Monday, January 9, 2017

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson
I took advantage of having a big chunk of free time off work between Christmas and New Year's to tackle a big, meaty book.  I saw Isabel Wilkerson speak during the Chicago Humanities Festival after the election in November, and I had a feeling that her book would be a great one for me to read to start the new year.

The Warmth of Other Suns is about the Great Migration, the movement of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North over several decades in the 20th century.  Wilkerson conducted hundreds of interviews.  Her book compiles many people's stories, though she focuses on three people who left various areas of the South at different times and went to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to start new lives.

This book is excellent.  It is 540 pages of personal stories, which probably sounds like a lot, but it is not.  It feels like you are in the same room as these people as they tell you about their lives, the decisions they made, the regrets they have, the people they knew.  It's almost like a gigantic, written version of This American Life.

Like many people, I am struggling to come to grips with the way the world seems to be moving backwards to tribalism, distrust, and fear.  Reading Wilkerson's book was empowering.  When she came to speak at the Humanities Festival, she said something that I keep going back to.  I am paraphrasing, but the gist of it was, "The lesson of the Great Migration is the power of an individual choice.  They freed themselves."

Often, when reading books about minorities in the US, the general trend of stories is the same.  People who are different show up.  The people who are already there become angry.  They treat the newcomers badly (sometimes, really really badly).  The newcomers fight for their rights.  Sometimes they win.  It's an important story to tell because it happens so consistently, probably everywhere, but definitely in the United States.  But it's also just depressing and disheartening.  People are so frightened by anything that is different, no matter how superficial that difference might be, or no matter how ridiculous that fear is.  And they fight back in terrifying, brutal ways.

 But even against all that, a backdrop of hate and threats and physical violence, people fight.  And that's what was so, so wonderful about this book.  Even people with very little of their own, barely scraping by and with no rights of their own - they resisted and they fought and they made the world a more accepting and welcoming and equal place for all of us.  As Wilkerson said, "The Great Migration... was a step in freeing not just the people who fled, but the country whose mountains they crossed... It was, if nothing else, an affirmation of the power of an individual decision, however powerless the individual might appear on the surface."

A few snapshots from this book really stood out to me:
1.  Ida Mae Gladney coming to Chicago in the 1930s and realizing that she had the opportunity and the right to vote and that her vote would be heard and counted.  She had never even bothered trying to vote before.  Many, many years later, she would vote for Barack Obama for Illinois state senator.

2.  Robert Foster's desperate search for a motel to spend the night on his drive to his new life in Los Angeles.  He went from motel to motel and was denied a room at every single one.  Finally, he broke down and told one couple that he was a veteran, that he was a physician, that he meant no harm to anyone and just wanted to sleep.  They still refused.

3.  The story of a man who worked with the NAACP, was locked up in a mental institution, and then escaped with the help of a coordinated effort that had him in a coffin and traveling across state lines in different hearses.

4.  The store clerk who owned a dog and taught that dog many tricks.  One trick was for the clerk to ask the dog if he'd rather be black or dead.  The dog was trained to respond by rolling over and playing dead.

There were many more stories about oppression and resistance, the times people bowed to authority and the times they defied it.  The many ways that people faced indignities and swallowed the insults, turned the other cheek, and then came back to fight another round.  The consequences of leaving behind family and friends to start a new life.  The consequences of working long, hard hours to make a better life for a family that you rarely get to see.  The consequences of moving from the rural south to the industrial north.

I don't think I've done a good job of describing why this book is so moving.  But it's a huge book, and it covers so much!  It's hard to cover all of that in one post.  All I can say is that it is an excellent story of how much progress we've made and the cost of that progress, not only for the country as a whole but for so many individual people.  And it serves as an important reminder that individual decisions matter and can make a difference in the world.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Intisar Khanani's Memories of Ash

I was lucky enough to get an early copy of Intisar Khanani's Memories of Ash back in May when it was first released.  I really love Khanani's work, and I fully intended to sit down and read the book as soon as I received it.  But things do not often work out as well as you wish, and I never got around to reading this book until over the Christmas long weekend.  This ended up working out for the best, though, as I had precious hours in a row to devote to reading and became fully enmeshed in the story.

