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review 2018-04-24 03:21
Morgan Jerkins This Will Be My Undoing
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America - Morgan Jerkins

I had a hard time with this book of essays, and I know this is an unpopular view. I held off on mentioning anything because my viewpoint seemed so different, but I finally got together with my Black Women Read group - an in person one - and we all had very similar reactions. We are black women living in Baltimore who are all over 45. Many of us are well over 45.

We decided, as a group, once someone finally broke the ice, that this book bothered us because it worried us about younger black women and women in general. Where, we wondered, did all the work my generation, the generations preceding and following mine, go? Why is this young woman so scared, confused and unprepared for real life? Why is she so ready to feel victimized and unable to express much beyond anger? Where is her agency? We were - to a person - astonished at Jerkins' unpreparedness, and we all felt like our own struggles (and classes, and groups, and sit-ins and marches) were rather worthless if this is the state of young black women in 2018.

I don't usually share my kindle notes and highlights with anyone because I tend to be blunt and I type even worse on a kindle "keyboard" than I do a real one. When reading them, though, I noticed how often my reaction was "really? still? in 2018?"

Even more, I want to go back and reread Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist because I kept thinking of it while reading this. I wanted this book to have a conversation with Roxane Gay's book. The women are different in many ways, but the way they handle life in their essays seems almost at direct odds sometimes, and well, I guess I feel more inclined to see the gray areas, like Gay so perfectly navigates in Bad Feminist. Instead this book is very right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad, evil/perfect. Everyone feels that way sometimes, but this is supposed to be a book of thoughtful essays, which seems like it should be different from when I have a bad day and call up my girls to bitch.

While I would never say anyone's pain is not warranted or allowed, some of Jerkins' pain seems to be a direct result of fanciful dreams and unrealistic expectations combined with a strict religious upbringing and parents who say things like speaking to an older man is how you get raped and addicted to heroin (seriously - it's not a joke.) So, she's angry - and she has a right to be. But perhaps some of her anger might be pointed at the people who underprepared her for everything from her sexuality to dating to her clear intellect rather than racial or gender animus. She's perfectly free and easy writing about her vagina in painstaking detail, but she doesn't take any of her preconceptions to task as much as she does her physical self. 

There is a scene early on where she gets verbally abused by a man in a deli. Instead of walking out, clapping back or a variety of other reactions, Jerkins stays quiet and terrified. I, too, was a light-skinned woman living alone in Harlem once, during the 1980s. New York as a whole wasn't as gentrified back then, and crossing 110th was something my white friends didn't do often. I rented a room, lived on like $25 a week after rent/subway tokens and lost a lot of weight from all the walking I did - no matter the time of day or night. Needless to say, similar events happened frequently to every woman of every race I knew, and they still do (though hopefully a tad less often.)

I, too, stayed quiet at first. Though eventually I came around to the realization that "this has got to change." I knew women should be safer riding the subway or walking the city. I worked hard to impart that knowledge to younger women, to take - then teach - self-defense, to roleplay situations exactly like this one so younger women would have tools other than fear and acquiescence. I certainly don't think this should be something we're all just satisfied with, but I also don't think staying quiet and sweet while being abused (instead of, say, walking the F out of there - sandwich or no) then coming home to call friends and play the victim is the "right" answer either. 

There is an assumption between many lines that Jerkins (with her dreams of marriage by 22, college as husband-finding-factory, strong intellect, individual voice and humanness of many facets - like everyone) has nothing to do with the outcomes she receives. That is, perhaps, the blindness of youth. But if youth is blind, then maybe it shouldn't assume that everyone's situation is exactly the same or that everyone else is the problem.

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review 2018-04-01 17:37
Small Great Things -- My Unpopular Opinion & Female Mansplaining
Small Great Things - Jodi Picoult

Though this has the qualities I associate with fiction, it felt a lot like being forced to listen to a room full of college kids who just read Nietzsche for the first time and come home to perform that knowledge for hours *at* me - without asking 1) if I already know this, 2) if I care to listen to all of their newfound knowledge, and 3) if I agree with their strong opinions.


That's how I felt for much of the second two sections of this book (and I won't even go near the author's note that follows -- beyond saying that it's the best example of mansplaining a woman could hope to portray.) I have no problem with a white writer writing a person of color. I do have a problem with a fiction that is only thinly disguised "racial sensitivity 101" built on a cadre of stereotypical "types." I felt like Jodi Picoult took a class (and I was right - she did!), saw the light, feels woke, got serious, and set out to explain it all to all of us, without asking us to join in the conversation - or what we could hope to bring to it - much like an author who assumes you don't know any of the big words she uses. It was the long passages of internal dialogue that killed this book dead for me. The "aha" moments that took up pages and pages and then more pages repeatedly were so awfully serious and so awfully lecture-like, they could have been lifted from racial sensitivity 101 -- which made them completely unbelievable because as we teach in those classes, changing one's racial mindset takes a long time and is an internal process that cannot be done through thoughts alone. Practice will help, awareness is key, but no change like this happens overnight. I've taught those classes, and they sound just like this book, with the caveat I just made about changing (even when you start out as a stereotype, like every single character in this book.) Nonfiction exists for a reason. I thought this was a story - not a lecture, but I was wrong. Jodi Picoult doesn't realize that she's become the white savior that Kennedy is supposed to portray.


The book felt extremely condescending to the reader. Picoult should now wait while I go take a class on writing, interview a few writers, then I will type my long, heartfelt, dissertation length "aha" moments in a story and she should be FORCED to read my new feelings about writing. Because that's just about how ridiculous the inner dialogue of her characters sounded to me.

Two books I can recommend to Picoult or anyone else who actually cares about race and all the feelings white people are now having that I've read this year that cover similar topics: So You Want to Talk about Race  and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race. If you want to go deeper, there are so many better books, both fiction and nonfiction.


