Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017)

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Review #43

In 2014, journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post to try and express her frustration with the way race and racism are discussed in Britain. The post, “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”, triggered an immediate and intense response from both white and black voices. In her first book, Eddo-Lodge expands upon her initial idea with a series of essays exploring topics such as white dominance, race in feminism, and the link between race and class.

In her preface, Eddo-Lodge explains that she finds it difficult to converse with white people about race because they tend to become either disinterested, defensive, or deflective. Because race is a topic that largely does not affect white people, the author feels that they instead try to turn the conversation around to focus on things from their perspective, and by doing so they shut out the minority viewpoint. On one hand, I completely agree. I have attempted to have conversations about race with my family and friends and the results have been uncomfortable at best or aggressive at worst.

On the other hand, it is generally difficult for humans  to imagine a viewpoint outside of their own. Sympathy and empathy are developed by asking ourselves that age old question, “How would I feel if this happened to me?” By asking that question it seems only natural that one would need to use their own life experiences as a lens through which to view the question. In order to open a dialogue about race and racism in the modern world, we first have to view the world through our own lens and come to an understanding before we can attempt to view the world through the lens of another. If Reni Eddo-Lodge wants to have a conversation about race and racism, this would be a good place to start. But, in this reader’s opinion, she doesn’t want to open a dialogue. She wants to lecture.

Right away, I hear voices in my head saying that I missed the entire point of the book and that I can never understand because I am white. However, I am simply referring to the preface. I actually found the majority of the book to be thought-provoking and insightful. My initial interest was sparked when I found out that it was focused primarily on race in Britain. When it comes to racially charged controversy, so much of the attention is focused on the United States that one tends to forget that it is alive and thriving in other areas as well. In her first essay, “Histories”, Eddo-Lodge points out that while Great Britain greatly benefited financially from the slave trade, they never had to witness the horrors of slavery at their doorstep, due to most of their “assets” being shipped to the Caribbean islands. So while America continues to deal with the aftershocks of slavery and segregation, Britain has allowed itself a certain level of moral superiority that it certainly hasn’t earned. Eddo-Lodge goes on to detail the difficult and violent history of racial minorities and immigrants in England, particularly when it comes to police violence and mob mentality.

The other essay that I particularly enjoyed was entitled “The Feminism Question”. Here, Eddo-Lodge and I agree very closely. Her argument is that the feminist movement is largely made up of white, middle-class women who have more liberty to expound their feminist views both in the workplace and in society at large. I was strongly reminded of the Women’s March last year, wherein thousands of women around the world took the day off of work to march through the streets. I recall reading about women walking in to restaurants and other stores and disparaging the women who had not taken the day off. What I feel that feminism often forgets to take into account is that not everyone has the support structure to just take a day off work. If you are a salaried employee whose children are in daycare, it’s easy enough to take a vacation day. However, if you are an hourly paid worker who is struggling to make ends meet at forty hours a week, it simply isn’t feasible. And since a disproportionate number of these service and hourly waged jobs are occupied by minority race, that they are often left out of the feminist discussion simply by not being invited to the conversation.

The one section of the book that I had serious issues with was the one entitled, “What is White Privilege”. Now do not get me wrong, I have absolutely benefited from white privilege. I accept this fact without condition. My problem is when Reni Eddo-Lodge equates white privilege with racism. At one point she says:

“White privilege is the perverse situation of feeling more comfortable with openly racist, far-right extremists, because at least you know where you stand with them; the boundaries are clear.”

Really? Would she really prefer to live in a world of active racists rather than a world of people who are trying (and perhaps failing but trying) to understand an outside perspective? The problem is that in Eddo-Lodge’s worldview, she leaves no room for disagreement. Either I accept everything that Eddo-Lodge states or I am somehow complicit in the racist treatment that she has had to endure in her life. There’s no room for conversation here. All white people have benefited from white privilege, there’s no denying that. But I actively disagree with the premise that this makes all white people inherently racist. Which, according to her, makes me a racist? One cannot prove a negative, so how am I meant to convince anyone that I am not a racist? Is it even possible if they already assume that you are?