Memories of Ash picks up about a year after Sunbolt ends.  It's been well over two years since I read Sunbolt and I admit that I was foggy on some of the details (and, er, major plot points).  I highly recommend that you read Sunbolt before you read Memories of Ash, and if you are the type to re-read when a new book in a series comes out, I recommend you do that, too.  I rarely do that and rely solely on memory and chutzpah to get me through, and usually it works fairly well.

Anyway, Memories of Ash begins with Hitomi living a quiet, peaceful life in the country with an older mage, Brigit Stormwind, who is teaching her how to hone her magical skills.  But soon people come for Stormwind, accusing her of treason and other trumped-up charges.  Stormwind is taken away; Hitomi leaves soon after to go and save her.  The rest of the book follows Hitomi as she sets out to accomplish this very difficult task.

One of the greatest things about Khanani as an author, at least to me, is that she rewards her characters for being good people.  So often in fiction, people are shown to be unkind or vindictive or two-faced or untrustworthy.  In Khanani's books, people are shown to be kind and supportive.  They may have different priorities or goals, but they listen to each other and attempt to understand motives.  At a time when it feels like people just talk past each other and don't really listen and are not willing to hear anything they don't want to hear, I cannot express how much I treasure this aspect of Khanani's work.

We learn more about Hitomi's past in this book, and while that knowledge adds intriguing depth and great promise to this series, Hitomi herself remains loyal, steadfast and honorable in light of everything she finds out.  She's a pretty great lead character, so it's no surprise that she makes some really wonderful friends.

In reading this book, I also understood why Khanani spent so much time writing and editing it.  Not only has she constructed a beautifully intricate world and peopled it with a diverse and fascinating cast, but she's also given all of them rich cultural backgrounds and hinted at more to come.  There are a lot of politics at play here and Hitomi has to navigate all of that in addition to trying to meet her own goals.  She has so much empathy for people, and because of that, she really tries to understand what motivates them and what would make them believe her and help her.  If this sounds like manipulation, then I am not describing it well.  Hitomi does not pray on people's fears or weaknesses, she looks for common ground.

And this is one of the reasons I love some types of fantasy and really hate others.  I prefer the premise that people are good and can see some of themselves in others, that power is a privilege that should be wielded fairly and with integrity.  I don't like fantasy that implies that as soon as someone gets power, that person becomes corrupt and savors violence or cruelty (especially towards women).  I appreciate that Khanani seems to have that same vision; most of her characters are kind and strong and stand up for what's right, even the ones with smaller roles.  And that means a lot.  So even if it takes another two years for the next installment in this series to come out, I'll count it worth the wait if it continues this excellent trend.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Things to see and hear: Podcast and TV/Movie Round-Up

Hello, 2017!

One of my unofficial resolutions for this year is to become more informed about local, national, and international news.  Another resolution is just to learn more about other cultures and other ways of approaching the world  to become a generally more well-rounded person who can think outside the box and try to pull a lot of disparate threads together to make a stronger whole.  (A stronger whole of what or for what, I am not sure yet, but that's ok.)

I've discovered a lot of great podcasts and shows over the past few months and I thought I'd share some of those with all of you in case you want to expand your portfolio in 2017 as well!  Be careful - once you start, you probably can't stop!

To be fair, the podcasts are probably more mind-expanding than the TV and movies are, but they are all just fun to share :-)  Based on the below list, if you can think of anything I might like to listen to or watch, please share!

Podcasts

Gosh, there are SO MANY GOOD podcasts out in the world!  And more great ones being made all the time!  Here are a few that I have recently discovered and highly recommend.  I have recently added many new podcasts to my list based on this list of the 50 Best Podcasts from The Atlantic.  However, I haven't listened to enough episodes of many of them to yet to feel comfortable recommending them yet.  However, many of the below podcasts are on that list!  So... trust my judgment ;-)

Investigative Reporting pod:

I do not know why it took me so long to realize that the host of one of my all-time favorite (and now discontinued) podcasts, State of the Re:Union, is now host of Reveal, a podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting.  This podcast is SERIOUSLY excellent.  Al Letson, an African-American man whose whole professional career and private life seem to be centered around cultural understanding and empathy, recently had an interview with a white nationalist, and while everything about the white nationalist was slimy, everything about Letson was amazing.  This podcast is worth so much, and I hope you listen to it.

