Monday, July 21, 2014

#Diversiverse Genre Spotlight: Non-Fiction

This weekend, I posted a preview to the revamped A More Diverse Universe event that will take place over the last two weeks of September.  The event challenges you to read and review just one book by a person of color during those two weeks.  In previous versions of the challenge, #Diversiverse focused solely on authors of science fiction and fantasy.  This year, I'm opening it up to authors of any and all genres because I think it's important that people realize not only the depth but the breadth of books out there on so many subjects written by people of color.

Therefore, I'm putting together lists of books for people who are interested in reading within particular subjects and parameters.  I figured that I would start with non-fiction, as that is by far the most difficult "genre" in which to find diverse authors. It's easy to find books about being a minority in Western culture or growing up in war zones in other countries, so I purposely excluded books like that from this list.  Sadly, it's extremely difficult to find books by diverse authors on say, popular science or current events.  Therefore, this list is more of a jumping off point; it is by no means exhaustive.  I would LOVE for people to provide suggestions, and I am happy to add them to this list.

It is pretty exhausting putting together lists like this - for this list, I've gone for quantity over quality as I have not read the vast majority of the titles I list below and therefore don't want to write a misleading blurb about them.  Hopefully, though, some of the titles and subject headings pique your interest!

Those that I have read, I've linked to my reviews.

Economics/Social Behavior
The Art of Choosing, by Sheena Iyengar
Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh
Off the Books:  The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, by Sudhir Venkatesh
Banker to the Poor, by Muhammad Yunus
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua
The Billionaire's Apprentice, by Anita Raghavan
The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb



Food
Cooked, by Jeff Henderson
Yes, Chef, by Marcus Samuelsson
Taco USA:  How Mexican Food Conquered America, by Gustavo Arellano
Curried Cultures:  Globalization, Food, and South Asia, ed. Krishnendu Ray, Tulusi Srinivas
LA Son:  My Life, My City, My Food, by Roy Choi


History/Current Events
The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King
The Devil's Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea
India Becoming, by Akash Kapur
A Free Man:  A True Story of Life and Death in Delhi, by Aman Sethi
From the Ruins of Empire:  The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, by Pankaj Mishra
Factory Girls:  Young Women on the Move in Modern China, by Leslie Chang
The Jaguar Smile, by Salman Rushdie



Science
The Emperor of All Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Complications:  A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, by Atul Gawande
Better, by Atul Gawande
Simon Singh - an author who focuses on a plethora of topics, including codes, the Big Bang, and mathematical phenomena
Michio Kaku - a "futurist" who writes a lot about the science of outer space, the future, and physics

Memoirs/Biography




Africa

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kankwamba
Kaffir Boy:  The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa, by Mark Mathabane
An African in Greenland, by Tete-Michel Kpomassie



Asia
Kampung Boy, by Lat
Vietnamerica, by GB Tran
Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
A Princess Remembers:  The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur, by Gayatri Devi



Americas
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  And Other Concerns, by Mindy Kaling
The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis
The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande
Lakota Woman, by Mary Crow Dog
Anything by Maya Angelou

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A lil' preview of the remix: A More Diverse Universe


For the past two years, I've hosted the A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour, a tour that focuses on highlighting diverse authors of science fiction and fantasy.  The first year, there were more than 50 participants, which was amazing.  Last year, it was a shorter time period and much less organized, but it was still a pretty fantastic event.

Regardless of how much #Diversiverse has impacted the reading habits of its participants and observers, it has had a massive impact on my own reading.  After hosting the event the first year (with a ton of help!), I made a concerted pledge to read more diversely all year long, not only in fantasy and science fiction, but in all my reading.  Now, I read about 50% diverse authors, and it comes naturally to me to seek out non-white authors.  This is a massive change from where I was three years ago, when I read almost exclusively white authors.

I wish my new habit did not require so much seeking out, that I could default to best sellers or critically acclaimed novels and know that I was reading books by a wide array of authors.  But that is not the case.  If you want to read books by authors of diverse backgrounds, you have to be very conscious about doing so.  If you stick with the best-seller lists or most award-winners or the books that people tend to talk about, even on blogosphere, you are looking at a very monotone set of authors.

