Category Archives: race

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

eightyearsinpowerI was thrilled when I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of We Were Eight Years in Power from Random House because I love LOVE loved Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and even included it in my list of 5 favorite reads from 2016! Coates has a wonderful style of writing that will leave you breathless (intentionally so as the author mentions in one part of this collection) and I will continue to gobble down his pieces.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of 9 pieces that Coates has written for The Atlantic in the past 9 years, thus if you’ve been following Coates’s online articles, you’ve likely read some or all of these pieces before (they’re all still available online too). Before each piece begins, Coates ties each of the pieces to where he was personally, blending in some of the memoir style exemplified in Between the World and Me, and where America was socially, culturally, economically, and politically. This means that he often connects his pieces to the Obama administration (pre- and post-) and mentions how it influenced his articles, even if not explicitly stated in the features.  I often found the justifications and positioning of when the pieces were written to be more interesting than the earlier pieces in the collection, probably because I found myself more interested in Coates and his reflections than Bill Cosby’s weird and harmful conservatism regarding the black community (something I hadn’t read about before now). It would have been nice if the dates that the pieces were originally published had been included next to their titles, in order to help the reader position when it occurred; this would also help this book stand 20 years from now if something happened that wasn’t common or accepted knowledge at the time of first publication (such as the widespread depths of Cosby’s transgressions, which Coates does acknowledge in the introduction for that piece, but would be missing for things uncovered in the future).

The collection includes pieces about (1) Bill Cosby, (2) Michelle Obama, (3) The Civil War, (4) Malcolm X, (5) Fear of a Black President, which is commentary on how Obama talked about race during his first presidential term, (6) The Case for Reparations, a viral piece that’s widely assigned on my college campus according to my undergrads, (7) Mass Incarceration, (8) My President was Black, a feature on Obama and reflections on his presidency, and (9) White Supremacy and Trump, a piece that serves as the epilogue and also recently went viral under the title The First White President.

The pieces become progressively longer as the reader progresses through the collection, presumably aligning with the growth of Coates’s readership and The Atlantic assuming that their digital readers would stay along for the ride and full length of the pieces. In my opinion, Coates’s writing strengthens throughout the collection, building upon his years of writing experience. In the introductions, Coates also corrects some errors that were in the previous publications of pieces or properly acknowledges sources that were neglected in the original publications.

At times, We Were Eight Years in Power could feel like reading an accessible textbook, but a textbook nevertheless. The readings are dense and cannot be pored over in one sitting. I really liked the collection, but if someone were completely unfamiliar with Coates, this would not be the first piece of his I recommended. Instead, I would thrust Between the World and Me into their hands and emphatically encourage them to read it immediately. It’s a bit more accessible and shorter and, within this collection, Coates perfectly sums up Between the World and Me with this description of his mindset at the time of writing, “I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion (as James Baldwin), meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years.”

I recommend We Were Eight Years in Power to people already familiar with Coates and who haven’t read each of these pieces online yet. If you’re not familiar with Coates, make Between the World and Me the next book that you read.

We Were Eight Years in Power will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on October 3, 2017! 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Random House or NetGalley.

 

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Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 12.09.13 PMThis was good and I’ve yet to read something by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I haven’t been impressed by or hasn’t provoked me into thinking about something slightly differently than I did before. This thin, little book is composed as a letter to a friend who was seeking advice on how to raise her daughter as a feminist. Adichie offers 15 suggestions, specifically linking them to Nigerian, Igbo, and western cultures, but even these specific examples are still universal. Adichie admits that these tenants may be hard to accomplish, but we must strive to embody them to create feminists in our children and in ourselves.

A few choice quotes are below:

“Be deliberate about showing her the enduring beauty and resiliences of Africans and of black people. Why? Because of the power dynamics in the world, she will grow up seeing images of white beauty, white ability, and white achievement, no matter where she is in the world. It will be in the TV shows she watches, in the popular culture she consumes, in the books she reads. She will also probably grow up seeing many negative images of blackness and of Africans.” (p. 40)

“We ask of powerful women: Is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough? Does she have a domestic side? Question we do not ask of powerful men, which shows that our discomfort is not with power itself, but with women.” (p. 24)

“If we stopped conditioning women to see marriage as a prize, then we would have fewer debates about a wife needing to cook in order to earn that prize.” (p. 15)

“Don’t think that raising her feminist means forcing her to reject femininity.” (p. 43)

“Social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed.” (p. 51)

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen

unrulywomenBuzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen covers a range of “unruly” women, using celebrities to describe how society reacts now and has historically to different types of unruly women. In the author’s own words, the women in the book, “spark feelings of fascination and repulsion” and are “explicit and implicit alternatives to the ‘new domesticity.'” (p 10).