Also, I highly recommend you listen to the whole backlist of State of the Re:Union, especially if you are feeling down and need some positivity in your life.

Radio Drama pod:

Homecoming is from Gimlet media and is a fictionalized story with fantastic actors and sound effects that really takes the best of old school radio drama but modernizes it for audiences today.  The story revolves around a governmental experiment on soldiers returning from the front.  It's probably not everyone's cup of tea, but I think it's really well-produced and just really cool.


Life in general pods:

 Death Sex and Money is a long-standing but new to me podcast.  I tried it a couple of times before but didn't love it, and then this time I dug into the archives to find stories that really appealed to me and now I just love this show.  The episode that got me hooked?  When the host brought on a cop and the mother of two autistic black sons and the mother spoke to the cop about why she is so worried about her sons' safety in the world as they get older.  Just amazing vulnerability displayed on both sides and a really wonderful episode.

I heard about Michael Ian Black's How to Be Amazing podcast on Reveal and did some back episode listening as well.  He gets absolutely amazing people to come on his show, talk about themselves and the paths they took to get where they are, and just discuss awesome things with him in general.  Michael Ian Black is a comedian, so he is very skilled at getting people to feel comfortable with him quickly.  Another really great podcast for when you are feeling sad about the world and need to be reminded that there are good people doing great things out there.


Mini-series on Mega-topics:

The first season of Marketplace's The Uncertain Hour focused entirely on welfare.  In the US, welfare is highly misunderstood.  After Bill Clinton passed a huge welfare reform act in the 1990s, a whole lot changed about how the benefits are paid out.  Unfortunately, people's perceptions of how the benefits are paid out have not changed at all.  I found this first season so eye-opening and I hope that a whole lot of Americans from all points on the political continuum give it a listen.  There's a lot of room for improvement, especially considering how few people now qualify for housing and food support vs a whole lot of money being spent on family planning.

WNYC's partnership with The Nation resulted in a fantastic mini-series about gentrification in Brooklyn called There Goes the Neighborhood.  It's all about the pros and cons of gentrification, the people who are most impacted by it, the people who most benefit from it, and the people who have the most control over it.  It also looks into historic housing policies and how much those still have an effect today.  The reporters speak to people who have lived in neighborhoods for decades and are being forced out, newly minted college grads and young professionals desperate for an affordable place to stay, and government efforts to rein in gentrification while ensuring that neighborhoods stay vibrant, diverse, and welcoming.

And then one on the Supreme Court and just how massive a footprint it has had on American history.  This is not really a mini-series as I think there are more seasons planned, but the first season was glorious.  If you ever thought political history was boring and dry, More Perfect will change your mind.  I'm so excited about where this series can go - for example, neither Thurgood Marshall nor Ruth Bader Ginsberg have even been mentioned yet.  So... there's no way to go but up.

Diversity-focused pods:

I continue to insist on the importance of understanding other people's points of views.  While I have not yet found a more right-leaning, conservative that I feel I can listen to for a while, I am on the lookout.  If you know of any, please share!
For me, my diverse viewpoint standouts are Code Switch, Still Processing and Show About Race.  Recent episodes from all of these that I loved are -

Code Switch - Hold up!  Time for an Explanatory Comma ( LOVE LOVE LOVE this episode)

Still Processing - Obama's Last Cultural Statement

Show About Race - The End of Identity Politics
 
While I am not sure I love it yet, mostly because it seems to target a younger, college-aged crowd, I would also recommend See Something, Say Something, which focuses on the Muslim-American experience.

Movies/TV/Streaming

1.  SANRACHNA:  When home with my parents over Christmas, we discovered the Indian show Sanrachna.  It's available on Netflix with subtitles, and on YouTube without subtitles.  Each episode is about 20 minutes long and focuses on different aspects of Indian architecture as exemplified in very old buildings - caves, temples, forts, etc.  And not one episode features any of the most popular Indian historical sites (the Taj Mahal, Jaipur Palace, Red Fort, etc).  Instead, they focus on sites from all over the country and from many different eras of history.  It's fascinating because there is so much regional history in India that is rarely taught in other regions of India, or certainly anywhere else in the world.  And the show just makes me realize how much of a rich and varied culture the country has.  Now I want to go on a really nice, long trip back to India and try to see some of these lesser-visited sights.  I wish they had a show all about India's natural wonders, too.  Or, in general, more shows about places all over the world and the history and beauty that can be found everywhere. 

