So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Read: 23 September, 2018

I wish that this had been available when I was a teenager. I had a feeling that something was wrong when I got caught up in all the post-Columbine and 9/11 “Zero Tolerance” theatre. Everyone I met, from school officials to probation officers to social workers to casual bystanders who heard about my situation, would repeat the same line: “You don’t belong here.”

Of course I didn’t. That’s the whole point of Zero Tolerance – you take kids who haven’t done anything violent, who haven’t endangered people, who are at most guilty of minor disciplinary issues, and you whack at them as hard as you can. But why was I singled out as the one who “didn’t belong” and not all the other kids in the same boat?

Even then, in the infancy of my awareness, I knew what set me apart. I was white, female, middle class, and spoke like the child of an academic. The other kids who went to the same mandated group therapy meetings? They were black and/or lower class. They “belong”.

Eager to get out of that mess, I played up what set me apart. I dyed my hair back to a natural colour, I changed my wardrobe to brighter colours, I smiled a lot and pitched my voice a little higher. I did my year, then I got to finish high school and go to college and, still, every time someone finds out about my past, it’s a big surprise. “You were expelled?!” I could perform people’s expectations of the “good kid” because my skin and my upbringing didn’t betray me. And, because of that, I had strangers fighting for me, fighting to get my record expunged so it wouldn’t affect my future. Because of the way I looked, I was deemed to have a future worth saving.

I highly recommend this book. Each chapter is a different issue, phrased as a question, that Oluo responds to in a perfect combination of personal experience and “high level” trends. She shows the big picture, but her examples are grounded and realistic, and bridge that difficult gap between understanding a concept and understanding it.

I love that Oluo takes intersectionality seriously. She devotes an entire chapter to the “model minority” myth that affects Asian Americans, and brings up multiple examples throughout the book of ableism, sexism, homophobia, etc. She examines, with depth and frankness, her own baggage and her own hard-won lessons. This is a book for everyone. On any given issue, there will be either a lesson or a validation no matter what your identity.

    I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

    Read: 13 September, 2018

    Romance isn’t my normal genre, but a book about a Christian Palestinian woman from Lebanon falling in love with a Muslim British Indian woman? I mean, how could I pass something like that up?

    I was a little disappointed that, for a romance book, this had almost no romance in it. Tala and Leyla are ostensibly in love, but they spend no time together. They get into a “debate” when they first meet, which consists entirely of Tala being a prat and needling at Leyla about her beliefs. They go on a date that we barely get to see, spending more time on a summary after the fact than in the moment. Then they go on a weekend trip where they have sex for the first time and everything else that happens is off-stage. For the rest of the book, Tala and Leyla are separated (mostly in entirely different countries) and not interacting at all.

    We are told that they are in love, but we don’t get to see them in love. If they aren’t fighting, Tala is stalking Leyla while Leyla tries to avoid her. They have very little chemistry, at least as far as I could tell.

    Then again, it would be hard for them to have chemistry when they barely have personalities. Both seem to act, feel, and say whatever the plot needs them to, and, when we do get personal details about them, those details are frustratingly superficial. Leyla is a writer, but a writer of what? Tala loves her two published stories, but what are they about? What does she like about them? What do they tell Tala about who Leyla is as a person?

    Tala, for her part, is starting a business to sell candles and things manufactured in Lebanon. She talks about how much of a difference this could make to the lives of the people making her products, but then it’s dropped and she never really seems to care about the poor after that. She never seems to have any particular interest in the things she sells, either. She never shows some of her wares off to Leyla, never tells her about the sweet old widow who can afford to care for her grandson now that she’s picked up candle-making, never brings Leyla to meet a family making her products.

    The story is more about Tala and Leyla’s families. They are mostly one-dimensional, but they are interestingly so. There’s a good story to be had in how each individual family member reacts to Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Some of it has made it onto the page, but the story ends quickly after the women come out, so we don’t get to spend too much time in each family member’s head.

    My last complaint is that the book really could have used an extra round of editing. There are some questionable word choices, as well as some muddled timelines (the example the pops immediately to mind is in chapter 5: Ali calls Leyla on Sunday night, then Leyla and Tala go on a date the next evening, and then Leyla goes shopping with her mom the day after that, a Monday). These are silly issues that shouldn’t have made it into final print.

    All that said, the book is competently written. This was in no danger of going into my Did Not Finish pile! I was interested from start to finish, and I wanted to see where it was going. I liked most of the characters, I just felt that Leyla and Tala were short-changed. Ideally, this book would have been 100 pages longer, with a nice big section near the beginning where Leyla and Tala see each other and talk, and where we get a chance to understand why they love each other.

