Monday, November 24, 2014

In which I share a lot of quotes and comics in hopes of getting you to read a book

Have you ever seen a book and thought, "Ohmigosh, THIS is why scholarship exists in the world!  So that THIS PERSON could write a book on THIS TOPIC and be totally awesome?"

That's pretty much how I felt when I first heard about Jeff Chang's Who We Be:  The Colorization of America.  Seriously, if someone can spend his whole adult life being an academic who just thinks and analyzes the world all day, and then pulls all of the thoughts in his head about race and identity and multi-culturalism in America and somehow mixes that with visual arts, comics, advertising and how all of those things influence politics... then I think the world is a better place for it.

From the book description:
Race. A four-letter word. The greatest social divide in American life, a half-century ago and today.
During that time, the U.S. has seen the most dramatic demographic and cultural shifts in its history, what can be called the colorization of America. But the same nation that elected its first Black president on a wave of hope—another four-letter word—is still plunged into endless culture wars.
How do Americans see race now? How has that changed—and not changed—over the half-century? After eras framed by words like "multicultural" and "post-racial," do we see each other any more clearly?
Who We Be remixes comic strips and contemporary art, campus protests and corporate marketing campaigns, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Trayvon Martin into a powerful, unusual, and timely cultural history of the idea of racial progress.

I first heard about Who We Be on Racialicious, and then it was serendipitously, prominently displayed at the library.  So I grabbed it immediately and dropped pretty much every other thing in my life (including my new obsession Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, thank you very much, Ana).

I have noted down so many quotes from this book.  Right from the beginning, when Chang states that:
Race happens in the gap between appearance and the perception of difference. It is about what we see and what we think we see and what we think about what we see. In that sense, it's bigger than personal affinities, preferences, tastes and bonds.
and then onto why people who say "I don't see race" drive other people crazy:
...Let us act as if we had always recognized the greatness of artists we once (and still) objected to seeing. It restated the lie of color blindness: I refused to see you before because of your color, and now that you have revealed my blindness, I see you *despite* your color.
This is a densely written book.  There are many artists presented here that I don't know, references to works of art with which I am not familiar.  But much of the book is very accessible, and there are a lot of important themes that resonate throughout it.  What I mean is, it's worth the work.

Those hoping for some sort of resolution or solution will be disappointed, though.  Chang's book is a retrospective about how American has approached and reacted to race over the past several decades; it is not a treatise on how we can all live happily ever after.  In fact, Chang does more to highlight issues and inconsistencies and disturbing situations than he does anything else.

What I found particularly powerful in this book was just how politicized race has become, even as we have changed the language around race.  Clearly, being racist is now frowned upon, so instead of using loaded terminology, politicians now use the language of economics to push for or against immigration, welfare reform, the national debt, and education.

The education piece in particular spoke to me - America's schools have been undergoing a rapid resegregation even as the country becomes more and more a "majority-minority" culture.

At the risk of making this less a review than it already is, I will share here some of the quotes that really gave me "a-ha!" moments while reading:
"Johnson's dis was part of a maddening continuity.  In an earlier generation, critics had dismissed artists of color by calling their work 'identity art.'  Now that a new generation of artists of color was 'post-identity,' critics were still uninterested in the questions of race they were raising.  The world had been colorized, but the art world remained colorblind." 
"The future of America is in this question:  Will the baby boomers recognize that they have a responsibility and a personal stake in ensuring that this generation of largely Latino and African-American kids are prepared to succeed?" - Stephen Klineberg 
"In a broad 2007 study of almost 19,000 subjects, a team of scholars from Vanderbilt University found that 75 percent of white parents never or almost never discussed race or ethnicity with their children.  Some of the parents didn't think it was a big deal.  Others genuinely did not know how to talk about race so they avoided talking about it altogether.  Many of those parents ... believed teaching their children not to see race was the proper way to teach them how not to be bigoted or racist."

Who We Be also introduced me to this amazing comic strip, Wee Pals, written by Morrie Turner, which features kids of all races having open and adorable conversations about important topics.