2.  DANGAL:  Sticking with India, I saw Aamir Khan's new movie Dangal over Christmas.  It's a really lovely movie based on a true story.  It tells the story of a man in a small village who teaches his two daughters to become wrestlers.  It's fantastically feminist for India (though it doesn't go as far into the feminism as I would like), and also just a really nice story about the pressures of being an elite athlete and growing up under a pretty no-nonsense father.



3.  ZOOTOPIA:  I'm SUPER late to this one, but I just recently watched Zootopia and it was SO GOOD!  It's just a beautiful story about people trying to overcome stereotypes and barriers, becoming friends, making mistakes, and then working to fix those mistakes.  So much smart dialogue and imagery about diversity and friendship and embracing the commonalities we all have.  I loved it so much, and it is also available on Netflix!  So go to it.



4.  MAN SEEKING WOMAN:  I randomly discovered this show on Hulu, and I love it.  It is a super-quirky and surreal show set in Chicago (yay!) about the difficulties of modern dating.  It's really funny and in many ways is almost like the stream of conscious that can go off on really extreme tangents in your mind.  I've only watched a few episodes, but it's really funny and weird and I think some of you would really enjoy it if you are willing to give it a shot.




5.  INSECURE:  Available on HBO.  I love this show!  It's kind, sweet, and hilarious and brings a ton of humor to important issues.  Issa Rae and her friends talk about what it's like to be women who work, women who date, women who have issues and standards, and women who have each other's backs.  They also bring up the more subconscious biases that many people of color and women face in their daily lives that are so subtle that they can often go undetected.  So great!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: The Year in Review


It's pretty depressing reading my 2015 year in review.  I said that 2015 was a tough year and hoped very much that 2016 would be better.

2016 was not better.  It's a true fact (not a false news story) that 2016 was a spectacularly horrible year.  This is not only because of the travesty of Brexit and the US election, but also because of Aleppo and Russia and Prince and David Bowie and Carrie Fisher and Alan Rickman, etc.

Progress comes in waves, which means it moves backward just as often as it moves forward.  We can only hope that, over time, we gain more ground than we concede.  I spent much of 2016 arming myself with information, through books, news articles, podcasts, reporters and movies and all of you.  I anticipate that the number of books I read each year will continue to decline.  Or if not decline, it is unlikely to go up into the triple digits again.  This is not because reading books is becoming less important to me; it is still one of my favorite activities ever.  But I want to become more of an activist, too.  I want to affect change in my community, and to do that, I think I need to be more aware of what is happening around me.  So more news, more work, and maybe fewer books.

So, how did 2016 shape up for me in the booksphere?  Let's take a look!

Total books read:  62, 12 down from 2015's 74.

% books by female authors:  58%
I've been at exactly 58% for 3 years in a row now!  I have started skewing more towards women in my reading.  I don't apologize for this.  Clearly, people should read more women and understand their points of view vs. only thinking of them as baby-making machines.

% audiobooks:  26%
I rarely listen to audiobooks on my commute now; I've mostly switched to music and podcasts.  So the only audiobooks I listen to usually have to catch my interest very, very quickly.

% books by diverse authors:  45%
This is consistent with last year, too.  My general goal is about 50%, so I'm pretty close.

% non-fiction books:  37%
This is the highest percentage and the highest actual number (23) of non-fiction books I have ever read.  I am reading more and more non-fiction as I get older, mostly to try and make sense of the world we live in.  Some of the best books I read this year were non-fiction.  More on those to come.

# of books taken off the TBR list (books read that I owned on 12/31/15):  4
Yikes.  That's a really bad number.  I can't even defend it.  I did read books that I own, but those were books that I purchased during the year so technically they were not on my TBR list. 
My excuse remains what it was before - my tastes are changing, I am reading more diversely, and my shelves don't necessarily reflect that.  Also, I don't purchase many books any more.  I did significantly decrease my TBR list this year because I donated many books.  So progress is being made, just not by actual reading.

