sumofparts: picture of books with text 'books are humanity in print' (books)
[personal profile] sumofparts
I finished my second set of 50, yay and started a new set. Below are some thoughts on the books.

Remainder of second set:
39. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
40. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee
41. Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice
42. Zone One by Colson Whitehead
43. The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd
44. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
45. Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
46. Snakes and Ladders by Gita Mehta
47. The End of East by Jen Sookfong Lee
48. Beijing Confidential by Jan Wong
49. Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre
50. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
New set:
1. Decoded by Jay-Z

Cut for length )
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Angelou continues to astound in The Heart of a Woman, the fourth volume in her series of six autobiographies. Skipping forward eagerly in time, Heart is set over the course of roughly five years and picks up a few years after its predecessor Singin' and Swingin' and Getting' Merry Like Christmas.

As with the other books in the series there is only the loosest sense of a plot. However what gives the novel coherence is Angelou's observations on motherhood and her continual struggle to take care of her son, Guy, even as he develops into a strong, independent young man. Angelou notes that in the world at large she, as a black woman in the sixties, has little authority and worries that her son will absorb that message and gradually lose respect for her. As part of her effort to reclaim some authority she finds herself becoming involved in the civil rights movement, working for Martin Luther King jr's organization, the SCLC, and marrying a South African freedom fighter who is enamoured of her passion for activism and yet wants to turn her into a subservient wife. 

While this book finds Angelou mostly abandoning the theatrical world for the political one, there is still no end to the charming anecdotes of stars and other notable personalities that Angelou encountered throughout her life. Billie Holiday, James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee and Martin Luther King jr are a few names mentioned, along with Pulitzer prize winner John Oliver Killens who is the first to encourage Angelou to write. With Killens as her mentor, Angelou joined the now legendary Harlem Writers Guild and in The Heart of a Woman records her first weak attempts at writing and her joy at her first publication in a no-name journal in Cuba. At last, four volumes in, we are able to witness Angelou's first steps on a road that will take her to literary stardom. 
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Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas is a compulsively good read. Like Angelou's previous two biographies it's not very long, but the enthusiasm with which Angelou relates her experiences makes it seem even shorter. While her other biographies deal with childhood and her early steps towards independence, Angelou emerges here as a full-fledged adult become more confident with herself and the world around her.

The book covers two major themes, the first being Angelou's beginnings in show business. After her first marriage fails (the courtship, marriage and its dissolution are covered in a brisk few pages) Angelou takes a job as a dancer in a strip club. Her dances catch the attention of some white night club singers who help her begin a career as a nightclub singer which becomes a launching pad for her career as an actress and dancer. At last the Marguerite Johnson of the two previous memoirs transforms into Maya Angelou. A role in the renowned opera Porgy and Bess opens the world up to Angelou literally as well as metaphorically as the opera's tour allows her to visit Europe and parts of North Africa.

Wound inseparably into the narrative is Angelou's observations about what it is like to operate as a strong-minded independent black woman in America in the fifties. Segregation meant that her previous experiences with white people had been infrequent and hostile, but as she begins to travel in different circles her experiences with white people become more frequent and complex. Her family reacts badly when she marries a white man. Her white friends still have the power to unexpectedly wound her with a thoughtless comment and Angelou feels that power imbalance keenly. Her tour across Europe is also incredibly revealing to Angelou as she and the members of her company are often the first black people that people have seen in real life. The questions and stares give way to both painful moments and beautiful ones all of which Angelou recollects with grace and good humour.
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Maya Angelou is best known for her first autobiography, the groundbreaking I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which chronicles her early childhood before breaking off abruptly when she's seventeen. Gather Together in My Name picks up a short while after her last book broke off and chronicles Maya's early forays into adulthood. 

I enjoyed Gather Together in My Name a great deal more than its predecessor. The work has received criticism for its looser structure; Marguerite stumbles in and out of jobs with regularity and falls in and out of love with men at the drop of the hat. This doesn't provide for a great, over-arching narrative, but then life seldom does, and this chaotic period of Maya Angelou's life (from about 17 to 19) seems to demand a less formal structure. 

