Monday, February 5, 2018

Blogtastic!: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

BLOGTASTIC! We’ve reached the last and final square in the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge. Today will feature Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, which fulfills the category, “Book by an Asian-American Writer.”

The book blogosphere loves Ng’s books, because they are very accessible family dramas that offer entry into complicated conversations about identity. Her debut, Everything I Never Told You, was the Amazon Book of the Year in 2014. Little Fires Everywhere was the Amazon Best Novel of the year in 2017 an the Goodreads Choice Best Fiction Book of the Year in 2017. So y’all love your Ng.

I like Ng’s books. I do! But I don’t love them, and that always makes me feel weird. It’s kind of how I feel about Star Wars. Sure, I’ll go, but I have no interest in standing in line in costume at midnight to see it. 

photo credit: Andrew Gombert/European Pressphoto Agency at
Little Fires Everywhere is a book that is trying to do several things. First, it is a satire of sorts of white, affluent culture. The novel takes place in Shaker Heights, Ohio, which is the author’s hometown. Ng takes aim at the pristine appearance of the setting, the rules and conventions, and the supposed progressive politics of the very rich people. Second, it is an exploration of the complexities of motherhood, and the novel features several mother/daughter relationships that poke at all the ways that being a “good mother” is difficult. And third, the novel wants to explore intercultural/interracial/interclass adoption, which brings all three themes together. Ambitious, right?

The problem I have is that I don’t think that Ng really trusts her audience to grapple with the complex moral issues at the center of the book. I’m not truly spoiling anything with this discussion, but STOP RIGHT NOW if you are worried about finding out too much about the story. 

The interracial/cultural/class adoption controversy involves a legal challenge between affluent/white adoptive parents and a low income, young, Asian birth mother. Class issues are central here, because the baby will certainly grow up with all sorts of material advantages if she stays with her adoptive parents. But the birth mother’s biological connection and cultural connection sit as important, contrasting advantages.  There’s so much interesting (and tragic) possibility in this subject matter, but I don’t think that Ng allows us to encounter the difficult heart of this problem. I wanted to feel challenged, but the adoptive parents are so completely clueless that I felt manipulated. What if the adoptive parents had surrounded the daughter with people and experiences that would help her connect to her heritage? What if there was genuine goodness – though different goodness - on both sides of the legal aisle? Then the reader would have a real dilemma, just as we do when this issue plays out in real courts, when we have to ask, “How does race matter?” and “How does class matter?”

So read this for your book club! There’s a ton to talk about, clearly. You can even wear your Star Wars costume while you do so.

Original from Then I mangled it.
Here’s an interesting interview with Ng. And here she is in The Atlantic talking about the significance of Goodnight Moon: “If you imagine this book without the words that accompany the pictures, it would be a mystifying work—even a little bit terrifying.”

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Blogtastic!: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Today I’ll be writing about the fourth square on my 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge bingo card: Book By An “Award Winning” Author of Color. I read The Round House by Louise Erdrich not because I wanted to, but because my high school aged sons were assigned to read this in class.  And I knew from reviews --EEK, the subject matter! And I don’t think this is a spoiler because it happens in Chapter 1:

The main character’s mother is raped, and the bad guy tries to set her on fire.

This struck me as a shocking topic for a tenth grade discussion until I realized that it’s probably the plot of half of the mass market thrillers on bookstore shelves. But still, trigger warning for this entire book!

The main character is a Native teenager who, as his family struggles with this crime, has to confront the idea of justice. And the crime happens at a place where location matters – will it be subject to United States federal law or tribal law? The question of rights and authority is literal, but it is also philosophical: can there ever be real justice for indigenous groups?

The other thing that is striking about this book is that it is a coming-of-age story. So much of this book did resemble novels that I had to read in high school: The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, etc. It is the terribleness of the crime that sets it apart, and the fact that a young boy has to live with that kind of violence. Is the reason that I was so shocked at this content because people like me (white, economically stable) can assume a protected childhood? Is this belief just another facet of privilege? There’s a connection here to Between the World and Me, in which Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writes a letter to his son about what it means to be young, black boy today. The message: The world might be safe for some people, but it’s not safe for you.