# of books checked out from the library:  48
I love the Chicago Public Library so much!  In fact, I am joining the library junior board's leadership team for 2017 and 2018!  I'm very excited.  Obviously, I have a great deal of passion for the library and the work it does for my city; I so look forward to working hard to help it grow even stronger.

Favorite new-to-me author:  
This one is hard, mostly because I read books by entirely new authors to me, and I didn't get a ton of depth from those authors.  But I think I am most excited to read the next volume in the Monstress comic book series by Marjorie Liu and more by Ann Leckie.  I read her science fiction novel Ancillary Justice and really enjoyed it and never reviewed it.

On the non-fiction front, I really enjoyed reading Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies and look forward to more from her.


Best female characters:
I'm going to go all-out on amazing young adult heroines here because they rocked my world this year.  Gabi from Gabi, A Girl in Pieces and Agnieska from UprootedI also still love Hitomi from Intisar Khanani's Sunbolt series in her newest outing, Memories of Ash (review forthcoming).

Best narrative voice:
This is probably cheating a bit since it's a collection of short stories, all with different narrators.  Also, I did not review this book, either (which is a travesty; I should have).  But whatever, I MAKE THE RULES HERE. 

Lucia Berlin in A Manual for Cleaning Women was really fantastic.  I heard about her from no one less than Colson Whitehead while he spoke about his book The Underground Railroad (another book I neglected to review).  While I think the collection is possibly a little too long and not all the stories are stellar, most of them are really beautiful, and I highly recommend it.



Biggest sleeper hit:
There were many books I enjoyed more than I expected this year.  But one that I really enjoyed was Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a science fiction novel that was just unexpectedly lovely, all about different species working together for a common cause and just really enjoying it.  This is another book that I never bothered to review, which is unfortunate.

Most unexpected reading themes from 2016:
I read many more short stories and essay collections this year than in years past.  I mentioned A Manual for Cleaning Women above.  I also really enjoyed Painted Cities and The Martian Chronicles.  Sayed Kashua's essay collection Native was also great perspective on life as a Muslim in Israel (though I did not review it).

I am also getting more and more into science fiction!  Not only did I thoroughly enjoy Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, but I mentioned Ancillary Justice and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet above.  Then there was John Scalzi's Old Man's War.  I am excited to have this exciting new genre to check out, especially with the amazing way that feminists and POC are making it their own.

Best commentary on American race relations:
This continues to be a theme that interests me, and I learned this year just how embedded into the culture and the way we go about our lives race is.  Particularly in relation to housing decisions. Books that taught me about this in 2016, all of which I highly recommend to anyone and everyone.

 
The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin
The South Side, by Natalie Y. Moore
Evicted, by Matthew Desmond
We Gon' Be Alright, by Jeff Chang

Best commentary on how the slave trade has impacted people all over the world, and over multiple generations:
I realize this is a very specific one, but I just had to find a way to mention Homegoing here.  It was one of my favorites this year and I didn't mention it anywhere else!

Best commentary about trends and changes that have impacted America:
The Unwinding, by George Packer.  It opened my eyes to a lot, and made me very sad and angry, and now I plan to see what I can do to make this country better and stronger.  This book hands down had the most impact on me this year, though it's hard to parse out a book's impact vs world events.  Maybe it is better to say that this book best represented to me what is happening in the world now and made it clear to me that I should fight for what is important to me.


Most obscure topic that I can now speak about with some knowledge:
Carnivorous horses 

Most hyped and lived up to the hype:
Citizen:  An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon

Most hyped and did not live up to the hype:
Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.  I much preferred George Packer's The Unwinding
However, Strangers in Their Own Land did jolt me to come back to blogging post-election, so there is that.

Best cover art:
Claudia Rankine's Citizen is pretty amazing.


Most beautiful illustrations:
Hands down, Monstress.  It is gorgeous.

Best audiobook:
I didn't do that many of these this year, but definitely The Sun is Also a Star.  
Also The Scorpio Races.


Best memoir:
In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi.  I truly loved this book and I know it's on a very difficult topic for some people, but it's so beautifully written and I hope more people read it.  It's important to read books about experiences that are different than yours.  This is one of those books.
  


