hermionesviolin: young black woman(?) with curly hair and pink sunglasses, facing away from the viewer (every week is ibarw)
[personal profile] hermionesviolin
When I was lamenting the dearth of picturebooks set in Africa not written by white folks, my friend Maura C recommended Tololwa Mollel (a Black man from Tanzania) and Ifeoma Onyefulu (a Black woman from Nigeria).

I started with Mollel, ILLing all (16) books by him that my library system has #completionist

Most of his books are retellings of traditional folktales, though some are based on his experience growing up on his grandparents' coffee farm in northern Tanzania in the 1960s.

My favorites were probably:
  • Kitoto the Mighty (illustrated by Kristi Frost) -- a mouse seeks the most powerful being to protect him from the hawk
  • Subira, Subira (illustrated by Linda Saport) -- a girl struggles to get her younger brother to behave
  • Big Boy (illustrated by E.B. Lewis) -- a Tanzanian boy wishes he were bigger ... but what if his wish were granted?
  • Song Bird (illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger) -- girl saves the day! (okay, magical song bird saves the day, but the girl keeps the grownups from messing it up)
  • To Dinner, For Dinner (illustrated by Synthia Saint James) -- mostly I just love the mole wearing glasses
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[personal profile] yatima
Believe the hype. This is the best book of poetry I have read in years, dense with precisely described emotion. It reminded me of the first time I read Plath's Ariel:

a piano—but a mare
draped in a black sheet. White mouth
sticking out like a fist. I kneel
at my beast. The sheet sunken
at her ribs.

A side-note: in my Honours English class back in nineteen ninety-mumble, our great professor Bruce Gardiner wasted most of a tutorial trying to get me and the rest of my virginal cohort to understand Yeats "The Song of the Wandering Aengus" as the poet going outside at night for a wank. One of Vuong's poems here is helpfully titled "Ode to Masturbation," which should save many graduate student hours.
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[personal profile] yatima
My 11yo bought this on the strength of a blurb from Alison Bechdel (we all loved Fun Home.) After she finished it, she insisted that I read it. Kid knows the kind of thing I like. Tagame is known for his extremely kinky gay manga, but this is family fare: the tender story of a Canadian who visits his dead husband's brother and niece in Japan.

The point of view is that of the brother, Yaichi, who is burdened with a lot of unexamined homophobia. While a lot of the critical response to My Brother's Husband approaches this as a text that will help people unfamiliar with LGBTQ+ issues, it worked equally well to give my San Francisco-raised kid an insight into people whose daily lives aren't suffused with the gay! Tagame gives Yaichi space to wrestle with his preconceptions and doesn't judge him for his missteps. It's a sweetly sympathetic portrait that didn't raise my queer hackles: not an easy feat.

The art is my favorite aspect of this book. Mike, the Canadian widower, is a big beardie hairy man, and his body is presented as straightforwardly attractive. His growing rapport with his niece Kana and his kindness towards another young character are beautifully and movingly rendered. I can't wait for Volume 2.
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[personal profile] yatima
I read Helen Oyeyemi's book White is for Witching in a sleeping bag in a tent in the Sierras during an ice storm, and found it spellbinding. Mr Fox has the same enchanting quality. It shifts seamlessly between realism and fairy tale in a way that reminded me of many of the writers I loved best as a child: Joan Aiken, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Elizabeth Goudge, Nicholas Stuart Gray, Sylvia Townsend Warner, TH White. No surprises there, because Mr Foxis about the dissatisfactions both of being a reader:

With books you’ve got to know all about other books that are like the one you’re talking about, and it’s just never-ending, and it’s a pain.

and of trying to write:

I was sitting in my study, writing badly, just making words on the page, waiting for something good to come through, some sentence I could keep.

In particular, it's about reading a book and loving parts of it and wanting to smack the writer in the face for the other parts - the parts where women are tormented just to advance the plot, to choose an example at random.

As women, as queers, as POC, as any kind of Other, we all strike this devil's bargain with the canon as written by our oppressors, wanting to keep the good and rewrite the bad. Oyeyemi reminds us that this is the great work:

Tell the stories. Tell them to us. We want to know all the ways you’re still like us, and all the ways you’ve changed. Talk to us.

After all, our enemies do not rest.

Something terrible’s coming, and everyone in the world is working to bring it on. They won’t rest until they’ve brought it on.
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[personal profile] yatima
Content warnings for intimate partner violence and child murder.

I struggled with this one a lot. There is no denying that Things Fall Apart is a masterpiece, beautifully and hauntingly written, harnessing all the power of the English language to condemn British colonialism with the stark authority of first-hand experience. It's an immense achievement of reclamation that paves the way for the work of the Nigerian and Nigerian-American writers that I unreservedly love: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi and Nnedi Okorafor.

