used to say, “be careful what you put into your head, because you can’t always get it out again.” Some knowledge is important to have, and certainly worth the pain of being a third party witness. But sometimes it is just too much: I can’t imagine spending years watching those videos live.

Second:

While mass surveillance is an invasion of privacy and terrifying in how pervasive it is, it is almost equally terrifying how rife with errors it is. It’s bad data and the government is making life-or-death decisions based on this data. That’s why there are so many civilian casualties by a method that is supposed to be created specifically to avoid them. Because how often have you called a wrong number or gotten a call from someone trying to reach someone else? Maybe it’s an old phone number of maybe a 5 got misread as a 6, or a 1 as a 7.

It’s full of bad data, such that a good third of the drone strikes were made on the wrong targets. And the institutions making use of the data tend heavily towards confirmation bias. Ie, if they’re looking for a weapon and they see someone in a person’s hands, that’s evidence that they have a weapon. As opposed to looking at someone carrying something and considering how many other things they could be carrying: a glass of water, a baby, a bag of skittles. No matter how smart you are, no matter how dedicated, you cannot make good decisions based on bad data.

But overall, as a book, it was a slow start that finished with a lot of ideas and was very thought provoking.

I recommend all three books, but they are draining as they show how hard and yet necessary it is to maintain hope.

I am Raymond Washington by Fortier & Barton

RaymondWashingtonI am Raymond Washington
by Zach Fortier and Derard Barton
2014

The Crips were founded in Los Angeles, California, in 1969. This book mentions that there is some conflicting information regarding who takes credit for the gang, but that there shouldn’t be: it was Raymond Washington.

Raymond Washington was born on August 14, 1953 and died on August 9, 1979, just shy of his 26th birthday, and his story feels like something in between a classic rags-to-riches American myth and the story of Alexander the Great. He grew up in what was essentially an urban-American war zone and created order for his little section of it. He created something much larger than himself and died young. He was not the only kid creating a gang, but his particular gang grew and continues to grow well beyond the original intent some fifty years later.

Most of what I’ve read about gangs before (admittedly not a lot) has been from the external view: told from the perspective of police about these violent groups threatening the welfare of the established class. Despite Fortier’s history as a policeman, however, he clearly respects Washington and a significant amount of the book is recounting interviews with Washington’s friends and family. This gives the reader the interior perspective of the gang, where the violence is merely a necessary defense of what the gang really provided its members: a sense of structure in a chaotic community and a sense of protection from threats.

It really struck me that the way to fight gangs is not to be one more set of people fighting them, but rather to provide viable alternatives to the people who see the gang lifestyle as their only and best option. Because everyone, friends and family and Washington himself, knew that gang life was brutal and short and nothing you wanted for the people you loved. Raymond Washington was not a hero, but he also wasn’t a villain. Or maybe he was both. But he was certainly a complex individual.

Fortier is clearly impressed by Washington. It’s also clear that Fortier’s experience is as a cop rather than as an academic writer. The writing is very plain-spoken and direct, in some ways it feels more like an oral history than a written one. But he doesn’t buy into the mythos surrounding the conflict between cops and gangs; trying instead to get to the actual facts of the situation and the facts are fascinating. This is a really fascinating look at the impact of the racial tensions of LA in the 1950s-1960s on a child, and the impact in turn of the young man that child grew up to be on the world around him.

Cruising Attitude

By Heather Poole

Cruising_AttitudeThis post-surgery recovery is not kidding around, and I’m still not quite up to reading plot-based books. Luckily, I ran across this memoir of a flight attendant, which is basically just a chatty string of anecdotes about a world I didn’t know anything about before.

I had my stereotypes, of course, and honestly, the book confirms quite a few of them. Ms. Poole, herself, seems like a bit of a bitch, very concerned with appearances and status, but that is partly what makes her a good flight attendant.

The industry sounds completely bonkers – more rigidly managed than I’d ever guessed. Of course, uniforms, hair, and weight are all carefully regulated, but even lipstick color must match the team. Everything (everything) is done by seniority – the longer a flight attendant has been on the job, they can choose the better flights, the better positions on the flight, even the better rooms in the various boarding houses that cater to the unusual schedules of flight attendants. It seemed like an even more extreme example of a sorority.

So, while it confirmed that I would never have wanted to be a flight attendant and don’t have much in common with anyone who would want that, it did make me much more sympathetic toward them. One reason the regulated low body weight isn’t as much a problem is that they aren’t paid enough to afford regular meals, and they all try to supplement as much as possible with leftovers from first class meals.

Fire Monks by Colleen Morton Busch

FireMonksFire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara
By Colleen Morton Busch
2011

The opening sentence of the book is:

On June 21, 2008, lightning strikes from one end of drought-dry California to the other ignited more than two thousand wildfires in what became known as the “lightning siege.”

The book focuses on the threat of wildfire to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and proceeds chronologically, day by day and sometimes hour by hour. Over the course of ten chapters, we go from Saturday, June 21, 2008, one p.m. when the news arrives about the wildfires, to Thursday, July 10, one p.m. when the fire arrives as the Center. Then there’s an eleventh chapter covering July 10th, and a twelfth chapter covering the mop up afterwards.

It’s a slogging, almost painful recounting, that really highlights how any conflict can be summarized by “hurry up and wait.”

It’s a nonfiction account and there’s probably an equal amount of discussion of the ways of Zen as there is the ways of fire fighting, with a focus on where they can intersect and where they diverge. I found the references to other fires particularly fascinating and the author clearly did a lot of reading on wildfire fighting in general to be able to discuss expectations and possibilities.

There’s a cast of twelve characters, nine monks and three professional firefighters, who the author focuses on as they desperately try to plan for all the possibilities and correctly balance the risks to people versus the chance to save the physical center. There’s a lot of stress and disagreements by all involved and while I am absolutely positive it would have been a lot worse if the same situation had happened with people who were not Buddhist Monks, it’s still unpleasant, for both them and me.

This took me a ludicrously long time to finish, especially since it was a kindle book on library loan and thus I had to have my kindle on airport mode for the better part of a year to avoid losing it. I persevered however, because despite everything, it really was fascinating.