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What is Whiteness? Who is White?

These are questions that many people (and especially people who consider themselves white) never seriously ask, as though the category of whiteness is a natural one. It isn't, of course -- it's a socially constructed idea that has developed and changed considerably over many hundreds of years.

This book takes us through the history of that idea from its earliest known roots in antiquity, and ultimately goes on to focus mostly on Britain and the United States, where various different "white races" were long spoken of and ranked in value. The gradual incorporation of light-skinned people into one big group called White proceeded (and continues to proceed) in waves in the U.S., corresponding to waves of immigration, backlash against it, and an eventual admission that such-and-such a group is at last "American".

You've probably heard this phenomenon mentioned as a derailing tactic in discussions of race. ("Irish people were treated worse than black people") That is not what Painter is doing at all. She understands that the racialized ill treatment of white groups by other white groups does not erase anti-black racism -- it illuminates it! As the definition of who can be "white" has expanded over the centuries, it only sharpens the line between white people who might be able to become "just plain American" someday if they work hard and assimilate, and black people who, no matter what they do, never can.

Read more... )

a: Painter Nell Irvin, African-American, non-fiction, history, race
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2.30 Michael Eric Dyson, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (2006)

I've been doing a lot of reading about Hurricane Katrina recently. I was inspired by the second Spike Lee documentary to revisit this issue - because it was a genuine puzzle to me. I could not believe that the response to a disaster could be so incompetent in the first world.

I made a donation to the American Red Cross and as I did so I remember being astounded that I was sending disaster relief to the richest and most powerful country in the world because they just could not get their act together to help their own citizens.

So I've read several books and they list a whole lot of factors. The National Guard was depleted because of Iraq; Bush was focussed on terrorism and had subsumed FEMA into the Homeland Security Department; FEMA was headed by an incompetent who reported to a moron; the White House had poor relations with Louisiana because it was held by a Democrat; Mayor Nagin didn't use his buses before the storm and after it they were flooded; FEMA kept telling active lies about sending buses so no one else organised any; FEMA would not let people in to help. But the elephant in the room is, of course, why these factors were allowed to sway the relief efforts.

Apparently FEMA had very competently organised relief the year before in Florida (in an area where there were Republican voters to woo). But the entire rescue effort in New Orleans was stunningly bad, bad beyond belief.

Dyson just goes all out and says yes, this difference is because the people who were stuck in New Orleans were, largely, poor and black. Some of his information is just astonishing - such as the fact that people leaving the fancy hotels were allowed to jump the queue for the buses. That is to say, people wealthy enough to stay at nice hotels, people who had gone through the hurricane without wading through fetid storm water and who had had access to food and water for the days of waiting for help, those are the folks who were put at the head of the queue to get the buses out of town.

It is a relief to find someone willing to put an overarching narrative together rather than getting bogged in the details of when Heckofajob Brownie sent this email or that, and how many New Orleans school buses were working. His overarching story is that people got treated badly because they were mostly poor and mostly black.

That's certainly how it appeared to my outsider's eyes. Though, again from my uninformed outsider's perspective, the American belief in limited Government seemed to make things work. The evacuation order given for New Orleans basically said ' Get out if you can; if you can't abandon all hope because we're doing bugger all for you'.

Dyson quotes the head of the 9/11 fund who said that a similar fund need not be set up for those displaced by Katrina. The interviewer asked if 'the underlying philosophy here.. [is] that I'm responsible for my own life and if something bad happens, too bad.' He affirmed his - 'It's the United States after all. Our heritage is limited government. The government is not a guarantor of life's misfortunes.'

I guess I find this concept of citizenship odd. I imagine the State's role is to protect its citizens but this isn't an argument that Dyson spends a lot of time on. (I guess this is a fish doesn't see the water thing, where Dyson also accepts this heritage of hands off Government and rugged individualism.)

In short, this is the least factually informative of the books I've read on Hurricane Katrina, but it is the most emotionally satisfying as it does argue an overall story rather than a collection of snippets about what happened.
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A fascinating, easily readable history of cancer, how people conceived of it, how they tried to cure it, and how all that changed society and science. Mukherjee is an oncologist, and salts the text with anecdotes about his own patients. (Those were great and I would have liked more of them.)

