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….

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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.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

packingformarsPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach
2010

This is amazing, ridiculous, and horrifying in all the best ways, as Roach looks into the history of the space program and the work that went into keeping astronauts alive. Which mostly means looking into the details of how a body works and then trying to figure out what parts are impacted by gravity. And air pressure. Eating and drinking, peeing and pooping, blood circulation, bone growth, sweating, etc. And then consider all of those same issues, along with physical and mental health related to being confined to a small capsule moving at incredible speeds and with extremely limited personal supplies. (How greasy does a person get if they just… don’t bathe, or change their clothes, or get up from their chair, for three weeks? This was a real study done with real people.)

Space programs in both the US and Russia looked into these in detail, and thus so too does Roach. With delight! But not sex: NASA is much like the DC Comics universe: there’s no masturbation. Much to Roach’s dismay, too, as one tangent discusses the failure of journalism integrity as she searches for truth between the tales and the denials of scandalous space monkey masturbation and finds a series of authors so excited by the idea that they forewent the facts of the matter. She supplements the space program research by delving into the research on aquatic animal sex and searching for information on a zero-gravity porn movie, instead.

And then she looks into the disasters and how many ways a body can stop working under various traumatic circumstances and let me tell you: I had never before considered that in a sudden stop from a sufficiently high speed, your internal organs can have noticeably different deceleration rates. (This is not a good thing for your future well-being.)

This book looks at all the gross parts of being a living body made of flesh and phlegm and explores them with joyous abandon and is an absolute delight.

 

My Planet by Mary Roach

myplanetMy Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places
written by Mary Roach
read by Angela Dawe
2013

I’ve loved (and been grossed out by) every book that I’ve read by Mary Roach… except this one. This is quite the departure from the other books since it’s actually a compilation of short anecdotes that she wrote for a regular column in Reader’s Digest. They’re often cute and funny but I didn’t find any of them particularly interesting and by their very nature, they were fairly repetitive when in a collection rather than a serial: her husband Ed gets introduced at the beginning of at least half of them. They’re essentially a cheery little sitcom of a life, with many of the traditional sitcom tropes including both mocking and perpetuating 1950s stereotypes of married life. And I just don’t care for sitcoms.

To summarize: it’s well written for its intended audience, but that audience isn’t really me.

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.

Grunt by Mary Roach

gruntGrunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
by Mary Roach
read by Abby Elvidge
2016

I think every child goes through a phase of being fascinated by the gross and gruesome and Mary Roach never grew out of that phase. And she invites her readers to take similar joy in it as well. She takes such honest delight in peering into the hidden, dusty, bug-infested corners of history and science and holding up the often gruesome contents for our perusal.

What’s the sleep schedule like on a nuclear submarine and why is it a major problem that sleep deprivation is an ongoing and increasing concern? How are military doctors advancing the science of genital reconstruction and recreation from where it used to be due to the increased survival of IED victims? Who are the people designing the uniforms and what are the features they’re trying to optimize? How can you protect soldiers in the field, their hearing, their eyesight, their bodies, without hampering their abilities act and react quickly? Why is diarrhea such a concern and yet so difficult to study? Why are maggots so helpful in medical care and yet so rarely used?

All of these questions and more are examined in this book that looks at the establishment part of the military establishment rather than the military part.

So this book is delightful and I highly recommend it, but maybe not while you’re trying to eat anything.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book

10percenthappierMeditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book
by Dan Harris, Jeffrey Warren, and Carlye Adler
read by Dan Harris and Jeffrey Warren
2017

I ran across this book a year or so ago at someone else’s house and noted that it looked interesting. The  elevator pitch that originally caught my eye: it’s written by a TV news anchor who had an on-air panic attack and got into meditation in the aftermath as he dealt with his issues. So when I was looking for a good audio book to listen to on my commute, I remembered it, requested it at my library, and gave it a shot.

As it turns out, a book on meditation is not necessarily the best thing to listen to while driving. While the authors are very specific about how you don’t have to actually stop and meditate when they do through a meditation, it’s something I might have enjoyed doing otherwise. And driving along as the speaker says, “close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing” isn’t the safest way to drive, especially if I want to do so.

Also, as I should have realized from the title, I’m not actually the audience for this book since I’m not a skeptic about the benefits of meditation. I don’t care for the spiritual and transcendental elements that sometimes come along with meditation, but I’m quite well aware of the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of meditation. Sadly, there are all sorts of things I know would be good for me that I still don’t do, which is why I wanted to try this book out. But while it was a reminder that I should try to meditate on a semi-regular basis, I found a lot of the self-deprecating bonhomie humor of Harris, the primary author, not to my taste and a reminder of one more reason why I don’t watch TV news chat shows.

But it did seem like a good book for the right audience. And as an audio book it was recorded in some ways like a podcast with Harris and Warren switching off reading their sections and occasionally interacting with each other in scripted conversations. So to sum up, a relatively good book but not really my cup’a.

