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A love affair with reading

Updated: 2018-03-21T06:23:10.453-05:00


When Dimple Met Rishi


A month ago, I became an aunt to an adorable and winsome boy named Rishi.  Around the same time, people started telling me about the book When Dimple Met Rishi, and I thought I would read the book and then maybe give it to my sister to read and imagine a fun future for her child.When Dimple Met Rishi is about two Indian-American kids who go to an app development summer camp the summer between high school and college.  Rishi and Dimple's parents are friends and want their children to meet and get married.  Rishi is totally on-board with this, and he goes to Insomnia-con just to meet Dimple and propose (with his grandmother's ring, no less).  Dimple has no idea; she's at Insomnia-con to develop an app to help people deal with diabetes.  They meet, Rishi basically proposes, and Dimple freaks out.  But then they get to know each other, and Dimple realizes that he's not all bad. In general, I veer away from young adult romance because I find it too angsty and dramatic.  I would never want to return to the period of my life when I was an overly-dramatic teenager, and it is hard for me to read books centered on characters at that age without rolling my eyes multiple times.But I also grew up Indian-American, and I love that this book exists.  There's an Indian girl on the cover, there are Hindi words in the text, there are Indian narrators on the audiobook (who pronounce all the names and words correctly!!!).  All of these things are so great.  It is like the YA romance version of Hasan Minhaj's Netflix special.  I also appreciate that in this book, it's Dimple who is ambitious and driven and totally into being a techie, with big dreams on how to make it happen.  And that Rishi loves art but feels like he needs to go to engineering school to make his parents happy.Much about this book rings true, as someone who grew up here to Indian parents.  One of my favorite parts, a tiny detail, was when Rishi explained to Dimple's friend that he speaks Hindi, but that he speaks a version of Hindi that is from Mumbai, where locals speak Marathi.  And his parents went to Mumbai from elsewhere, as did many other people, and so the Hindi they speak is not often understood outside of Mumbai.  This is so 100% true.  My parents grew up in Bangalore, which is a Kannada-speaking city.  But their families are both originally from Andhra, which is Telugu-speaking.  But so many people from Andhra go to Bangalore that the version of Telugu they all speak is completely different than the Telugu spoken in Andhra.  It's a small detail, but many Indian people live through it, and I loved that it somehow made its way into this book.I also appreciate that the author, Sandhya Menon, made cultural pride and knowledge such a positive thing in this book.  Rishi in particular is very well-versed in his heritage and has no embarrassment at all about fully embracing it.  I think that is a really great lesson.But there were also many things in this book that bothered me.  Putting aside my general annoyance with young adult romance (and this book had many of those same tropes and bothers), there were things that just were too much for me.  Granted, I am 100% sure that I would notice these and judge these more as an Indian than probably other people would.  But they still grated.For example, Rishi.  He's this really perfect guy.  He's extremely rich and goes to private school with other rich kids, but somehow he's not spoiled or bratty or entitled, even though all the other rich kids in this book totally are.  This is never explained.  Also, he is really smart and funny and kind.  And he is an AMAZING artist who tells his dad that his "brain just doesn't work the same way" as an engineer's brain does.  But... he somehow managed to get accepted to MIT, anyway, and is going there to major in computer engineering.  Because THAT's an easy thing to just swing.  Also, as a 17-year-old, he just shows up somewhere with[...]

Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid


I have read and enjoyed a few of Mohsin Hamid's novels on audiobook, and Exit West was no exception.  The spare, sparse writing style that somehow builds to create beautiful, moving stories is present once more.  Exit West is a novel about refugees and the impact of global migration on both the individuals and the world at large, and it's absolutely excellent.Saeed and Nadia meet in an unnamed city, in an unnamed country.  They become friends and fall in love, slowly and then hurriedly, as war overtakes their lives.  They escape to Mykonos, and then to London, and then to San Francisco, through magical doorways that open up to people who can pay the price of entry.Some people may be upset that Hamid reduces the entire exhausting, painful journey from a country in crisis to a country of refuge to the simple act of stepping through a doorway.  After all, the decision to leave home is difficult, and then the trip from one place to another is often dangerous and horrible.  But Hamid is not as interested in the process of becoming a refugee as on the impacts of being a refugee, or the impact of living in a world in which huge numbers of people migrate based on crises.  Thus, Saeed and Nadia step over an edge and escape the physicality of their city, but they don't escape much else.Exit West is an obviously timely novel in that it is about refugees.  But timeliness in a story doesn't really matter if it doesn't stick; and in a story about refugees, it doesn't stick if it doesn't haunt you.  I don't know if haunt is even the right word, but it is very difficult to read this novel without being just as consumed by the "what ifs?" as the characters are.  What if I had never left?  What if I brought my father with me?  What if I had never met the person I escaped with?  What if we escaped somewhere else?  What would my life be like if war had never happened?  What would I be like if war had never happened?  It's impossible to know and equally impossible not to speculate.Nadia is a confident, independent woman who adopts Saeed's family as her own and then has trouble removing herself from it.  Saeed is an introspective, kind man who turns more and more to religion as he loses control of the trajectory of his life.  They begin the story with so much promise and love and kindness for each other, but the stress of their lives causes both of them to draw back and recede from the other, to seek out friendship and understanding from others.But there are other ways that people are impacted by the refugee crisis, and Hamid gives us brief snapshots of these lives before pulling away again.  We see two old men fall in love over a piece of art.  We see a man remake his life after contemplating suicide.  We see, terrifyingly, a man follow two young women down the street as he strokes the knife in his pocket.Exit West shows us how global migration can result in changes both profound and minimal to individuals, societies, and geographies.  I loved how personal this story felt, from both Saeed's and Nadia's perspectives, and yet how easy it was to see just how much crises in completely foreign places can change people's behaviors here and everywhere.  Definitely a book to read when you want to remind yourself of how important it is to remember that people are individuals, not statistics.Copyright ©2005-2016 Aarti at BookLust. This post was originally posted by Aarti at BookLust. It should not be reproduced without express written permission.[...]

