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[personal profile] brainwane
I read The Underground Railroad in 2016. I thought it was engaging, moving, and accessible,* and I nominated it for a Hugo Award (Best Novel).

Na'amen Gobert Tilahun reviewed Underground Airlines as well as The Underground Railroad in Strange Horizons and discussed several aspects of both books. That review mentions speculative elements in Whitehead's book beyond the railroad mentioned in the title, in case you are wary of spoilers.

I have read John Henry Days, The Intuitionist, and I think at least one other Whitehead book, and am trying to reflect on how Whitehead approaches and uses the railroad, because I think it's different than the way a lot of speculative fiction authors do, and has more in common with how other mimetic fiction authors tend to use speculative premises. I want to compare The Underground Railroad to Never Let Me Go, where the story doesn't concentrate on (or, sometimes, even mention) the origin story of the big plot premise, and instead the story is entirely about the lives of people living or resisting -- just for themselves, to survive or thrive -- within that system.

* I think Whitehead deliberately works to make the book accessible to people who have not previously read slave narratives, fictional or nonfiction -- I think he spells out subtext more often than he would if he assumed the reader had more of a grounding in antebellum history or the history of anti-black racism in the US.
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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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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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46. Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer

Big Ma said Cecile lived on the street. The park bench was her bed. She lived in a hole in the wall.

You can't say stuff like that to a kid asking about her mother when it's snowing outside or pouring down raining. You can't say, "Your mother lives on the street, in a hole in the wall, sleeping on park benches next to winos."
It is 1968. Three black girls fly from New York to Oakland to get acquainted with their mother, Cecile Johnson. Told in 11-year-old Delphine's wry voice, which never strains credulity, this deft book paints a vivid picture of Oakland and San Francisco at a moment of upheaval whose reverberations are still being felt around here, and elsewhere.

One Crazy Summer is the rare and brilliant Young Adult novel in which - without violating the constraints of the genre - every character is given his or her due. Everyone came from somewhere, everyone needs and wants something; everyone is capable of surprising depths and shallows. People change in plausible ways. Even the poetry woven into the story is convincing, and good; when does that EVER happen?

Slight as it is (I snorfled it down in a few hours) this book is as weighty as its themes, without ever losing its sense of humor. Very, very highly recommended.
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14. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Mistress of Spices

A sort-of fantasy novel about Tilo, a 'Mistress of Spices'- immortal, mystical women, trained in magic and secret knowledge, sent out into the world to help people. Tilo is sent to Oakland, California, where she slowly becomes personally involved in the lives of the people around her, and begins to reveal her own backstory.

This novel is very hard to describe, because it doesn't have much of a plot for most of its length. Instead, it's full of beautiful, poetic descriptions of spices and food, magic, Oakland and imaginary places like the Island where Mistresses are trained. Some parts are very realistic; others involve rampaging pirate queens or singing sea serpents. It took me a while to get into this book, because the beginning is very slow, but by the end I was in love. The language is incredibly evocative, and the resolution felt just right. I really grew to like the characters, particularly Tilo, who shows herself to be much more of a flawed human than any mystical fairy.

Highly recommended.
chomiji: An artists' palette with paints of many human skin colors. Caption: Create a world without racism (IBARW - palette)
[personal profile] chomiji

It's highly unlikely that Maxine Kiss would ever fall for a sparkly vampire.

Maxine is the latest scion of a millennia-old family of demon hunters who are always female. She is also a living embodiment of the trope "Good Is Not Nice." Aided by a quintet of specialized demons who have assisted the Hunters throughout their history, Maxine ruthlessly annihilates evil wherever she finds it, and then she and her Boys go looking for more. Their usual prey are zombies, which in this scenario are humans possessed by relatively weak demons, but greater demons are in just as much danger whenever Maxine detects them.

This is not to say that Maxine is cold-hearted. In fact, she is fiercely loving. But her vulnerabilities are those of many badass male characters: her friends, her loved ones, her sense of honor. It makes me ferociously happy that her femininity is not used as a weakness.