If you like pop science at all, this is a great example of it: educational, clearly written, both explaining things you always wondered about (why is there so much cancer nowadays?) and delving into issues it never occurred to you wonder about (how did we get from a time when the New York Times refused to print the words “breast” and “cancer” to marathons for a cure?) Mukherjee takes us from bone tumors found in ancient mummies, to the Persian queen Atossa who had a slave perform a mastectomy on her, to the genesis of “wars on diseases” and campaigning for funds and cures, to the beginnings of chemotherapy, to cutting edge genetic research. He brings all the personalities of the scientists, the politicians, the patients, and the (evil! evil!) tobacco company executives to vivid life.

I probably don’t need to mention that this book can be gross, upsetting, and disturbing, given the subject matter. (The section on radical mastectomies was especially nightmarish.) But if you can either deal with that or skim a bit, I highly recommend this.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
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This is a broad and wide-ranging introduction to Islam, and assumes the reader has no prior knowledge of the subject. (I didn't, so that worked for me.) A lot of time is spent on the origins and ancient history of the religion, including the cultural background of the region and how the very earliest Muslims lived and practiced their faith.

The middle section, after Muhammad's death but before the modern face of Islam had really arisen, kind of lost my attention. Too many names, dates, and battles, and I wasn't sure how it all fit together in the bigger picture. Aslan is knowledgeable but his style is pretty dry. I felt like asking if this was all going to be on the test.

Things picked up more when he got into discussion of the divisions between Sunni, Shi'a, Sufi, and their own subdivisions, and modern attempts to create Muslim states and how they've gone about it differently. This is where it really shows, though, that it's just a general introduction. It seemed he took on more than he could do justice to in a short-ish book. A number of interesting topics are brought up but then given only cursory treatment.

Aslan himself is a liberal Shi'ite, and he definitely puts forth his own views, not only on what Islam is, but on what it *ought* to be, religiously, culturally, and politically. I don't think arguing one's own position is bad -- it's certainly better than pretending to be neutral when you're not -- but again, the book seemed like it was being too many things at once. Is it a quick historical overview for beginners, or an argument for Islamic democracy, liberalism, and pluralism? It's both, and in a way that ultimately didn't read as cohesive for me.

tags: a: Aslan Reza, Iranian-American, Muslim, subject: Islam, genre: non-fiction
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The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It )

The Bandit Queen of India: An Indian Woman's Amazing Journey From Peasant to International Legend by Phoolan Devi with Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali.

The Bandit Queen of India )
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2.20 Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone, Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White (2001)

In 1924 Alice Jones, a former domestic and the daughter of a cab-driver (among other things), married Leonard Rhinelander. She became the first coloured woman to be listed in the Social Register as a member of one of New York's wealthiest families.

Once the news became public, a scandal of race, class and sex broke out, and there was an annulment trial.

Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone explore the trial. Interestingly, the trial transcript has disappeared so they 'read' the case through contemporary newspaper reportings. This means they are subject to the same omissions that original readers experienced. For instance, Alice and Leonard wrote letters to each other discussing their pre-marital sex, including something which was too dreadful to name in the 1920s. (One tabloid mentioned the part of the legal code which prohibited it, so either oral or anal sex).

Lewis and Ardizzone have no access at all to Alice's original words. Her testimony remains a blank - a state she continued in after they separated. The legal arrangement gave her a lifetime annuity in return for never using the Rhinelander name or speaking on the matter. She remains a cypher, at the centre of the trial, but never speaking.