What would Holden Caulfield say about the fact that adults made an online quiz about him to help kids get good grades in school?
I also saw a connection with Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (#4 on my Best of 2017 list). That book has coming-of-age elements (main character is a teen boy coming to understanding about his family), and it also confronts the idea of whether justice is possible for the characters. There are cultural ghosts in both novels that tether the current day story to history. I can imagine a fantastic book club discussion with the three books together (Erdrich, Coates, Ward) – assuming, of course, that your book club wants to dive into deepest literary sadness.

The Round House won the National Book Award in 2012. Erdrich’s 2009 novel, The Plague of Doves, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Award in 1984.

The internet just told me that Erdrich owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. It’s an independent bookstore that focuses on Native literature and community. So if you’re there for the Super Bowl, go check it out!

Here’s a 2012 New York Times interview with Erdrich about The Round House. And here’s a new one from Elle magazine. The interviewer is Margaret Atwood!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Blogtastic!: Janesville by Amy Goldstein

 We’ve made it to the “free square” on the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge bingo card. I’ve decided to choose the category, “Nonfiction About Race or Class in America.” And the book that fills that category is Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein.

I listened to Janesville on audio, and come to think of it, audio books offered a great way for me to branch out from my go-to diet of fiction about sad white ladies. In the final half of 2017, I listened to three audio books that filled squares on my bingo card. Yay, broadened horizons!

Janesville is a true case of narrative ethnography -- only rarely do I feel like the author steps in the middle of it. It follows the trajectory of residents of Janesville, Wisconsin after the General Motors plant closes and offers a complicated story of the declining middle class. I was most struck by the hope that gets pinned on education (workforce retraining) as a way to bolster the middle class in the face of economic change -- and, in this case, its lack of impact.

This book will clearly appeal to people wondering what happened during the 2016 election, and frankly, I think it is better than Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance – which was the book that has received the most praise for trying to explain the mindset that propelled some economically struggling white people to become Trump’s base. Goldstein brings a journalist’s eye and craft to her work, while Vance is talking about his family and his neighbors and his own history. Janesville is part of this same conversation because of Wisconsin’s Electoral College vote outcome and also because it is Paul Ryan’s hometown. It is notable, however, that this is NOT a book about Trump, and Goldstein doesn’t even mention him until the epilogue. Plus, Janesville voted Democratic during the election.

Several reviewers have noted that Janesville needs a part 2. Understanding the state of our politics requires grappling with race, and Goldstein does not do that with much depth. It’s true that the Janesville community is over 95% white, but the existence of the all-white communities is part of the story of racial segregation and exclusion that is central to American economic history. Goldstein does give a nod to the fact that Beloit, Wisconsin – just down the freeway from Janesville – is more racially diverse (15% African American and 17% Latino). The politics that led to a region that has those racialized elements is important.

Of course, there might be a bigger question at stake for readers who pick up a book about Wisconsin. What is the appeal of cheese curds? Why?!?!?!
Vat O'Curds

Valentine's Day Themed Curds?????
Here’s a link to a Marketplace interview with Goldstein, with an edited print transcript included. And here’s a review that I liked from The New Yorker.  Janesville won the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year for 2017.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Blogtastic!: Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Today I’m focusing on bingo square #2 on the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge: Nonfiction About Gender or Gender Roles. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a letter the author writes to a friend about how to raise a feminist.

Like in her fiction (Americanah is my favorite!), Adichie is writing about her understanding of both Nigerian and Western/American contexts. Growing up a feminist is both culturally specific and more universally political, and it was interesting to think about the idea of equality with that in mind.

I listened to this book on audio, but I have since read excerpts of it in print. Though I am enjoying the way I can grow my stack of books by listening to audio versions in the car, I will say that audio does this book a disservice.  Adichie is a powerful speaker. I have used her TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," in my classes. THIS is the voice readers need to hear in their head when they read this book. The American audio reader sounds particularly disconnected from the letter in her hands.

I listened to this book before the #MeToo events of this fall, but the book is even more profound with that movement in mind. Raising a child is a political act, and it helps to be thoughtful about our language (princess?) and about binaries (can you be both feminist and feminine? Or are those opposite constructs?) I was especially compelled with her critique of the idea of “likeability.” We certainly expect powerful women to be likeable, but we don’t expect the same of men (think: 2016 election). Here’s a little excerpt, which I took from her Facebook page:

Please do not ever put this pressure on your daughter. We teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm. Many girls think of the ‘feelings’ of those who are hurting them… We have a world full of women who are unable fully to exhale because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable.

