Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Harrisburg Book Festival - A Recap

October 12-15 was the 5th annual Harrisburg Book Festival.  After having to travel to Philly or DC for bookish events, it was exciting to have such a grand bookish celebration right in my proverbial backyard.  Midtown Scholar Bookstore organized and played host to the entire Festival, which was no small undertaking.  A few months in advance, they started releasing social media teasers of what events to look forward to, and it was all very exciting - some nationally-recognized and award-winning authors as well as local literary denizens.  When the full schedule was released, it was very exciting - a weekend full of presentations, conversations, and interactive events.  I marked my calendar, and took part in as much of the festival as I could.

Opening Night

The opening night of the Festival was devoted to music and poetry.  Local musician Shawan Rice played a set, and her soulful, bluesy voice truly set the tone for the rest of the evening.  There were three poets in attendance this evening, and all three read extensively from their published collections.

The first reader was Shara McCallum, Penn State professor of English and Liberal Arts, who shared poems from her collection Madwoman.  Her homeland of Jamaica and her coming-of-age in the US feature heavily in the poems, as do her experiences as a light-skinned black woman in the Western world.  Joshua Bennett was next, and he read poems from The Sobbing School.  The recent Princeton University PhD graduate and postdoctoral fellow at MIT had by far the most engaging and enthusiastic style of reading.  His words flowed deftly from humor to anger and sadness, and took the audience along with him.  More than just myself got a little emotional from time to time during his reading.  The final poet was Safiya Sinclair, whose collection Cannibal has won numerous awards.  She also drew upon her Jamaican upbringing and experiences in the US for her poetry.  Especially exciting were some not-yet-published poems that she chose to read at the end of the evening - one of which was written as a palindrome.  Shawan Rice returned to the stage to wrap up the evening, and the poets signed copies of their books.  It was an inspirational, emotional, and wonderful beginning to the weekend.


In one of the most exciting turns of the entire Festival, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was revealed to be the keynote speaker.  An exten and the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, both at American University, Dr. Kendi is the author of the groundbreaking 2016 National Book Award winning nonfiction book Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.  I absolutely loved the book, and you can check out some of my feelings here.  Takeaways - Read. This. Book. Now.

After a warm introduction by Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, Dr. Kendi gave a powerful and inspirational presentation.  He talked about how he came to write his book, the importance of this kind of work in our modern era, and read a bit from Stamped from the Beginning.  Afterward, the floor was opened to the audience for a Q&A session, followed by a signing.  It was really thrilling to spend the evening with an author and academic of his brilliance, and to hear about his work directly from himself.  It truly was an honor.


In the morning on Saturday was a block of programming geared exclusively toward younger readers.  A local theater troop was putting on a special performance of Aesop's Fables, children's book authors were having storytime and signing books, there were arts and crafts activities for older kids, and - most exciting of all - there was a large selection of free, brand new books that children could take home with them to read.  As I don't have any little ones in my life (and I like to sleep in on the weekends whenever possible) I didn't partake of any of the KidsFest, but it sounded like a lot of fun!

Book Critics Roundtable

The only event I was able to attend on Saturday was a roundtable discussion between four renowned book critics - Bethanne Patrick, Susan Coll, Marion Winik, and moderated by Harvey Freedenberg.  They have been published in digital and print publications including Kirkus Review, Lit Hub, NY Times Review of Books, and many more.  Some of the panelists have been (or are currently) NPR and local radio contributors.  They have all been in the book industry for a long time, and had interesting perspectives on the art, science, and business of reviewing books.  

This panel was, unfortunately, the only one I could attend on Saturday, but I was really glad that I could be there.  As someone who is a casual book reviewer, it was fascinating to hear the contributors talk about what life is like as a professional reviewer of books.  For example, a book review doesn't pay that much (maybe $200), so if you're considering becoming a professional reviewer, be aware that you probably will need a day job or some other source of income. 

They began the discussion by talking about the purpose of book reviews, and what they should accomplish.  The purpose is twofold: 1. Interest general readers in a book/influence sales, and 2. Become part of the larger cultural conversation in which the author and the book function.  They all agreed that, when being critical of a book, it's important to meet the book on its own terms, rather than what the reviewer wanted the book to be.  In other words, don't blame the author for not achieving what she/he did not set out to do.  They also discussed the role of negative criticism and how they handle giving a book a poor review.  Some of the panelists had published books, so they could talk about reviewing from the perspective of the one doing the reviewing, and the one who wrote the work that is being reviewed. 

At the end of the discussion, each of the panelists listed two books that they were really excited about in 2017.  Harvey Freedenberg recommended Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, and The Mountain by Paul Yoon.  Susan Coll recommended Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives and The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis.  Bethanne Patrick recommended Home Fires by Kamila Shamsie, and Based On a True Story by Delphine de Vigan.  Finally, Marion Winik recommended Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin and Theft By Finding by David Sedaris.  Some of these I have read, some are on my shelves, and some I had never heard of, so I'd consider it an interesting mix.  The discussion on book reviewing was generally thoughtful and insightful, but it is worth noting that all of the panelists were white.  As they were talking, I wondered what the discussion would and could have been like had there been more diversity on the panel.