Friday, November 21, 2014

In which I face a moral dilemma

Rat Queens
While searching for images of the comic Rat Queens online, I came across the terrible news that one of the co-creators, Roc Upchurch, was arrested for domestic violence at the end of October.  In his response to the allegations, he said that his attack was justified because she hit him first.

This is unsettling and upsetting for pretty much all the normal reasons.  But it's also hard to stomach because in Rat Queens, Roc Upchurch and Kurtis J. Wiebe created a cast of strong, no bulls*it women who approach life with a take no prisoners attitude.  So how can a man who seems to enjoy writing and drawing such amazing women also be one who seems to like to put them in their place?  It's very difficult to reconcile.

I read Rat Queens because Sharon and Andi both loved it.  And it IS a lot of fun.  It's full of swashbuckling heroines, swords for hire, lots of bar fights, and a very random cast of characters.  It's also the first comic I think I've read that probably fits most people's perception of comics (except that it features women in the main roles, so maybe not).  I admit that at first I was a little overwhelmed by all the bad language and the rest.  (To be clear, this didn't upset me because it was women swearing and doing all the rest - just because I don't usually read books that have so much of that going on.)  But the characters are so fun and the jokes so good, I got over that fast.

These four ladies are mercenaries, though.  Swords for hire.  And while fighting, they dress like this:

Rat Queens

I mean, come on.  The only one who looks remotely ready for a fight is Violet, second from the left.  And she is probably wearing knee-high stiletto boots.

Honestly, I don't know what else to say about this series.  I think it's fun to read, but I also feel like it's a lie, and that it was maybe just created because girl power is "on-trend" and that at least one of the creators doesn't really believe the message he's sending.  But maybe the other people involved really do care and want to bring great stories to life.  Should I continue reading a series written by someone who can do such horrible things and then justify them with a "she deserved it" bravado?  I don't know!  What do you do in situations like this?

Update:  Writer Kurtis Wiebe made a statement on the news and said that the series will continue on, without Roc Upchurch as illustrator.  He specifically said, "I want to write stories about women that I see in my everyday life, about friendship and to make comics that include and embrace diversity."  Sounds like a plan.  I'm on-board.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review-itas: The Not-Quite-Hits Edition

Cairo by G Willow Wilson
I really want to read G. Willow Wilson's Miss Marvel comic book series.  While looking for it on the library website, I came across this other graphic novel by her, Cairo, and decided to give that one a try while I waited.

I read Wilson's Alif the Unseen about a year ago and had mixed feelings about it.  While I liked the lead female character and the genie, and the way Wilson weaved modern religion into her story, I thought the details of the plot were pretty difficult to follow.

My feelings about Cairo are pretty much the same, even down to the genie.  Wilson converted to Islam in college, and I really appreciate the way she uses her stories to educate readers about the religion.  She shares an Islam that is respectful, peaceful, and kind.  In a world that often portrays the religion in a very negative, extreme light, I can't speak highly enough of stories that show it as progressive and welcoming.

Cairo panelThe plot, though, was still hard to follow.  Wilson seems unwilling to write "conventional" fantasy stories, which is fine, but she also seems to have trouble translating what is in her mind to paper, and so readers are left a little confused.  Or at least this reader is left confused.  Perhaps because religion is such a strong component of her stories, the aspirations are much more high-level than what I am used to and such nebulous descriptions of key components to the story make it hard to understand what's going on.

Still, I cannot wait to read Miss Marvel!


Liar Temptress Soldier Spy
One book I started but did not finish was Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, by Karen Abbott, a historical account of four women who participated in different ways in the American Civil War.

I had a vague recollection of the author's name, and when I realized that she was the author of Sin in the Second City, I had a feeling that I wouldn't love this book.  I really enjoy non-fiction, particularly history, but I feel like the events and the people are fascinating enough.  Authors don't need to add a lot of fluff to make the stories interesting.  Abbott, in my opinion, sensationalizes history a little too much.  It's very difficult to tell with her writing where the facts stop and her own hypotheses begin.  She attributes thoughts and feelings to historical figures without really providing any footnotes as to whether those are real or not.

