Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also talk of sex, but none actual. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman who is kind of aimless. All her friends seem to have “real” jobs, but she’s working as a temporary typist for the Green Party in Philadelphia and as a babysitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlin. The thing is, Emira adores Briar, the girl she sits, and doesn’t really feel much of a need to change things up. Then she meets Kelly — at a grocery store after Emira had a run-in with a security cop. And they begin to date, which sets up a run-in with Alix.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens in this book from the description, but it’s more thoughtful and intricate than that. It’s a meditation on relationships — can a wealthy White woman really have a “friendship” with her Black babysitter? Is a White man who sees himself as an ally because he has Black friends and dates Black or biracial women, really an ally? — but it’s also a meditation on how we perceive ourselves. Reid did a fabulous job making no one out to be the “villain” here. Everyone had reasonable motivations (or at least presented reasonable motivations) and I could see they were all operating from a place they thought was reasonable. But, I could also see how the decisions were self-interested. Everyone said they were trying to help Emira, but were their decisions really helping? There’s a lot to talk and think about, especially about the way White people center themselves, even when they’re trying to help.

On top of that, the narrator was fabulous. I loved the way she portrayed each character (especially 3-year-old Briar; she was perfect!) and the way she made them distinctive and intriguing. She kept me coming back (though I think this one would have worked for me in print form, as well) and wanting to see what was going on next with Emira and Alix.

Definitely worth the buzz it’s been getting.

Audio book: The Color of Compromise

by Jemar Tisby
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is descriptions of violence done to Black people and use of the n-word. It would be in either the Sociology section or Religion section if the bookstore carried it.

This book is the history of chattel slavery in the United States, but as seen through the lens of Christianity. So, on the one hand: there wasn’t much new for me to learn about slavery that I hadn’t already learned from Stamped from the Beginning. But the part about Christianity was fascinating. See, white Christians have always bee complicit in slavery, in Jim Crow laws, in racism. There’s no way around it. If we consider the United States a Christian nation, if there were God-fearing people who owned slaves; who owned people; who discriminated against Blacks; who, say, in the example of my own church, refused to give them equal standing as white men and women; then, Christians have always been complicit in the oppression of Black people.

And that’s a hard realization. It’s so easy to think of the oppressors as “other”, but as Tisby points out, even if Christians were not actively acting as slave-owners or KKK members (and some were) the Silence of the church as a whole (and many, many members) gave tacit approval to the systemic oppression. By not speaking out against it, by not working to fight against it, they were, by default, for it.

Although Tisby gives suggestions on how to fix the problem of Christianity’s complicit behavior in anti-Black racism, I’m not sure what I can do systemically. I do know I am working on the racism – both implicit and explicit — in my life, working to enlarge my circle and my point of view. And to remember that we are all God’s children, even if the system doesn’t behave like we are.

Juliet Takes a Breath

by Gabby Rivera
First sentence: “There was always train traffic ahead of us and that Saturday was no different.”
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Review copy provided by publisher.
Content: There are a ton of f-bombs, some tasteful on-screen sex, and pot use. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

So, while doing some Googling and looking when I finished this, I discovered that it was published four years ago by a small press, but picked up by Dial Press and re-published last year. Which explains 1) how I got an ARC from our Penguin rep and 2) why I missed it the first time around.

Because this a a spectacular piece of feminist LGBT writing.

The premise is this: Juliet has grown up in the Bronx, but gone away to a liberal arts college in Baltimore. Once there, she began discovering her sexuality, and read “Raging Flower” a seminal feminist book by Harlowe Brisbane. On a whim, Juliet decides to write Harlowe and ask if she needs an intern, which Harlowe readily agrees to. So, Juliet takes off across the country to Portland, hoping to be inspired and discover out more about herself.

What she discovers is that Harlowe doesn’t have all the answers, but the experiences — both good and bad — are immensely worth having.

The book was not kind to Portland; the people there were VERY hippie. So much hippie. And maybe that’s the way Portland really is, but I kind of felt like it was overkill. That said, I think Rivera did an amazing job exploring the space between adoring someone and being hurt by them and questioning their motivations. I also loved Juliet’s exploration of her sexuality and her relationship with her mother. But mostly I adored her cousin Ava.