Creativity, Inspiration, and Novels

Bethanne Patrick stuck around for the next panel, talking about the roles of creativity and inspiration in the writing process with The Atlantic's Joe Fassler.  After that, authors Jennifer Haigh and Liz Moore took to stage to discuss their novels, Heat & Light and The Unseen World.  I was sad to be unable to attend either of these events, because they sounded like they would be engaging and thought-provoking discussions.

The Finale

Sunday, the last day of the Harrisburg Book Festival, featured three presentations about three really interesting books.  Elizabeth Wein was a Harrisburg native who moved to Scotland, and wrote her historical novel The Pearl Thief which features a Scottish influence.  Damion Searls explored the world of Rorschach inkblot tests in his nonfiction tome The Power of Seeing: Rorschach, the Inkblots, and the Enduring Relevance of the Iconic Test.  Finally, to close out the weekend, Ruth Franklin discussed her biography of the novelist Shirley Jackson, diving into aspects of her life not commonly known, called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life.  Sadly, I was unable to attend any of Sunday's events; I was really unhappy to have missed Ruth Franklin's presentation, because of my deep love of Shirley Jackson.  I intend to check out her book very soon.


Although I wasn't able to go to every single event, I had a wonderful time partaking in the Harrisburg Book Festival.  The variety of activities, panels, and presentations was thoughtful and inclusive.  A night completely devoted to poetry was refreshing, and the selection of poets was stellar.  The keynote was absolutely relevant, not only to the local community but to society at large.  I'd say that the 2017 Harrisburg Book Festival was a huge success.  I'm already looking forward to 2018!

Librorum annis,

Monday, October 16, 2017

Stamped From the Beginning

What Ibram X. Kendi accomplishes in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is threefold: To present a biography of worldwide racism and its associated ideas from the earliest recorded history; to thoroughly and systematically demonstrate how those ideas have invaded all levels of American social, political, and cultural spheres; and to illustrate the disastrous consequences of those racist ideas.  Throughout the history of racist ideas, Kendi masterfully weaves in the perspectives of five prominent black figures throughout history, including W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Y. Davis, acting as tour guides for the reader from the early 1600's into the early moments of the presidency of Barack Obama. 

Kendi presents there as being three sides to any perspective on race: Assimilation, segregation, and anti-racism.  Assimilationists believe that non-whites would be better off if they just became more like white people in their appearance, behaviors, beliefs, and so on.  Segregationists want to separate non-white people from the rest of white society.  Subscribers to either of these two perspectives inherently believe that non-white people are inherently lesser than white people, and need the benevolence of white society to improve them.  The anti-racist perspective holds that there are no inherent differences between white folk and non-white folk, and that they should be treated in complete equality; any differences are entirely a product of the racist policies and beliefs that have been imposed on non-white people by those in power (who are not always 100% white people). 

In fact, Kendi reveals that there is a long history of racist ideas being internalized by non-whites and then leveled back on their own people.  This makes racism a very complicated issue to try and untwin from the history and identity of America itself.  In each of the five "tour guides" who lead us through the history of racist ideas, as well as the many philosophers/writers/activists/politicians/etc., the author is unafraid to expose the racist ideas that they themselves believed.  There are some true surprises, including that some black figures, whom are generally regarded as non-racists, in fact internalized and spread horrible racist ideas.  In the introduction, Kendi, himself, admits to harboring racist ideas as he researched Stamped from the Beginning.  As I was reading the book, I recognized a few positions that I could recall myself or friends/family espousing.  The desire for people of all classes to want to have someone to look down on, therefore uplifting themselves (whether only in their imaginations or not), is a pervasive and highly damaging aspect of American society. 

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is a groundbreaking work of scholarship and social criticism.  The author's exploration of racist ideas, and how they function in partnership with discrimination, will hopefully open eyes, minds, and hearts to how America has become the highly racially charged nation that it is today.  With this information, hopefully the readership will be inspired to make positive changes in their own spheres and the larger American culture to inform about the nonsense that racist ideas truly are, and to move toward empathy and equality.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Art of Failing: Notes from the Underdog by Anthony McGowan

The Art of Failing is a humorous glance into daily life in West Hampstead, London, with the author, Anthony McGowan.  Structured as a diary and organized by season, there are daily-ish entries outlining something humorous/bizarre/unexpected that happened to the author that day, or at least a noteworthy observation.  Sometimes it's a mundane activity where the author has an awkward encounter, other times it's something monumental.  It's the author's employment of sarcastic and neurotic internal monologue mixed with his dry wit that makes The Art of Failing highly entertaining to read.

In one entry, dated September 6th, the author is working on a writing project in a reading room of the British Library. Possible titles for his new book are "The Constituents of Glass, The Deaf and Dumb Sex Machine, Handlebar, Nigel's Adventures in Nymphland" so you can tell he's got the beginnings of a winning story. The library has a strict no-food policy, but McGowan sneaks a banana in with him for a snack. He talks about his banana-neutral feelings up until that point, but it became a symbol of the progress he was making in his writing, even if that progress was just coming up with more book titles.  It was a well-deserved break, and he now relished that banana.  He also relished the act of writing on the banana with a ballpoint pen, because of how the pressure allows the pen to sink into the peel in a satisfying way. 