So in thinking through this year's iteration of the A More Diverse Universe blog tour, I wondered what it would take to make more people participate, and to motivate more people to read diversely all the time, not just for an event.

There are a lot of reasons people use to defend the lack of diversity in their reading.  The most popular one seems to be that of the "moody reader."  Someone says, "I'm such a moody reader, I just don't want to put rules up that would drive me away from reading altogether."  I used this excuse myself all the time.  I didn't want to change my reading habits because I enjoyed what I was reading, and why should I have to change something that I did for a hobby?

I explained the "why" for changing this habit in pretty great detail two years in a row.  I'm sure I'll do it again as we get closer to the #Diversiverse dates.  For now, let me just say that the "moody reader" argument doesn't really make sense because it implies that diverse authors do not write books that meet your current mood's criteria.  This is unlikely.  I cannot make this clear enough:

You may have to change your book-finding habits to include POC authors in your reading rotation.  You absolutely do not need to change your book-reading habits.

Let me explain.  Have a thirst for epic fantasy?  There's a growing number of books available to you.  Science fiction?  A small but strong contingent.  Non-Fiction?  For sure.  Memoirs?  Definitely.  Graphic novels?  Absolutely.  Travel writing?  Got you covered.  Romance?  Yup.  Women's fiction?  Mystery?  Thrillers?  Historical fiction?  Yes, yes, yes, and yes.  Whatever genre you enjoy, you can read diversely within that genre.

Thus, the A More Diverse Universe Blog Tour is evolving into something bigger and more inclusive than it was previously.  Instead of being focused on science fiction and fantasy, now #Diversiverse is about expanding your entire reading universe.  And instead of being a blog tour, it's more of a challenge.  The criteria are simple:

  • Read and review one book
  • Written by a person of color
  • During the last two weeks of September (September 14th - 27th)
That's it.

I'll make an official sign-up post, because, well, that makes it official.  It will go up in early August and will include a lot of reading suggestions, organized by genre.  Consider this your Save the Date :-)

Also, if you would like to help promote or organize or do anything else, please let me know!  If you have authors you want me to highlight in the sign-up post, or genres you want to make sure I include, or if you want to tackle one genre with author suggestions, or promote the event on Twitter or Facebook or ANYTHING, I am completely open to and absolutely grateful for your help.  Just leave a comment here and I will come find you!  

And if you know how to create buttons or know someone who does, and if you or that other person would be willing and able to make a fun button/badge for people to use when they post reviews for A More Diverse Universe (#diversiverse), I would be very grateful.  I need a refresh so that people know it is not limited just to speculative fiction, and so that people know the dates are in 2014, not 2012.

But really, what I most need (and seriously, I do need it, not want it) from you is to commit and sign up and EXECUTE this reading challenge.  The more we vote with our dollars, our library cards, our reviews, and our recommendations, the more diverse our bookshelves will become, until it's second nature to all of us to read in technicolor.  Let's DO this.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Taking care of business

The Caretaker A.X. Ahmad
I was very excited when I heard about A.X. Ahmad's The Caretaker, for probably obvious reasons.  It's centered on a Sikh man, Ranjit Singh, former officer in the Indian army, who now works odd jobs on Martha's Vineyard, trying to take care of his family.  He works as caretaker for a rising political star, an African-American senator named Clayton Rivers Neals (Seriously, how do authors come up with names like this?  Supposedly, Clayton Rivers Neals is also from a rough area of town, which makes the name even more difficult to believe).  And then his daughter takes an old raggedy doll from the house, and suddenly he and his family are the targets of some very scary people.

I don't know many books at all in which the main characters are people of color from different cultures - here, an Indian family and an African-American one.  It's so sad, but true - how many books can you name that fit these criteria?  So I was pretty thrilled by that.  And it was nice to read a book in which the main character is dealing with the more subtle racism that you can come across in educated and wealthy circles.

So lots of strong points!  But...