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic_DSTraffic: why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)
written by Tom Vanderbilt
read by David Slavin
2008

Since I’m listening to audiobooks on my commute, I figured I might as well listen to one about traffic patterns. This was not my best idea ever. Not only does the reader try to input emotional import into every single one of his sentences to make it sound important and high energy and highly emotional (not what I want first thing in the morning as I drive in or after a long day’s work), but it also has a tendency to tell me what the average person’s commute is like and how people with longer commutes are unhappy with those commutes. I dislike being told I should dislike something that I don’t currently dislike. Look, there are enough things in the world that I do dislike, that I don’t need to acquire more just to fit in! And yet, I start double-guessing myself: am I unhappy with my commute? Should I be? Urg.

But aside from all that, it’s still a really interesting book.

While not in specific sections, this book addresses traffic in three different ways: as a psychologist about human behaviors, as a game theorist about best options, and as historian about stories. As it turns out, I really enjoy the stories (did you know that LA traffic has a central command hub that is largely automated except for Oscar night where there are people literally manipulating the light cycles to try to get the limousines all through? Because I hadn’t and I love it!), I find the game theory interesting (when lanes merge, late merging benefits everyone, so don’t merge until you absolutely have to!), and I find the psychology really, really irritating (as stated above, I don’t like people telling me what I do or do not think, and I’m not sure whether it’s worse when they’re wrong or when they’re right.)

Overall I do recommend the book and have found that even as I waited a month or so to actually post about this, that many of the stories and concepts have stuck with me.

How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

HowToBeAloneHow to Be Alone
written by Jonathan Franzen
read by Jonathan Franzen and Brian d’Arcy James
2002

Franzen starts out introducing this book of essays with some reflection about how angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing he had once been as a younger man, and I’m listening to the remaining essays, glad that he’s found his own sense of self-improvement but also realizing that these essays are the most angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing that I’ve ever read/listened to. In large part because I actively avoid the genre I would normally typify as Guy-in-your-MFA High Literature, but this is a set of nonfiction essays by a literary author and I have a commute, so I might as well listen to this one through to the end. With each successive CD, I had to convince myself anew to complete it if only just to write this review.

He discusses a variety of issues that I actually find moderately interesting, if depressing: the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr-Report scandal, the problems with the Chicago postal service, the internal conflict between research departments and legal departments in the tobacco industry, the for-profit prison industry, the commercialization of sex. However, his essays are like op-ed pieces where he presents himself as speaking for “the silent majority” who all agree with him, and is distraught by the “cheap attacks” of naysayers with their statistics and surveys pointing out that he is, in fact, in the minority. The facts of a given situation are quickly overwhelmed by his personal interpretations. He is the everyman and speaks for everyone.

He states that High Literature = The Social Novel = Tragic Realism, and that all of these are best demonstrated by being about the unmarked straight white male. I generally avoid any modern novel calling itself “Literature” because it seems to me to be a genre made up of unpleasant people living unpleasant lives. Franzen agrees, except he thinks this is a good thing.

In fact, he seems to be carefully cultivating his own dissatisfaction with life. He’s not glorifying the problems of the world, per se, but glorifying his own knowledge of those problems, throwing it in contrast to the bourgeoisie others who “don’t fully understand.”
Part of his unhappiness is based on his apparent belief that being lauded by the masses is his proper default state and thus nothing to take pleasure in, while anyone not actively being impressed by him is taking something away from him. He is insulted that his demands for solitude and privacy are met without demure. He’s bemoaning the loss of his rape fantasy: he wants to be able to say “no” to demands for his opinion and then have that “no” disregarded.

As he bemoans the loss of interest in “real” literature, he remarks without any acknowledged irony, that publishers are instead publishing more works done by women and people of color. These he considers genre rathe than literature, by default. He argues that authors should not pander to the masses while also despairing that the masses do not like his books as much as they should. (Keep in mind that this is the complaint of an award-winning author.)

I can understand, in theory, that it must be very hard for straight, white men who have long been told that their concerns are universal, and that other’s concerns are merely genre issues, to be confronted with the discovery that they are actually just one more demographic. I can understand that it is a hardship for them all, and this author in particular. But I can’t managed to dredge up much actual sympathy.

In contrast, I realize that he is likely creating the background against which hopepunk and solarpunk have developed. And that, I think, is a gift.

Hit by a Farm by Catherine Friend

hitbyafarmHit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn
written and read by Catherine Friend
2009

I’m a fairly urban/suburban individual, but my aunt recently decided to leave her office job and start a homesteader farm so I wanted to know a little bit more about it. I like the theory of sun and fresh air more than I care for the practice. This book is about a couple who decide to leave their urban life and start a farm as well.

The chapters are all quite short, many of them could even stand alone as short stories, but together they build a sense of a whole life and lifestyle that Friend and her wife were creating. And while the topic is the farm, a lot of the focus is on the relationships that made up what the author refers to as their threesome: her, her wife, and the farm. I came for the stories of animals and plants, not people and relationships, but the stories of physical, mental, and emotional stress were clearly an integral part of starting a farm. There is a steep learning curve and while overall everything works out well, there are some serious set-backs.

While listening to the book, I sometimes found myself mentally criticizing the author for some of her poorer decisions, in the same way one might criticize a professional athlete: I could/would never do any of the thousand things she’s doing but how in the world did she manage to mess that one up! She and I are significantly different people and it occasionally made it hard for me to empathize, but I think that probably says significantly more about me than about either her or the book.

I like it when the author is also the reader of an audiobook, especially when that book is a memoir, since it allows them to add an extra layer of nuance to the stories.