Angelou was purportedly hesitant to write about this period in her life and after reading the book it's easy to see why. Already a young mother at this point in her life, Angelou also spent this time period making forays into prostitution, both as prostitute and pimp, while remaining stunningly naive about the world around her and her own actions. Some of the most powerful moments of the book can be found in these passages; Angelou is at her best when she is speaking from the voice of teenage Marguerite, outlining her own beliefs and showing the reader how a headstrong girl who believed she was jaded and world-weary was repeatedly fooled by her own naiveté. However, Angelou was writing this at a point in her life where she was no longer a naive spirited girl, but a savvy woman and the voice of that woman occasionally emerges, to the book's detriment. In an early scene Marguerite goes to the home of a lesbian couple simply to show how laissez-faire and grown up she is. As the two begin to kiss in front of her Marguerite is overcome with revulsion and disgust, which Angelou promptly excuses as the bias and hatred of an ignorant girl repeating the prejudices of the world around her. The authorial intrusion is a rare mis-step in a work that is fearless in its refusal to apologize for its narrator. 
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I’ve been hearing ZZ Packer’s name tossed around for years now so it was with some surprise that I realized, when I finally started looking into her work, that she only has one book, a short story collection, to her name. Despite her small output she's been named on of the New Yorker's 20 under 40 and after reading "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" it's not hard to see why.


Read on... )

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Beware of spoilers:

This novel will cut you.

There are only a handful of novels that I can remember affecting me so strongly that I had to put them down while I was reading them, the words on the page too much to handle. One of them was Alice Walker's The Color Purple. The most recent is Sapphire's 1996 novel Push.

The basic plot of the book should be familiar to anyone who was paying attention during last year's Oscar season when the movie adaptation, "Precious" swept through the awards circuit. A young teenager named Precious who is illiterate, unloved and sexually abused, pushes through her circumstances in order to find, if not happiness, then a little bit of hope, a sliver of light in a well of darkness.

Continue... )
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3. Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Wench

Whew, this is a depressing book. But well worth reading; the characters are all very believable and engaging, and the situation is compelling. It's a novel, but one based on a real-life situation: Tawawa House, a popular summer resort in the early and middle 1800s, located in Ohio but frequented by rich men from southern states. The story focuses on four black women, all slaves, and all brought by their owners to Tawawa House over repeated summers. Because, see, Tawawa House has a particular reason for being popular: it's a place where slave-owners can bring their black mistresses, leaving their wives behind.

This is a hard book to describe, because there's not much of a plot; most of what changes over the course of the novel is the slow shifts in Lizzy's (the main character) attitude toward her life and the other people in it. Wench is excellent at describing the tangled situation she and the other women find themselves in, their feelings about each other, other people back home on their plantations, and finding themselves in Ohio- a free state- while still being a slave. Each of the four women has differing attitudes towards their men, ranging from Lizzy (the main character), who really believes her owner loves her and her children, to Mawu, who would kill her owner given the chance. Lizzy's efforts to make a better life for her children shape her character and result in some of the most heart-breaking scenes in the book, while her time in Ohio tempts her to leave them behind and make an escape attempt.

Not a fun book, but an excellent one. I recommend it.
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1. N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I have been excited for this novel to come out since I first heard of it quite some time ago, and I am here to tell you: it lives up to all its promises. IT IS THE BEST THING EVER.

Okay, granted, this novel basically plays into every story kink I have, so understandably it may work less for people who are not me. But come on: superbly done court politics, which are actually complicated and confusing and dangerous (as opposed to what so many novels do, which is have a lot of people talk about 'ooo, intrigue!' when you figured out who the bad guy was on page three); class politics; a warrior-women matriarchy; a smart protagonist who is dealing with a mystery; amazing world-building, which is actually a world of different cultures and races and history, as opposed to one city or country; mythology that feels real and features gay divine incest! (is that a plus for other people? That's totally a plus for me). I really, really love the gods in this book (considering that the two who feature most in the plot are a trickster god and a god of chaos and change, which are basically my favorite things ever, that is unsurprising. But they're still legitimately awesome). You know how every now and then a fantasy writer manages to come up with gods so believable and detailed that you wish it was a real religion? Totally happens here. But these gods are also written as dark supernatural beings and not sparkly vegetarian immortals: these are seriously dangerous and uncontrollable creatures.

Okay, so what's the book actually about? Yeine, a distant relation to the ruling family, is summoned to the palace and named heir to the throne. The other heirs are not too happy about this, as only one will actually get to be ruler- whoever can beat the others before the coronation. Also, this is a competition over not just one country, but the entire world, as the ruling family controls the power of a family of gods and thus is pretty much invincible. Long ago, you see, there was a war among the gods, and the winning deity enslaved the losers, forcing them to obey the whims of mortals. These gods are, understandably, a bit bitter, and are constantly looking for any loophole to rebel or lash out. There are questions of power, of right and wrong, of the nature of the divine and humanity, of the way stories can be twisted and retold, of revenge, of familial power struggles, of free will and destiny, of what shapes a person. There is so much I want to squee about here, but I don't want to give too much away; after all, some of the fun of the best elements is the surprise. Also, this is definitely a page-turner; I read the whole thing in about two days (while not reading anything related to archaeology, of course).

Basically, you should read this book. It's the first of a trilogy, but this storyline is pretty well wrapped-up; you don't have to worry about cliff-hangers with huge waits until they're resolved.
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Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism by Cornel West.