It's a fascinating read.
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Title: The History of White People
Author: Nell Irvin Painter
Number of Pages: 496 pages
My Rating: 4.5/5

Amazon Summary: Who are white people and where did they come from? Elementary questions with elusive, contradictory, and complicated answers set historian Painter's inquiry into motion. From notions of whiteness in Greek literature to the changing nature of white identity in direct response to Malcolm X and his black power successors, Painter's wide-ranging response is a who's who of racial thinkers and a synoptic guide to their work. Her commodious history of an idea accommodates Caesar; Saint Patrick, history's most famous British slave of the early medieval period; Madame de Staël; and Emerson, the philosopher king of American white race theory. Painter reviews the diverse cast in their intellectual milieus, linking them to one another across time and language barriers. Conceptions of beauty (ideals of white beauty firmly embedded in the science of race), social science research, and persistent North/South stereotypes prove relevant to defining whiteness. What we can see, the author observes, depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for. For the variable, changing, and often capricious definition of whiteness, Painter offers a kaleidoscopic lens.

Review: This was an interesting book, but I often felt like I was slogging through a textbook trying to read it (especially the early chapters), so I kept setting it down and it actually took me several months to finally finish. I just didn't find the writing style engaging at all, otherwise I would probably have given if five stars.

But it was interesting, and I learned a lot of things about famous people of the past (none of them good) that I didn't know before. It was also interesting to see how little anti-immigrant rhetoric has changed. A lot of things people were saying about Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Jewish, etc. immigrants is pretty much word for word what people say about Latin@ immigrants today. A lot of "oh noes, the right people aren't having enough babies and the wrong people are having too many!" and that sort of thing. Except it wasn't Those Brown People who were going to destroy the White Race, is was Those Other Inferior White People.

Also, while this book is called The History of White People, it's very US-centric. She traces things from Europe to the US, but once she gets to the US, she really never talks about whiteness elsewhere for the rest of the book.
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I read this review of Gita Mehta's Snakes and Ladders by [ profile] fiction_theory and decided to read the book -- I'm sooo glad I did.

I most heartily concur with the review [ profile] fiction_theory wrote, so I'll let interested folks read that instead of repeating it all here, but in terms of my personal experience with the book... well, most fundamentally, I didn't realize how colossally ignorant I was about India's history until I started reading. Not only are Mehta's essays delightfully engaging, blending the humorous, the serious, the political, the historical, the personal, and the lyrical into a deeply seductive mix, but they left me hungering to know more, which is, to me, one of the hallmarks of good non-fiction.

I'm going to be keeping an eye out for good books on the history of India (both about the periods up to the publication of Mehta's book in 1997 and about what's happened since then) -- if anyone has any recommendations, I'd love to hear them!

(Tags: a: mehta gita, nonfiction, short essays, history, indian)
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By page 3, I knew I was going to like this book.

The tradition of Western science is unidirectional from subject (Abenaki elder, archaeological site, industrial raw material) to the collector/researcher to the publisher. From there it goes to the teacher (college professor) or media person (Nova scriptwriter) and finally to the multiethnic American community, the ultimate consumer. As viewed by the consumer, this is a process of enrichment. But viewed from the perspective of the elder who has lost legal control of her life story, the backfilled hole that was once a site, or the plant crucified on acid-free paper in some paradichlorobenzined herbarium cabinet, this may seem exploitative to say the least.
What a breath of fresh air Wiseman is. With penetrating insight, he identifies and rejects those stale old views, and goes on to show us how it ought to be done. He guides us through his people's history from the depths of time to the present day in a voice that is urgent, sensitive, and quite likeable. He makes no false pose of neutrality -- he is pro-Abenaki and puts his own and his people's views first -- yet he explains competing viewpoints more generously than most writers who do claim to be neutral. It feels like seeing in color for the first time, when before all you knew was black and white.

"Tradition of Western science", you just got served.

What's in the book )

What's not in the book )

Why a book about history moved me deeply )
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41. Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, The Four Immigrants Manga

This book is so freakin' awesome I can't even tell you. I love 20th-century memoir, I love San Francisco local history and I love graphic novels: The Four Immigrants Manga is a standout in all three categories. Even the tale of its rediscovery is freakin' awesome. Frederik L. Schodt was researching a book on Japanese manga in 1980 (how avant is THAT?) when he stumbled across this in a Berkeley library. It took another EIGHTEEN YEARS before his translation was published. Seriously, you should just go and read it right now. Schodt's translation is very clever and sensitive, with English and translated-Japanese rendered in different styles, so you always know where you are.

