How the Word is Passed

by Clint Smith
First sentence: “The sky above the Mississippi River stretched out like a song.”
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Content: It talks about violence toward enslaved people, uses the n-word (in context) and some mild swearing. It is in the Biography section of the bookstore.

Clint Smith has written an absolutely beautiful book. It’s not an easy book to read, though the premise is simple: he visits several historical sites that are connected with the slavery in the United States, and recounts his experiences and analyzes the information presented at the sites. He talks to all sorts of people — visitors, tour guides, the people in charge of the sites — in order to get as wide a snapshot as possible.

He recounts his visits to seven sites: Monticello, Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, and Gorée Island. Some are delving into their history of enslaving people, others not so much. Smith works to understand and critique an inform the reader not just about the history around the sites, but how their interaction and presentation of the past is affecting and informing us today. In short: in order to reckon with the present, we need to reckon with teh past.

It sounds like a difficult read, and it is at times, but Smith’s writing is so beautiful, it doesn’t feel like a chore to read this. He is a poet, and it shows: his descriptions of the places and people, his journalistic interactions, his presentation all draw the reader in and made me, at least, want to read more.

Possibly one of the more important books I’ll read, but also one of the more beautiful ones.

Audio book: The Bad Muslim Discount

by Syed M. Masood
Read by: Pej Vahdat & Hend Ayoub
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There was some swearing and references to sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Anvar Faris was a child in Karachi, Pakistan, but when unrest started to affect his city, his parents decided to immigrate to the US. They landed in the San Francisco area, where Anvar met the love of his life (Zuha, at least I’m hoping I spelled that right), and realized that no matter how much his mother tried, he was not going to be the kind of Muslim that she wanted him to be.

Safwa grew up in war-torn Baghdad, with a conservative father who was taken and tortured by the US soldiers. She fled, leaving her ailing brother to die alone, something her father could not forgive. They ended up in Afghanistan, where they meet a opportunistic young man who gets Safwa and her father passports to Mexico, and from there they come to the US, ending up in San Francsico.

This book is less about the plot — though there is some tension between Safwa and her father and the young man (whose name I don’t think I could spell, having only heard the audio) and Anvar and Zuha help, in the end. It’s much more an exploration of how people live their religion (or don’t) and the reasons behind what they do and why the do it. Safwa’s father is strict and abusive, but how much of that is his beliefs and how much of that is the abuse he suffered at the hands of the US? The young man is angry and manipulative, and how much of that is his religion, or is it the circumstances of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan? Anvar is lax in his religion, but how much of that is laziness and how much of that is a serious questioning of religion His other brother is strictly faithful, but how much of that is because he believes and how much of that is putting on appearances? It’s an interesting exploration.

It’s also a good look at the variety that Islam has. I think too often, especially here in the US, we tend to paint Muslims as all one thing, when in reality (um, much like every other religion) there is a spectrum.

At any rate, the writing is good, and the narration was thoroughly enjoyable. I liked this one a lot.

Black Buck

by Mateo Askaripour
First sentence: “The day that changed my life was like every other day before it, except that it changed my life.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and tasteful on-screen sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Darren is an aimless 22-year-old who has been working his way up the ranks at Starbucks instead of college and a more traditional route. Then one day he does a hard sales pitch on a regular customer and finds himself working for Sumwun, a tech startup. It’s an all-white, elite work environment (Darren is neither of those things) and Darren finds himself being subject to some pretty intense and racist stuff.

And honestly? That’s as far as I made it. I should have known it wouldn’t agree with me when it was being billed as satire. It’s skewering white business practices, and I get it, but satire and I don’t get along. We just don’t. I’ve tried books that are supposed to be funny pokes at things, and I just don’t “get” it. This is why I say this one isn’t for me, and I abandoned it halfway through. Life is too short to read books you just don’t like, even if they’re for book club.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It just wasn’t for me.