This isn't a long book (218 pages) but it's a heavy one, and it manages to fit a lot of issues in. Highlighted are racism in the U.S., the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Christian identity in the U.S., and the importance of Youth Culture.

West is an eloquent and passionate writer. His respect and love for Christianity and American democracy is clear, but he doesn't hold back in his criticism.

I feel that too often "trying to see both sides of the issue" is code for "wishy-washy excusing of oppression", so I'll avoid that type of language. West definitely knows what side he's on. But he stays aware of the humanity of everybody, even the people he's railing against. I am in full support of this, if only because it ensures that those people are held responsible for their actions. West treats the oppressors (in all their many forms) as human, which demands that they act human.

Unfortunately, some of the final parts of the book are mostly about West's feud with Harvard president Lawrence Summers. The confrontation is relevant to the book, but it feels anti-climatic after the sharp and insightful look at world and national politics that the rest of the book gives. Checking, the West versus Summers content only lasts about ten pages, but it felt like more.

Overall, recommended.
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46. Terence Taylor, Bite Marks: A Vampire Testament

On Christmas Eve, in Times Square in the mid 1980s, a hooker named Nina is violently murdered by a vampire. Just before she dies, she manages to turn her small infant into a vampire itself to give it a chance to survive. Now everyone's trying to find that baby: the Veil, a secret government of vampires in charge of making sure humans never find out about them; Adam, the vampire who killed Nina, who wants to kill the baby before he gets in trouble with the Veil; Jim, Nina's brother, who wants to save the baby and get revenge; Steven and Lori, a couple working on a book about true stories of vampires; among others. And then the zombies show up!

I can't say this book is anything particularly deep, but it's a lot of fun. I love books set in NYC, and Taylor clearly knows it well. I like his diversity of characters- black and white and Asian and Arabic, rich gallery owners and street kids and junkies and donaters to the Met. The writing, on a sentence to sentence level, is nothing special, but the plot is fast and enjoyable. Originally I thought the idea of a 'vampire baby' was a bit cheesy, but it turns out to actually a creepy concept. Overall, recommended, and a great read for right now, since the entire book takes place in the few days between Christmas Eve and the first few days of January.
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45. Tonya Cherie Hegamin, M+O4EVA

A very short YA novel, but one that really packs a punch. O (Opal, a young black woman) and M (Marianne, a mixed race woman) have been best friends (and sometimes more than that) since they were babies, the only two who understood each other in their rural Pennsylvania town. But now it's their senior year of high school, and they've been growing apart. Their story is interwoven with a old tale they heard from their parents, about a ghost who haunts a nearby ravine, the spirit of an escaped slave woman.

This book is hard to describe because I don't want to give away a major event that happens near the beginning. But it's excellent, a story about growing up and growing apart, grief, love, family, and the choices that people make. The writing is beautiful and powerful. I highly, highly recommend seeking this one out.
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43. Rich Benjamin, Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America

A pop non-fiction book about what the author calls "whitopias": fast-growing, often exurban or rural, conservative, majority white (usually over 90%) communities. Such whitopias are becoming more common, he argues, and many of them are some of the fastest growing areas in the country. Against this backdrop, Rich Benjamin (a black guy) decided to try living in three such communities (St. George, Utah; Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; and Forsyth County, Georgia) and researching many more (including Carnegie Hill, in Manhattan and only a short walk from my own apartment, though that's a walk that covers a lot of change) to see what they're like, and what kind of people choose to live in them. These aren't sundown towns- obviously, since Benjamin managed to find places to rent in them- but are more like an extreme example of white flight. I picked this book up because I've been reading a lot of books about PoC communities, and I thought it would be interesting to get a black perspective on white communities.

I really enjoyed this book, perhaps because I'd read James Loewen's Sundown Towns over the summer, and Searching for Whitopia is the perfect follow-up to that (Sundown Towns is an absolutely amazing book, and I encourage everyone to read it. It is very worth its enormous length and many footnotes, though, the author being white, it will not count as one of your [ profile] 50books_poc books). And Searching for Whitopia really is an update; it manages to include research from 2009 and I always think it's very impressive when someone can manage to get a book from the writing-stage to the in-bookstores-stage that quickly. And that recent information is particularly impressive because Benjamin covers a lot of topics, from Latino/a immigration, to the history of the conservative movement in American politics, to the New Urbanism city planning philosophy. Benjamin approaches his topics with a light touch, in particular giving way more of the benefit of the doubt to the people he interviews from whitopias than I would have. He even gives several pages to defining the difference between interpersonal racism and structural racism, a distinction which most people reading this community probably don't need help with. Because of that, though, I think this book would make an awesome gift to someone who's not that knowledgable about these issues; Benjamin is very careful to not offend, and there's things to interest people who wouldn't normally pick up this sort of book, including an entire chapter on golf.