 
Last year, I switched it up and did not provide a list of my favorite reads for 2015.  Mostly because I didn't feel like it but also because I'm not sure I trust my opinions on rankings to stand for very long after reading a book or finishing a year.  What should I base my rankings on?  Enjoyment in the moment?  Sticking with me for a long time after?  Changing the way I view the world?  I'm not sure.  And I think I judge differently for fiction and non-fiction and for different genres of fiction and non-fiction, too.  So I think I am done with top books lists because I don't really know how to do them any more.

There are many books that I didn't love in a squeeze-the-book-to-me-and-never-let-go kind of way but that challenged me and my assumptions and made me into a more critical reader and a more active citizen of the world.  Those books will probably have more of an impact on me and who I become than the books that I devoured and enjoyed in one or two sittings.  That's not to say that pure, unadulterated joy for a book is not valuable in and of itself.  It is.  But it's hard for me to compare books like that with books that are about vastly different topics.  So I hope you'll take some time to look through the categories above and see what stands out to you.  And let me know if there is anything you read that fits one of the above categories that you would recommend to me.
  
Many things happened this year that made me sad and disheartened about the world.  It is hard to separate that context from the books I chose to read and how they spoke to me.  I will continue to read books about topics that are relevant and important to the world, that challenge me to expand my worldview.  But I hope I don't lose that joy and exuberance of finding a book that is just pure fun and escapism and happiness.  Because I love that about reading, too.  And I think that's why I came back to blogging after many hiatuses this year.  Because I love the joy it brings me, and I love all of you and the way we can discuss books that we loved and disliked and recommend and just continue being a warm and welcoming and wonderful community.  Thanks to all of you for helping make 2016 bearable.  I admit I don't have very high hopes for 2017, but I know that there will always be books, and all of you.  Thanks for everything!

love,
Aarti

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Nicola Yoon's The Sun is Also a Star

Nicola Yoon
I did not expect to love Nicola Yoon's The Sun is Also a Star.  But I did.  I feel like tons of people are giving this book glowing reviews right now, so I'm not sure that I have a lot to add to the conversation.  But I enjoyed so many things about this book!

I don't read a lot of young adult romance, mostly because I find it overly dramatic (see my review of The Wrath and the Dawn for more on this).  But this book was good after good!

It centers on Natasha, a Jamaican immigrant who is being deported (TODAY) and Daniel, a Korean-American who really doesn't want to go to Yale to be a doctor.  They meet at a music store while they are both avoiding what appears to be the inevitability of their lives, and then they spend a mostly perfect day together.

I say that this book centers on Natasha and Daniel, but what drew me into the story right from the beginning were the vignettes from other people's points of view.  We get brief moments into other people's lives and minds and these insights brought so much depth to the story.  We learn about Natasha's parents and how the move to New York strained their marriage.  We learn about Daniel's parents and how all they want is to ensure their children never have to live in the extreme poverty they saw.  But we meet people who have only a periphery connection to the story, too.  A drunk driver whose daughter was killed in a car accident.  A security guard who wants desperately to connect with people but cannot find a way to do it.  A paralegal who falls in love with her employer.  A lawyer who realizes he's in love with his paralegal.  These vignettes are short and bittersweet but show just how much we can impact other people's lives, from those closest to us to those that we hardly notice.  I loved them.

I also loved Natasha and Daniel's story.  I wasn't sure if I would at the beginning, mostly because Natasha said something about how she didn't think she was "wired for love," which did cause me to roll my eyes a bit, coming from a 17-year-old.  But the more I learned about Natasha, the more I realized this was in line with her personality.  And Daniel the dreamer, who wants to become a poet, not a doctor - he was pretty great, too.

One thing I really loved about this book was the way Yoon portrayed immigrant families.  This is where the insights into other characters and the omniscient narrator really shone.  Yoon showed that there is often a generational divide between immigrant parents and their children, but that under that is a deep level of love and trust that often can be overlooked by people who have not directly experienced it.  Both Natasha and Daniel disagree with their parents on important things but they still respect and love them.  And their parents really do try to do what is best for their children, but their definition of what is best is different than their children's.  One moment that made this clear was when Daniel said, honestly and clearly, that his parents would never attend his wedding with Natasha.  They probably would stop speaking to him if he married someone who was not Korean.  I know many parents like that (and some parents who used to be like that and then changed), and it was a very realistic scene.