Sea of Poppies


Here, she said, taste it.  It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship.  It is the planet that rules our destiny.- Deeti, describing a poppy seedI have had Amitav Ghosh' Sea of Poppies on my radar since it was published.  It's the first book in a trilogy centered on a ship, the Ibis.  In the first book, the Ibis is transitioning from its previous life as a slave transporting vessel to one that transports coolies and opium.  It begins its journey on the Ganges River in India, and then sets out on an ocean voyage with an amazingly rich cast of characters on board.I loved this book.  I am in absolute awe at the breadth and depth that is encompassed within its pages, and I am so excited to read the next two books in the series to see just how much more Ghosh has to share with me.  There are some authors who truly astonish me with just how much they can pack into their pages - character development, plot advancement, social commentary, historical accuracy.  It's books like this one that make reading a continued delight.Sea of Poppies is set just at the start of the first Opium War.  We don't learn much about the Opium Wars in the west (or at least not in the United States), so it was fascinating to learn more about a period that had such a massive impact on the world (and was a cause of World War I).  The British Empire reeeeeeeally wanted China to open up to global trade, but the Chinese did not want to.  This angered the British, and thus, Opium Wars.  China was forced to cede Hong Kong and open up ports to global trade, and the British got to sell their stuff to more people.  They also got access to indentured laborers (coolies) from Asia and South Asia since slavery was no longer an option for them.Thus, Sea of Poppies is set just as globalization and imperialism really get their groove on, and the scope of this book is absolutely immense because of that.  There are Indian farmers who are forced to grow poppies instead of food, and fall into debt.  There is a mixed race American man trying to make his way in the world.  There are pirates and merchant marines.  There's an Indian raja who is humiliated by debt to the English, stripped of his title and wealth, and forced to go abroad as an indentured servant.  There are, of course, the English, raking in great wealth and secure in their vision of bringing civilization to India and China.  And there's more.  The characters in this book are fantastic.And those characters speak in a gloriously rich variety of languages.  Honestly, this is where Ghosh's comedic genius really sparkles.  Obviously, a book centered on a former slave ship that now transports opium can have many dark and depressing moments.  But the way Ghosh uses language and shows how so many disparate languages can be combined and influence each other is so great.  It took me a little while to understand some of the English spellings and mispronunciations of the Hindi words, but once I did, I usually smiled or laughed to myself.  They were nice little Easter eggs for people who have some understanding of Indian language.  I myself do not know Hindi, but am familiar enough with common words and names to have caught on.  It was so well-done, and the book includes a glossary at the back for many of the words, too.And with all of THAT happening, Ghosh doesn't ever lose sight of telling a fantastic story.  Here is a very compelling tale about the wide-ranging impact of colonialism and imperialism, related through extremely personal stories.  I loved that we get to know not only about how the Indian ruling class lost so much of its power and prestige to the British, but also get to learn about the farmers who suffered and the enterprising middle-class professionals who cashed out.  I was thoroughly engrossed in learning more about how Hinduism was practiced in the 19th century, the[...]

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie - A Tale of Love and Fallout


Lauren Redniss' Radioactive:  Marie & Pierre Curie - A Tale of Love and Fallout is a beautiful book.  It is beautiful because of the amazingly subtle artwork that implies more than it compels, because of the process used to create that artwork, because of the typeface the author created herself based on manuscripts she saw at the New York Public Library, because of the archives and research Redniss delved into and included in the book to make it both very informative and intensely personal.

Redniss' book is different than many other graphic novels.  It's not structured in panels, but in full page illustrations, sometimes accompanied by dense, descriptive text.  It includes many types of artwork, from cyanotype printing (used to achieve a look similar to a radioactive glow), photos, grave rubbings, sketches, and more.  There is a Chernobyl Situational Map and photos of mutant flowers.  It's absolutely stunning.

Radioactive is described as the story of Marie & Pierre Curie, but that's more of a starting point than the arc of the whole story.  Pierre & Marie Curie's partnership was hugely productive, but Marie lived a full life after her husband's untimely death (including earning herself a second Nobel Prize).  She raised seriously amazing scientist children and inspired other scientists and changed the world.

She slept with a bottle of lightly glowing radium next to her bed.  Her clothes and skin glowed.  She had an affair with her husband's former student.  She won two Nobel Prizes.  During World War I, she made France mobile X-labs.  She died a slow, painful death due to radiation exposure, working to the last as she described her "crisis and pus."

Redniss used Marie Curie's life as the centerpoint of her web, but she goes well beyond the lives of the Curies to describe just how much her work has inspired and influenced other people and how much it has impacted the world.  Her work helped develop chemotherapy, treatment still used by cancer treatments today.  Conversely, it led to significant work on the development of the atomic bomb.  Many people in the world became ill or died due to their work with radium; others were inspired by it to study science.

I admit that sometimes this book could be hard for me to follow, and sometimes I had difficulty finding the thread between the Curie storyline and others.  But I really, really enjoyed this book.  The artwork is stunning, almost hypnotic.  Curie's life is fascinating, her work ground-breaking.  And it was so inspiring to read about all these truly amazing women.

The Best We Could Do


Sometimes I'll Google phrases like "best diverse comic books" and come across titles I've never heard of, such as this gem by Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do.  Thi Bui was born in Vietnam and left the country with her family as a refugee during the war.  They eventually made it to the United States, where Bui met her husband and they started a family.  While raising her son, Bui reflected upon her relationships with her own parents and how little she knew about their lives before she entered the world.  This graphic memoir is her attempt to tell their story and her own, and it's a beautiful one.As I get older, it becomes more and more clear to me that my parents are human, and that they are humans who age.  As I see my friends with their (still quite young) children, I can also see just how exhausting parenthood can be.  There are few relationships in life that can remain as inherently selfish and self-absorbed as that of a child towards its parent.  Even now, as an adult who is capable of doing adult things like cooking her own dinner and doing her own laundry, every time I go to my parents' house, I regress 100% and expect there to be food waiting for me when I arrive, and food ready for me to take back with me when I leave.  I call my dad and complain of medical symptoms so that he will call in prescriptions for me.  I call my mom and ask if she'll come over to oversee work on my house so that I don't have to take a day off of work.Bui reflects upon this as she takes care of her son and compares her childhood to those of her parents' and her son's.  Her parents came of age in vastly different circumstances; they met in college, got married, and then their world imploded.  They raised children in the midst of war, and then left the country on a boat (while Bui's mother was eight months pregnant) to get to Malaysia.  They arrived in America, still chased by their personal demons, and raised a family the best way they knew how.  Bui struggled with her relationship with her parents, particularly her father, and only began to understand why when she learned more about their childhoods.  The empathy that comes through in the way she describes her family history is so moving, and the title of the book works so well.  Her parents weren't perfect, and they made mistakes.  But they did the best they could do, and their children grew up with better lives, and their grandchildren grow up with even better ones.The Best We Could Do is a beautiful story, particularly at this time when so much of the world is turning away refugees.  Accepting refugees not only changes the lives of the refugees, but of generations to come.  The book is also a truly heartfelt memoir about family and the deep love that you can have for people you don't always understand and who are far from perfect.Copyright ©2005-2016 Aarti at BookLust. This post was originally posted by Aarti at BookLust. It should not be reproduced without express written permission.[...]