Things Fall Apart is also profoundly of its time. The central character Okonkwo, who is brought so vividly to life, is a violently abusive husband and the murderer of his foster son. His sheer awfulness does not detract from the majesty of the story, which evokes both the tribal society of the Igbo and its wrenching fracture. It does, though, make it difficult to spend a lot of time with Okonkwo. This is an important book as the near-contemporaneous The Naked and the Dead and The Old Man and the Sea are important: just be prepared to grit your teeth through way too much period-appropriate misogyny.
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[personal profile] yatima
Four fiercely brilliant stories, in order of increasing brilliance. The first deals with toxic masculinity in an unbelievably prescient way, given our current predicament:

This was the other side of their bravado. She looked at him with such infinite care and respect, for she hadn’t known before how much more terrifying it was to be a man than to be a woman.

The second is a laugh-out-loud grimdark Black Mirror episode set in space. The third is a (maybe?) love story so weird it reminded me of Flatland.

But the fourth story! That one, a picaresque journey through space with a hauntingly familiar subtext, brought to mind my Dad's exquisite first edition of The Ship that Sailed to Mars, and all of Borges, and George Takei's Twitterstream. And if that combination doesn't pique your interest, I don't even know what to tell you.
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[personal profile] yatima
This deservedly acclaimed masterpiece is a coolly intelligent book, all the more devastating for the precision and detachment with which it describes its horrors. Frederick Douglass was probably his master's son. His white brothers and sister inherited property: Douglass was property. Between the facts of biology and basic human decency, everyone involved in the slave trade must have been in a constant state of extreme cognitive dissonance. The descriptions of the floggings and murders are terrible, but the descriptions of the psychological consequences of slavery upon both slave and master are more terrible still.

...slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately.

The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.

The coldest part of the book is Douglass's care to list the exact names of each perpetrator of an atrocity, and the date of the atrocity as closely as he can calculate it. He wanted his account to be unimpeachable. He succeeded. Historians have verified his facts. When speaking truth to power, bring receipts.
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[personal profile] yatima
This series grows increasingly dear to my heart. "Binti" is an Arabic word for "daughter" (as "Yatima", which I stole from Greg Egan's novel Diaspora, is an Arabic word for "orphan".) Okorafor's books stand alone as excellent stories, but they're vastly enriched by the fact that they are engaged in intense conversation with other texts. There's a book about post-colonialist literature with the fantastic title The Empire Writes Back, and that's a useful shorthand for Okorafor's larger project.

Lagoon, for example, was born from Okorafor's disgust at the treatment of Nigerians in the film District 9. It's probably my favorite first contact novel. In the same way, the Binti series takes on the particular space opera genre where humans have learning experiences among aliens: Have Space Suit Will Travel, A Wrinkle in Time, A Fire Upon the Deep. In the first book, Binti travels to Oomza University, the first of her people to do so. This book describes what's probably the definitive experience of exile: returning to your birthplace utterly changed.

“You’re too complex, Binti,” he said. “That’s why I stayed away. You’re my best friend. You are. And I miss you. But, you’re too complex. And look at you; you’re even stranger now.”

It works perfectly because it isn't a metaphor. I'm Australian and I like to joke that I grew up on a mining asteroid, but it's not really a joke. I went to graduate school in Ireland and even with a shared language and colonial history, it was like visiting another planet. Okorafor's genius is teasing out the ways in which people of Earth are alien to one another, as well as the ways in which the terrifying Other, if we can only see past the terror, may turn out to be an ally and friend. She is a vitally necessary writer and we are lucky to have her.
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[personal profile] brainwane
I've been recommending this book to friends recently and realized I never posted my review of it here. It's a mimetic/realistic fiction novel set in modern-day Bangalore, with two main plot threads: a guy who wants to expand his business honestly but faces the impossibility of doing so without bribing creeps, and a servant in his house who walks multiple figurative tightropes to maintain some sliver of personal autonomy and keep her son from falling in with creeps.

I'd previously read Sankaran's short story collection The Red Carpet, which I also recommend. (I picked it up in the Manhattan public library when I was looking for Dorothy Sayers and saw Sankaran's book near Sayers alphabetically. Most English-language Indian fiction isn't about Bangalore, so this is an ultra-specific YES YES SO RIGHT YES. Sankaran hooked me a few pages in by using the Kannada/English slang "one-thaara" ("a kind/type of"), which I'd never seen written down before. The title story is so sweet! I see [personal profile] rydra_wong also liked it and [livejournal.com profile] glitter_femme liked it too.)