And the story itself, holy cow! It's the tale of the author, who came to San Francisco to study, and three friends he met on the boat. They land in 1904 and the book follows their lives for twenty years, so yes, there's a huge earthquake right up front, but in fact what happens after that is often even awesomer and stranger. (Hint: farm work is much harder than you think.) And it's funnier than hell. Can you tell that I liked it? The Four Immigrants Manga is one of those texts that reaches across a language barrier and a hundred years and shakes the teeth out of your head. It brings my beloved San Francisco to life in new ways. It should be required reading in California schools, and if it were, the kids would love it. BECAUSE IT'S GREAT.

42-3. Sanjay Patel, The Little Book of Hindu Deities and Ramayana: Divine Loophole

Actually all five of the books I'm reviewing today have strong links to the Bay Area, and that's because San Francisco is my adopted home and I love it like food. Go Giants! Patel is an animator at Pixar, across the Bay. I first encountered his Hindu-deity-art at his Web site, Ghee Happy, and I was one of many nagging him to just go publish a book already. Little Book is a useful reference, if you're like me and can't always keep your Gods straight, but Ramayana is an honest-to-God masterpiece. My husband read it to my daughters, aged 7 and 4, and they were spellbound by it every night. The illustrations are really beyond beautiful, and Chronicle Books has done a nice job with the binding: it's an object with heft and sheen, a desirable thing. Highly recommended, if only as a counterbalance to the Greek revival of the Percy Jackson series.

44. Jen Wang, Koko Be Good

Wang is another local graphic artist and Koko is not only set in San Francisco, like the great Wyatt Cenac film Medicine for Melancholy it's set in my San Francisco, south of Market Street, the San Francisco of beer at Zeitgeist and Al's Comics and the fog rolling in under Sutro Tower. It's intensely evocative and very good on random encounters and the strength of the relationships they can drag in their wake, especially for people in transition. If I found the ending both telegraphed and a bit unsatisfying, it's because I'm an extremely fussy old lady with brutally high standards in graphic novels. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, and if you like it you will love Paul Madonna's sublime All Over Coffee.

45. Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking

I've only just started reading this and it's going to take a while, because I will only read it during daylight, not while I am trying to go to sleep. Not since Truman Capote's In Cold Blood have I read anything that is quite so high-octane nightmare fuel, and for very much the same reasons: the killings it describes are real, random and purposeless, and the prose itself is beautiful, clear, organized and relentless.

One of the oldest cities of China, [Suchow] was prized for its delicate silk embroidery, palaces, and temples. Its canals and ancient bridges had earned the city its Western nickname as "the Venice of China." On November 19, on a morning of pouring rain, a Japanese advance guard marched through the gates of Suchow, wearing hoods that prevented the Chinese sentries from recognizing them. Once inside, the Japanese murdered and plundered the city for days, burning down ancient landmarks and abducting thousands of Chinese women for sexual slavery. The invasion, according to the China Weekly Review, caused the population of the city to drop from 350,000 to less than 500.
It's a controversial book - Wikipedia has some useful starting-points for a discussion of factual inaccuracies and disputed interpretations - and on the whole you'd probably rather not have it be the famous plagiarist Stephen Ambrose who declares you "one of the best of our young historians." But it is an important book, that helped revive the memory of Nanking in the West.

Chang took her own life in 2004, and I am sorry for the books of hers we will not get to read.
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9. Gita Mehta, Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of Modern India

Snakes and Ladders is a book of short essays (very short; I'd guess the average was three pages) on the modern history of India, written to celebrate the country's fifty anniversary in 1997. If you don't know anything about modern India, I think this would be a great place to start. If you already are familiar with the topic, this is probably not really the book for you, although it is certainly written in a very engaging style.

My favorite essays were the ones that didn't deal with history or politics at all, but recounted personal moments from Mehta's own life: how her mother was out at a club at 3am, dancing the foxtrot and the tango, when she went into labor to have Gita; the effect on her parents' marriage of their involvement in the Freedom Movement; how she grew up with a love of reading, thanks to the booksellers of Calcutta.