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes


I have lived my whole life by the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Michigan.  I love the vastness of these waters, like interior freshwater oceans.  I grew up visiting the beaches and now walk along the waterfront quite regularly; I live only a mile away from the shore.  So as soon as I heard about Dan Egan's book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, I knew I would read it.  I don't think I realized just how depressing and stressful the book would be, though.  (That said, it ends on a semi-happy note!)The Great Lakes were a bastion of glorious fresh water and bountiful fish for many, many years.  They were difficult to navigate, so they were mostly protected and allowed to grow and thrive as they wanted.  And then the St. Lawrence Seaway was built and things have been going downhill since then.The lakes have been under attack by invasive species constantly since then.  The first attack by these really, really scary looking sea lampreys, which are basically blood-sucking eels that came from the Atlantic Ocean and attacked our poor, unsuspecting lake fish.  I do not recommend googling images of the sea lamprey because it is not something you'll be able to get out of your head any time soon.  It is ghastly and will likely show up in a nightmare.Luckily, with some great work (that still continues to this day, at a cost), scientists were able to get the sea lamprey population way down by finding a poison that worked on them and only them.  BUT THEN, someone came back to Michigan from out west and was like, "What the Great Lakes need are sporting fish, not boring fish!" and so then he imported salmon to the lakes and then brought a bunch of species for those salmon to eat, and AGAIN the native fish populations dwindled.  (But recreation on the lakes SOARED into a very lucrative industry.)  And people were happy but the lakes were not really a great place.  AND THEN came the mussels, the true villains of our story (and the villains of lake stories all over the country, I think).  And they ate all the phytoplankton and starved out the salmon and the other fish, and there is NO GETTING RID OF THEM.  Really, I heard a Science Friday podcast with Dan Egan and some other scientists recently, and they were basically like, "Hopefully something will come and solve the mussel problem, but it's not likely to be humans."  Because there are just trillions of them.  If you were to drain the lakes, they would be full of these quagga mussels, cleaning the water and eating all the food and being complete menaces. Also, asian carp has infested the Chicago River and is likely to already be in Lake Michigan and who knows what will happen then.Suffice it to say, things do not look great for the Great Lakes.  Not only are there the many invasive species, but the lakes are bordered by eight different states, and two countries, and they have all these river tributaries, and people travel from the lakes to other parts of the countries, and the EPA seems to really not care that much about the lakes (to an appalling degree, really), and Chicagoans really want to keep taking from the lakes without giving a lot back, and the fishing industry really wants the salmon back, and other groups really want the trout and perch back, and it is very disheartening to read about.  Very important and fascinating, but fairly disheartening.  People can understand a forest fire or can see glaciers receding, but they don't care nearly as much about things happening underwater.  They don't understand just how different the lakes are now than they were 50 years ago, or 100 years ago.  There has been an incalculable loss to the whole world, and we seem not to notice.Egan goes into excellent detail not only about the many rounds of invasive species in the lakes, but also about the people who depend on the lakes but also hurt the[...]

Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine


There are a few times in her book Testosterone Rex in which Cordelia Fine self-deprecatingly talks about how, when she introduces herself to people, she is always saddened by the fact that she is not immediately surrounded by fangirls and fanboys who carry copies of her book around and want her to autograph it right then and there.I admit that I don't carry Fine's Delusions of Gender around with me, but I am a HUGE fan of the book, and I'm pretty sure that if I were ever to meet Fine in person, I would be a total fangirl and absolutely ask to take a photo with her and all sorts of other things.SO NOW YOU KNOW, CORDELIA - you are just meeting the wrong people.  You have LOADS of fans who love you and your work.I was pretty excited to learn that Fine had a new book out, this one about how people assume that testosterone is a hormone that creates vast differences between men and women (besides the private bits), and that it can explain a lot of things about human and animal behavior, from risk-taking to spreading the seed to being successful at work.  And, as she does, Fine shoots all of these assumptions down using science.The book clocks in at less than 200 pages before the footnotes, so it's not long, but there's a LOT packed into its pages.  I don't remember this happening at all while I read Delusions of Gender, but I admit that reading all these details about the sex habits of fish and insects was a little trying for me.  I didn't love every page of this book the way I loved every page of Delusions of Gender, but I do think the pay-off for this book is really just as good!  Just know that I skimmed some parts of it.Fine makes a lot of great points, and some of them really resonated with me.  For example, she talks about risk-taking and how studies have shown that men are more likely to take risks than women are.  Then she totally breaks apart this whole thing, and it was amazing.  FIRST, she says that when you separate people by ethnicity, it is actually mostly just white men who feel the world is super-safe and therefore are quite willing to take risks.  And, within that subset, it was white men who were "well educated, rich, and politically conservative, as well as more trusting of institutions and authorities, and opposed to a "power to the people" view of the world..."Who would have thought?  The people with the most privilege are the ones most likely to take "risks," possibly because they are the least likely to lose. Fine goes on to state that people view risks very differently, and someone may consider one thing quite risky and something else quite safe.  For example, a skydiver could be very conservative with his money, and a Wall Street speculator could drive a Volvo.  It's the individual's perception of the risk that is important, not a general idea of what is risky and what is not.A salient point to bring those two facts together?  "When asked about the risks to human health, safety, or prosperity arising from high tax rates for business, now it was the women's and minority men's turn to be sanguine."  (Ah, so rich white men were very worried about the risks that would come with taxing business, whereas the people who would more likely benefit from taking that risk were not so worried!)  Basically, people of both genders and all races take risks all the time, it is just that we seem to value some actions as being more risky (skydiving) than others (accepting a job at a company where that you will be the only woman, surrounded by bros).Cordelia Fine is one of those people with so much glorious righteous anger PLUS a fantastic sense of humor that you kind of want her to fight all your battles for you.  She shares a story about how she went to a school sale and some woman was selling plastic knives, and made a point to say the girl could have a pink knife,[...]

Rita Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer


(image) I first heard about the book One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia, on Ana's blog in 2014.  Me being me, I read the book in 2017.  So I'm a little late to the party, but the party is still excellent!

One Crazy Summer is set during the summer of 1968.  Delphine and her sisters are shipped from their home with their father and grandmother in Brooklyn, New York to stay with their mother (who emphatically did not want them) in Oakland, California.  Their mother, Cecile, is pretty eccentric and hands-off, so Delphine and her sisters spend much of their time in a summer camp run by the Black Panthers, learning about civil rights, strength, and unity. 