It’s a good feminist book, encouraging girls (and women) to stand up and question not just patriarchy but their own individual responses. It was also a good exploration of intersectionality, and how if we don’t welcome everyone to the table, there’s not a lot of good that can be done. It’s all about taking ownership, and I can get behind that.

And it wasn’t a bad story either.

Black is the Body

by Emily Bernard
First sentence: “This book was conceived in a hospital.”
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Content: There is swearing, including a few f-bombs. Also, an entire chapter is devoted to teaching and talking about the n-word. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This has been on my radar for a while; everyone — well, all my coworkers — said it was a really good exploration of one person’s experience as a Black woman moving through White spaces.

And it was that. Bernard grew up in Nashville, but went to college at Yale, and teaches in Vermont, so she is often the only (or one of the only) Black people in a space. In this series of essays, she explores what that means. She talks about an act of violence she experienced, the adoption of her daughters, her relationship with her White husband, and tells the stories of her mother and grandmother’s lives.

It’s an interesting book, one that is very personal to Bernarnd’s own experience. She doesn’t pretend to have answers, but does ask a lot of questions about how White people treat and react to Blacks. It was worth a read if only to think about how I am reacting to others.

That, and it’s a series of personal stories, which I always enjoy. So while this was not my favorite book about race, it was a good book. Because everyone’s perspective is worth hearing.

Americanah

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
First sentence: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some on-screen sex, including a rape scene, as well as swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s hard to know where to start on the plot of this one. It’s basically the story of two Nigerians — Ifemelu and Obinze — who met in high school and fell in love, and their distinct paths. They attended college together, but in a political uprising in Nigeria, their education got interrupted. Ifemelu — whose aunt had moved to America years before — got into a college in the US and went there. Obinze was denied a visa to the US and so ended up as an illegal immigrant in the UK. Most of the book is about their experiences — told in flashback, mostly — as immigrants in Western countries.

That part of the book was fascinating, though I found Ifemelu’s story more interesting. Obinze only spent a few years in the UK, working underground, trying to become legal, before he was caught and deported back to Nigeria, where he actually ended up becoming very wealthy. Ifemelu spent a long time in the US — 15 years — and had a myriad of experiences from the terrible to the banal to the good. She ended up writing a blog about being a non-American Black in the US and about race relations. All of which I found a fascinating perspective. Ifemelu had some interesting observations about race in the US and the role immigrants — especially Black immigrants — play in the discussion about race.

In the end, though, this is a story about relationships, how they work and change over time. Not just romantic ones, though it is that, but all interpersonal relationships. There is an ebb and flow to relationships, people who come in and go out of our lives, and I think Adichie captured that quite eloquently. In fact, Adichie is a gorgeous writer, balancing beautiful words with characterization and enough plot to keep me turning pages.

Recommended.

Audiobook: Wandering in Strange Lands

by Morgan Jerkins
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Release date: August 4, 2020
Content: There is some swearing including a few f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It will be in the biography section of the bookstore.

Morgan Jerkins is a writer, but she’s also the daughter of a New Jersey woman and a North Carolina man. The central question she grapples with in this book is this: how has moving away from her families’ roots in the South (after slavery, but mostly during the Great Migration) affected their connection to the land, to their communities, and to each other? She explores this question by visiting South Carolina and talking with and trying to understand the histories of the Gullah people there. She heads to Louisiana to talk to Creole, and to Oklahoma to explore connections between African American freed slaves and the Cherokee nation. And she finally heads to Los Angeles. Through all this, she unearths her family history and stories, as much as she can, and that it was White Supremacy and Institutional Racism that was the driving force for much of what her ancestors experienced.

A friend once told me that you can talk statistics and data at people, but it’s the stories that really matter. And this book brings that home. Yes, I knew there was (and is) Institutional Racism and white people were (and are) discriminatory and prejudiced against black people to the point that they want to push them out. But, hearing Jerkins’ stories gets that point home in a way data just doesn’t do. It also reminded me of the importance of knowing where you’re from and knowing your family’s stories. (I have been very bad about passing this on to my children.)

It’s an interesting story, and Jerkins is an interesting narrator to guide the story along its path. I’m glad I read it.