Recommended as a lighthearted but educational read.
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46) The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr

This is a survey of Shia history, culture, and politics by an Iranian-American academic. Nasr has several big theses: That Shia states would make a better ally for the West in the Middle East than Sunni states, that the Shia world is experiencing a revival of identity and culture as it challenges Sunni domination, but all are overshadowed by one primary theme: The West has historically done a poor job of understanding Shiism, and this needs to change fast.

I found I was mostly reading it as a vocabulary book, because it was stunning to me how words whose Western meaning I understand well hold totally different valences when you understand the history of Shiism and Sunnism in the Middle East. Words like 'democracy' or 'freedom' don't mean what I thought they meant. I feel like I've been having conversations for the past ten years where everyone was talking at crosspurposes, and I'm just now realizing.

Taking democracy as an example, some Shiite clerics have spent the past century positioning what I would term Islamic theocracy (velāyat-e faqīh) as the true democracy, because Islamic law is the true representation of the will of the people. This is by no means the only definition of democracy in circulation that Nasr shows, but Nasr vividly illustrates how this definition, which didn't originate with Khomeini but which he perhaps most prominently brought to the fore, influences even the most Western-minded Middle Easterners' understanding of the concept.

After brief but important discussion of the origins of Shiism and its historical touchstones (important because Nasr continually makes callbacks to these touchstones, showing how memories of Ali and Umar, memories of the Safavids and the Ottomans, continually influences the conversation in the Middle East in a similar way to how references to the Framers constantly influence American ideology and politics), Nasr spends most of the book on the political landscape of the past 30 years, essentially from the Iranian Revolution to today, showing how a major theme in the Middle Eastern political scene has been Shiites discovering a voice and learning how to use it. He spends a lot of time on the Iraq war, naturally given the book's publication in 2006, and the framework he has laid for understanding the war's Shia/Sunni dynamic in previous chapters makes his sections on the Iraq War incredibly potent. For me it was a string of sudden realizations, moments of shock when my past understanding of a concept combined with some new premise about Shia/Sunni politics to generate a new, deeper and more complicated vision of the war.
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48. B. B. Lal, The Sarasvati Flows On: The Continuity of Indian Culture

A short, easy-to-read (except for one chapter which seems to come from another book entirely) pop non-fiction summary of the Indus or Harappan Civilization, a Bronze Age culture located in the modern countries of India and Pakistan, which had its own writing system, cities, and art, and traded with cultures as far away as Mesopotamia. This is a very nice introduction to the topic, which covers most of the main points and has lots of nice photographs. It's shorter and probably a better book for the non-academic audience than most other summaries of the Indus I know of; on the other hand, Lal is seriously influenced by his personal politics in choosing what and how to discuss. But for someone who is new to the topic, this would be a great book.

49. Lisa Trivedi, Clothing Gandhi's Nation: Homespun and Modern India

A really fascinating investigation of one aspect of the Indian Independence movement. Gandhi was highly in favor of khadi- homemade thread and cloth- and thought that everyone who wanted to see India out from under British rule should not only use and wear khadi exclusively, but should spend half an hour a day making it. He thought that this would restore dignity to the working class, as well as provide a way for India's economy to escape the influence of the British factory system. Needless to say, not everyone actually wanted to spend that much time spinning thread, and the debates around the topic resemble the modern arguments over buying local/fair-trade/organic/etc. Trivedi provides a great account of these debates, the way they changed over time, and how khadi continues to function in the Indian political sphere; she even includes political cartoons about it! This is a non-fiction academic book, but very accessible; highly recommended.