      Vorkosigan Saga #16: Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold

      Read: 11 September, 2018

      In Mirror Dance, we got to know Mark. It was the first time since Cordelia’s books that we spent a good deal of time in another character’s head. And it made sense that we’d be given Mark – so similar to Miles, and yet so notably different.

      In Komarr, the narrative is again shared, this time by Ekatrin. This is her book, giving her time to come into herself as she is freed from an unhappy marriage. There’s also a political mystery in there somewhere for Miles the Imperial Auditor to solve, but that almost feels like an afterthought.

      I love Ekatrin. Right from her first moment on her balcony, tending to her ugly little plants, bristling at her husband’s presence. She’s the historical woman – smart, strong, and competent, but kept uneducated and off-balance. I love that Miles saw right through her conditioning to her potential, and I loved that she didn’t just run to him as a rescuer. He may have seen her potential, but her character arc happens when she sees her own potential, and it’s not hearing it from Miles that makes her do so.

      I enjoyed meeting Ekatrin, and I look forward to seeing how her relationship with Miles develops. Mostly, though, I look forward to seeing how she develops.

      Continue reading

        The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

        Read: 9 September, 2018

        A little while ago, I had friends over for dinner and one casually mentioned The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a favourite. So, of course, I made a mental note and tracked down information about the book and now have read it. Because my love-language is apparently knowing people’s favourite books, even if I never talk to them about the books or even mention that I know.

        Amusingly, I mentioned to the same group of friends that I had started reading it, and her wife said, “That sounds familiar.” Clearly, she has a different love-language.

        I loved this book. I could complain about it being a bit saccharine, but, honestly, I needed that to recover from the sprinklings of horror. I truly enjoyed Juliet’s humour and getting to revel in goodness for a while. That goodness never seemed particularly naive anyway, given the backdrop of World War II with its “Todt workers” and malnutrition and fascist policing.

        The format worked really well. There are moments where characters are telling each other things that they already know for the reader’s benefit, but I was enjoying it all so much that I hardly noticed.

        I was a little worried that the epistolary format would get dropped once Juliet actually went to Guernsey, but the authors had cleverly established the characters of Sidney, Sophia, and Susan before that point, so format could continue seamlessly.

        There is romance, but it’s understated. Front and centre are the friendships, the history, and the piecing together the missing Elizabeth McKenna’s story. The “will they, won’t they” could have gotten annoying, especially as the two characters refuse to actually talk to one another in favour of making wild assumptions, but it’s so far in the background that it only feels joyful when they finally come together.

          Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

          Read: 7 September, 2018

          Something isn’t right at the new Orsk (a knock-off IKEA style store). When the morning shift comes in to find what appears to be poop on a Brooka sofa, three employees decide to come back after the store closes to find out what’s really going on.

          This is a high concept horror story, and the publishes have really gone all in with the illustrations. I really enjoyed the way that each chapter begins by highlighting a particular furniture item, complete with IKEA-ese description. Except that these pieces of furniture get creepier and creepier, starting with an ordinary sofa and ending with actual torture devices. It was a neat touch.

          I also really enjoyed all the retail-speak. You know, the way you can’t just say “small item”, you have to say “impulse”. Listening to retail workers talk shop is a surreal experience – not only does everything have a special name, there are whole special phrases (like the Orwellian banner proclaiming the value of hard work that pops up a few times in the story).

          That’s where this story really shines. I loved the IKEA-ness of it (of referring to all items by their branded name, like consistently calling the sofa a “Brooka” instead of just a sofa), and the retail-ness of it.

          Because that stuff is creepy. That’s what horror is made of.

          I really enjoyed the horror story aspects, too, when they focused on that theme. When Amy and Matt get lost in their own store because the sections appear to be moving around on them? Terrifying.

          But then there’s this whole other book in here, a trite story about some evil prison warden who got off on torturing prisoners so now he, and his captives, are haunting the building that was built over the ruins of his former prison. OoooOOOoooo. Even the half-hearted “big box stores are just like prisons!” message at the end feels cheap and heavy-handed.

          Every time the narrative focused on Amy getting out of the latest torture device or being grossed out by swamp smells, I felt so bored. It doesn’t connect thematically – the by-the-numbers haunted house is a totally different story, and it just doesn’t fit with the existential creepiness of retail. Even the characters all seem to have stepped out of your average January release horror movie.

          Overall, this was an enjoyable read, but not something that I would recommend to friends. Hendrix came up with a great idea, but didn’t follow through.

            Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

            Read: 5 September, 2018

            This book is so many things. It’s the story of growing up during a war, of living under fundamentalism, of the immigrant experience, or family, of being punk in the ’80s – all together at the same time.