The entire collection felt like an extended long read and each section is broken into chapters that feature a specific celebrity and then culturally and historically situates their corresponding label. I was familiar with all of those profiled which probably helped me eagerly approach each of the essays. Because of how this felt like a series of long reads, I recommend reading each piece as a stand-alone and not concurrently. Set aside 20-30 mins to read a chapter and then come back to the book the next day to read the next standalone piece. Otherwise, it feels repetitive and the book as a whole becomes less shiny.

For me, the standout is the piece on Kim Kardashian and her “performance of pregnancy” which discusses how publicly being pregnant has evolved since the beginning of pregnancy depictions (the Virgin Mary), to how pregnancy was omitted and banned from media enactments, to how Demi Moore’s naked, 7-month pregnant body on a magazine cover completely changed the public performance. Petersen discusses the emergence of “cute pregnancies” with cute, slim bodies and compares and contrasts Kim Kardashian to Kate Middleton, who was cutely pregnant at the same time as Kim’s unruly pregnancy. Compared to the rest of the pieces, this chapter had the best integration of the history of celebrity than any of the other chapters.

I found Petersen’s piece on Jennifer Weiner to be the most unlike anything I’ve read elsewhere and I found myself sending multiple quotes from the essay to a friend. The Weiner chapter had the most sociological influence, demonstrated by comparing mass market books to the “high” culture of books marketed to the “educated” classes. As someone who reads a lot, this was a very necessary reflection on what’s allowed to be a “good book.”

Overall, I recommend this book – as long as you spread out consuming each of its chunks instead of devouring it in one sitting.

I ranked the pieces in order of my perception of their quality below. I didn’t necessarily rank the pieces on the celebrities I liked the best as the highest (i.e. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are probably my favorites, but their chapter was my least favorite):
1. Kim Kardashian (Too Pregnant), 2. Serena Williams (Too Strong), 3. Jennifer Weiner (Too Loud), 4. Nicki Minaj (Too Slutty), 5. Hillary Clinton (Too Shrill), 6. Melissa McCarthy (Too Fat), 7. Caitlyn Jenner (Too Queer) (later in the chapter, Petersen categorizes her as probably least unruly, but counterparts on her show are), 8. Madonna (Too Old), 9. Lena Dunham (Too Naked), 10. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (Too Gross).

For more, check out http://www.girlwithabookblog.com!

Disclaimer: I was provided with an Advance Reader Copy of this book for free from the Penguin First to Read program. All opinions expressed in the following review are my own and have not been influenced by Penguin.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldandmeThis is a book that I instantly wish I owned multiple versions of because I feel like I need to consume it in different ways for the weight of its words to fully sink into my consciousness. I finished the audiobook version of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates a couple of weeks ago and it was MARVELOUS! The book is part memoir, part current American history and is written as a letter directly to the author’s son. Because I knew that the book followed this format, I opted to purchase the audiobook from Downpour (if you like audiobooks and you aren’t a subscriber to Downpour, you need to get on board!!) as the author was the narrator and I wanted to hear the author’s intonations and emotions as he spoke his words.

Coates is both a powerful speaker and writer. While he detailed the lessons that he was forced to learn as a black man growing up in America and contrasted them from the lessons his father had to learn and the lessons his son has already learned or will have to learn was incredibly poignant. The world has shifted significantly since his father was a child, but there is still so much room for the world and America’s culture to grow and improve. While his son currently leads a privileged life because of his father’s wealth and their family’s residence in Paris, France (all privileges Coates acknowledges), this doesn’t eliminate the ways that his son must prepare for how he will doubtlessly be seen as a young black man when he is in America. Regardless of any of his own characteristics or intentions, people will cast stereotypes upon his body and his mind and he will have to know how to evade or protect himself from them; hence, why Coates has chosen to write his son a series of lessons he has learned in his own life.

As a white woman, Between the World and Me truly illuminated the world that black parents must build and teach to their children — something that I never had to be taught by my own family. When I was a child, my innocence and piety were often assumed by strangers, but this isn’t the case for many black children who are often undeservedly assumed to be devious or guilty. One of the vignettes that stuck with me most clearly was when a white adult was extremely rude to Coates’s young son and Coates struggled to contain his anger in the face of assumptions and rights incorrectly projected onto his child. To hear this told from a parent’s perspective was heartbreaking and I admire Coates’s ability to so poignantly and clearly discuss how this affects him and his family on a micro-level, while simultaneously situating his personal experiences within historical and societal contexts. 