I really enjoyed this book, and I think that even if you don't enjoy YA romance, you might enjoy it, too!  Give it a try!  And if you enjoy audiobooks, I definitely recommend listening to this one on audio!


Related Links:

The "Parents" episode from See Something Say Something.  Beautifully done interview and poetry about growing up as the child of immigrants.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

My first space opera

John Scalzi
One of my closest friends gave me a copy of John Scalzi's Old Man's War for my birthday this year.  I had told her that I want to read more science fiction but that I find the genre a bit intimidating, especially the more traditional "space operas" and wasn't sure where to start.  She recommended Scalzi to me and then gave me this first book in a series.

Old Man's War is about John Perry, a 75-year-old man who signs up for the Colonial Defense Force (CDF).  The CDF takes old people from the Americas, gives them new, powerful, green bodies, and then sends them out to engage in inter-planetary warfare to defend human colonies in outer space.  Most of these colonies are people by Asians and Africans, who were bombed to oblivion by the western world in a Subcontinental War.

I'm really glad that my friend gave me this book to read as an introduction to space opera because right from the beginning, I felt super-comfortable with the book.  John's narrative voice is wry and self-deprecating and really funny, and I immediately felt welcomed into his world.  The story also moves pretty quickly and introduces some really great characters. The humor is just as important, if not more important, as the science and the plot and all the rest.  It's a really fun introduction to science fiction, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is unsure of where to start with "traditional" science fiction but wants to give it a try.

That said, there were a lot of things about this book that raised several red flags.  These I detailed out to my friend in very long-winded text messages.  Let me also just say before I get into all of these that both my friend and I are very feminist and very aware of white-washing and everything else that I'm about to talk about, and both of us still enjoyed this book.  Also, she said that some of my concerns are addressed by Scalzi in later books in the series, even if they were not addressed in this first book.

On to my concerns.

Very close to the beginning of this book, a pretty vile character points out that all of the space colonists are Indian (he calls Indians "Hindis" and "dot heads"), which is unfair because they lost the war and losers shouldn't get to colonize space.  All the white people (apparently being American = being white) can only get into space by joining this Colonial Defense Force.  This is insane because dot heads who lose a war on earth should not then get the protection of superior beings in space.

The whole race thing is brought up VERY clearly and intentionally, and yet, for the rest of the book, there is zero interaction with any colonists.  Based on the names that everyone on the Colonial Defense Force have, I would guess that there is also very limited interaction with anyone that isn't white or Hispanic (though everyone in the force has green skin, so "white" is a misnomer, maybe).  I know that science fiction generally has a diversity problem, so it's not that I was expecting a gloriously diverse cast here, but I was frustrated that the race thing was brought up so early on and then never again acknowledged or dealt with again.  It's like Scalzi was using the other racist jerk as a foil just to show readers how open-minded and kind John Perry is in contrast, which is annoying.  Mostly because he is using a conversation between two white men to show that one is racist and the other is not.  I would believe it more if anyone who was not white had a voice in the conversation.

And then, we are supposed to believe that John Perry is this upstanding guy who is not racist, but then he cheerfully goes from planet to planet killing other intelligent species who have built up cultures and histories over time.  There is a moment when he acknowledges how bad this makes him feel, when everyone around him acknowledges it as well.  But then they just move on and continue the destruction.  This I guess would be somewhat understandable if you're 20 years old and had never been through a war before or thought about other people before.  But again, John is at least 75 years old and had protested wars on earth.  But seems to think it's a totally different ball game out in space.  And again, they never once engage with colonists, so you don't even really know how he feels about people who are not the same as him.

There was one scene in the book that stood out to me a lot, possibly because I also recently finished I am Malala, and she spent a bit of time talking about the Taliban.  Some years ago, the Taliban destroyed ancient beautiful Buddhist statues.  There was a huge outcry for reasons I hope I don't need to outline here.

In Old Man's War, there is very brief moment in which John leaves a spaceship to go onto an alien planet.  He sees "an abstract sculpture of some description" and blows it up.  "Never much liked abstract art."  Possibly, I am a little too sensitive at this time, since this was clearly supposed to be a moment of comic relief prior to war.  But all I could think was, "IT MIGHT NOT BE UGLY ABSTRACT ART TO THEM, JERKFACE." 