The four women she includes in this book were spies on both sides of the war, and I'm sure they were all fascinating in their own right.  I loved that they were not limited by their sex but were willing to use other people's preconceived notions and beliefs about women to get ahead.  I would love to learn more about all four of these women, but I don't think Abbott's book is quite the right way for me to do so.  This book is much more a light beach read on the non-fiction scale, which has a lot of value in its own right, but just isn't right for me.

Also, seriously - the book is about women who did underground activities during the American Civil War.  I feel like she could have featured at least one woman of color here!  There are a couple of loyal slaves and servants mentioned who have parts to play, but I think Abbott could have put the spotlight on someone if she really wanted to.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The ups and downs of a medical family

Cutting for Stone
Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone is a novel that spans three continents, two generations, and multiple revolutions.  It's set mostly in Ethiopia and the United States, though in both countries, the majority of the action takes place in hospitals that cater to the poor.  The plot is pretty hard to summarize, so I'll share the short but sweet description from the book:

Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon. Orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. 

Moving from Addis Ababa to New York City and back again, Cutting for Stone is an unforgettable story of love and betrayal, medicine and ordinary miracles--and two brothers whose fates are forever intertwined.

Medicine is central to this novel, and there are a lot of detailed and graphic descriptions of injuries, maladies, and surgeries.  These were very difficult for me to listen to via audiobook, and I admit I fast-forwarded through many of those procedures.  It's hard to listen to a narrator speak dispassionately about incisions being made, blood pooling on the floor, and organs failing.  That said, I thought about both my father and brother while reading this book.  Both of them are physicians, and Verghese's clear knowledge of medicine, and his great empathy for patients and his obvious regard for the ethical responsibilities that doctors have towards their patients really stood out to me.  So often, now, we hear about how modern healthcare has made it difficult for physicians to connect with their patients.  They have so much paperwork to fill out, so many procedures to do, so much fear of being sued, that the relationship can often feel more combative or tense than healing.  But many doctors still care deeply for their patients.  My father has been practicing for many years now and has seen multiple generations of the same family come through his office.  It struck a chord to read a book that focused so much on the deep, lasting and positive impact that doctors have on so many lives.

I really enjoyed reading about hospital life, the camaraderie between the doctors, the responsibility to do no harm, the need to do extraordinary work with very limited resources.  I also loved some of the characters in this story, particularly Hema and Ghosh.  Hema and Ghosh adopt Marion and Shiva at birth, and the two of them are such strong, caring, and wonderful people.  I loved their marriage, which was based on such a strong foundation of friendship.  When they married, they agreed to renew their marriage contract every year, and each year, they go out celebrating and Ghosh proposes again.  The two doctors are also wonderful mentors to the twins, and the whole family interaction is great to read.

That said, I didn't much care for the two central plots of the novel - first, the mystery surrounding the Stone brothers' father, Thomas Stone; and second, the often toxic relationship between Marion and the "love of his life," Gennet.  I liked Thomas Stone, though he wasn't a character one got to know very well.  But he wasn't around that often at all, and so building an entire story around him and his abandonment was difficult to pull off.  I just didn't care about the tension between Thomas Stone and Marion Stone.  I cared more about how they both interacted with their patients.  I cared even less for the drama around Gennet, Marion's childhood friend and the girl he decided he was in love with (why, I don't know).  She was only ever described to us by Marion, and she didn't come into her own.  There was also a horrible scene in which Marion took advantage of Gennet because he saw himself as a "victim," and I just couldn't stomach it, and pretty much lost all respect for Marion after that.  He never seemed to even consider that he treated her badly, only saw how she was unkind to him.  There was no self-examination, and I hated that.  For someone that was supposed to be compassionate and kind towards those he loved and cared for, he was not at all compassionate or kind towards Gennet, only seeing her as an object for what he wanted for himself.

Overall, this book was a mixed bag for me.  While I liked the medical side of it, I didn't care much for the family drama.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Wake the Third Sleeper!!

Blue Lily, Lily Blue
Blue Lily, Lily Blue is the third book in Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Cycle series.  I got into this series after Ana, Jenny, Teresa and Memory told me about it, and now I am totally into it, too.  Every time I read a book in this series, I start out really cool and disinterested.  And then I get further in and.  I.  Just.  Can't.  Stop.