Williams-Garcia's note at the end of the book emphasized that there were children also involved in the fight for civil rights, and this book is a brilliant way of showing that involvement.  It's also about as complex as a children's novel can be about familial baggage. Cecile left her family and took off for the other side of the country.  She isn't motherly or very caring at all in the book, to the extent that the resolution at the end felt a little forced to me.  But as an adult reading the book, it's easy to empathize with her and her desire to make her own choices and live her own life.  Serious kudos to Williams-Garcia for making Cecile a complex, complete person with her own struggles and motivations, some of which are unrelated to her role as a wife or mother or caregiver.

And Delphine and her sisters are wonderful.  I loved the way they stick together and then bicker and then come together again.  I love how they all know each other so well but continue to surprise and challenge each other.  I love that they all just got up and went to San Francisco together for a day on their own.  I loved the sweetness of Delphine letting herself go one moment to scream with joy as she goes down a big hill, instead of always being the grown-up.

One of my favorite things about this book is the way it portrayed the Black Panthers.  This is not the paramilitary, extremist organization that many people learn about in school.  It's one that provided free meals in neighborhoods and organized summer camps that taught children that they were important and valued.

 I read this book for a bit of lighthearted fun after so many heavy, difficult books over the past few months.  It was so easy to read and so lovely, but it certainly has depth and more heart and kindness than you would expect in such a slim, quick read.  I can't wait to continue the series!

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic


I read Sam Quinones' Dreamland:  The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic for a new book club I'm joining.  I have had it on my radar since it came out, but I admit that I was wary of reading it.  I've read a lot about the trials and tribulations facing America's rural and forgotten towns and cities since the election, and I no longer want to read about them in a vacuum.  I would rather read about the country as a whole, finding ways to work together.  I am sick of reading about how every single group feels forgotten and left behind (well, mostly how one group feels left behind just because everyone else is starting to catch up).What I wanted from Dreamland was a meaty account of the way our country has approached drugs from the past to the present, from procurement to addiction to prosecution to rehabilitation.  I wanted Quinones to look frankly at how drug use and abuse channels into our prison system, but he didn't really touch that at all.  And, honestly, he never implied that he was going to touch it.  The book is about the opiate epidemic, and about how it became an epidemic.  It is not about our law enforcement or prison system.  It is about the drug, what it does to you, and how it became so easy for so many people to get addicted to it.Which is an important story to tell, absolutely.  But did not feel that different to me than other stories about how drugs come into the country and get people hooked.  And so the story felt fairly repetitive and even within the book, it felt repetitive.The book also made me feel uncomfortable.  The premise of the book is basically that white, suburban, and fairly well-off Americans are addicted to opiates, and the fact that it's people from "good families" that are addicted that this is a story worth telling.  The phrase "good families" is used multiple times.  The flip side of this, of course, is that people who are not white or suburban or rich but become addicted to drugs are somehow less.  That even within addiction, there is a hierarchy, and these opiate addicts are at the top.  This was particularly frustrating because all of these white people seemed to hardly ever go to prison, or if they went to prison, they soon got out, and then they were at it again.  They seemed to get so many chances whereas many other people who did less never get out.  Quinones never even hints at this disparity. Most of the "black tar heroin" that people graduate to from prescription painkillers comes from dealers that connect back to a small town in Mexico, Xalisco.  Quinones details their operation in  great detail (fairly repetitively), talking about how the key difference in their approach is to deal with heroin like a business that grows quickly, stretching across America.  They value product integrity and quality, just-in-time inventory, and customer satisfaction.  They work hard to keep their clients (meaning they work hard to ensure no one tries too hard to get clean), and they have a very vast, complicated network.  They are also very polite and well-behaved and don't ever use.  So they aren't like most drug dealers, who are also addicts.  They're just there for the money, and then they want to go home to Mexico and live better lives.  They want to take care of their families and impress their neighbors.  That's why they come to America.The dealers also don't ever sell to black people.  They only sell to whites.  That's part of the reason why they target the smaller towns and suburbs, not the cities.  They don't go anywhere too white, because they need an immigrant population to blend into.  But they also don't go anywhere near black people.  This is stated unambiguously, and again, Quinones does not go into [...]

A Closed and Common Orbit


Last year, I dipped my toes into (feminist, multicultural) science fiction at the behest of a very close friend, and this year, I am jumping straight in.  One of my favorite sci fi novels of 2016 was Becky Chambers' The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, mostly because it made me realize that science fiction can be kind and funny and optimistic and deeply moving.A Closed and Common Orbit is the sequel/companion novel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and I prefer the sequel to the original, though the original is pretty great, too.  I think I just generally prefer stories that are more in-depth in exploring the feelings and motivations of one or two people vs those of many people.  A Closed and Common Orbit focuses on two characters whose paths mirror each other's, and I really enjoyed that.The book has two parallel plots.  The first is around Sidra, a sentient AI who finds herself, suddenly, in a very limiting human body and has to learn how to make her way in a multicultural society with only the help of a few very kind friends.  The second is around Jane, a lonely girl who escapes life as a factory drudge and has to find a way to make a life for herself, with only the help of one very kind AI, who helps her navigate life.I almost never want to share the plot points of science fiction or fantasy novels because I think people get caught up in the science or the magic aspects and ignore the greater message.  This book is not about robots coming to take your job or the risks of automation.  It is a deeply moving novel about defining yourself and what you stand for, when you have very few models of what to do to work from.  It's about how terrifying it can be to make yourself vulnerable to another person, and how absolutely wonderful and comforting friendship and trust are.  About how it's good to depend on yourself but also really, really great to trust someone else enough to depend on them, too.I loved so many things about this book, but one of the biggest things is the way that Chambers allows her characters to test each other and gives them space to question and grow.  For example, Sidra challenges a friend about her body, and how she is not defined by or tied to one body.  Her friend confesses that it is hard to admit, but that it is also a lot harder to feel empathy for an AI in a spaceship vs an AI in a human costume.  Sidra is unhappy to hear this, and says so.  Her friend feels safe enough to ask more questions and come to a more nuanced view over time.  It really hits home on the importance of having a diverse group of friends with whom you can discuss important topics.I also can't emphasize enough how glorious it is to read a book that has a generally optimistic setting.  Jane's setting is less rosy than Sidra's, but Jane has love and kindness in her life.  She's a nice person.  Sidra, too, never feels unsafe because of people being unsavory; she feels unsafe because she is a stranger in a strange land.  In general, Chambers' book is about how varied and wonderful multiculturalism can be.  It's not a perfect universe, but it's one that is trying.  And that is just so refreshing!  I stayed up very much past my bedtime to finish this one because I just couldn't put it down.  I really, really enjoyed it.  And if you'd like to try science fiction but aren't sure where to start, I think Becky Chambers is an excellent introduction to the genre!Copyright ©2005-2016 Aarti at BookLust. This post was originally posted by Aarti at BookLust. It should not be reproduced without express written permission.[...]