But as I continued reading this book, things started to bother me.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Shadow League, Wilhelm Blackflame, and other fantastic names

Sunbolt Intisar Khanani
About a year ago, I raved about Intisar Khanani's adaptation of The Goose GirlThorn.  I loved the story, the setting, the characters, and so much about this novel.  I was so excited to find this author that I wanted to read everything I could by her.  This, sadly, only includes a short story (available for free at pretty much any e-retailer!), The Bone Knife, and the first novella in a series, Sunbolt.

All three of these stories were wonderful, so I am even more firmly in the Khanani fangirl camp (especially as the Thorn cover is now amazing and not at all like the one I showed in my review).  If you have not read her yet, I urge you to at least download The Bone Knife (no monetary risk involved!) and then gobble up her other writing soon after.  I hope that she gets published in physical format soon, too, because I want these books on my shelves, too. E-reading feels so ephemeral sometimes.

Anyway, Sunbolt.  The book is the first in a "serial," not a "series."  Think Star Wars, not A Song of Ice and Fire.  Each story stands alone, but reading all of them should be a richer and more rewarding experience.  Sunbolt is pretty short - only about 140 pages.  I finished it pretty quickly, not only because it was so short but because I was quite engrossed in the story.

Similar to Thorn, Sunbolt is about a girl, Hitomi, who has a secret.  She is the mixed race daughter of two great and powerful mages, but she hides her own magical powers because mages have become killing machines in the current political environment.  Hitomi also hides her involvement in the Shadow League (such an awesome name for an underground movement), dedicated to bringing down the most powerful mage in the land, Wilhelm Blackflame.  (Seriously, all the names here are awesome.)

Hitomi volunteers to help one of Blackflame's enemies escape to safety, but things go drastically wrong.  Instead, Hitomi ends up prisoner to an even more powerful villain, and must put her trust in the idea of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" to get out alive with another prisoner.

I realize that the plot summary above makes this book seem pretty straight-forward and perhaps a bit cliche.  But it's not.  The setting is so rich, you get wonderful details about the land of Karolene, where women wear scarves over their heads, and the surrounding countries that have different languages and spices and recipes.  The main character is female, dark-skinned, smart and kind, and she has some seriously awesome magical power.  The other characters are so diverse - there are shape-shifters, vampires, breathers (who, different than vampires, take the breath of a person, not the blood), mages, regular people, and probably more that I am forgetting.

And ok, mages and breathers are arch-enemies, and of course the other prisoner that Hitomi has to trust is a handsome male breather.  But I trust Khanani completely, and I know that this will not become a Twilight-esque charade.

So, to wrap this up:  I have thoroughly enjoyed every story by Khanani I have ever read, I urge you strongly to read at least one of her stories and then you will probably want to read the rest, and we should all support authors who write kick-butt female characters who are kind and intelligent and powerful and not afraid that these character traits will turn other people off.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bringing South Asians into the American spotlight with humor, fashion, and awesome

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling's book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  (And Other Concerns) was not really on my radar.  I am not sure why, because I really love Mindy Kaling.  But I generally don't like memoirs, especially when they are written by people around my age - seriously, how much life experience do you really have to talk about?  But everyone told me Kaling's book was fun, and I like to support normal-sized, funny Indian women, so I went for it.  And I really enjoyed it!

Kaling basically points out in the introduction that there's no reason not to read this book - it's not a huge time investment, she's a fun person, and so the experience is likely to be positive on the whole.  This was pretty much rock-solid reasoning to me, so I was hers for the rest of the audiobook.  Kaling also narrates the audiobook, and sometimes addresses the audiobook readers directly about the audio version vs the physical version, which was also a lot of fun.