During the course of these three volumes, Maxine discovers that she might, in fact, be not only the latest of the Hunters, but the last. She uncovers secrets about her family and her ancestry, learns about some of the other major players in the fate of the world (and finds that some of them are much closer to her than she would ever have guessed), and kicks a lot of ass. This is an Earth in which demonic chaos is constantly lurking behind the scenes, but most people are going about their ordinary lives with no knowledge of it. There are lots of pop culture references and in-jokes, and sometimes I think that Liu is working some of her shticks a little too hard, but generally the storyline races along with vivid language and terrific momentum.

I've seen these billed as paranormal romance, but although there is a small amount of romance during the course of the series, these are probably better classified as urban fantasy. There's considerable violence, too.

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8. Anne Cherian, A Good Indian Wife

Leila is a teacher in a small South Indian town, who's beginning to worry that she might be too old to find a husband. Suneel is a doctor in San Francisco with a white girlfriend and no interest in returning to India. However, when Suneel goes to visit his sick grandfather, family machinations arrange a marriage between the two almost before they know what's happened. Now Leila has to adjust to her new husband and life in America, while Suneel strives to change as little as possible (including continuing the relationship with the girlfriend) and plots ways out of the marriage.

This book is a bit of a fairy tale, but despite that, it was a fun, quick read. I never felt very sympathetic to Suneel (HE'S TOTALLY A JERK, COME ON, HE DIDN'T BREAK UP WITH HIS GIRLFRIEND), but Leila is a great, interesting character, and I really enjoyed spending time with her. The writing is very good, and I was okay with the predictable plot for the sake of the vivid descriptions of food, clothing, sight-seeing, and Leila's gradual adjustments.

Not a deep book, but an enjoyable one. Recommended.
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7. Jamaica Kincaid, Lucy

This very short novel (though apparently heavily based on Kincaid's real life) follows Lucy, a young woman who moves from the Caribbean to New York City to become a nanny for a wealthy white family. There's little plot, and instead the book reads like a series of vignettes about Lucy's life, interspersed with memories of her childhood. The mother Lucy works for treats her more like a friend than an employee, leading to difficulties; Lucy adjusts to life in a new country; Lucy makes friends and has relationships. Despite relatively little happening, this is a powerful book. I found Lucy to be an insightful, cynical character, and really enjoyed her voice.

I actually read this book back in January and just have been terribly lazy about getting around to posting this review, but one scene in particular has stuck with me all this time: in New York, one day Lucy sees daffodils for the first time. However, as a child, Lucy memorized a poem about daffodils to recite at a school assembly, despite never having seen the flowers and their not growing in her country. This metaphor for the insidious results of colonialism and the ways it affects people really hit home.
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6. Paula Yoo, Good Enough

Patti is a Korean-American high school student who plays classical violin but has a secret obsession with boy band Jet Pack. Her parents expect her to study hard, go to her church youth group, and not date, but she's interested in new student Ben Wheeler, who teaches her about groups like the Clash and encourages her to apply to Julliard instead of HarvardYalePrinceton. I really enjoyed both Patti's problems and their resolution; it felt very true to me. Just as a personal note, I always love it when I find a well-written intelligent character, and Patti very much is. Many books will tell the reader that a character is smart, but it's rare for me to find one that can actually show it.

This isn't a deep book, but it's fun and engaging. It had some very funny parts, particularly the silly chapter titles (like "How to Make Your Korean Parents Happy") and spam recipes (which, uh, actually sounded really tasty, and I hate spam). A great read for when you want something light but enjoyable.
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4. Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them

Elif Batuman, a Turkish-American woman who wants to grow up to become a writer, instead somehow finds herself getting a PhD in Russian literature. This collection of essays is about her graduate school experience (including endless questions on why she studies Russian literature instead of Turkish). Each of the essays focus on a particular moment in her studies: the trauma of attempting to help step up and run a conference, attending the quite strange International Tolstoy Conference in Russia despite the airline having lost her luggage, writing a paper on an ice palace in St. Petersburg, her relationship with another student. It's a very funny book, although unfortunately the essays don't hang together very well, and there's no sort of overall narrative. My favorite parts were the strange people she had to deal with, many of whom will probably sound familiar to anyone who has had to deal with academics.