I loved The Hope Factory -- what a specifically Bangalore story, getting the texture of class, gender, and location so right. (I wonder whether the flashback chapter about one protagonist's day laborer past would work as a standalone story; it sure has a Crowning Moment of Awesome that I will remember for a long time.) I honestly do not know whether I should recommend this book to non-Indians or even desis who are not Karnatakan or Kannadiga, whether it will sparkle quite as bright to people who have never been to that particular dosa restaurant, who don't think "wait I think I have relatives in that square mile of Mysore." But if you're looking for an English-language novel set in modern-day Bangalore, spanning rich and poor, family and business and politics, check this out.
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[personal profile] yatima
If I'm honest with you, I'm probably much too close to this book to have a fair opinion of it. On the other hand, it's a gorgeous, loving, clear-eyed and critical portrait of the world in which I live. In a week that felt hopeless, this book gave me a beautiful and hopeful place to be, and I adored it without reservation.
Powell’s Books beckoned to us in red, black, and white, like a flag for a new America. One that’s educated, homegrown, and all about sustaining local book culture.

Libraries are where nerds like me go to refuel. They are safe-havens where the polluted noise of the outside world, with all the bullies and bro-dudes and anti-feminist rhetoric, is shut out. Libraries have zero tolerance for bullshit. Their walls protect us and keep us safe from all the bastards that have never read a book for fun.

Juliet is a fat 19yo Puerto Rican lesbian writer from the Bronx, spending her summer in Portland, Oregon, interning with Harlowe Brisbane, the white feminist author of Raging Flower: Empowering your Pussy by Empowering your Mind. Shenanigans ensue, and they are gloriously, heartbreakingly real: a science fiction writing workshop honoring Octavia Butler; a reading at Powell's that goes horribly wrong; a queer POC party in Miami.

Rivera is brilliant on the rollercoaster that is growing up one or more kinds of "other" and trying to be true to your authentic self before you have quite figured out what that is.
You are your own person, Juliet. If it’s a phase, so what? If it’s your whole life, who cares? You’re destined to evolve and understand yourself in ways you never imagined before.

She is also extremely acute on the specific failures of white feminism. At a moment in history when our alliances may or may not save the world, it's on white women to understand how our thoughtlessness can inflict deep injuries on our best allies. And it's on white women to stop that shit.

This is a first novel and unpolished, but it's a huge shiny diamond full of light and color and my favorite thing I've read in the challenge so far.
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[personal profile] yatima
Ian McEwan's acclaimed novels On Chesil Beach and Saturday both take place over the course of a single day, in an improbably lily-white version of England. Race-bending this formula is the fundamentally good idea beneath Black Bread White Beer. When we meet Amal and his white wife Claud, they have just lost a pregnancy in the first trimester, but they go ahead and visit Claud's parents in East Sussex as planned.

The novel is at its sharpest and funniest when Amal is reporting his Pakistani parents' reactions to his horrible in-laws:
‘What she means is, we wish you all the luck in the world, Amal, but you must watch your back. Her people look like a bunch of backstabbers. Never trust them for an instant.’

There are also some moving passages where Amal imagines what he and Claud would be like as parents:
Theirs would not be paraded about like Sussex show ponies. There were plenty of cool, funky children they could take as their template.

or what their lives would be like child-free:
They could buy a holiday home abroad. Two. One on each hemisphere if that is what would make her happy. He racks his mind to think of the childless couples they know – not the kids from the office; guys their age and older – but cannot dredge any up. In their immediate circle, there are no trailblazers, only conformists. No matter. They are taste makers, she and him. They can set the precedent.

As with McEwan, though, I found these characters difficult to warm to. Amal and Claud both struck me as joyless corporate drones, preoccupied with status, their world devoid of beauty and pleasure. A technically adroit book, but not for me.
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[personal profile] yatima
I loved Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation and I revere his own series, Master of None. The "Thanksgiving" episode of Master of None is one of the best things I have ever seen on television. So I picked up Modern Romance with some enthusiasm.

In a classic Tom Haverford move, rather than just write the obligatory you-have-succeeded-as-a-comedian-on-TV book (Bossypants, Girl Walks Into a Bar, I'm Just a Person, Paddle Your Own Canoe, Self-Inflicted Wounds, The Bedwetter, Yes Please... yeah, it's a genre), Ansari teamed up with Stanford sociologist Eric Klinenberg to figure out both why technologically-mediated dating is such an unrelieved horror show and, reading between the lines, why Ansari was finding it difficult to meet a nice woman.