On this particular day, he was in the reading room as normal when he felt an oncoming sneeze.  In a hurry to empty his pockets, to locate his handkerchief, he absentmindedly set the banana on the table near to the man seated beside him, working.  Just as he located the handkerchief, his urge to sneeze subsided.  The man next to McGowan gave him a strange look, "an extreme wariness bordering on hostility", and that's when the author looked down at the banana on the table between them.  That day, he had written "I love you" on its peel, because that piece of fruit had become a central figure in his daily work life.  However, the stranger beside him assumed that the message on the banana was for him, and reacted as you might react if a strange man put a "banana love bomb" in your general direction.  At this embarrassment, McGowan packed up his things and resolved to work in a different reading room for the foreseeable future. 

Other entries involve encounters with possible-transsexuals at paint counters, musing on quantum physics via holey socks, and reading student reviews of his teaching courses.  There's a lot of diversity in the topics that he selects, so it never feels like you're reading about the same things over and over and over.  The strength of this book is its language; it's really the way that the author selects and employs his phrasing that makes the writing so good.

The narration has a strong neurotic and self-conscious vein, putting the author in good company with the characters on the TV show Seinfeld.  That was known as the "Show About Nothing", and I would argue that The Art of Failing could be a "Book About Nothing".  Further, McGowan's plentiful dry humor lends itself to close comparisons to David Sedaris' writing.  In particular, Sedaris' most recent book, Theft By Finding, was a collection of his diary entries for I suspect that, like Sedaris, the work would be lifted to a whole new level by listening it in audio...if it's narrated by the author.  There's something about humor authors that just enhance the whole experience, like taking a giggle to a belly-laugh. 

Overall, I really enjoyed spending time with Anthony McGowan and his West Hampstead escapades and awkward encounters.  His humor and self-consciousness play well within each story, and his wide variety of story topics keep the reading experience fresh.  Because many of the diary entries are a full page or less in length, it's an easy book to pick up and put down at will.  In fact, it would be great to keep by  your bedside to read before nodding off to sleep, or when waking up.  If you're a fan of the author David Sedaris, the TV show Seinfeld, or just humorous outlooks on life in general, you should check out The Art of Failing by Anthony McGowan.

Librorum annis,

Monday, October 9, 2017

We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America

For those who don't experience it, the concept of "passing" might sound like a foreign concept.  Brando Skyhorse, editor and contributor of We Wear the Mask: 15 Stories of Passing in America, defines passing is "when someone tries to get something tangible to improve their daily quality of life by occupying a space meant for someone else".  But how does this work?

Perhaps you remember Rachel Dolezal, civil rights activist, graduate of a historically black university, instructor of Africana studies, and past president of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP.  She was believed to be African-American because of her appearance: A lightly tanned skin color, voice, and dark textured hair.  In 2015, she applied to be appointed as the Chair of the Police Ombudsman Commission in Spokane, listing her ethnicity as multi, including "black".  During an investigation into her application, it was discovered that she was not African-American at all.  In fact, her ancestry was almost exclusively European for the past four centuries, as corroborated by her parents who admitted that she was a white woman passing as black.  Rachel Dolezal, who legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo in 2016, chose to pass as black, for reasons that have not been fully explained.  In We Wear the Mask, the reader learns of many other situations of passing, and the reasons why it was necessary for the writer to present her/himself as someone else.

Out of the 15 essays, there are three that I found particularly illustrative.  In the editor's essay, "College Application Essay #2", he ruminates on the college application process, and what ethnicity he should select on the application form and what he should write about for the essay portion.  Brando was born to Mexican parents, but after his father abandoned the family, when the author was a toddler, his mother reinvented herself as Native American - calling herself Running Deer Skyhorse, and Brando Ulloa became Brando Skyhorse.  He was raised as if he was from a Native American ancestry, and both he and his mother passed as Native American to those they encountered.  It wasn't until the author was 13 that he learned the truth of his background, and from then on he struggled with what racial group he identified and who he believed he was.

Patrick Rosal's essay is written in epistolary form, addressed to "Lady at Table 24".  He is a published poet and writer, and winner of the Asian American Studies Book Award, Global Filipino Literacy Award, the Asian American Writers Workshop Members' Choice Award, and a Fulbright scholarship.  Patrick was attending that year's National Book Awards ceremony to support some fellow writers, who were nominated. Dressed in the required black tie, enjoying the fine food and drink, he's having a grand time.  That is, until he is intercepted by an unknown woman, when he is on his way across the ballroom to speak to a friend.  This unknown woman, the "Lady at Table 24", blocks his path and for a second Patrick thinks he knows her from somewhere, because otherwise why would someone interrupt him?  That is, until she asks him for more napkins and silverware.  From this, the author reflects on how clothing can be used to identify people, to change people's identities, and how sometimes those things get mixed and muddled.  How you can wear an expensive suit, attend a fancy party, and still be confused for the help.