Trevor Noah's Born a Crime


I don't watch The Daily Show very often, mostly because I don't watch TV all that often.  I didn't know much at all about Trevor Noah when he took over after Jon Stewart left.  I have only watched a few episodes since then, and Noah's style is very different.  He's much less angry, more willing to seek common ground.  That's not to say that Jon Stewart was too jaded for his job, but you could see it wear on him, every day talking about important topics but not seeming to make any real difference.I became interested in reading Trevor Noah's memoir, Born a Crime, after listening to some interviews with him when the book came out.  I liked many of the things he said, and the very genuine way in which he said them.  He does want to connect with people and find the many ways in which we are alike and can share moments and experiences vs harping on details that can tear us apart.  I appreciate this kindness and empathy in him, particularly as he is someone who works in comedy and late night and news media that depends on ratings.Noah's book is about his childhood and early adulthood in South Africa.  It's not exhaustive; there are clearly some episodes that are quite painful and he does not dwell on those.  It is more episodic in nature; the only people we get to know well and who feature prominently through the entire book are Trevor and his mother.  Noah's mother seems like an amazing woman.  She is deeply religious, and Trevor grew up going to multiple churches multiple days a week.  She is also fiercely independent.  She chose to live on her own in a dangerous city and have a mixed race child out of wedlock while living under apartheid.  She raised him to believe that he could do anything.  She worked and worked and worked, and when she married someone, she married an abusive alcoholic and the police never once helped to keep her safe.Honestly, having read this book, the only word I can possibly use to describe Trevor Noah and his mom is resilient.  Noah grew up in a very, very difficult environment.  His family was extremely poor, he often went hungry, he was a mixed race kid in a country that was obsessed with race, and there seemed to be very little stability in his life.  And yet he seems never to have lost his kindness and gentleness.  This book makes me want to watch The Daily Show because I want to support empathy.  It makes me respect religion and deeply religious people more because when religion is done right, it really can make people strive to become better, kinder versions of themselves.I don't think I finished this book knowing Trevor Noah any better than I did going into it.  I understand his background and his life better, but I do think he holds the reader just a little bit away.  I think he has a lot of painful memories, and I don't think he wants to revisit them or dwell on them too deeply.  Instead, he writes about events that shaped his thinking and who he became.  He talks about the help he received and how grateful he is for that help and acknowledges that a lot of people don't get help.  He talks about his mother and the moment he realized that women are often much more vulnerable than men in a situation.  He talks about the time he realized that the police aren't always great people, that they are human and come into situations with their own histories and biases. And through it all, he shows readers (as kindly and diplomatically as possible) why he believes what he believes. A quote that exemplifies what I am trying to explain above about Noah's approach:People love to say, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime."  [...]

Rolling Blackouts, by Sarah Glidden


I heard about Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts:  Displatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq on NPR's Book Concierge.  Glidden traveled to the Middle East with some friends who work as independent journalists.  They spent several weeks talking to displaced Iraqis and other individuals and trying to think of ways to pitch stories to news organizations back home.  They work on two main stories - one about Dan, an Iraqi veteran who is returning to the region for the first time and wants to talk to Iraqis who lived through the war, and one about Sam, an Iraqi refugee who found his way to Seattle with his family, somehow ended up in the 9/11 Commission report, and was deported back to Iraq.Much of Glidden's story, though, focuses on her journalist friends, and the work they do.  It's no secret that news organizations have significantly reduced their foreign staff, and that reporting has suffered as a result.  There are very few reporters abroad with long-term contacts, and so they cannot report on longer-term, slower burn stories.  We understand the world less because of it.  Governments are more corrupt because of it.  Reporters are less safe because of it.  We are all less accountable to each other, from individuals to governments to multi-national corporations, because of it.Glidden's book highlights some of this loss to us.  She shows us an Iraq that suffered through war but still has culture, friendship, delicious food, and beauty.  Some Iraqis are happy that Americans came, mostly because they suffered deeply under Saddam Hussein.  Others hate Americans for ruining their way of life.  I really enjoyed the way Glidden's friends shared stories of Iraqis in multiple countries to provide a broader perspective.  I also liked the way Glidden used light, bright colors in her art to humanize the experience of so many people whose lives have been upended so completely.  Not only the Iraqi refugees themselves, but the lives of the Turks and Syrians as well.It was particularly chilling to read the Syrian section of this book, as I was reading it while the US bombed Syria after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.  The book is set some years ago, I think before the full horrors of the Syrian war.  Now I realize just how much the world missed by not having reporters in Syria to cover Assad, so that it felt as though the whole war came out of nowhere.  (At least, it felt that way to me.  No doubt others were better informed.)I was less enamored with the story around Dan, the Iraqi war veteran.  I feel like his return to Iraq and his opacity in sharing his feelings and whether his feelings about the war and his participation in it took up an outsize amount of the story.  In a way, it felt very "Yes, of course, focus on the white guy's story because that would be the most compelling to everyone."  I don't think that is fair to Glidden's reporter friends, but it seemed like Glidden wanted to focus the most on that story.  She even ends that story arc quite dramatically, with something like, "Sarah never interviewed Dan again" as the only words on a whole page.  Which makes it sound like either Sarah or Dan died, but neither of them did, and they continued to stay friends and talk to each other, she just didn't interview him again about the war.That aside, though, I really appreciated Glidden's book and her focus on how journalists make decisions on stories, angles, ethics, and so many other things.  It was very illuminating, and I highly recommend seeking it out if you enjoy Joe Sacco's work or Brooke Gladstone's The Influencing Machine.  (Teresa, I'm looking at you!)Copyright ©2005-2016 Aarti a[...]

Whatever happened to interracial love?