The resulting book reminded me a bit of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything in that it's as curious and interesting as it is funny. Ansari's quizzical sweetness shines especially in his reporting on the specific dating scenes in Buenos Aires, Doha, Paris and Tokyo.
In Japan, posting any pictures of yourself, especially selfie-style photos, comes off as really douchey. Kana, an attractive, single twenty-nine-year-old, remarked: “All the foreign people who use selfies on their profile pic? The Japanese feel like that’s so narcissistic.” In her experience, pictures on dating sites would generally include more than two people. Sometimes the person wouldn’t be in the photo at all. I asked what they would post instead.

“A lot of Japanese use their cats,” she said.

“They’re not in the photo with the cat?” I asked.

“Nope. Just the cat. Or their rice cooker.”

“I once saw a guy posted a funny street sign,” volunteered Rinko, thirty-three. “I felt like I could tell a lot about the guy from looking at it.”

This kind of made sense to me. If you post a photo of something interesting, maybe it gives some sense of your personality? I showed a photo of a bowl of ramen I had taken earlier in the day and asked what she thought of that as a profile picture. She just shook her head. OH, I GUESS I CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE TO THAT STREET SIGN DUDE, HUH?

For me, the most engaging part of the book was seeing insights that later ended up as jokes in Master of None. I endorse and seek to emulate this kind of creative reuse! As for meeting a nice woman, the gossip rags tell me that Ansari was in a relationship with pastrychef Courtney McBloom for a while, but they parted amicably last year. So it goes.
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[personal profile] wild_irises
[personal profile] yatima has been carrying all the water around here, and shouldn't have to.

Earlier this week, I finished Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince. I have had this book by my bed for months and months and months. I would pick it up, read some, like it, and then get distracted. Finally, I decided it was too good for that kind of treatment and got serious about moving through it.

It is an excellent and fascinating book, even though it never really grabbed me. The worldbuilding is awesome and the depiction of the inner lives of teenagers, affected by the different world they live in and nonetheless completely recognizable as the teenagers of our times, is especially well done. The The prose is beautiful and the evocation of the city is outstanding. The setting is a post-apocalyptic Brazil and effectively everyone is (from our perspective) PoC; Johnson explores class divisions and to some extent national divisions, but the key cultural rift she explores is age.

I can't quite figure out why it didn't have momentum for me, and I expect that will be different for other people. I found it well worth the comparatively slow going, and will probably re-read it at some point. 

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[personal profile] yatima
Australians of my generation have a particular reason to be fond of Journey to the West and it is the gloriously daft Japanese adaptation that was replayed endlessly on after-school TV. (For many queer Australians of my generation, myself included, Masako Natsume, the woman who played Tripitaka, is a pivotal figure in our secret lives.) The Monkey King resurfaces in Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel American Born Chinese, one of the books that taught my younger kid to read. (I was especially touched when in Yang's book, the three wise men who attended the birth of Jesus turned out to be Monkey and his friends Sandy and Pigsy. I'm a sucker for good crossover fanfic.)

All this to say that The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is yet another delightful take on Journey to the West, this time set in the hyper-competitive high schools of the Bay Area. Monkey is now Quentin, a handsome, short, brilliant and very annoying teenager who kept reminding me of Miles Vorkosigan, in a good way. Genie herself has a surprising connection with him, but is a three-dimensional character in her own right, with a sense of honor and complicated relationships with her parents and friends. Her efforts to balance college applications with supernatural obligations had a Buffy-ish resonance, and the various Gods and demons showing up in modern America will please Neil Gaiman fans. I found this a quick and enjoyable read.
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[personal profile] yatima
"Welcome to the Middle-Aged Orphans Club," writes Sherman Alexie, and as a middle-aged orphan myself, I did feel welcome, and seen, and understood. In July, Alexie cancelled part of his book tour because of complicated grief and being haunted by his late mother: "I don’t believe in ghosts," he writes. "But I see them all the time." Me too, brother.

Like Bad Indians, this is an intricate quilt of a book, part memoir, part poem, part dream. It's hard to imagine how it could be otherwise. The loss of a parent is a loss of meaning. For indigenous people, this is doubly true. Lillian Alexie was one of the last fluent speakers of Salish. Her death robs her son, and the world, of an entire universe.

This book, like Hawking radiation, is an almost-undetectable glow of meaning escaping from a black hole. If you haven't lost a parent yet it might be too much to bear, but if you have, it might feel like joining a group of survivors around a campfire after a catastrophe.