I really, really like Mindy Kaling for several reasons, and this book just gave me even more reasons to be a fan:
  • As mentioned above, she is a woman who is happy with her weight and happens to be hilarious and Indian and famous, and this is rare and applause-worthy.
  • There was a wonderful story in this book about how Mindy went to a 50 Most Beautiful People shoot of some sort, but all the dresses there were size 0s, and she is a size 8, and she went into the bathroom and cried a bit, and then realized that she is awesome, and then she went back out, made the tailor take her favorite dress and alter it by adding canvas to the back, and then she wore it for her photo shoot and OWNED it:
Source:  Time Inc.
  • She is really smart, and she tells people who read her book that it is normal to want to be smart and that going to college will get you far in life.
  • She embraces the fact that she had an awkward, dorky stage.  She was very quiet in high school, and she says that just because you are quiet and introverted in high school doesn't meant that you won't be witty and awesome later in life.
  • She just seems like a really nice person who is close to her family and forms friendships for life.
  • In the Q&A section at the back of the book, one of the questions she addresses is why she doesn't talk that much about the debate around how women aren't that funny.  She says that there isn't a debate because women are funny, and it's not worth giving that "debate" any credence whatsoever.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? didn't change my life or make me think very deeply about most things, but perhaps if you are a teenager, it will change yours.  I just find it so refreshing that Kaling is so honest and upfront about things in her life and in her past so that teenagers today don't have to think that life is supposed to be like Sweet Valley High for everyone, and that if it isn't, then you've failed.

Kaling also is super-fun to follow on Instagram.

Also, she is the new spokesperson for Google's Made With Code to get more girls into coding.  Read all about it here.  Apparently, she really is super-popular with the teenage girl set.

Seriously, I wish we had overlapping Indian social circles, but alas...  Really great book!  If you want something fun and motivating and girly and feminist, read it!

Monday, July 7, 2014

You can't always get what you want (in a reasonable amount of time)

Life is Short but Wide by J. California Cooper
J. California Cooper's Life is Short But Wide is not a book I knew anything about before I found it while scrolling through my library's digital library collection.  I'm surprised by this fact; I read Life is Short but Wide soon after reading O, Pioneers! and the two felt very similar to me.  They are both about religious women struggling to make ends meet in the west.  But while Willa Cather focused on the Scandinavian immigrant experience, J. California Cooper focused on the Black American experience.  I enjoyed both authors because they gave completely different perspectives on similar experiences.  Cather's story focused on life during the earlier part of the century; Cooper starts her story at the beginning of the century and then continues it through the early part of the 21st century.

Life is Short But Wide is a pretty awesome title.  I feel like this is probably a truism from way back in the day that I was unaware of, but I love this phrase and want to use it as Aarti's Philosophical Quote on Life.  Once you get past the title, you get to the actual story.  It's one of those multi-generational sagas that starts with one generation of graduates from the school of hard-knocks and continues on over the next three generations or so.  I am never sure how to provide plot summaries of books like this, so suffice it to say that each generation of characters we follow is interesting and different, but it's very hard to keep them straight in your head.

I really enjoyed this book because I think that westward expansion and life on the frontier in American history have been completely white-washed.  Many authors ignore the Native Americans that lived there before the American settlers arrived, and many people pretend that only white settlers went west when many more people made the trek.  J. California Cooper brings that American history to life in ways that Willa Cather didn't even try to.  Here are African-Americans who are frightened of white people, and Native Americans who are normal, not spiritual alcoholics.

This fact in and of itself makes me love Cooper as an author.  Her skill with writing about people's feelings, which is hard to do without sounding very corny or lame, also really impresses me.  And a major plot point of this book is about two people who are past middle age falling in love with each other, and I think it's glorious that she makes two elderly people the subject of a romance.  So many points in Cooper's favor!  I plan to read more by her.

This book was not perfect.  It felt really preachy, really often.  There was a conversation between one female character and a younger female character that felt more like a list of To Dos from a graduation speech than anything else.  There was also a section towards the end in which one of the characters talks about Jehovah's witnesses, and tells one of his friends (and all of us readers) just why Jehovah's witnesses are the best.  And there are many comments about the way people dress now, politics, and so much more.  This would have been fine if it was done in the service of giving us more information about a character's personality and point of view, but it usually felt like Cooper's Philosophy on Life was coming out through the mouthpiece of her characters, and it got pretty annoying.  It's not that fun to read monologues about religion in a novel.  At least, not for me.