I heard about Kathleen Collins and her collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, in the New York Times Book Review, where I get many of my reading recommendations (and which has gotten better at reviewing books by people who are not white and male).  Kathleen Collins was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but most of her artistic work (films, plays, short stories) was produced in the 1980s.  Her short stories were, for the most part, never published.  Her daughter discovered them in a trunk.It's always hard to judge artistic talent by stories left unpublished in a trunk, mainly because it's hard to know if these stories were complete or if the author still wanted to work on them.  But the romance of the whole situation is just too much to pass up!  Undiscovered author!  A trunk!  The perfect cultural moment!  Stories on race, gender, sexuality!  It's a lot of awesomeness.  If it could happen for Emily Dickinson, can't it happen for other people, too?I think it can, sometimes.  But sometimes the collection can also be pretty inconsistent.  I think that's true for Kathleen Collins.  There is so much wit in her stories, so much that speaks to how fascinating and vibrant she must have been, how much fun she must have been to talk to.  But there are other stories that feel unrefined or directionless.  Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is more a collection of what was great potential, lost too early (Collins died of cancer in 1988 at age 46). The stories are mainly pretty short, and race is alluded to in almost all of them.  One story is told from the point of view of a man describing the perfect family, a close-knit unit that was beautiful, intelligent, and got along well.  But then cracks start to show, and it turns out the family's future is not nearly as happy as one would hope.  In another, a woman loyally sends letters and gifts to her husband in prison.  When he gets out and moves to a foreign country (without her), she finds peace in a small, rural home and some new friends.  In "The Uncle," the narrator relates the story of his uncle, who is ill and whom many describe as lazy for his whole life.  But the narrator, upon reflection, thinks that his uncle was a hero, just for surviving..But his weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth brimmed potent to overflowing in the room, and I began to weep for him, weep tears of pride and joy that he should have so soaked his life in sorrow and gone back to some ancient ritual beyond the blunt humiliation of his skin, with its bound-and-sealed possibilities; so refused to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended, some stumbling block put in his way for the sake of trial and endurance; so refused to strike out against it, go down in a blaze of responsibilities met and struggled with.  No.  He utterly honored his sorrow, gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping that it seemed as I stood there he was the bravest man I had ever known.There was silver and gold in all the stories collected here, even if all of them didn't stick with me.  So much about how difficult life can be when people expect so little of you, or treat you like you are less than what you know yourself to be.  So much about the struggle to understand your parents or your children, about competing priorities for different generations and what they decide is worth fighting for.  It's a lovely collection and well worth seeking out.  Not only because it's amazing to discover the unknown work of a feminist civil rights cultural icon, but because the stories are quite good, too.Copyright ©2005[...]

Women Culture and Politics


Women Culture and Politics is the first Angela Y Davis book I've ever read.  For those of you who may not know, Angela Davis is a hugely influential feminist communist activist.  She was very active in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, fought hard against Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California and when he was president, and continues to serve as a voice of resistance and strength.Women Culture and Politics is a collection of Davis' essays and speeches from the 1980s and 1990s.  I am not sure if it is the best book to start with, but I think this is mostly due to the format.  I admit that my grasp of history from the 1980s and 1990s is not quite as extensive as I would like, and Davis' essays are very much commentary on the times.  I wish that there was an introduction to the collection as a whole or to each specific essay so that I had a better grasp and understanding of the context in which she was writing the essay or delivering the speech.  That would have helped me a lot to fully understand Davis' points.[Side note:  That said, I really need to learn more about the entire Reagan presidency.  Does anyone have a book they recommend for that?  I feel like Reagan comes up a LOT these days, and I would like to understand more of our history with Russia and Latin America and all the rest.  So, please let me know if there is any book you think would be a good one to get some background!]While some of the context of Davis' points was lost on me, a concerning number of points were still very relevant.  I suppose in the grand scheme of things, 30 years is not so long a time in which to make real change in society.  But it still feels depressing. One thing Davis talked about in her essays comes up a lot in liberal discussion these days.  And that is identity politics.  I have been very up and down on identity politics and the impact of identity politics on our election and on the way people describe themselves now.  I 100% believe that people should feel comfortable being their truest, best selves, and that they should feel safe enough to be open about who they are.  But I also can feel exhausted by the number of identifiers everyone feels the need to use these days.  And I am very concerned by the way identity politics has led to white nationalism and supremacy.  Davis' approach to this is that everyone should come together. "...we must begin to merge that double legacy in order to create a single continuum, one that solidly represents the aspirations of all women in our society.  We must begin to create a revolutionary, multiracial women's movement that seriously addresses the main issues affecting poor and working-class women."This comes up again and again in Davis' writing, this idea that rich, white women seem to fight a completely different battle than working class women of color, and that they often forget to fight for the rights of people who are not as well off as they are.  This is still relevant today, and it came up a lot with the Women's March on Washington and it continues to come up with women's rights now when we talk about Planned Parenthood (which we seem to talk about all the time).  It continues now as people obsess over the rural white vote.  I feel like there must be a way to talk about the issues in ways that are less divisive but that doesn't make people feel left behind.  But do we all just jump too quickly now to take offense, to say, "What about me?  You mentioned everyone's suffering but mine!"  And instead of giving a person the opportunity to go back and consider and grow, we assume the worst and sh[...]

The Association of Small Bombs


Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs is one of those books that is very popular with critics.  It's also one of those books that you read and know that is it incredibly well-written and has a really strong message.  It tackles huge issues in a very personal way.  I am very glad that I read it, but I don't think I will read it again because it is so profoundly sad.The Association of Small Bombs starts with a "small" terrorist attack in New Delhi in 1996.  Two brothers are among the victims.  Their friend, Mansoor, survives with a strain in his wrist.The book follows the brothers' parents, Mansoor and his parents, and the terrorist who committed the attack (and the progress of a terrorist in the making) over the next several years.  We see the way the parents come together and then drift apart.  The way Mansoor's parents are overprotective and then feel like they are losing their son.  The way Mansoor first feels so lucky to have survived and works hard to make the most of it, and then slowly loses that momentum.While I found this book quite depressing, there were things that I also found very valuable in it.  I appreciated that Mahajan focused on a "smaller" terrorist act in India vs on a "major" one in the west.  Just as Americans seem to have become inured to mass shootings (which is horrifying), much of the world seems to think that terrorist attacks in certain parts of the world are totally normal.  But Mahajan shows readers that senseless violence is never normal to the people who experience it and have to deal with its consequences, no matter how regularly it may happen.  He shows how difficult it can be for parents to recover from the randomness of an act, to rethink so many decisions, to see their lives go down a completely different path than the one they had set out on themselves.  Similarly, he shows how survivors can continue to suffer even when it seems like they have minor injuries.  When you consider how many of these small bombs have detonated in the world, and how many lives they have upended, you can imagine that there are countless people whose lives have been profoundly changed by acts committed by complete strangers who don't care about them at all. I also appreciated that Mahajan did not focus on an extremist Muslim's hatred of western influence.  He focused on an internal Indian issue - Kashmir.  This is important because so many people (*white* people, mainly) seem to think that the only victims of terrorists are westerners and that terrorists are all brown people against white people.  This is not the case.  Terrorists and their victims are of all races and beliefs and walks of life.  It may be difficult for some readers to understand the political background that informs this part of the book (I certainly had some trouble), but I don't know that it matters - what matters is that people believe in something enough to commit desperate acts in its honor.  Or they feel trapped that they have no other option.And that was the last thing about this book that I appreciated.  It really takes you inside the mind of someone as he veers from a path of non-violence to one of extreme action.  It's difficult to see this happen, especially with a character you liked.  But it's important, too, to understand that people are motivated to actions by many different things.  It's not always a belief in extremism.  A lot of times, people feel trapped or forced into an action.  Or they feel they have no one to talk to, they have no real future.  That's not to justify committing an act of violence, but [...]