IN AUGUST 2015, as a huge forest fire burned on my reservation, as it burned within feet of the abandoned uranium mine, the United States government sent a representative to conduct a town hall to address the growing concerns and fears. My sister texted me the play-by-play of the meeting. “OMG!” she texted. “The government guy just said the USA doesn’t believe the forest fire presents a serious danger to the Spokane Indian community, even if the fire burns right through the uranium mine.”

...“Is the air okay?” I texted. “It hurts a little to breathe,” my sister texted back. “But we’re okay.” Jesus, I thought, is there a better and more succinct definition of grief than It hurts a little to breathe, but we’re okay?
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[personal profile] yatima
(Content warning for child sexual abuse)

Samantha Irby is seriously funny in a way that, ironically, makes me frown and try to analyze exactly how she's pulling it off in such a sustained way. Part of it is that she is hashtag relatable as heck:

What I really wanted to do was pull a blanket over my head and listen to Pearl Jam’s No Code on repeat while eating snacks and pretending to be searching for myself all day (fuck, that’s all I want to fucking do now), but I couldn’t find anyone willing to pay for that shit.

Fifty out of the 168 hours of my week are spent mad because work is interfering with all the Internet articles I’m trying to read

Part of it is sheer discipline: tight writing with a point so sharp you almost won't feel it slide in.

You could tell how much the bride’s parents loved her by the quality of the food.

My parents, as I can’t stop reminding people, ARE DEAD.

So yeah, dizzying technical prowess and ferocious wit, but that's not even the thing. It's the writing on the deaths of her parents - unsparing, un-self-pitying - that will stay with you long after the last page. Get into Samantha Irby now, so that when she blows up into the megastar she's destined to be, you can say you knew her when.
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[personal profile] yatima
I loved the first essay in White Girls so much that I fully became that obnoxious person monologue-ing about the book I was reading while my poor friends were just trying to drink their pinot grigio in peace. Hilton Als is a staff writer and theatre critic at the New Yorker, and I think I was expecting an ironic, distanced New-Yorker-contributor voice like Peter Hessler's in River Town or Katherine Boo's in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, both of which I enjoyed very much. But Als writes like a man in love, about being a man in love, and that first essay especially just destroyed me.

By the time I met him and longed to be his wife, SL sometimes described himself as a lesbian separatist. No man could have him.... His gifts were road maps to our love, the valley of the unconditional.

The conceit of the title is that queer Black men are like white girls in all our fucked-up-ness and yearning for the full citizenship we are never granted. Ever since my first 50books challenge in 2009, it's been an article of faith for me that Black men and white women and people of color generally and queers of all stripes and all the others have no chance unless we make common cause, in the deep sense of seeking to understand one another's inner lives. To have that conviction reflected back to me is a true gift. I am inexpressibly grateful to this book and I press it into your hands.
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[personal profile] yatima
Bad Indians opens with a line so good I'm angry I didn't write it myself: "CALIFORNIA IS A STORY. California is many stories." Deborah Miranda is a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation, and this angry, loving book takes a knife to all the lazy and superficial versions of the California story. Of the history unit all Californian fourth graders (including my own two daughters) are required to take, Miranda writes: "[T]he Mission Unit is all too often a lesson in imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny."

A nonlinear collage of prose, poetry, pictures, transcriptions of interviews and more, Bad Indians can be hard to follow, but the effort pays off when the events of Miranda's life take their place in a precisely drawn and nuanced historical context. "The original acts of colonization and violence broke the world, broke our hearts, broke the connection between soul and flesh. For many of us, this trauma happens again in each generation," she writes. And: "I love my father. I hate my father. He died alone, in a hospice facility."

This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about the indigenous peoples of California, their present and their possible futures. Strong content warning for descriptions physical and sexual abuse of children, among many other horrors.
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[personal profile] yatima
Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is one of the best things I have ever read. His latest book, The Gene, shares the former's wealth of capsule life histories that draw out the deep humanity of his subject. Ironically, though, given its subtitle, The Gene feels less personal and immediate than its predecessor.

Mukherjee is a cancer physician and researcher, and where his description of cancer is a front line soldier's portrait of a respected nemesis, The Gene is more of a flyover survey of an emerging science. I learned a great deal about the origins of Genentech and Celera and the genetic underpinnings of sex and orientation. That said, the passages about his family - his paternal uncles and their mental illnesses, played out against the backdrop of Partition; the relationship between his mother and her identical twin - are as wise and lyrical as anything Mukherjee has written.

It's a long book. As is my habit with formidable non-fiction, I listened to it on Audible. Shoutout to narrator Dennis Boutsikaris for bringing this complex material to life.


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Writers of Color 50 Books Challenge

September 2017

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