In a divergence from the deeply individualistic essays about passing in America, Dolen Perkins-Valdez presents a compelling essay about how America itself passes.  In "On Historical Passing and Erasure", the author argues that the USA, through the way it selectively idolizes historical figures, the history it chooses to teach to its students, and the ways in which it rewards its citizens,  it tries to pass as a democratic country that is truly devoted to "liberty and justice for all", not just a select few.

Other essays discuss religious passing - for example having Jewish heritage and surname, but none of the stereotypical physical markers that others identify with Jews, so that you are almost always treated as a gentile and have to explain why those antisemitic jokes aren't funny.  Other essays explore the complications of passing as a cis-gendered heterosexual, when you truly identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.  There is a wealth of diverse experiences here, but they certainly do not compose the entirety of what it is like to pass in America.

I would highly recommend We Wear the Mask: 15 Stories of Passing in America, especially if you're interested in the concept of "passing", and what it's like from a personal perspective.  Each of the contributors offers a glimpse into what it is like to live in America, when your identity is in flux.  Who you are, and how you present yourself can be an easy choice, or it can be a lifelong struggle.  Whatever your experience, you will probably find some essays that will speak to you.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, October 5, 2017

This & That Book Tag

As you know by now, I love a good book tag.  I really enjoy a chance to think about books in a new way, and tag questions encourage me to do just that.  Recently, I encountered the "This and That" book tag, via Booktuber

Which is your oldest book and your newest?

I wish I could say that I've saved a beloved book from my childhood, but sadly that isn't the case.  Between moves, storage space disasters, and outgrowing things, I don't have any books of old, emotional value.  The oldest (by publication date) books on my shelves are a two-volume set of The Life of Abraham Lincoln, written by Ida Tarbell.  These books were published in 1900, and were a very thoughtful gift from a family member.

As for newest books, there are quite a few 2017 releases on my shelves, but the newest is Five Carat Soul by James McBride, which was released on September 26, 2017.

Which is your biggest book (size, not page length) and the smallest?

Measuring at a whopping 2 1/4" thick, Haymarket Books' hardcopy, centennial re-release of Leon Trotsky's The History of the Russian Revolution is the biggest book on my shelves.  The smallest book is a thin collection of essays called Black Writers Redefine the Struggle: A Tribute to James Baldwin, edited by Jules Chametzky, just weighing coming in at 1/4" thick.

Which are the longest book you own and the shortest?

By pure page numbers, the longest single book on my shelves is the Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, which tops out at 1312.  The shortest book is definitely Toni Morrison's The Nobel Lecture in Literature, at 40 pages.

Which is your most expensive book and which was the best bargain?

I'm such an omnivorous book purchaser, that it's hard to keep track (and I don't keep a record of dollar amounts spent on individual books - partly for my own sanity) of which books hurt my wallet the most.  So, I have absolutely no idea which of my books is the most expensive.  The biggest bargains are those books that I get at library book sales, where any book is usually between $1-3.  There are too many for me to select one to share here; I'd wager that at least 30% of my books came from library book sales.

What are, in your opinion, the most beautiful cover on your shelves and the ugliest?

I talked about pretty books not that long ago, and I chose the omnibus of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy as the most beautiful book.  However, as I've been thinking about it today, I think I'm going to pick the naked hardback Envelope Poems by Emily Dickinson, beautifully published by indie press New Directions.  It's a lovely light shade of blue, and seems more like an artifact than a book you'd find in the New Releases section of a bookstore.

I don't like calling a book cover ugly, because what "ugly" looks like can change radically from year to year.  A design that I don't care for in 2017 might have been really desirable when the book was published.  One exception to this are "movie/TV covers" for books, which I never think are particularly beautiful.  One example of this is my edition of Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, which I picked up at a library book sale for $1.  Although the story and the movie on which it was based are beautiful, this tie-in cover is not my favorite.

What is your favorite book and what's one that you really disliked?

I couldn't possibly pick a single book that's my "favorite", but these five are among the ones I like best:

Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Moby-Dick or The Whale, by Herman Melville
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

I don't care for discussing books I really didn't like, so I'm going to skip the second part of this question.

Name a book that made you cry, and one that made you laugh.

The most recent book that made me shed tears was Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir of the 2016 presidential election cycle, What Happened.  There were such evocative moments that took place just after the unbelievable results of the election; they brought me right back to the head-space I was in at that time, which brought forth tears now just as I experienced then.

As for laughter, I can always count on David Sedaris' wry observations and dark comedy to make me giggle.  My favorites of his collections are Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

What book warmed your heart, and which one made you shiver?

There's an assertion, that I hear here and there throughout the bookish community, that there aren't any "happy" books being published anymore.  I disagree! I read and loved Robin Sloan's Sourdough last month, and I found it to be a heartwarming read about a young woman, a magical sourdough culture starter, and their journey of self-discovery through food and technology.  There's nothing especially sinister in the story, and it has quite a happy ending.