Detroit: An American Autopsy


Charlie LeDuff's Detroit:  An American Autopsy is a book I've had on my list to read for a while, I think since I finished grad school.  As is typical for me, I bought the book on Kindle and then promptly forgot about it.  I finally read it while I was on a work trip.  I never got over my jet lag, so I stayed up late several nights in a row with Charlie LeDuff.Detroit:  An American Autopsy is a pretty good title for what this book is about.  LeDuff is a reporter who moves back to his hometown of Detroit in the early 2000s to write for the local paper.  In his reporting and in this book, he writes about how Detroit went from being one of the biggest cities in the United States, with a population of almost 2 million people, to one of the most hollowed-out; today, it is home to less than 700,000 people.  It is one of the most rapid declines in population of a city ever.  A lot of this is due to the rise and fall of the American auto industry, but a lot of it is due to other factors as well.If you've followed this blog for some time, or at least since the last presidential election, you know that I've been reading several books in an attempt to better understand the current state of our country and world.  I did not read Detroit for this reason specifically, but on reflection, I think it does an excellent job of explaining why someone might vote for Donald Trump.  Michigan is one of those states that used to be strongly Democratic and then swung right for Trump in this past election.  LeDuff's book gives a very compelling case as to why that might be, even though it was written in 2013.  To LeDuff, as Detroit goes, so goes America.  Detroit paralleled the country's rise and fall more than any other city, tied so closely to the auto industry.  As America rose in prominence and people bought more cars, the city went sky high, with beautiful (seriously stunning) architecture, world class museums and strong worker's rights.  Then came the 1960s and white flight.  And then came the 1980s and all the decades that followed - foreign competition in the auto industry, corruption and incompetence in government and industry, and a rapid decline in the power and influence of labor unions.  Jobs moved elsewhere.  But, as one person in the book put it, "I guess when you get down to it, it's simple... The man took his factory away, but he didn't take the people with him."LeDuff's book is excellently written in a Sam Spade, hard-boiled detective fiction fashion.  He writes in exactly the way you would expect someone from Detroit to talk - frank, no sugarcoating.  His deep love for the city and its people is obvious, but so, too, is his anger and frustration with the way its leaders keep taking and don't give anything back.  Detroit is a city that has been decimated and abandoned by those who claim to work to improve it, and LeDuff is sick of it.While reading this book, I often wondered to myself whether LeDuff voted for Clinton or Trump in this past election.  He spends a lot of time with police and firemen and union workers who are fed up with what their jobs and lives have become.  The firemen in particular are angry because arson happens regularly in Detroit; they risk their lives for other people to get the benefit of fraudulent insurance claims.  And their anger seems very well-justified, they don't get much support from the city at all, as the city has no money.  Similarly, both of LeDuff's brothers work blue-collar jobs that pay hardly anything at all.  They struggle to support their families. [...]

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe


I read Kij Johnson's The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe with my feminist science fiction book club, and it's the first book I've read that made me really love being in a book club.  I'm not very good at book clubs because I don't like reading books because I have to read them.  But feminist science fiction is a pretty great space, so it's not hard to get excited about reading for each meeting.  Also, the women in the club are so cool.Anyway, onto the book!  I really enjoyed The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe when I read it, but it was only after our book club meeting that I realized on just how many levels it is fantastically feminist.  For such a slim volume (about 165 pages), it really packs a punch.  Especially when you compare it to its inspiration, HP Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which I tried to read prior to reading this one, and just could NOT get through.If I had read the entirety of Lovecraft's book, I probably would have even more thoroughly appreciated Johnson's version of it.  But I would say I read enough of Lovecraft to know that I didn't want to read any more.  Where Lovecraft seems to have no real focus except in introducing as many bizarre characters and species as possible, Johnson gives readers a more internal focus on Vellitt Boe herself.  While she is not particularly introspective, we learn enough about her to want to know even more about her.Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women's college in a dream-world.  One of her students has run away with someone from "the real world," and Vellitt must go bring her student back.  She embarks (with zero drama) on this quest on her own, knowing that it could take a very long time and will probably be super-dangerous.  But Vellitt is someone who does what's right, and so she hops to it.This is a short book, so I don't want to give a lot away on the plot points.  But a few things were really great and came up in our book club and really made me appreciate the story even more:1.  Vellitt is middle-aged.  She's a middle-aged adventure heroine!  You do not find those around very often at all, and I just love that making Vellitt middle-aged and female is in itself a completely feminist way of setting up this story.  She is aware that she used to be super-attractive and that she used her charms to get her way and that, being female, her attractiveness lessens with age.  But she doesn't really miss her past, she is happy with who she is.  There's also this whole interplay with a former lover who does not look like he's aged at all, and the way they look at each other and how Vellitt reflects upon him and their past relationship is just brilliant.2.  Vellitt is "ethnic."  Ok, ok, I admit I TOTALLY did not catch this when I was reading the book.  Ironically, the two POC in the book club defaulted to thinking Vellitt was white, whereas everyone in the book club who was white was really quick to catch onto the fact that Vellitt had skin "the color of mud" and hair she wore in braids.  Oops.  I don't think the race component in this book is as strong as it could have been, considering the author pointed out at the end that she wrote it partially to counteract the racism in Lovecraft's book.  I feel like if I missed it, it was pretty subtle, but maybe I am just not as attentive a reader as I thought.  ALSO, I would say that, based on that description, the cover of this book feels a little white-washed.  Maybe that is gray hair, but it's definitely not in braids.3.  The girl who ran away from school[...]