Superman Smashes the Klan

by Gene Leun Yang and Gurihiru
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Content: There is some violence and use of slurs against Asian people. It’s in the Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

It’s 1946, and Roberta and Tommy Lee are moving from their home in Chinatown to a different part of Metropolis. They’re anxious about making new friends, and their father has started a new job which comes with new responsibilities. They begin to make friends, and Tommy earns a spot on a baseball team. But things don’t go smoothly: the (white) neighbors aren’t happy and soon the local Klan (of the Fiery Cross) are working to terrorize the Lees.

Which is where Superman comes in. The story of the Lees confrontations with the Klan are interwoven with Superman trying to figure out who he fully is. He is fast and strong, but he’s not really come into all of his powers (as we currently know them) yet. It’s a fabulous dual narrative as the Chinese immigrant Lee family deals with figuring out how to fit in and be themselves ans Superman (the alien immigrant!) figures out the same.

I picked this one up entirely because it won the Cybils Young Adult Graphic Novel and I wasn’t disappointed. Between the story by Yang and the art by Gurihiru, there is not only a fun and interesting story, but an incredibly relevant one. And a good reminder: Superman is a hero for everyone, not just white people. And that we’re all in this world together, so we should figure out how to make it work together. It’s an incredibly hopeful book as well as showing the evils of racism and extreme hatred. Definitely highly recommended.

So You Want To Talk About Race?

by Ijeoma Oluo
First sentence: “As a black woman, race has always been a prominent part of my life.”
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Content: There is swearing, including multiple uses of the f-word, and the use of the n-word. It is in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

This has been on my radar for a while, at least since this summer when we had piles of it in the store. But, I didn’t pick it up until our discussion at one of my book groups led us to asking: “But HOW do we talk to other people about race?” We know, as white people, we need to be addressing racism. But how?

This book mostly answers this question. What it does more is go into depth about WHY it’s important to be talking about race, and what it is you’re talking about when you’re talking about race. But it does go into a bit of how. The answer? Just do it. You will do it wrong. But, if you listen to POC with an open heart and take their lead, then maybe we will make progress.

Because the thing Oluo stresses most is that we have to talk about race. We can’t just say “it doesn’t affect me so I don’t need to talk about it.” If you live in the world (not just the US), race and racism and White Supremacy affects you. Maybe not as much as it affects your Black or brown neighbor, but it does. I was grateful to hear her stories — I think that listening to the stories of Black and brown people is one of the things that moved me the most with all the reading I have done — and I am grateful for her advice for tackling talking about race.

Now to keep at it.

White Tears/Brown Scars

How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color
by Ruby Hamid
First sentence: “‘I am so uncomfortable having this conversation,’ said Fox News host Melissa Francis during a live broadcast of the network’s panel program Outnumbered on August 16, 2017.
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Content: There are some swear words, including a few f-bombs. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I was scrolling through Instagram one day and one of the bookish accounts I follow (I wish I could remember which one) said that if you’ve read Hood Feminism, you really ought to read this one. So I stuck it on hold at the library.

And that account is right: as a white woman, and a feminist, this one is a must read.

Hamad — who identifies as an Arab-Australian — deconstructs what it means to be a Brown and Black woman in the world where the effects of colonialism and racism is still felt. Every day. There is some history here: understanding the history of how white men used white women’s bodies (and white women, knowing the power structure went along with it willingly) to control Indiginous and slave populations is important to understanding the power structure in today’s society. And there are contemporary examples, white women who have made gains in business politics, an society, but who use those gains to keep out their Black and brown sisters.

It made me think of the saying: “If we lift from the bottom, everyone rises”. Colonialism and, by extension, capitalism lifts from the top. (It’s not just America; it’s a product of all colonialism — any place a different population came in and displaced the Indigenous population, any population that enslaved another population are affected this way. So really, the entire world.) It benefits Whiteness and punishes everyone else. (Or at least that’s the way I see it.) And Hamad’s book was basically an invitation to explore how I, as a White woman, interact with Black and brown people, how I use my whiteness (to help? to hurt?), and how I can can do and be better.

So, yeah. A tough read. But a very, very important one.

Legendborn

by Tracy Deonn
First sentence: “The police officer’s body goes blurry, then sharpens again.”
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Content: There is mild swearing, and six f-bombs. There is also some violence and kissing. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d hand it to younger kids who like epic fantasies.