If Reni Eddo-Lodge wanted to challenge people’s views on race and racism, she definitely succeeded with me. Consider that most of my reviews on this site average around 400 words, and this one is pushing one thousand. While reading this book I found myself constantly pausing and re-reading, going back over her arguments to think about them and how they pertain to the larger conversation of racism in the world. And while I did not agree with everything, this is definitely a book that will continue to stick in my brain for a long time.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race here on Amazon and here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Tangerine by Catherine Mangan (2018)

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Book Review #42

1958: Tangier, Morocco. Twenty-year old Alice Shipley is trying and failing to adjust to life in Tangier with her new husband, John. Overwhelmed by the heat, dust, and foreign culture of the city, Alice hides herself away in their small apartment. At least until her old college roommate Lucy Mason turns up out of the blue. Alice is surprised and dismayed to see Lucy after an accident caused a rift in their friendship more than a year ago. However, Lucy is fearless and carefree in the face of Tangier, and Alice tries to convince herself that the company of an old friend is just what she needs to adjust to her new life.

This debut novel by author Christine Mangan contains some technical flaws that threatened to lose my interest in the opening few chapters. The use of foreshadowing is used as a blunt hammer with which to beat a reader over the head. The prose tends to be needlessly wordy, and the use of run-on sentences caused me to grit my teeth more than once. However, these are the small woes that plague English teachers. I found myself truly enjoying this novel once I settled into it.

The obsessive friendships between women seems to be a prevalent theme in modern literature. Shari Lapena’s A Stranger in the House, and Ruth Ware’s In a Dark Dark Wood are recent examples of novels that explore the labyrinths of female companionship, and how that connection can often lead into less desirable territory when one friend suspects that the other may not share her depth of feeling. I enjoyed Mangan’s novel far more than Lapena’s and about on par with Ware’s because Mangan employs a great flare for generating suspense and unease. The chapters switch back and forth between Alice’s perspective and Lucy’s, and due to a short but meaningful prologue we are aware that at least one of these narrators is unreliable. The fun is in trying to discover which one.

Mangan takes a different path from the aforementioned authors by putting her novel in a historical context. I confess to being only vaguely aware of the struggle of Morocco in the 1950’s to liberate itself from French occupation. Sadly, those wishing to learn more about this time in history may come away disappointed. I would love to have had more of the narrative to center around the political and social turmoil of Tangier during this period. The setting of Tangier is instead used as a two-dimensional backdrop for the central plot between Alice and Lucy. At no time did I ever feel the heat of the Moroccan sun, or hear the cries of the hawkers eager to take advantage of naive tourists coming on the ferry from Spain.

Overall, this was an admirable debut effort, and I look forward to the next novel by Christine Mangan.

My rating: 3/5

You can find Tangerine here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (2018)

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Book Review #41

On the surface, Niru’s life seems to be one of privilege and advantage. The son of wealthy Nigerian immigrants, at eighteen he is a track star who has already been pre-approved to go to Harvard. However, Niru is ashamed to be hiding a deep secret from his parents. Only his best friend, Meredith, knows what he is keeping from the rest of the world. Niru is gay.

What follows is one of the worst “coming out” moments that could possibly happen to a young man. After his extremely conservative father sees a Grindr notification on his phone, all hell breaks loose. He beats Niru, and then forces him to travel to Nigeria in order to undergo a religious ceremony that will supposedly cleanse him of the demons that are causing these “unnatural” urges.

This novel by author Uzodinma Iweala is a short and brutal look into the fears and anxieties that continue to plague homosexual teens. Mainstream acceptance of gay rights have grown by leaps and bounds in the past ten years, and yet there are still thousands of children who cower in fear at the thought of their family or church community discovering that they are different from the “norm” in any way. Niru, the protagonist in Speak No Evil, has his fears compounded by the fact that he is African-American and a child of Nigerian parents, a country where homosexuality is still punishable by up to fourteen years in prison in the southern states and death by stoning in the north.

Iweala’s prose manages to be simultaneously poignant and gut-wrenching. I found myself rooting so strongly for poor Niru, and was disappointed and disturbed when it seemed that his chances for happiness were thwarted again and again by his family and his confusion towards his own sexual orientation. The chapters that are narrated by Meredith, are no less heartbreaking as she watches her dear friend spiral into depression and her own life ambitions begin to crumble.

“Sometimes I stare at the family that owns me and I wish I were a different person, with white skin and the ability to tell my mother and father, especially my father, to fuck off without consequence, and sometimes I stare at the white cards of Bible verses Reverend Olumide has gifted me and think that there is still a chance to change my ways.”

The only reason I cannot rate this novel higher is that I found Iweala’s writing style to be quite frustrating. He doesn’t use capital letters or quotation marks to indicate when a character is speaking. Because the novel is written almost as a stream-of-consciousness, this makes sense but I found myself confused and annoyed in turns when I could not figure out what words were being spoken aloud and which were taking place in Niru or Meredith’s mind. I must point out that the lack of quotation marks is a personal pet peeve of mine, one which will not necessarily detract from the anyone else’s enjoyment as they read this novel.