Between the World and Me is very of the moment (because of the renewed, necessary spotlight on racial tension and inequality in America) and also of America’s history. I believe this book will be a touchstone that people reference decades from now when trying to convey the state of race in America in the early 2000s and Coates has done a remarkable job creating a piece that will last. 

While I loved listening to this audiobook, I wish I also owned a physical version of this book so that I could highlight and come back to the most touching/provoking pieces with ease. I greatly valued hearing the author beautifully speak his story, something that most authors who aren’t trained entertainers struggle to do well. The audiobook was also quite a quick listening experience and clocked in at about 3.5 hours. My recommendation is to consume this in whatever way that it comes into your life and then consume it again and again. I’ll likely be purchasing a physical copy when I get the chance and will re-read it again in the coming years. Clearly, I profusely recommend. 

Publication date: 14 July 2015 by Spiegel & Grau. Format: Audiobook from Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group.

Author/Narrator: Ta-Nehisi Coates @twitter/articles

fresh off the boat by eddie huang

Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie HuangThe author, Eddie Huang, narrates his own audiobook, which, at times, is a little frustrating. Most authors who read their own audiobooks and narrate it well are either comedians or Neil Gaiman, so I was little startled to hear Huang reading his own book… but it made a little bit more sense as I got to know him through his narration. I didn’t know much about Huang before I read his novel — I checked the audiobook out from my library a few weeks before Fresh Off the Boat (a television adaptation of his memoir) was set to air because I was curious about his style.

Fresh Off the Boat is Huang’s memoir, which begins by detailing his childhood as the oldest son born to a Taiwanese family that immigrated to America. Most vignettes into Huang’s life includes a comparison to food (either food that he currently creates or the flavors that he grew up tasting). The memoir details Huang’s incredibly interesting life and his many ventures from being a food vlogger, fashion designer (he designed some best-selling, iconic Obama street wear), to a restaurant owner. Huang has worn many hats and seems to excel while wearing each of them. It could be pretty inspiring to someone who feels like they’re stuck in a career rut that they can’t escape.

Tonally, the memoir can be a little brash at times and the audiobook includes some additional tirades by Huang that weren’t included in the print version of the book. Because of this, I found Huang to be a bit grating at times. This makes sense because being direct and outspoken is part of Huang’s identity — he’s used to embracing his thoughts, even if his delivery makes people uncomfortable. He likes to unsettle the status quo and this can be a bit startling if you’re not expecting it.

Overall, this book wasn’t for me — most of the 90s hip hop and basketball references  went completely over my head and caused me to disconnect at points while listening. If you were into both of these things and also love to listen to a food lover talk about food, this will be the book of your dreams! Even though the book wasn’t for me, I can appreciate what it was adding to popular culture and think it’s important that it’s in the book world.

As an aside, I recently went to Huang’s restaurant Baohaus and it was very delicious! I definitely recommend eating there. Huang talks at length about developing his restaurant and his fantastic flavors within Fresh Off the Boat. One of my friends even saw Huang there when he recently popped into the small restaurant! The restaurant is completely accessible and not one of those hoity-toity restaurants that you usually read about in chef’s memoirs: there are no reservations, seating is minimal and first come, first serve, and the turnaround for attaining your food is pretty speedy.

Sorry that this also managed to turn into a restaurant review, in addition to being a book review. I would have also made it a TV review, but I have yet to watch all of the TV series yet.

Author/Narrator: Eddie Huang vice vlog/restaurant/instagram

Publication Date: 29 January 2013 by Spiegel and Grau. Format: Digital Audiobook from Random House Audio.

our kids: the american dream in crisis by robert d. putnam

Our KidsA lot of press have published very enthusiastic and positive reviews about Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam, but as someone who works in the education field, has a background in family, youth, and educational sociology, and is a frequent reader of nonfiction, I must strongly disagree with the bubble of positivity surrounding this book. The book covers what the author believes to be the disintegration of the “American dream” which, for the purposes of the book, is essentially the belief that individuals can achieve upward social and economic mobility through increased educational attainment.

Everything covered in the book isn’t new to anyone that works in education or is in tune with social inequality in anyway. I concede that this book is likely not meant for people who are already interested in and informed of these topics, but is rather meant to serve as an introduction to the general public of the troubling conditions that surround young people who are trying to advance themselves within society. However, the tone that Putnam adopts within his book is incredibly condescending. Within the work, he highlights the different life and education experiences that typically occur for youth in different economic classes, ranging from upper-middle class families to those who are living below the poverty line. I’m happy that Putnam (or rather his graduate student, Jennifer Silva, who actually conducted all of the interviews detailed in the book) included a range of representations of what it’s like to grow up in America today in comparison to what his and his high school classmates’ lives were like in 1959 in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. However, what really irked me is when the author would write calls to action with an air of assumption that anyone reading the book helms from something above a working class background. When this happened, it seemed to me like Putnam sometimes lost sense of the humanity of the populations that he doesn’t personally identify as and assumed that anyone reading his book would be of the same social social class as him. Because of this, I felt like the calls to action were particularly alienating.