On the other end of the spectrum, the shiver-inducing books I've read recently are non-fiction accounts of the horrors that befall many Americans every day - racism, sexism, undue targeting by governmental and law enforcement officials, and bodily violence. Tears We Cannot Stop, by Michael Eric Dyson; Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward; and Between the World and Me. by Ta-Nehisi Coates. They are scary because they are true.

What's one book you can't wait to read, and one that you've been putting off?

When I buy books, I'm always excited to get to reading them...until other new books compete for attention.  The exception is any book I borrow from my local libraries, which have an expiration date.  So, the one book I CANNOT wait to read is usually the one that I most recently added to my shelves, or the one that's due back to the library the soonest.  Right now, that is We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Recommend a book that you would like more people to read, and anti-recommend a book that wasn't as good as you expected.

In general, I'd love to see more people reading poetry.  Many of us have bad associations with poetry from studying it in school, and never go back to it later in life.  As a gateway between reading prose and poetry, I'd highly recommend Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry.  You can check out my full review here, but it's a great resource to use if you're interested in reading poetry but aren't sure how to go about it.  Once you've read that, I have a few diverse poetry collections to recommend:

  1. I Shall Not Be Moved, by Maya Angelou (easy to read structure but hard-hitting topics)
  2. My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter, by Aja Monet (pertinent topics and lots of compelling imagery)
  3. Cold Pastoral, by Rebecca Dunham (environmental poetry esp. human impact on the environment)
  4. In Spite of Everything, by Curtis Robbins (deaf experience of living in the hearing world)
  5. City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (huge collection of poems that were originally published by City Lights Publishers in San Francisco - heavy on the "Beat era")

As with previous question, I'm not going to down-talk a book, so there won't be any anti-recommendations here.

What is the next book you plan to acquire, and one that might be purged from your shelves soon?

I'm really excited for a book called Beyond the Rice Fields, written by Madagascan author Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa (pen name Naivo) which is being published in the US on October 31.  It's the very first Madagascar novel being published in English, and I'm hoping to pick up a copy on its release day.

I did a purge of my shelves a few months ago: Taking some books to my workplace lending library, some to a local library for its book sales, and others I sold to my local secondhand bookshop for store credit.  Therefore, I don't expect to get rid of any books for quite awhile.

And that's the "This & That" book tag!  If you're interested in answering these questions, consider yourself tagged!

Librorum annis,

Monday, October 2, 2017

5-Star Predictions: End-of-2017 Edition

There's a series of booktubers and bloggers who are sharing some books, that they plan to read in the near future, that the expect to LOVE.  They expect to not "like" these books, but wholeheartedly, thoroughly, and completely adore them.  For those of us who read prolifically (and also those of us who don't) it can be difficult to read something and have 5-star feelings about it.  Often, there's a plot that doesn't seem to live up to your expectations, a twist that you see coming a mile away, some inherent sexism/racism/"other"ing that is problematic, or a much-hyped book by which you're generally underwhelmed.

Even when readers have a wheelhouse of things they love, and a book is marketed/blurbed as containing all of those things, it can still let you down.  That's why, with trepidation, I'm listing a few books, which I hope to read in the last of 2017, and that I *hope* I will rate as 5-star reads.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
I've absolutely devoured Ward's other works, which sit at the intersection of race and class in the modern American South.  Her latest novel is a story about Jojo, a mixed-race teenager, and his black mother who go on a road trip to retrieve his white father, who is being released from prison,

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
Although there are quite a few interesting pieces in this collection, I am most interested in the essay on the importance of keeping a notebook.  I've always loved stationary and notebooks, ever since I was a young child, and I'm looking forward to reading Didion's musings on the topic.

Eve Out of Her Ruins, by Ananda Devi
A Mauritian novel in translation, this story focuses on four young adults struggling against the violence and fear that pervades the Mauritius that tourists don't see.

Women, Race, and Class, by Angela Y. Davis
An intersectional feminist work from before the term "intersectional feminist" existed.

Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi
In this time where there is so much fear, anger, mistrust, and "alternative facts" in the world, Kendi's book about the progression of racist thought throughout history is a welcomed read!

Look: Poems, by Solmaz Sharif
A poetry collection exploring the bizarreness of war, this collection includes words and phrases from an actual military document: The US Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.  I look forward to reading how the poet melds these two forms into one.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, September 28, 2017

September Reading Wrapup

Compared to my last few months, September's reading quantity is a little bit sad.  In comparison to most Americans' reading, however, it's stellar!  Despite a reduced quantity, the quality of the books this month was pretty darn great.  And let's be real, I knew that I couldn't keep up a 20-book-per-month reading pace for very long.  I expect that the next few months of reading in October (and November) will be around the same amount as in September, due to travel/holidays/other work-life requirements.  Small of quantity, but not of quality!

Here are September's harvest of books...

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, by Alice Waters
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce
A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark (audiobook)
What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Sourdough, by Robin Sloan
We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page
Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson

Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I Shall Not Be Moved, by Maya Angelou
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Cheers to September, the beginning of autumn, and great books!