The Fire Next Time

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “Dear James: I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times.”
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Content: There is some mild swearing and use of the n-word. It’s in the sociology section of the bookstore.

This is two essays — or one essay and a letter to Baldwin’s nephew — on the state of being Black in America. In 1962. Short version: It wasn’t easy. And it’s a sign of my privilege that I am just now realizing two things: 1) that life for a Black person in the early 1960s was not an easy or enjoyable one and 2) that it’s not changed very much for very many people in nearly 60 years. That’s the thing that stood out to me most about this book: it’s still relevant. And it shouldn’t be. This book should never have had to be written. This book shouldn’t have to be still relevant. And yet, it was and is. And it’s a sign that I am a privileged person that I am just NOW realizing this.

I think I enjoyed this more than If Beale Street Could Talk, because I think Baldwin’s style is more suited to essays and rumination than fiction. He has a very thoughtful, lyrical prose style which I thought suited both the impassioned letter to his nephew (which brought to mind Between the World and Me) and his essay about his youth and experiences with the Nation of Islam.

It’s definitely an excellent book.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal
First sentence: “‘Waiting for Black is on your agenda, not mine,’ LaShunda barks as we leave the building.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is violence, some swearing and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore, but I would give it to a 7th/8th grader as well.

All Lena wants to do is hookup with her boyfriend Black after halftime at the football game. All Campbell wants to do is sell concessions and get the heck out of there. But when a fight breaks out at the game, Lena and Campbell are thrown together. And when the fight escalates and turns into a protest which escalates and turns into riots, Lena and Campbell are forced to rely on each other to survive the night.

The book this most reminded me of is All American Boys: two kids — one white and one black — thrown together have to figure out how to relate to each other. So, yeah, this has been done before. That said, one of the things I thought Johnson and Segal did well was show how introducing the police actually made things worse. The fight started at the school, police were called, and it escalated. A protest was happening, police came in full riot gear and the situation escalated. Additionally, I thought that Lena and Campbell’s personal unpacking of biases (more on Campbell’s part, which is a good thing) was a valuable thing.

That said, there are books that do this better. Like All American Boys. Or The Hate U Give. Or Riot Baby.

It’s a valuable book, one that I do hope people (probably mostly white people, who I think this book was aimed at) will read. But, it’s not the best one out there.

If Beale Street Could Talk

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I look at myself in the mirror.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the fiction sections of the bookstore.

This is the story of Tish and Fonny, a young Black couple who are looking forward to a life together. Until Fonny is falsely arrested and imprisoned for rape. But Tish, pregnant with Fonny’s baby, and her family and Fonny’s father, are determined to get him out.

It’s a pretty basic plot when you sketch it out, but Baldwin is more about the words and the feel than the plot. He’s a very lyrical writer, which sometimes (for me) got in the way of the characters and the story, but mostly just enhanced it. I do love the way he characterizes the people in the book, fleshing them out so they feel whole. It did feel dated with some of the language, but that’s to be expected for a book written in 1973. But, the themes — of white supremacy and systemic racism in the police force — are still relevant.

I read this for a book group discussion (which I missed… boo on me!) and I’m sad I missed the discussion; there is much to talk about here. At any rate, I’m glad I missed it.

Audio book: Me and White Supremacy

by Layla Saad
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some mild swearing. It is in the Self-Help section (I think?) of the bookstore.

I am going to say this up front: I read this book wrong. It was meant to be an interactive 28-day journey with journaling and extensive deep reflection. However, that just doesn’t work (for me) in audio format. I listen in the car or doing a puzzle, and it’s just not conducive to a lot of serious reflection. So. I am going to purchase this book (when it’s reprinted; it’s on backorder now) and do the actual work.

Some thoughts though:

This book, by a Black woman, centers on how white people are privileged by the system we live in. Saad asks some tough questions, explains some tough concepts (like white privilege and white fragility), and encourages readers to do the work to become anti-racist and more inclusive. She also asks about concrete commitments we (white people!) can make in order to continue the lifelong pursuit of becoming anti-racist. It’s a challenging book to read, if only because she (very calmly and eloquently) challenges the very fabric of the society white people are used to.

And for that, it’s very much worth reading.