The main argument Putnam makes throughout the book is that class influences a child’s success in the American schooling system and subsequent career and education trajectory more than race does. While I agree that class is incredibly influential on these outcomes, race can also greatly impact how children are treated by their peers, community, and educators, and this cannot be brushed aside as easily as Putnam makes it seem. I wish Putnam had spent more time digging into how the intersection of race and class can impact certain children, but he seemed to cherry pick stories that supported his main thesis instead of looking to include a representation of different experiences.

Below, I’ve included two quotes that I found particularly troubling in order to provide examples of why this book rubbed me the wrong way. They are only included in this review because I feel like they can help potential readers decide whether or not this is a book they would like to read.

When describing how a poorer individual relates to his parents’ political ideologies, Putnam states, “David lives in a chaotic family situation with no role models at all for political or civic engagement, so our questions about those topics elicited a puzzled stare and a brief response, as though we had asked about Mozart or foxhunting.”

“But most readers of this book do not face the same plight, nor does its author, nor do our own biological kids. Because of growing class segregation in America, fewer and fewer successful people (and even fewer of our children) have much idea how the other half lives. So we are less empathetic than we should be to the plight of less privileged kids.”

Aforementioned alienation aside, I guess Our Kids can serve as a good introduction to how social and education inequality affects young people for a reader who is completely new to these topics. If you decide to read this, please realize that Putnam’s tone can be incredibly condescending at times and this subsequently impacts how he details the experiences of all of the study participants who were interviewed. I partly think he did this in order to enact a larger call to action and a greater sense of shared responsibility with the assumed (upper-middle class) audience who is reading the book, but it fell flat for me.

Publication Date: 10 March 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

Author: Robert D. Putnam web/facebook/@twitter

the short and tragic life of robert peace by jeff hobbs

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert PeaceAs I work backward through my backlogged book reviews, I now present you with my review of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs, which is the second book that I finished in 2015 and is my favorite read of the year so far!

This book is beautifully written — you can tell the author spent countless hours studying the way other successful authors have crafted their timeless sentence structures. The Short and Tragic Life profiles, obviously, the life of Robert Peace from the relationship of his parents prior to Peace’s conception to how his family and friends deal with losing him after his death. The book is written by Peace’s college roommate which lends the book authenticity, but also means that the author inserts himself into the story at times, which can sometimes feel a bit awkward, but is completely understandable in context.

I’ll give a brief summary of the book, while trying not to reveal too much of its contents… this book discusses the early life of a young boy who is born into a low income family comprised of an extremely hardworking mother, an incarcerated and loving father (a reality that is sadly too common for many today), and dedicated grandparents. As Peace, an extremely intelligent child, navigates middle school and high school, Hobbs illuminates the struggle Peace must have felt to contribute to his family’s income, while trying to get himself to college, something no one in his immediate family had succeeded in doing before. When Peace enters a very prestigious university (and meets the author), he struggles to identify with the wealthy, privileged student body as a poor, black student. Hobbs describes this phase of Peace’s life and his struggle so incredibly well that this is the part of Robert Peace’s story that I always tell people about when I recommend this book to them. I have yet to read something that feels more authentic when describing how difficult it is to navigate fitting into an elite university’s student body when you differ from the majority. This othering of Peace very much influenced his college career and post-college trajectory and is a necessary read for anyone who is interested in higher education, socioeconomic differences, race, sociology, and the intersection of all of the above. Please, please read this book!

I originally read this book in order to participate in a Twitter book club led by Kat Chow, a journalist who covers race and culture for NPR’s Code Switch blog. As part of the book club, Kat and her twitter followers curated a list of books that are either about or are written by people of color. While the online book club seems to have died after the reading of the first selection, the list still lives and is a good reference point for adding things to your To-Be-Read pile. I have it saved in my bookmarks.

As I mourn the loss of my all too short stint of being in a digital book club, I was wondering if any of you have an online book club that you recommend me joining? I just joined a book of the month discussion inspired by Rory Gilmore (I started binging Gilmore Girls in February and am now almost done with the series…), but it doesn’t seem like it’ll be as active as I’m wanting. Are you in a book club that you’d like more people to join? Leave a comment and tell me more!

Publication date: 23 September 2014 by Scribner. Format: Hardcover.

Author: Jeff Hobbs GoodReads/Publisher Profile