The story's basic foundation could have held up a lovely tale. Picoult got indulgent with her newfound awareness and had her characters thinking and behaving in unrealistic ways to cram more of that knowledge into their heads, then she polished it off with an ending torn from a Disney Princess's wishbook. It all became very trite and downright silly by the end.

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review 2018-03-30 18:08
Stay With Me -- A nation and a marriage full of turbulence
Stay with Me: A novel - Adebayo Ayobami

Yejide and Akin fell in love at a political event while at University and married. They are young, upper-middle class, educated professionals with one foot in the future and one firmly rooted in their traditional Yoruba culture. They've been married for four years with no children, so to remedy this, in walks Akin's mother and the extended female family for what has become a regular visit to discuss this personal matter which is taken on by the larger community. This time, however, they brought a pretty young woman with them - a stranger. It seems that since Yejide can't or won't bear a child (preferably a son,) it's time to add a wife to the household, and she's here now.


Yejide at first assumes this is impossible. She and Akin had discussed their modern view of monogamous marriage. Before long, though, it becomes clear that Akin has assented to his mother's wishes for new woman entering their lives. Yejide is beyond distraught. So as Nigeria is ripped apart by political lies, unkept promises, and things that look different than they seem, so is the marriage. Against a backdrop of political unrest, we watch a marriage go through its own unrest.


The outside pressure brought to bear on both the individuals and the marriage lead both to multiple extremes. Nobody is a hero here. Everyone is supremely human and flawed, each with his or her own rationale for acting the way they do. Nonetheless, love cannot win out when truth falls victim to perception. Akin wants to be perceived as virile. Akin's mother wants that too. Yejide wants desperately to be loved, but when that seems impossible, she throws away nearly everything.


Something that has cropped up repeatedly for me over the past few years is the way machismo is enforced by women -- be it in fiction or in reality. Akin's mother is a perfect example of this. She wants certain esteem, and her son is the way to get that -- who cares about this woman he loves?


There is an intricate dance done in the writing where things happen and we only find out the hows and whys later. The balancing act of a disintegrating family within a disintegrating society is nimbly handled. Adebayo covers the family's struggles and torments with a skillful style that takes them from the personal to the universal.

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review 2018-03-23 15:07
A dystopian novel that really seemed like a glimpse into the future: global warming has taken its toll at last, but is there any slice of hope? Fascinating read!
Pills and Starships - Lydia Millet

I really enjoyed this ‘glimpse into the future’, because while this is indeed a dystopian novel, it sure seemed like I was reading a real journal (that of the main character, Nat, who writes it in the week leading up to her parent’s planned death). I chose this book for a group read on Litsy, where we send a book, marked up with our notes, along to the next person, and the other three do the same with their picks, so that we have a book mailing circle.
This first caught my eye in my local indie bookstore, where it had a recommendation tag (and an awesome cover), and the premise is this: teen siblings named Nat and Sam, accompany their parents to Hawaii who together have decided to spend their ‘Final Week’ before the contract for their deaths is carried out. Nat and Sam are long to say their goodbyes. That’s right, in this imagined future, where global warming has finally made the world so unbearable and everyone gets through their days by taking moodpharms (ie happy pills because the world is so depressing), you can take out a contract for your death when you get old enough, and you can pay for assisted suicide on the Big Island (it’s not illegal anymore and quite encouraged, and rather embraced).
The world that is in this dystopian future is so sadly believable that I read it as if I had some sort of special peek into what was going to happen if we continued with what we are already doing to this planet, and I have a feeling author Lydia Millet has distinct opinions on what’s to blame for the ruin to come (I tended to agree!); it’s not hard to imagine much of our wildlife gone, whole states like Florida under water, a whole garbage vortex in the ocean....
I can’t say too much about the plot but this was a great, thought-provoking, interesting story, and I will say there was some hope at the end. It’s not a long book but it packs in a lot to think about. I hope for everyone reading it, that it makes them think a little bit more about their carbon footprint and about how we really are lucky to have this Earth.
*And I don’t care too much about a future without pet cats. That will be a sad day.

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review 2018-03-13 22:57
Only Killers and Thieves -- Cormac McCarthy of the Outback
Only Killers and Thieves - Paul Howarth

I read this for my RL book club, and I'll admit I was not interested in doing so. (I always get outvoted in every single book club I join.)


So I was very pleasantly surprised when this turned out to be pretty excellent and yet another "western" that I can say I actually liked. I've been dithering about stars, so as usual take stars with a grain of salt. It's a great book. I'm pretty sure it will be on lists of the best of 2018.


It's a bloody awful mess quite literally, but it's effective and affecting. It's easy sometimes to forget that racism happens everywhere and that other countries have horrific and bloody histories when it comes to indigenous peoples or people different from the dominant.


Tommy and Billy McBride have lived a relatively innocent life with their parents, sister and father's ranch workers, despite the reality of a drought which is killing their cattle. Their parents have raised them well and protected them from the worst of human nature. When the boys are in their mid-teens (fourteen and sixteen, respectively) they arrive home from an afternoon of swimming to find a fateful and senseless tragedy. 


The boys, on their own now, turn to their most wealthy neighbor, John Sullivan who calls in Inspector Noone and his band of Native Queensland police. We watch as the two of them pervert the boys suffering into vengeance, push them (and the native police) to take part in a genocide of the Kurrong tribe, and eventually cause a rift between the brothers that will last forever. 


It's gut wrenching to watch the two young boys taken from relative safety and innocence to bloodlust and mental turbulence. It's terrifying to see how misplaced trust or anger can alter morality and belief. While this is set in the late 1800s of Australia, the lessons it paints carry great meaning everywhere still.


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