And that's really where I feel like this book had a lot of unmet potential.  We're led to believe that John is this great guy because he has an excellent sense of humor, a lot of people like him, he treats his comrades well, he seems fairly smart, and he stood up against racism that one time in a pretty low-risk setting.  But then through the rest of the book, you don't  see any of the stuff he questions or worries about come back to him in terms of how the war effects him or how he interacts with colonists.  It felt very "here's the white savior you've all been waiting for!"  And that annoyed me.

That said, I think I am going to read the next book in this series.  My friend said Old Man's War is an introduction to a complex and well-plotted series.  I trust her judgment, and the book really was enjoyable if you're not as hyper-sensitive as I seem to be these days. 

Has anyone else read this series?  Any thoughts on how it evolves as it continues?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing

Like many of the books I review, I first heard about Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing in the New York Times The Warmth of Other Suns is very high on my list of books to conquer in 2017) gave it an excellent review.  When I saw it in a local independent bookstore, I bought it.  This is actually quite rare for me these days; I don't buy books any more as I get most of my books from the library.  But sometimes, I'm willing to splurge on a hardcover book that I have never read before.  I did that for Homegoing, and I'm so glad I did.  The book will be staying on my keeper shelf.
book review.  Isabel Wilkerson (whose book

Yaa Gyasi's novel is about two sides of a family, completely unknown to each other.  Effia, a beautiful girl growing up in what is now Ghana, and her descendants mostly stay in Ghana.  Esi, Effia's unknown half-sister, is sold into slavery and her descendants live in America.  Both sisters and their families are involved in and impacted by the slave trade.  Gyasi follows the families through six generations, showing how much we all struggle to come to terms with our past and how other people's actions can impact our own lives.

Many stories that follow one family over several generations are hundreds of pages long or sprawl out over a long series of books.  In contrast, Gyasi contains her stories in 300 pages.  Because of this, we do not get to know each character very deeply; when we leave a character, we rarely find out what happened to him or her, we only get glimpses from the next generation.  This was very unsettling for me.  I imagine it was even more unsettling for the people whose lives were completely upended through history.  Gyasi's intent seemed more to give us a glimpse into a life, how slavery and colonialism ravaged that life, and how that individual strove to rise above it, from the late 18th century to the present day.

In America, we learn about slavery (though we don't learn about it enough, and we learn about it more in the political sense than in the emotional and individual sense).  I suspect that in Ghana, they learn about colonialism and the slave trade (though they probably don't learn enough, either).  It is rare to see both sides of the coin presented together.  Gyasi does that here to great effect.  The impacts of slavery are felt far beyond America's shores, and the impact of the "peculiar institution" continues to this day.  I loved how Gyasi brought this to life through individual lives.  She obviously did not have the space or time to discuss everything, but she alluded to quite a lot.  Mostly, about how difficult it can be to be black in America, and how haunting it is for people not to know where they come from and what family and traditions they are missing.

In her review for the New York Times, Wilkerson expresses frustration at the way Gyasi shows the African side of the family as fighting for freedom, holding true to their traditions, and enjoying a rich culture, while the American side descends into stereotypes of men who like big butts and do drugs, women who feel like they don't fit in with anyone else because they like reading.  It's a fair critique, though a lot of that might have to do with the fact that Gyasi did not give herself the luxury of spending many pages sharing the characters' stories with us.  Wilkerson wrote a book about the Great Migration that in itself is 600 pages; it would be hard to get that sort of depth and nuance from Gyasi's much shorter novel.  One could flip Wilkerson's frustration and say that Gyasi also seemed to gloss over the impact of colonialism and war on Ghana, with only brief allusions to the fight for freedom.  The scope of world history over the past 250 years would be extremely difficult to fit into one book, so Gyasi chose to allude to more things than to bring them front and center.

What I did love was the way she continued to weave the two sides of the family together, generation after generation.  Recurring dreams that occur on both sides of the Atlantic, a fear of fire and an aversion to water.  Even so loosely connected as the characters are, Gyasi makes clear that there is still a connection.  Similarly, even as each character finds a way to remove himself or herself just a little further from slavery, you can see just how much slavery still impacts their lives.  There are no tidy solutions here.  The past happened, and we must accept that it continues to change and mold the world today.

Slavery is “like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”