I would absolutely recommend this novel. Speak No Evil presents an unblinking look into racial and gender politics which left me haunted for days after finishing it.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Speak No Evil here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017)

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Book Review #40

In the aftermath of World War II, three widowed women find themselves seeking refuge and protection within the walls of an old Bavarian castle which used to play host to the aristocracy of Germany. Marianne von Lingenfels, whose husband was executed after a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, is trying to fulfill a promise to a childhood friend, to protect and shelter the wives and children of the resisters should their plans fail. She takes young Benita and pragmatic Ania under her wing, certain that their shared pain and loss will bind them together. But she must come to terms with the weight of secrets and guilt that will haunt the women and their children for years to follow.

This novel by Jessica Shattuck begins with a lot of promise. Readers are introduced to Marianne at a party in the castle before the war, mingling with the upper echelons of German society. She is portrayed as a determined, forthright young woman who is fully committed to resisting Hitler’s growing efforts to rid Germany of “undesirables”. We then skip forward to 1945, as Marianne throws her considerable connections and wealth into tracking down the scattered widows left behind by the failed resistance effort. The chapters then proceed to include the perspectives of the two women that are “rescued” by Marianne. Benita, a young and beautiful woman who unknowingly married a member of the German resistance; and Ania who was the wife of a Polish diplomat but lives in fear of a secret being discovered.

The perspectives of the latter two women are far more interesting than that of Marianne. Once she is fully described as being a forceful presence who takes it for granted that everyone shares her opinions, Marianne isn’t given much to do. Far more compelling is the character of Benita, who never had any allegiance to the German resistance and finds Marianne’s patriotic fervor uncomfortable to duplicate. The third woman, Ania, is equally intriguing, especially as more and more of her history during the war is revealed. All three of these women are devoted to their children, and in the beginning these are the ties that bind them.

There are scores of historical fiction novels that deal with the second World War from a myriad of perspectives. With the glut of available literature, it can be difficult to find a viewpoint that raises new questions. Here, Shattuck succeeds in giving voice to the women who found different ways of surviving Hitler’s Germany and its aftermath. All of  them have either seen or committed horrible acts in the name of protecting themselves and their children. They find themselves being slowly gnawed upon by the never-ending guilt that settled on their shoulders and indeed that of the entire country in the years following the war. Shattuck wisely avoids laying either blame or absolution on any of her characters, instead allowing her readers to reach those conclusions for themselves.

The first two thirds of The Women in the Castle focus on the years 1943-1950. This is easily the most interesting portion of the novel. The last one hundred pages or so skips forward to the year 1991, and here the suspense that has been building since the beginning is entirely lost. Jessica Shattuck seems very intent on hammering home the point that the wounds inflicted on the German psyche during World War II bear lasting scars to those who lived during this time. Unfortunately, this grinds the narrative to a halt and never fully manages to get back up to speed before the end of the book. Dealing with the ideas of guilt and redemption while it is still fresh in the minds of those who experienced it is a far more interesting idea than looking back on those years through the haze of forty years.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. It raised some interesting points when it comes to the repercussions of love, culpability, and surviving through hardships.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Women in the Castle here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review The Heart Forger (The Bone Witch Trilogy #2) by Rin Chupeco (2018)

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Review #39

The second installment of Rin Chupeco’s Bone Witch trilogy continues the story of the dark asha Tea. War and treachery are looming among the kingdoms. Given her newfound connection with the daeva monster, Tea must try to unravel the plots against her while trying to fight the dark power that seeks to engulf her. The plot interlaces the past with the present as Tea begins her ultimate mission to defeat those that she feels have wronged her.

Last month I read The Bone Witch and came away with mixed feelings. The fantasy world that built by Chupeco is both elegant and intricate, and the majority of the first novel is devoted into building the Nine Realms into a solid and believable place. The downside is that so much time and effort was spent on detailing politics, music, and fashion that it felt as though the novel ended before anything significant had happened concerning the plot. I said in my review of the first book that a better title might have been Memoirs of a Magical Geisha.

Following that vein, the second novel could easily be renamed Avatar: The Last Corpsebender. The action that was lacking from The Bone Witch is definitely made up for in The Heart Forger, as we see Tea and her fellow asha wield the four elements (as well as the dead) to defend their allies and defeat their enemies. These sequences rely heavily on the reader being able to follow the action, and here Chupeco succeeds admirably. The long fights between the forces of good and evil could easily have become bogged down and difficult to visualize, but instead they are clearly imagined and conveyed through her writing style.