Librorum annis,

Monday, September 25, 2017

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

A loaf of sourdough, baked from my own starter named Doughlilah

Having lived on the East Coast my whole life, all I knew of San Francisco was what I saw on Full House reruns as a young child.  I knew that there were cable cars, steep hills, and a park where the whole Tanner clan ate picnics every week.  And I wanted to join them.  It wouldn't be another 20 years until I would actually set foot in SF.  I was completely enamored by the city, its neighborhoods, the people, and the food.  In fact, one of my favorite food experiences was sharing some sourdough bread, cheese, and prosciutto with my partner on a picnic in Alamo Square (the park from Full House!).  I've since visited the city numerous times, and I love it more and more each time.  That's why I was so excited to read Robin Sloan's Sourdough, a story set amongst the San Francisco of foodies, tech, and startups.

Sourdough is really the story of Lois, who is lured to San Francisco by a representative of the company General Dexterity.  She's so pleased at being headhunted, saying "Here's the thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted" (pg.5).  General Dexterity is solely focused on robot arms - developing them to be able to perform all kinds of repetitive gestures, in place of humans.  The company is headquartered on a sprawling compound, and staffed primarily by tech bros, who drink tetra pak meal replacement smoothies, called Slurry.  In fact, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine these bros being interested in these robot arms with something more *pleasurable* in mind...

It's part of the General Dexterity culture that people come to work late, work long into the night, and even sleep overnight in the office.  Lois, although she is able to afford a nice apartment in the city, ends up following in her coworkers' footsteps and practically living at the office.  On those nights that she spends in her apartment, she orders from a restaurant called Clement Street Soup and Sourdough.  She always orders the double spicy - a spicy sandwich and a cup of the spicy soup, with an extra hunk of sourdough bread to soak up the remaining soup. 

Clement Street Soup and Sourdough is run by two brothers, Beoreg and Chaiman.  Beoreg is the cook and takes the orders, while Chaiman delivers them.  They had been in business just over a year when Lois places her first order with them.  She loves their double spicy so much that she orders it from them almost daily, so much so that they lovingly nickname her their Number One Eater.  It was the soup, and especially the bread, that seemed to revive her when she was stressed out at work.  That special sourdough bread was baked daily, and had the most incredible flavor. 

Lois was happily enjoying this delicious manna until one day, they announced that it would be the last time they would be able to deliver to their Number One Eater.  There were problems with their visas, and Clement Street Soup and Sourdough would have to close down.  Because she had been such a loyal customer, the brothers decided to entrust her with the cultured starter that they fed and baked from to make their amazing sourdough bread.  However, it wasn't like any normal starter, it was high maintenance.  Yes, there were regular feedings with flour and water, but it also had to be played a CD of very specific music.  Lois also had to bake bread from it regularly, and she found that loaves emerged from the oven with distinguishable faces on them.  If Lois didn't remember to feed the starter for a few days, when she baked from it the faces would look sad or upset.  However, when the starter was regularly fed, the resulting loaves would have faces with clear smiles on them.  The  contented starter would sometimes even sing or glow.  The flavor was so good, that Lois started sharing loaves with neighbors and coworkers, including Kate, the chef at General Dexterity's cafeteria. 

It was Chef Kate who recommended that Lois apply for a spot at a farmer's market.  But because San Francisco takes its locavore food very seriously, this wasn't as easy as it might seem.  Potential vendors were allowed to "audition" before a farmer's market governing board once every season, and depending on how your product was rated, you were offered a spot at one of the various SF-area markets.  Lois' sourdough was good, but not good enough for any of the markets in San Francisco.  Instead, she was invited to attend an underground, alt-farmers market on Alameda Island, that seeks to meld food and technology.  The location is a decommissioned nuclear weapon storage hangar, and the vendors operate stalls in its main area.  In addition to Lois' oven and bake stand, there's a lemon grove, a seller of honey harvested from Chernobyl, a coffee bar, a cricket flour baker, and many more. There was even a herd of goats grazing on nearby fields whose milk was used to make interesting cheeses.  Funded by the mysterious Mr. Marrow, the market was in the development stages and would be opening to the public in the near future. 

As Lois continued to bake, she began to discover that she enjoyed it more than the robot arms.  She felt healthier and more relaxed, still challenged to solve problems like in her day job, but without the intense stress.  Prior to discovering the power of sourdough, she lived an isolated and solitary existence.  Afterward, she finds more connections between herself and the world around her.  Lois has to make a decision - stay with the high-paying but unduly stressful job, or strike out on a bread-baking adventure.

Sourdough reads like a love letter to San Francisco, and playfully poked fun at some of its most well-known icons.  General Dexterity is a stand-in for any of the major tech companies located in the SF area, but I suspect it most closely resembles Apple.  The rise of "California Cuisine" as a food philosophy, including locavorism and an obsession with organic/free range/non-GMO/etc. was pioneered by a Berkeley restaurant called Chez Panisse and its founder, Alice Waters.  She appears in the form of a thinly-veiled character, and plays a significant role in all of the later action of the story.