In my opinion, the best essays were those dealing with the summer Batuman lived in Uzbekistan, in order to learn the language. You see, at her school PhD students are required to teach Russian 101 to undergraduates. However, as one of the few students who is not a native Russian speaker, Batuman is afraid to take on teaching this class, convinced that she'll make too many mistakes. So when she hears about an opportunity to teach Uzbek instead, she goes for it. Of course, she doesn't speak Uzbek, but neither does anyone else at the school, so they won't know if she messes up. And so she heads off to Uzbekistan for the summer. As you could probably guess, it does not work out as she expected.

A very funny book, although fairly forgettable. A fun read.
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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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These two articles are available for free online here at Project Gutenberg. They are "My Escape From Slavery" and "Reconstruction".

Douglass is a fantastic essayist. His story of his escape from slavery is riveting: it's tense, dramatic, and passionate. His experience of life in the free North afterward is also briefly detailed, and again well-chronicled. He is honest and not romantic about the shortcomings of life there, yet has an optimism and drive for life that was very inspiring to read. His recollection of his feelings upon earning his first coins as a free man was a highlight.

"Reconstruction" is about states' rights vs. federal rights and emancipation. It's a pretty interesting look into political affairs after the US Civil War, and much of it still feels very relevant today (sometimes, sadly).

I plan to read his memoirs shortly, but wonder if anyone has etexts of any other articles/essays. When I downloaded this one, I was disappointed to find it was only two articles, rather than a true collection. Thanks!
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47. Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others

A book of science fiction short stories, but in focusing on more actual science (math, physics, linguistics) and less space ships and laser guns. In a lot of Chiang's stories, a scientific principle or observation becomes a metaphor for something about life: the possibility (or impossibility) of dividing by zero is about a relationship; the angle at which light hits water is about free will and motherhood; lesions in the brain are about the concept of beauty. My favorite two stories are 'The Tower of Babylon' (BRONZE AGE SCIENCE FICTION OMG), which takes the concept of the tower of Babel and looks at what it would be like it people could actually build a tower to heaven, and 'Understand', which is a bit like 'Flowers for Algernon' with a twist: a regular guy becomes incredibly smart due to medical intervention. It's extremely rare to find well-written smart characters, but Chiang does it beautifully. There are several stories where Chiang takes seriously past scientific paradigms, like in 'The Tower of Babylon', which assumes that there actually are a celestial spheres, or another story about Victorian theories of evolution and reproduction.

I really enjoyed these stories. I'm not a big fan of science-fiction in general, but Chiang's style is just awesome.
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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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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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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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42. Diana Abu-Jaber, Origin

Abu-Jaber is totally my new favorite author. She has an amazing, vivid way of describing things, particularly places, which I adore. In this book, the setting is Syracuse, New York in the middle of winter, and everything about that is so exactly described: the particular blues and white of winter light, early twilights, lead-colored skies, too much wind, the look of snow falling in the early morning, black ice on the streets, the feelings of isolation, claustrophobia, and loneliness that winter often inspires, cold air in your lungs.

The plot is about Lena, who works as a fingerprint examiner in a police office. There's a case involving a dead baby that the medical examiner ruled to be SIDS, but which the mother swears was a murder, saying that she heard footsteps in her empty house just before finding that her baby had died. Meanwhile, Lena has been doing research into her own past: she was adopted at three, and has only strange, vague memories of the time before that- rain forests, monkeys, a plane crash- and no one seems to know if these memories are real, metaphorical, or just a three-year-old's daydreams.

Everything eventually turns out to be connected, of course, but the revelations still surprised me. This novel is completely different in voice from everything else Abu-Jaber has written; it's almost a thriller, with a tense, brooding tone that fits perfectly with the mysteries and the cold winter. Highly recommended.
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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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Writers of Color 50 Books Challenge

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