Our heroine, Tea, is finally given something more interesting to do than marvel over her pretty new clothes and pine after the prince of Kion. She comes into her own in The Heart Forger, and begins questioning the strict rules and traditions that dictact the lives of her and her fellow asha. The bone witches are often scorned and looked down upon by the elders of her guild, and Tea is the one who begins to wonder if this is because they are feared for their powers. There is still a light romantic element to the story, but it is there to empower Tea as opposed to chain her down.

Just as in The Bone Witch, each chapter is preceded by a short flash forward which shows Tea raising an army of monsters and preparing to exact revenge on those who have wronged her. These short previews are used much better here than in the first novel. There, they were somewhat useless and kept pulling me out of my enjoyment of the main narrative. In The Heart Forger they are used to heavily foreshadow events to come. They slowly built a level of suspense that left me eager to find out what was going to happen next.

Overall, this novel was superior to the first installment in many ways. The final book in the trilogy is due to be released next year, and I am greatly looking forward to it.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Heart Forger here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Republican Like Me by Ken Stern (2017)

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Review #38

In the days leading up to and following Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, the former CEO of NPR Ken Stern realizes that his social and professional circles are comprised entirely of liberal progressives. He then proceeds to spend a year immersing himself in “Trump’s America”, attending gun shows and NASCAR events, and speaking with the people who feel that the American dream has left them behind. He wonders if the gap between Democrats and Republicans can’t be solved by a little human empathy and understanding.

I need to begin this review on a personal note. I am a liberal progressive from a family with deeply conservative, evangelical roots. To this day I cannot for the life of me figure out how I ended up on the completely other end of the ideological spectrum from the majority of my relatives. Part of me blames Harry Potter. Or the fact that I was one of the first members of my family to attend university (a liberal arts university at that). Whatever the reason, I can state with utter honesty that the 2016 election was a devastating blow towards my relationship with my family. I felt personally betrayed by their decision to vote for Donald Trump. I felt that they had been brainwashed by Fox News and the NRA, and that they had chosen to side with racism, intolerance, and misogyny. Was I being close minded, unfair, and more than a bit immature? Most definitely. But this knee-jerk offense that people tend to take in reaction to those who have different views from them is part of what author Ken Stern seeks to unravel in his book. I went in with very high hopes of a liberal’s fair and reasoned perspective on rural, white America.

It must be immediately addressed that Stern’s book focuses almost completely on white conservative America. At no point does he acknowledge the white, male privilege that allows him to blend in at a gun show, or to interview people in a depressed mining town. The entire book consists almost entirely of one middle-aged white man talking to other middle-aged white men, which gives an extremely limiting perspective. A young black man asking questions of Trump supporters at a NASCAR race would likely have written a very different book. And possibly a more interesting one.

In Republican Like Me, Stern tackles major “hot button issues” such as gun control, evangelism, climate change, and attitudes towards the media. His research is meticulous and well-cited. I enjoyed his use of statistics to blow holes in both conservative and liberal ideologies. For example, during his chapter on gun control he mentions that the majority of firearm deaths in the United States are committed using handguns, not assault rifles. And the vast majority of firearm homicides are either individual murders or suicides. Stern uses this data to draw the conclusion that the Democrats frenzied screaming for a ban on assault weapons will not significantly lower the percentage of gun deaths in the United States.

It might lower the rate at which (white) gunmen walk into public schools and shoot a bunch of children, but Stern doesn’t talk about that.

He does delve heavily into the economic factors which led people to vote for Trump. If a person from a West Virginia mining town sees Hilary Clinton speaking at an exclusive Manhattan banquet about “shutting down the coal industry”, of course they are not going to view her with favor. Stern does not address Clinton in his book, but I wish he had. I had to bite my cheek and grimace as I checked her name on the ballot in 2016. I imagine that a great deal of conservatives had to do the same thing when they voted for Trump. It was this idea more than anything else which caused me to pause and think.

I’ve been a liberal all my life, and I can say without pause that the Democratic party comes off as arrogant, condescending, patronizing, and sanctimonious. They have ceased to be the party of the working people. And while liberals, myself included, pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we will at least be on the “right side” of history, it doesn’t change the fact that 33 governorships, 51 senate seats, and 237 house seats are held by the GOP. If the Democratic party hopes to succeed, they need to remember that not everyone in the country lives in New York or California. But I digress.