This was particularly difficult in the past as read the books on audio, so there was only so long I could sit in the car without being late for a meeting at work.  This time around, I read it as a physical book, and instead of being late for meetings, I drove super-groggily to work after staying up late at night tearing through the last 150 pages of the book.  It sucks you in the way Glendower sucks Gansey and company in, and I don't know when the next book is going to come out, but I am SO PUMPED.  (And nervous.  There are many loose ends to tie up.)

I am not going to do any sort of plot summary here because this is the third book in a four book series.  The story?  It continues.  The plot?  It advances.  The plot?  It thickens.  (Though in pretty expected ways.)

The characters?  They are amaze-balls.  I feel like in every book review, I say "Adam!!  Ronan!!"  And here, I shall continue to say, "Adam!!  Ronan!!"  I mean, Blue and Gansey are fine, but they are in this whole, "Our love is doomed!" camp and Gansey is everyone's best friend and Blue is the lone girl in the book, and while both of them are fully fleshed-out and interesting characters, I can't help but feel that they're both shallow pools compared to the depths we see in Adam and Ronan.

Adam and Ronan separately are wonderful here.  Adam really grows up, learns that friends often want to do things for him because they like him, not because they feel sorry for him.  There is this scene with his father, and then this scene in a courtroom, and both times, I just wanted to hug him.  And Ronan, for the first time in this book, seemed like someone who would maybe accept a hug from people.  And the way he works so desperately hard to keep his mom and brother safe... oh, it's so lovely!

But Adam and Ronan TOGETHER.  That is like, the best thing ever.  Seriously, when these two team up with each other, it just makes my heart happy.

Blue and Gansey - well, they are feeling all the feelings, but they don't really let that get in the way of the bigger picture.

And that's what I really love about this series.  Yes, there's a Doomed Romance that is kept secret because the two involved don't want to hurt other people (though, honestly, I don't think the others care very much).  But what's at the center of this book is the people and their relationships with each other.  Family bonds and friendship bonds more than any other kind.  I LOVE what these friends do for each other, in every way.  Not just the teenagers with each other, but the adults with each other and the adults with the children.  There are friendships on all levels and across multiple generations here, and they are all beautifully written.  I can't wait to see what happens next.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Leave the past behind you

Michele Norris' The Grace of Silence began as a book about race and America's conversation on race after Barack Obama was elected president.  Over the course of her research, Norris realized that her own family had a lot of secrets that were withheld from her growing up.  The Grace of Silence is about her discovery of these facts - her father being shot in Birmingham, Alabama after he came back from WWII; her grandmother's stint as a traveling Aunt Jemima, selling pancakes under a trademark that many still view as racist.  Norris takes us on a journey to her past - first, her time growing up in the Twin Cities, then further back to her ancestral home in the Deep South.  We get to know her parents, grandparents, and extended family, and her quest to learn more about the things no one talks about.

I am an NPR junkie.  I'm also fascinated by looking at American history (and all history) through different lenses and perspectives.  So The Grace of Silence was right up my alley.  I really enjoyed the way Norris interspersed facts about American history into her personal story.  For example, her father fought in World War II, but when he came back to the US, he still faced institutional racism and a lot of hate.  When her parents bought a house in Minneapolis, they were the first Black family in the neighborhood; nearly all of their white neighbors moved out as quickly as they could, frightened by mortgage lenders and real estate agents that their home values would plummet if they stayed.

Norris didn't spend as much time on her grandmother's story as I would have liked, probably because there wasn't a lot of information.  But I was surprised to hear about the women who traveled the Midwest (and other regions of the country), dressed up as Aunt Jemima (who resembles the "Mammy" of the antebellum South).  There aren't many records of these women because most of them worked for a regional sales force, not a centrally managed one.  And not many people are around today that would remember that period.  (And so, small pieces of history are lost.)  And Quaker Oats has struggled with how to deal with the baggage that comes from a trademark that started out looking like this:


Evolved from a caricature to a real woman, though the woman spoke in quite the dialect:


The Grace of Silence

And now is a painting that looks like this and never talks:


Norris talks about how Quaker Oats wanted a celebrity spokesperson for the brand after the last one passed away in the 1950s, one to bring Aunt Jemima forward and modernize her.  The only problem was, no one wanted to be a spokesperson for the brand any more.  It's hard to forget that racial baggage.