All of this makes for a completely delightful reading experience.  There's nothing horribly triggering at all in this book, and it's a surprisingly quick read; I finished it in two sittings.  I'm a long-time sourdough feeder/baker, and I thoroughly enjoyed a novel that so heavily explored the art and science of bread baking.  I expect that, the more people read this book, the more may be inspired to try their hand at baking some of their own.  If you like San Francisco, kooky characters, food, and technology, then Sourdough should be at the top of your TBR.

Librorum annis,

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The "Autumn Reading" Tag

Tomorrow is the first day of autumn, so it seemed like just the right time to contemplate some seasonal reading with the Autumn Reading Tag.  I did this same tag last year, as one of the very first posts on this blog, so I'm excited to see how my responses differ this year from last.  The tag was created by UK Booktuber Amy Jane Reads, and you can watch her video here.  Let's jump into a pile of leaves the tag questions!

Are there any books you plan on reading over the autumn season?

I recently picked up a copy of Jesmyn Ward's new novel, Sing Unburied Sing, which I am very excited to read.  Other than that, I'm going to let the spirit of my bookshelves direct me to what I read next!

September brings back-to-school memories.  What book did you most enjoy studying?  What were your most/least favorite school subjects?

It's been a hot minute since I was last in school, so it's hard to remember exactly what my favorite subject were.  I know that I liked psychology, English, history, and music classes.  I went on to study psychology in university, and used those skills in my master's degree in Adult Education.  I never had much talent for math, so that was definitely a least favorite.

October means Halloween.  Do you enjoy scary books and films?  If so, what are some of your favorites?

I'm not much of a fan of being scared in general, but I find that between the two I prefer scary books.  That way, I can use my mind's eye to create something as scary as I want, rather than being forced to see whatever the filmmakers decide I should see.  I haven't read any recently, but there are some horror books on my TBR, that I'm planning to read around Halloween time: Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix, His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnet, Mischling by Affinity Konar, and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

With November, it's time for bonfire night and fireworks displays.  What's the most exciting book you've read that really kept you gripped?

Sadly, the US doesn't have any pyrotechnic-forward holidays in autumn. Although. a celebration called Bonfire Night sounds like something I could get behind! I guess I'll have to get my excitement from books.  A lot of the "excitement" recently has come from poetry books like Mother Was a Freedom Fighter by Aja Monet, Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis, and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay - poets who break the heart and enliven the spirit with their work.

What book is your favorite cozy, comfort read?

I love revisiting favorite classics like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, but also more modern books including Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, and Parnassus On Wheels by Christopher Morley.

Curled up with a good book, what is your hot drink of choice?

I'm a hot drink aficionado, and what I choose to drink depends slightly on the weather and mostly on my mood.  I'm also not terribly sensitive to caffeine, so I can drink coffee/tea any time of day or night and have no issues with sleeping.

Early in the morning, it's usually either a cappuccino from my Nespresso machine, or steamed milk with Earl Grey tea (London Fog) or with stovetop espresso from my Moka pot. In the afternoon and evening, I generally reach for tea (masala chai and cream earl grey are my favorites, with just a splash of milk) or French Press coffee. A hot drink in the evening might be hot (spiced) apple cider, herbal tea, or (if I'm having an exciting night in) a hot toddy like warmed whisky or hot buttered rum.  Mmmmmm....

What plans are you looking forward to over the next few months?

Next month, my partner and I will be spending our 6th wedding anniversary in California - San Francisco and wine country - which is very exciting!  He's not much of a reader, but is good-natured about my love of bookstore tourism.  I'm hoping to visit City Lights when we're in the city, and one of the Copperfield's bookstores when we're up in Napa/Sonoma/Russian River Valley.

And that's it for the Autumn Reading tag.  If you'd like to do this one, consider yourself tagged!  Happy autumn, everyone!

Librorum annis,

Monday, September 18, 2017

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America is a truly remarkable and poignant book.  As a member of the titular congregation, I found this work to be a tender, loving gut punch.  Michael Eric Dyson holds back nothing in his portrayal of what it means to be a black person in America today.  He draws from his own experiences, those of his family, and people he has encountered throughout his life to illustrate how deeply and subconsciously racism has shaped this country. 

Dyson talks about growing up in crushing poverty in Detroit, his family's struggles to bring themselves out of that poverty, and the ways that they encouraged their children to rise above them.  Dyson, himself, was accepted into a prestigious private school, in a wealthy suburb of Detroit, where he was one student of color amongst a sea of white, upper-class classmates.  He ended up leaving that school, finishing his high school education at a public school in Detroit.  He became an ordained minister at 19, then working in manufacturing as a way to support his family.  He went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Carson-Newman University, a private, conservative, Baptist university, and ultimately a Doctorate from Princeton University.  He is now an esteemed faculty member at Georgetown University.  Dyson's contentious relationship with the President of Carson-Newman is a recurring theme and something to which he returns regularly as an example of the blatant and unapologetic bigotry that he has faced in his life.