            Satrapi’s consistent mouthiness is a joy to read. I also appreciated her vulnerability as she tells us about the time she falsely accused someone else of a crime to avoid being accused herself, or the time she bullied a boy for his father’s political activities. She talks about feeling ashamed of wanting sympathy for how hard it was for her to spend her teens along in Vienna while her family and childhood friends were living in a warzone.

            The artwork is perfect. The black-on-white is deceptively simplistic, while conveying a great amount of expression.

              Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

              Read: 3 September, 2018

              I really enjoyed this. It’s your normal coming-of-age story about going to camp for the first time and having trouble adjusting, but with the special twist of coming from an immigrant experience. Vera is a first generation Russian immigrant whose language is half in/half out, going through all those painful third culture kid problems.

              I really enjoyed being able to share this with my son, who is a second generation immigrant. It’s hard to explain what being a third culture kid is like, but books like these really help.

                Kim & Kim, vol. 1: “This Glamorous, High-Flying Rock Star Life” by Magdalene Visaggio, illustrated by Eva Cabrera

                Read: 3 September, 2018

                I’ve never read the Tank Girl comics, but I’ve always loved the movie (shut up, it’s awesome). I loved the sheer punk-ness of it – the over-the-top sass, the stuff that makes no sense but gets thrown in just because it’s cool, the colours, the joy of it.

                Kim & Kim has that same energy. The Fighting Kims live in a grounded, real world (one Kim is humiliated by having to beg her parents to pay her rent when she fails yet again, while the other Kim is consistently misgendered by her father), yet they live big and loud. They are colourful, they love what they do, they are cartoonishly vibrant. It’s just a joy to read.

                The story was okay. It bounced around a bit, and I was always feeling like I’d accidentally missed a page (the time jumping and narration really didn’t help). It felt a bit like just an excuse to show off these characters.

                But the characters are fantastic, and the art style does them justice. While there are some printing issues (some of the panels look a little out of focus), I loved how expressive and colourful and cool the art is.

                  Inferior by Angela Saini

                  Read: 3 September, 2018

                  In my early 20s,  I got involved with the Atheist Movement(TM). I was primarily attracted to the purity of science, and to the freedom to treat people equally and with respect without culturally/religiously motivated bigotry.

                  After a little while, however, I started to notice that the Atheist Movement(TM) suffered from many of the same problems that the “regular” world faces, only people were looking to science to justify the same old belief systems and bigotries. When someone asked “Why is the atheist movement so dominated by white people?”, someone else would ask “What is it about black people that makes them more superstitious?” A similar question would be asked about women.

                  Whenever someone tried to address the original question in a different way – “What is it about the atheist movement that makes it unappealing to POC and women?” – there was a knee-jerk reaction. “The atheist movement isn’t hostile to POC and women!” the claim would go. “We don’t have religion, so we’re welcoming to everyone! It’s just that POC and women aren’t as logical and rational as white men, so atheism doesn’t appeal to them as much!”

                  Disillusioned, I eventually gave up on the Movement(TM). And so there was one less woman in the Atheist Movement, and I suppose that proved their point. After all, if I had the ability to think rationally and logically, surely I would enjoy debating the mental faculties of my sex as much as white men do!

                  My personal experience is perfectly captured by Inferior. Saini goes through the tremendous amount of research that has been done to prove women’s weakness, their docility, their inherent monogamy and low libido, their mental inferiority. That is, when women factor into the picture at all – also covered is evolutionary research that seems to forget that women are part of the species at all. Much of this science, of course, done at a time when women were formally excluded from academia and research societies.

                  Saini doesn’t simply hand-wave away science of this time. In fact, she takes great care to present it fairly, and to explain how it might seem plausible given the studies conducted or with the information that was available. (In fact, if anything, she perhaps wastes too much energy making excuses for sexism – when she explains away Darwin  as “a man of his time”, she is neglecting to mention that Caroline Kennard was also a person of her time, the same time, and yet perfectly able to perceive the fundamental flaw in Darwin’s thinking with regards to biological sex differences.)

                  She discusses the errors in methodology, the unexamined assumptions, and even later research that show different results. The result is a more complicated, but more mature, picture of humanity – one where the sexes are more similar than they are different, and one where culture and technology can overcome whatever differences might persist.

                  This is an important book, and a well-researched one, with a compelling writing style.

                    Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

                    Read: 1 September, 2018

                    I’d be really interested to find out how Pratchett and Gaiman collaborated on this book, because the narrative is a perfect meshing of their two styles. I recognised so much that was distinctively Pratchett or distinctively Gaiman, but all blended together to make a fantastic amalgam style with both footnote humour and mythic humour.

                    Some of the jokes haven’t aged too well, particularly where gender is concerned. The book also has a very ’90s/Fern Gully sort of environmental message that dates it rather unmistakably.

                    Other than that, though, this was wonderful.