So, a book which doesn't have much in-depth information, but has good, up-to-date information on a variety of topics, which is fun and easy to read: overall, pretty nice!
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41. Alaya Dawn Johnson, Racing the Dark

The first book in a YA trilogy set in a Polynesia-inspired world (with elements from several other cultures; I recognized a few Japanese things in particular), it's a bit hard to describe the plot, because it's very episodic and involves many, many twists and turns. The main character is Lana, who grows up on an idyllic rural island before finding out that she is destined for something big. Her attempts to escape that destiny start off the plot. The other main character is Kohaku, a young man from an urban center who has come to Lana's island to teach and do anthropological research. Back home, he lives with his deaf sister, Emea. Other important figures include a scary floating death spirit, a man who is half water-spirit, a fortune-teller, healer, and witch who knows more than she's telling, and a young man from a nomadic tribe who does not believe in the magic used by the rest of the characters.

This book involves a lot of mature topics (including abortion, suicide, murder, prostitution, and torture, to name a few), which I know isn't unusual for YA books, but the sheer number of "bad" things surprised me. Despite all that, it's not really a depressing book. Everything is handled with the seriousness and weight they deserve, but they're not dwelt on. In general, I found the book to be very fast-moving and entertaining. The writing is not the most beautiful, but man, does Johnson do plot well. This book is very much a page-turner, and it gripped me and didn't let go. I can't wait for the sequel to come out!
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39. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation

This was a great book, but not quite as great as I wanted it to be. An academic work as readable as any pop non-fiction book, Black London deals with the historical presence of black people in London throughout history, although the focus is on the 1700s. The author says that she decided to write this book when, while doing research, a bookseller told her, "Madam, there were no black people in England before 1945".

I loved how this book didn't just give generalities about black life in the 1700s, but used the historical record to find real individuals and tell their stories: slaves, escaped slaves, servants, husbands and wives (it appears to have been quite common for black men to marry white women during this time), shop-owners, writers, the children of African elites come to Europe to study, the mixed-race children of Caribbean planters, actors, beggars, and on and on. I found it really fascinating and wished the whole book had been about these stories of people. Alas, about half the book is actually taken up with recounting the stories of two legal changes (and the mostly white lawyers, judges, plaintiffs, defendants, reporters, etc, etc, involved): the James Somersett lawsuit of 1771, which outlawed slavery in England itself, and the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade. While these parts of the book were interesting, they weren't as incredibly awesome as the first part. Still, I enjoyed this book, and am excited to see she has another about black people during the Victorian period.
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37. John McWhorter, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language

A popular non-fiction book about linguistics, particularly how languages change. This book doesn't try to tell the story of any particular language and its history, although it uses plenty of examples (mostly English, though McWhorter seems to speak an enormous number of languages, and knows details about even more), nor does it try to reconstruct the "original language". Instead it is about the way languages change: how words change their meanings, slang, how sounds change, how grammar changes, how creoles and pidgins arise, why people change the languages they use, and so on. This book is compulsively readable, with lots of funny pop-culture references, and the sort of facts and tid-bits that make you want to turn to anyone nearby and say, "OMG! Did you know...".

A great book. Highly recommended, and I'll be checking out McWhorter's new book, about English, soon.

I've been really interested in reading popular-style non-fiction lately. I'm particularly interested in history, but biology, linguistics, astronomy- anything easy to read and interesting would be great. Does anyone have some recs by PoC authors?
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#20[b]: A Right to Be Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury, Aaron McGruder
2003, Three Rivers Press

This is hilarious. I remember reading The Boondocks on and off while it was running in newspapers (more off than on; I was moving around a lot and not all my papers carried it), and I remember being sometimes impressed but often lukewarm on it. I remember formulating the impression that it was presumably the strip's controversy value and what Amazon somewhat coyly calls its "notoriety" that made it such a big success. (What "notoriety" means here is, among other things, visibly black characters talking about visible black issues, often with no white people in sight(!), and, with enormous daring, going so far as to claim the aforementioned right to be hostile. In America's newspapers! In the funny pages!)

Anyway, reading this compilation, I'm forced to dramatically revise my opinion. This is fabulous stuff. McGruder's incisiveness, cutting wit, characterization and sense of timing are often nothing short of brilliant. The strip really does bring to mind the eminent predecessors McGruder cites as influences in the foreword (Trudeau, Watterson, Breathed). (All of which leaves me unsure why I didn't find the strip quite so awesome at the time, except that it does come to mind that collections allow authors the luxury of picking and choosing; McGruder may have wisely left out a lot of duds. ;)

Anyway. What is awesome about this strip?  Let me tell you! )


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