As mentioned earlier, Dyson has a background in preaching, and the book is written as a kind of worship service; there are religious references sprinkled throughout.  He refers to the reader often as "beloved" which is a term one hears often in religious services ("dearly beloved, we are gathered here today" as just one example) but every time I encountered it I thought of Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, about the evils of slavery and how far a mother would be driven in order to save a child from enslavement.  Dyson was certainly not writing this book for a fictional character (although he does reference Morrison's book a time or two) but I couldn't help my brain making that connection.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America is divided into nine parts, each meant to correspond to a section of a Protestant church service:

1. Call to Worship - The author's introduction to the text

2. Hymns of Praise - Leading with an ominous, but unfortunately not unique, encounter the author had with police, one where he ends up blasting N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police" to express his frustration about rcism and police brutality, Dyson likens Christian hymns to the truths that black people speak through their music.  His featured hymnists include KRS-One, Jay-Z, and Tupac Shakur.
3. Invocation - As Christian worship uses an invocation to invite God into the metaphysical space, so Dyson uses this section to lift up the many and varied ways that black people have suffered, and continue to suffer, to God.  He specifically calls out to God on behalf of his (now adult) children, and grandchildren, whom he was unable to protect from the evils of racism even when they were very young.  He beseeches God to provide reason and clarity to those who fear and loathe based on the color of skin, and to give strength and courage to those who speak their truth of life as a black person in America.

4. Scripture Reading - Rather than reciting Biblical passages, the author refers to the holy text "Book of Martin Luther King Jr." and how his life and works are just as applicable today as they were in his lifetime.

5. Sermon - As is the case in a Christian worship service, this sermon is where the author really expounds upon his main points to enlighten and inspire the congregation.  Here, Dyson presents a sharp, concentrated overview of the many avenues into which racism has seeped and spread in American, white society, and how that racism has manifested itself on the black body and the black mind.  Within, the author encourages white America to truly see what the effect of imposing its centuries-long "white as right" campaign has brought about.  Through illustrating the ways that systematic racism has been at work, Dyson encourages white America to make specific changes and to generally move towards empathy.
6. Benediction - In Christian worship, the benediction is the bestowal of a blessing on the congregation before the end of the service. Dyson uses this section of his book to summarize his previous points, using the acronym R.E.S.P.O.N.S.I.V.E. as a call to action. He offers suggestions of ways whites can implement these changes, to help move America towards true, racial equality.

7. Offering Plate - As a congregation is called to make an offering to its church, Dyson here discusses how Georgetown University, in the autumn of 2016, made baby steps towards racial reparation.  The president of the university made an official statement about how Georgetown had profited from the sale of 272 enslaved humans, as a way to keep the school from going bankrupt in 1838.  The university offered wanted to atone for this, through offering a formal apology, forming an institute to study slavery, and create a public memorial to enslaved persons who worked on Georgetown's campus throughout history.  Although no one had made efforts to reach out to them, some direct descendants of those 272 persons were in attendance at this announcement and they also spoke to the crowd.  They were not asking for financial contributions from the university, but wanted to form a partnership with Georgetown going forward.

8. Prelude to Service - As a final way to inspire his congregation, before this service comes to an end, Dyson explains his position that, although America is in a dire place right now, there is hope that people can and will fight for the rights of EVERYONE to be treated equal.

9. Closing Prayer - The last page is a prayer that the author offers up to God, that black people will not surrender to white supremacy and racism, because they are irrevocably intertwined in Americanness.  As Dyson says - "We are going nowhere. We are your children too. We will survive. We are America."

In his acronym in the "Benediction" section, one of the E's stands for "Educate", that white America must educate itself about black life and culture, especially the written word.  He goes on to provide a black reading list, the breadth and depth of which is very exciting for those of us who love books, reading, and equality.  He recommends starting with James Baldwin, whose "words drip with the searing eloquence of an evangelist of race determined to get to the brutal bottom of America's original sin" (pg. 199). 

Dyson then goes on to recommend over 50 individual books and scores of authors on topics of African slavery and all its complicated facets; the intersection of slavery, politics, and economics; the American Civil War and the failed Reconstruction period that followed; the modern civil rights movement; black freedom and black power struggles; and the intersection of racism, gender, and sexual identity.  I think it would be a fascinating project to make a personal reading list from the books that Dyson recommends.

So what was it like, you may ask, to read this book as a white person in America?  Not easy.  Whenever the author described a situation where he was treated with hostility and distrust by people in power, I tried to imagine myself in that situation.  Would I have behaved in the same way as the author, and would I have been treated the same way by those in power?  As Dyson expounded upon the varied ways that white people have benefited from black repression and subjugation, I had to consider how often in my life I may have received similar benefits because of the color of my skin.  I have heard many people in my life complain about how unfair affirmative action is, because they think it gives black people an unfair advantage, but after reading this book and considering that most black people have the deck stacked against them in life, affirmative action seems like just a small step.

Michael Eric Dyson's Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America could be classified as a memoir, an essay collection, or a cultural criticism and you wouldn't be wrong.  It contains parts of each of those things, blended to tell an exacting and poignant story. Especially if you're NOT an American person of color, this book will make you think, make you see your basic societal interactions in more clarity, and bring you toward a more empathetic and realistic worldview.  Structured as a religious worship service, and with Dyson as the pastor, you'll finish this book with an "Amen"!

Librorum annis,