The One Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg


I adored Isabel Greenberg's The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, so as soon as I heard about her new book The One Hundred Nights of Hero, I put it on hold at the library.  And this book was just what I needed.  It's all about women being amazing, about the power of stories, about the importance of resisting, even in the face of inevitable failure, and so much more. I debated whether I should review this book or not because it's one of those books that I just really loved because it was kind and beautiful.  However, The One Hundred Nights of Hero tackles some really big topics in a gloriously feminist way.  While The Encyclopedia of Early Earth was complex in its layering of stories within stories, the stories themselves were not super complicated (that I remember) and the story was centered on a man seeking love.  The One Hundred Nights of Hero is centered on two women in love.  Cherry is married to an imbecile who challenges his friend to seduce her in 100 nights.  His friend agrees, and is pretty clear that if seduction doesn't work, force will.  Cherry and her love, Hero, come up with a plan to distract the nefarious villain with stories each night.  But not just any stories, stories about women and the power of knowledge and the importance of choice.  In none of these stories is there a happy ending of "Girl meets boy, girl marries boy, they live happily ever after."  There are stories of love and how beautiful a thing it can be, but Greenberg always stresses that the ability of a woman to choose her fate is equally, if not more, important.  Some of the stories end happily because women find ways to live independently.  Many of them end sadly because the women featured in them do not fit neatly into the strict definitions that patriarchal societies have set for them.That makes it sound as though this is a melancholy and depressing book, but it is not that at all.  It's absolutely amazing.  There is so much humor, so much kindness and friendship and loyalty, and glorious sisterhood.  Also, the illustrations are beautiful.  And then, of course, there are the stories.It's an excellent, gorgeous book, and I intend to splurge and buy some Isabel Greenberg for myself for my birthday this year - she's absolutely worth having on your keeper shelf.Copyright ©2005-2016 Aarti at BookLust. This post was originally posted by Aarti at BookLust. It should not be reproduced without express written permission.[...]

Dispatches from Dystopia, by Kate Brown


I heard about Kate Brown's Dispatches from Dystopia:  Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten on NPR's book concierge.  It's a series of essays about "the very human and sometimes very fraught ways we come to understand a particular place, its people, and its history."  In this slim volume (excluding the notes, it is only 150 pages long), Brown goes to Chernobyl and Seattle and many places in between, trying to understand how humans form a sense of place.  She specifically chooses places that are forgotten, talks to people who stayed behind when everyone else moved on.This book was a little different than what I expected, though I am not sure what exactly I expected.  It is really beautifully and empathetically written, though Brown herself has more of a role in the essays than I expected her to.  She acknowledges this at the very beginning, saying that it is difficult for her to be a third party observer when she is in the midst of the story herself.  So instead of talking about the places and the people themselves, she talks about her interactions with the people and places she visits.  In this way, Kate Brown reminds me of Rebecca Solnit.I really enjoyed this book, mostly because it gives a new perspective on many different places.  Very real to me was the chapter on Seattle's Panama Hotel, where many Japanese-Americans left their belongings before they were sent to internment camps during World War II.  Brown talks about how some words were used over others to make the whole thing seem more palatable, how people were taken away quietly and away from others so that no one had to see what they had brought to bear:White Seattleites in February 1942 voted overwhelmingly for the Japanese Americans' removal.  Imagine their reaction if Japanese American deportees had left their possessions in plain sight: rain-soaked laundry dangling from clotheslines, produce rotting on fruit stands, goods in shop windows fading in the sun.  The unrepressed possessions of suddenly absent fellow citizens would have told a story starkly divergent from newspaper accounts of "evacuation," safety, national security, and inevitable fealty to race.  The basement full of belongings underscores the myth of what was euphemistically called "evacuation," a term implying benevolence, a federal government seeking to remove Japanese Americans for their own safety.  Like the deportations - indeed, like the deportees - the stockpile was meant to be forgotten.  To me, the Panama's storage room of locked-away possessions served as an icon for the quiet banishment of Japanese Americans from American society.Much of Brown's book revolves around multiple ways of looking at either the same scene or the same situation and acknowledging the different biases or assumptions that get people to those viewpoints.  For example, she describes how American scientists looked at the impact of radiation on people by first studying the environment and what the minimum exposure level of a person was to an environment; Soviet scientists looked at people, saw the symptoms, and made diagnoses based on the person, not the environment.  The approaches reached different conclusions and led to different pros and cons.  The American method has now encroached on how we view almost all environmental disasters and impacts - upon individuals, not upon a whole system.One of my favorite things about this book was the way Brown insists that we change our perspective on people who live their lives differently than we do.&nb[...]

Review-itas: Books that confused me


Guys, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee confused me so much that I cannot even explain the cover of this book to you.  Does it fit with the story?  I don't know.  I mean, the story takes place in space, so that part is accurate.  But what is the spiky thing that dominates the image?  I don't know.As far as I can tell, Ninefox Gambit is set in a civilization that really likes order.  There appears to be a massive mathematical algorithm (the "calendar") that oversees every tiny thing, especially in the military.  Possibly people exist outside of the military, but it is hard to tell.  There is also a very rigid caste system in place, with different groups of people going into different areas of study and conforming to very specific traits.  The main character, Cheris, is in the military leading her team and somehow goes against the calendar.  This means she's in trouble and she's given a very big, basically impossible task to go kill some heretics, for which she asks for help from this undead ghost who won every battle he ever fought, except he also turned traitor and got an obscene number of people killed.There was a lot in this book that I did not understand.  This book is like all my fears and feelings of intimidation about science fiction coming to fruition.  Once I got to the end and things started moving a little faster and became more people-focused than calendar-focused (I still cannot grasp this calendar system, and it DRIVES ME CRAZY), I got more into it.  And it certainly ends on a high note that bodes well for the series to follow.  So I eventually got the high-level plot, but I could tell you nothing about the setting.After my appalling showing in 2016 of reading only four books off my TBR list, I was determined to do better in 2017.  (To be fair, I set a pretty low bar for myself, so I feel confident I can beat it.)  I read and enjoyed Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber, so I decided to give Sister Mine a go.  Many of the same elements that I loved in Midnight Robber are present here - a strong cultural identity, humor, and fantastic female characters at the center.  Sister Mine is often compared to American Gods or Anansi Gods because it is about a family of demigods.  But whereas Neil Gaiman's book is almost entirely about men, Hopkinson's puts women very much at the center of the story.  She plays with gender, sexuality, and many other themes while she wreaks havoc with the lives of both humans and gods.I listened to Sister Mine on audio, and the narrator is excellent.  I don't listen to many audiobooks any more, but I was pretty much instantly drawn into this one.  I enjoyed many things about this story, but parts of it were just a bit too out there for me, particularly towards the end when things became very convoluted to me.  I really liked many of the characters in this book, but with about two hours to go, I was just ready for the book to end.  There were plot points that came up that didn't make a ton of sense to me or fit into the rest of the story, and then there was this whole section at the end that I was just... I don't know what was happening.  I feel like maybe if I were reading a physical copy of the book instead of listening to an audiobook, it would have been easier for me to understand what was happening.  Or maybe I'm just so confused by the real world that fantastical and science fiction worlds go too far for me.  Regardless, this was a lighter book tha[...]

The Warmth of Other Suns, by 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 [...]

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 perso[...]

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!PodcastsGosh, 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 th[...]

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):  4Yikes.  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:  48I 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 [...]

Nicola Yoon's The Sun is Also a Star


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 enj[...]