Bree has wanted to get out of her small North Carolina town, and has seen the Early College program and the University of North Carolina as her ticket out. However at the start of the program, she is dealing with the grief from her mother’s death in a car accident, which puts her in a very precarious emotional state. So when, at a party, she starts seeing things — supernatural things — she doesn’t know what to think. Is it real? Is it a hallucination?

Then (after a brief run-in with the dean) she is assigned a peer mentor, Nick. Who happens to be part of this super-secret (all-white) society of magical beings whose job is to protect humanity from the Demons. Bree starts on a path, where she comes to realize that there was a lot more to her mother — and to Bree, herself — than she ever knew.

The question is what will she do with the knowledge she has now?

Oh, this was so good. Seriously worth the hype it was getting. I loved the world that Deonn created, riffing off the Arthurian legend in some really fascinating ways. I was fascinated by the way race and class came into play, and how magic wasn’t limited to just this one society. I liked how Bree disrupted the narrative of this society. Plus the budding romance between her and Nick was amazing. It was some solid storytelling, weaving grief and loss with magic and romance. There have been some comparisons to Cassie Clare, but this is SO much better.

I can’t wait to read the next installment!

Punching the Air

by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
First sentence: “Umi gave birth to me”
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Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Amal Shamal was growing up in New York City, attending a school specializing in art. He had friends. And, yes, he had a temper. But, one fateful night, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and ended up starting a fight with a white boy. A fight that ended — Amal didn’t end it — with the white boy in a coma in the hospital. And Amal ended up in prison for something he didn’t do.

It’s a quick(ish) read, but a heavy one. Based somewhat on Salaam’s experience (he was part of the Exonerated 5), this is mostly a story of how Shamal gets through the hell that is prison. He’s technically in juvenile prison, but even in there it’s a lot less hope and a lot more despair. The book is Amal fighting against the expectations of the (white) world, trying to find a space for himself and his art. Trying to find hope and a will to go on in the face of oppressive and systemic racism.

If you think that prison is a good thing, that it keeps criminals and “thugs” off the street, this is a book you need to read. It drives home that the prison system (and by extension, the justice system) is not only flawed, it’s racist and corrupt. And it’s erasing futures.

Definitely a must-read.

Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago.”
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Content: There is some use of the n-word. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

This is one of Baldwin’s earliest books, a series of essays reflecting on his life, thus far. I was published in the 1950s, and is really a product of its time, with the use of Negro and just the language in general.

Which means, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I think the two best essays in the book are “The Harlem Getto”, a series of reflections after Baldwin’s father passed away, and “Equal in Paris” which is Baldwin’s experience on being arrested in Paris (for being an accomplice to steeling a sheet). Both are introspective and interesting. The rest, if I’m completely honest, I mostly skimmed.

Read The Fire Next Time. It’s the better book.

Riot Baby

by Tochi Onebuchi
First sentence: “Before her Thing begins.”
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Content: There is violence, and a lot of swearing including multiple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Kev was born during the LA Riots into a family where his older sister, Ella, has telekinetic powers. She can see people’s pasts, has visions of the future, and can move (and blow things up) with her mind. For most of their childhood, it’s Kev who’s interacting with the real world, while Ella stays hidden away. But then Kev is arrested in a failed robbery and incarcerated at Rikers. And so Ella has to learn how to interact with the real world.

That’s not even the plot, really. I think the plot is immaterial to the book. It’s really about Rage. Black Rage about systemic racism — Onyebuchi pushes police violence and over-policing to the extreme; in one scene Ella’s house is in a neighborhood where they are monitored 24/7 by drones and tankes, and so she transports to a race track in a white part of the state where they have many, many more freedoms. It’s a condemnation of systemic racism and I felt like I was just bearing witness to Black Rage.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure what I think about this one. I know I didn’t get everything that Onyebuchi meant to portray (not the first time I will have missed things in a book). I think I need to read this in a book club, just so someone can explain the nuance to me, because all I got was Rage.

I’m not sorry I read it, though.