50. Kajri Jain, Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art

Calendar art (aka bazaar art aka chromolithographs aka poster art) is a particular style of vividly colored, mass-produced art popular in India, particularly in calendars and advertisements, usually depicting religious images. Jain's book takes this often-ignored art seriously, investigating multiple realms of the topic: who produces calendar art? who buys it? how has it changed over time? what do artists say about it? how does it circulate? Despite the subtitle, she really doesn't address the economy of it, but instead focuses on meanings and interpretations. This book is another non-fiction academic title, and one a bit harder to get into than Clothing Gandhi's Nation. But it does have lots of pretty pictures!
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44. Jeniffer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food

A pop non-fiction book covering pretty much every possible topic related to Chinese food in America. There are chapters on the origins of American-Chinese dishes (fortune cookies, chop suey, General Tso's chicken), a history of Chinese immigration to America, the risks taken by deliverymen (including a horrifying story of a deliveryman who got trapped in an elevator for several days, which I took the opportunity to retell when I was briefly stuck in an elevator myself last week, possibly terrifying the people stuck with me), the story of a family who buys a Chinese restaurant, people who have won the lottery using numbers from fortune cookies, and others. I think my favorite chapter was the one where Lee sets out to find the best Chinese restaurant in the world, outside of China itself.

Overall, this is a light, fun read. I have no idea how the book actually originated, but it reads a lot like Lee (who is a journalist) found some vaguely-related articles and reworked them into a book. Which is not necessarily a flaw; it makes for a very breezy book, which is sometimes what I'm in the mood for.
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This illustrated history of Chinese emperors is rather hectic and hard to follow if you’re as ignorant of Chinese history as I am, as it’s a 180 page book which begins with the invention of fire and concludes with the Qing Dynasty. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining introduction to a vast history.

Rather than attempting a summary, I will simply excerpt some of my favorite bits:

In particular, he [Shennong] is remembered for tasting hundreds of wild herbs in order to find remedies to treat his people’s illnesses. In the process, he suffered from poisoning, even to the extent of being poisoned 70 times on a particular day. Eventually, he tasted a lethal wild herb which tore his intestines apart, and it became known as duanchangcao*

*Herb that tears the intestines apart.

It may be said that the Qin Dynasty was destroyed by eunuch intervention.

This two-panel comic sequence should give you an idea of the “1000 years of history in 15 minutes” flavor of the book:

Panel 1: Emperor Gaozong (peeking into temple to meet Wu Zetian): “Dear, come back to the palace with me.”

Panel 2: Wu Zetian (with sheaf of papers): “I’ve drafted the 12 Guiding Principles for administrative, military, economic, social, and cultural affairs.”

Emperor Gaozong (holding hand over eyes): “I’m weak in health and have contracted an eye disease. You may decide any good policies.”

I note that there is a companion book, Infamous Chinese Emperors, which I sadly don’t own.

Compiled and Illustrated by Tian Hengyu. View on Amazon: Great Chinese Emperors - Tales of Wise and Benevolent Rule
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40. Reza Aslan, How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror

A non-fiction pop book dealing with a wide range of subjects, from the history of the state of Israel, to the difference between Islamist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadist groups like al-Qa'ida (as well as the inaccuracy of referring to al-Qa'ida as any kind of unified group), to historical examples of other 'cosmic wars' such as the Crusades or the Zealot rebellions of the Roman Empire, to the history of Fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, to others. He doesn't always tie these many, many topics together as tightly as one might wish, but if you look at the book as a smorgasbord of various information about the "war on terror", it's a pretty awesome book.

One of my favorite things about Aslan is that he's a much more lyrical, thoughtful writer than I tend to expect from pop non-fiction. Let me quote a paragraph at you: "When I close my eyes, I see white. Strange how synesthetic memory can be. I am certain the insular town of Enid, Oklahoma, where my family alighted three decades ago, was chockablock with buildings, homes, churches, parks. And surely other seasons came and went in the stretch of time we lived there, months when the city's empty streets were not blanketed in snow and the sky did not rumble with dark and silvery clouds. But I remember none of that. Only the clean, all-encompassing whiteness of Enid, Oklahoma, snow as it heaped on the sidewalks, perched on the trees, and settled evenly over the glassy lake." See? How can you not be willing to spend a couple of hundred pages with the man, even if he wasn't telling you fascinating, important things.

Overall, I think I prefer Aslan's other book, No God But God, to this one, but for a broad summary of many things relating to modern Middle Eastern politics and the American response, this book is great.
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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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