The book also took FOREVER to get to the end.  There was a lot that happened, but from at least halfway through, we know that one character, Herman, wants a family and "something that is mine, all mine."  And then there is another character whose name just so happens to be Mine.  And yet, we literally (and I do not exaggerate) spend THIRTY YEARS waiting for these two to realize they should get together.  I mean, come on.  No wonder they are practically septuagenarians by the time their romance starts!

Also annoying - there was a voiceover narrator who had zero part in the story.  This always annoys me.  What is the point of creating a narrator with a personality and a point of view on events and all the rest, and then do nothing with that character?  Not even give us her name?  I don't get it.

 I just listed a lot of things I disliked and glossed over the parts of the book I did like.  It was a somewhat odd book, but I did enjoy it, and I plan to read more by Cooper.  However, if there is more preaching about how we should all become Jehovah's Witnesses and how women should never love anyone more than they are loved themselves in her other books, then maybe I will not read a lot more by her.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hump de (baby) bump

Expecting Better by Emily Oster
Six of my close friends are pregnant at this very moment, and I know at least four other women having children this year.  Add in the friends that already have children, and let me tell you - I hear a lot about pregnancy and babies.

To be clear, I am not pregnant.

However, pregnancy and childbirth are important milestones in many women's lives.  And honestly, when my friends talk to me about this stuff, I would like to have something to contribute to the conversation.  And if that contribution is, "Actually, studies have shown that you can eat sushi and drink wine, so let's go somewhere fun for dinner tonight.  SCIENCE!" then that is all the better for me.

Emily Oster's book Expecting Better is about all of the rules and advice and myths that surround pregnancy, and whether they are justified or not.  Oster is an economist, and when her doctor told her things like, "Don't drink coffee," she asked why.  And then she went and researched the studies that were cited as evidence so that she could make her decision about coffee for herself.  Oster emphasizes several times that she isn't trying to prove a rule right or wrong; she's trying to provide information to people so that they can make decisions for themselves instead of feeling scared or overwhelmed or guilty all the time.  As she says, information is power, and you can decide what to do with the information.

I thought the early chapters of this book were more applicable to me as a woman than the later chapters.  The later chapters were definitely focused on the birth stages, how to initiate labor, how to make a birth plan, deciding on whether to use an epidural or not, etc.  Definitely not anything that I need to know right now, though I found the information interesting and have already spouted off some facts about epidurals to a couple of friends.

The earlier chapters talk about getting pregnant, the early stages of pregnancy, and women's bodies.  There was a lot of really good information about genetic testing and a ton of information on drinking coffee and alcohol, eating sushi, managing your weight (LOTS on weight) and taking medication.

I think Oster's approach to pregnancy is one that more people should adopt.  I like how she thought critically about everything and didn't just take anything at face value.  She cited every study she looked at and said very clearly why she believed it to be valid or flawed.  She then talked readers through how she viewed the information and came to her decision, and would often give a little note about what her other pregnant friends decided after seeing the same information (often, they all made different choices, though they had the same information).  I can't imagine Oster was her gynecologist's favorite patient (and it did seem in the book as though Oster had a very tense relationship with her doctor), but I do think Oster is a great advocate for other women.

She points out that the studies are all publicly available, which is great, though I wonder if non-economists or scientists would be able to sift through which are good and which are bad.  Oster talks about sample size (which makes sense) and the null hypothesis (which I understand, but probably would not think about when reading a pregnancy study), and many other important facts that I probably would not catch because I have never done a research project before.  So, for all of us who are not PhD's, I'm glad this book exists and that Oster took the time to write it instead of just hoarding all of this important information to herself.

I read this as an audiobook, and I enjoyed the narration, though the audiobook probably could have been edited a bit.  There were a few lists of medications and symptoms and illnesses and how to treat them that I do not think were necessary in the audiobook.  Therefore, if you're pregnant and interested in this book, I recommend the physical copy - it seems to have a pretty handy appendix, and I think it would be a good reference guide for a lot of questions you might have as you go through your pregnancy.

For those who are not pregnant - the audiobook is great, and I recommend it.

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