I found myself consistently irritated and annoyed by this book. Stern wastes an opportunity to point out the hypocrisy that thrives on both sides of the aisle. He has a wonderful soapbox from which to describe the extreme discrepancy between the majority of reasonable Americans and the frothing lunatics who have been elected to represent them. Instead, he offers pithy platitude on top of condescending comment. “If we just listened to one another…” “If we just took the time to get to know one another…” “Republicans aren’t all that bad…”

On one hand he is absolutely correct. Republicans demonizing liberals and Democrats bashing conservatives doesn’t help anyone except the lobbyists and the corporations they serve. And it is much easier from a psychological standpoint to cater to our own confirmation bias than it is to logically and rationally consider new ideas. It’s easier to point the finger at the “dumb rednecks” who got duped into voting for Trump because they were to stupid to know any better. Most Republican voters are decent, middle-class people who are just trying to support their families and build a better life in a country that they perceive as falling into chaos. This is not new information, and it is not presented here in a new way.

The problem is that it is very difficult to have a logical and rational conversation regarding these ideas. I will absolutely listen to someone from a small, dying Rust Belt town as they lament that all of the factories are closed and the jobs are gone. I can and have discussed fracking versus solar versus coal as a viable form of energy for the future. But I cannot in good conscience listen and nod as someone lays all the blame for their misfortune on “the Muslim African” who got elected illegally by putting mind-control substances in America’s drinking water. I’ve had those exact words said to me by a former coworker. What does Ken Stern think a person should do in that situation? Am I supposed to say, “Ah, yes that’s a very good point and I respect it”? What about the man from my hometown who thinks that all Muslims should be deported whether or not they are legal American citizens? I would wager ninety-to-one odds that he has never met a Muslim in his life. But am I meant to shake this xenophobe’s hand and strive to find common ground?

I realize there are no easy answers, and this is not a conversation that can be solved with one book, or ten, or a thousand. But at the end of the day, Ken Stern pulls too many punches, wastes too many opportunities, and only acknowledges the “white working class” facet of an extremely convoluted issue. For now I will have to accept that we cannot “just all get along”. I guess I’ll just have to continue avoiding political conversations at family gatherings.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Republican Like Me here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara (2018)

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Review #37

The glitter and glamor of the Harlem drag ball scene is described through the eyes of four young transvestites. Together they form the house of Xtravaganza, led by Angel who is recovering from a dark past. Beneath the excitement and energy, all these women try to fight against the allure of drugs and the rising threat of AIDS.

“So I always say that when the world calls you a slut, just kick back your legs and fuck and enjoy it. Because if life don’t call you a slut, she’s gonna find something else to call you.”

The early pages of Joseph Cassara’s debut novel, The House of Impossible Beauties, are a little confusing. There is a fluidity of pronouns and personal names that make it difficult to determine exactly who is speaking at any given time. It also helps while reading this novel if you have some background in Spanish, as Cassara often interjects English sentences with Spanish phrases. Not being able to understand these phrases will not necessarily detract from the overall plot, but it did have the effect of constantly pulling me out of the novel while I tried to dredge up the remnants of my high school Spanish.

The House of Impossible Beauties switches perspective between four young drag queens who have moved to New York with tall dreams and even taller heels. Angel yearns to create a family to replace the one that rejected her. Venus strives to find someone who will love her for who she is and take her away from a life walking the piers at night. Juanito is a gentle and shy boy who lives to create his own fashions and dreams of seeing them walk down the runway at the drag shows. And Daniel is a tough butch queen who refuses to take shit from anyone, until he falls in love. These four band together to try to make a life for themselves in a world that has given them only disgust and revulsion.

All of this takes place against the background of the 1980’s drag queen ball culture, where the women are straddled between two very different lives. On one side, there is sisterhood and pride, strutting attitude and false eyelashes and desperate hope. On the other side, there is a life of turning tricks in the backseats of cars, of battling addiction, depression, and the cruelty of society. And in the background, like a horrible looming spider, is the threat of HIV and AIDS, a virus so terrible that it threatened to wipe out this community in its entirety. Like Shakespeare’s Scottish play, it is never directly referred to by name, as if to invoke its name would be to tempt death itself.

As I was reading, Darren Aronofsky’s horrifically beautiful film Requiem for a Dream kept flashing into my mind. There are the shared themes of people building castles in the sky and watching them crash down around their heads. There is the same sense of reckless hope that fuels a manic energy. And when the flame of that hope dwindles, all anyone is left with are the ashes.

Filled in turns with rage, romance, grief, and tenderness, The House of Impossible Beauties is a poignant and evocative novel. I would definitely recommend it.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!