No one told Norris about her grandmother's early job acting as Aunt Jemima, probably because they were ashamed.  Similarly, no one ever told her about her father being shot by a policeman in Birmingham one evening.  Norris' take is that her family wanted to let go of the hate and move forward.  They didn't want her to grow up thinking that all the odds were stacked against her.  They wanted her to be what she wanted to be, without restriction.

Norris makes an interesting point.  In the US, we talk about race incessantly, often with people who look and think like us, and not often across the color barrier.  The conversations, then, don't evolve as they could because they continue to be one-sided.  Once you bring another race in, people clam up.  White people are scared that they'll be seen as racist, Blacks are afraid they'll seem angry and confrontational, and it becomes uncomfortable very quickly.

Obviously, the US has a lot of racial baggage.  But should we continue to tell white children not to trust black children, and tell black children not to trust the police, and continue on as we are?  Or should we try to stop that cycle?  Keep our negative experiences and biases to ourselves so that the next generation can grow up with a little less fear and distrust than we did?  It's a point worth considering, though obviously it runs the risk of all of us forgetting our collective history.  But as science shows us, more and more, just how similar we all are, and just how small and fragile our world is, and just how massive and varied is the universe out there, maybe it's not the worst thing to use the mindset of a global citizen, rather than one tied to any one country or region.

Lots to think about in this book.  Check it out and let me know your thoughts!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hey, 1998 called and wants its girlfriend back

Landline Rainbow Rowell
Landline is the second book by Rainbow Rowell I have read.  Similar to The Shadow Hero, it really helped get me out of my reading rut, though Landline helped me more on the audiobook front.

I read this book very quickly.  As soon as I finished it, I gave it a 5-star rating on GoodReads.  When I went to add it to LibraryThing, I went down a star to 4.  And now, as I prepare to review it, I am not entirely sure how I feel about it.  All of Rowell's best traits are present here - her wit, her humor, her realistic characters who are so lovable and flawed, and her wonderful way of bringing relationships to life in vivid, realistic ways.  And yet...

Landline is about Georgie McCool (yes, that's actually her name).  Georgie is a writer on a comedy TV show - I imagine her as a less fashionable and social media savvy Mindy Kaling - and she's just gotten her big break.  She and her best friend have been given the opportunity to write a pilot for their own show.  HUGE!  The only thing is, they have to work over Christmas to get the scripts ready, and Georgie is supposed to go to Omaha with her husband and daughters.  She and her husband, Neil, have been going through a rocky patch recently (or for the entirety of their relationship, more or less), and Georgie knows this will be a tough conversation.  It is, and Neil ends up taking their kids to Omaha while Georgie stays behind t work.  And then, when Georgie tries to call, she can never get through to Neil.  Or, at least, not to Neil now.  She is able to use her mom's landline to reach Neil 15 years ago, just before he proposed marriage to her.

There were a lot of things that I liked about this book, but many of those same aspects could be flipped and bother me, too.  Maybe this is why I don't know how to rate it.  For example:

  • The premise of mother as provider and father as nurturer is taken for granted and not even discussed, which I appreciate in that it normalizes the situation.  I love that Georgie works and doesn't really spend a lot of time talking about how bad she feels that she doesn't drive her kids home from school; in fact, she barely talks about her daughters - this book is about her marriage, not about her entire family.  
  • However, this situation really is not quite natural for most people, and there's a lot of guilt on the mom's side, at least, and while that came out a bit subconsciously with all Georgie's comments about how great a father Neil is and how much his daughters love him (would these gushing comments ever be used to describe a stay-at-home mom, I wonder?), I can't help but think that a lot of the tension in Georgie's marriage came from the fact that she worked long hours and her husband stayed at home, and as that was never dealt with, I felt like the story could have been a lot more.

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