Helping a child become a good person is such hard work. Adichie reminds us that consciousness-raising requires being conscious of all the little things. Now that the holidays are over, I'd like to add a 16th suggestion. Can we get real about Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer? I think it might be time to stop celebrating Rudolf's story – or at least call out his sexist dad – don’t you think?

I recently listened to an interesting Atlantic Interview podcast featuring Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I downloaded it from Apple Podcasts, but the YouTube link gives you the audio. And here’s an article about her from The Guardian.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Blogtastic! The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Today I’m focusing on bingo square #1 on the 2017 Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge: YA Novel By a Writer of Color. It’s possible that The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is the only YA novel I read last year. I do find that I read fewer of them these days, despite having young adults in my house, because I’m not much into dystopia or dragons. Next year I might put a new square on the bingo card: YA Novel About Humans in a Real Life Situation. But, of course, the line between fictional dystopia and real life is getting more and more blurry…

I was drawn to The Hate U Give because of the buzz around it, but also because it ties into one of the content strands in the courses I teach. The last few years, my students and I have looked at Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. I teach about education policy, and the purpose of focusing on this event has been to look at the idea of “separation” as a tool. What does segregation do in our society? Why do we intentionally separate people, and to what end? Together, we read parts of James D. Anderson’s Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 to look at the logic Southerners used when they excluded African Americans from the public school system (and how African Americans fought back).  We listen to the This American Life podcast, "The Problem We All Live With, Part 1," to see the modern day version of that problem in the schools surrounding Ferguson, MO. And we read parts of We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang to see how streets and towns and bylaws and policies were created in the Ferguson area (and most places) to invent and reinvent separation again and again.

But if I’m honest, it was not until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me that I truly felt what it meant that the law is not on everyone’s side. The distinction between feeling and understanding is important for me. The reason that this book affected me so much is because Coates is writing a letter to his child. He is preparing him for the world, just as I have to prepare my own kids for the world. But in this letter, he is telling his son that he is not safe, that he has to carry the burden of society’s distrust and disdain.  And I felt my privilege in not having to write my own sons such a letter, and I felt through his words the pain of that process. That is what a good book can do, right? In some cases, you see your own truth validated, and in others, you get to walk in someone else’s shoes, or, perhaps, live in their skin.

The Hate U Give, which was nominated for a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last year, is a debut YA novel that looks at the murder of an unarmed black boy by police. The story focuses on an African American teen that lives in a black neighborhood but goes to a mostly white, suburban school. When she witnesses the death of her friend, she has to navigate her experience of injustice in both contexts.

I always have to dial down my inner critic’s voice when I read YA, because I tend to feel like there’s just too much going on. Too many plot lines! Too many characters! But I suppose that’s what adolescence is -- so much simultaneous intensity. What did really interest me was the move in some communities to block access to this book, as if adults should shield kids from the world they already live in. Or is there a presumption that “YA readers” are white and should be kept separate from racial violence*?

Here’s a great article about Thomas from the Guardian.

*The reason the book was removed from school shelves in Katy, Texas was, supposedly, “explicit language.”

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge Bingo, 2017 Edition

We are a month into 2018, and I am still considering last year. And before I stop accidentally writing 2017 on all my checks, I thought I’d revisit The Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge.

I started this challenge in 2015, when I was trying to read more broadly and encounter more points of view. The purpose of the challenge was to be more intentional in my reading life, and so I created a drinking game for myself. If I filled a row on my homemade bingo card, I would take a drink and holler, “Blogtastic!” The members of my family already think I’m pretty unusual, and the teens, in particular, aren’t thrilled when I have weird bookish outbursts. But too bad, suckers! I’m working on being a better reader and a better person.

2015 date changed to 2017. I haven't updated the card or fixed the typos because I'm lazy.

As you know, 2017 was not a good blogging year for me. It also wasn’t a great reading year, and I didn’t attempt to achieve any goals. But hey! It turns out that I filled THREE columns/rows on my Bingo card!* In honor of that success, I will post every day this week, highlighting one of the books. I have decided to focus on the center column, because that one allows me to write about some books that I didn’t cover in my “Best of 2017” list a couple of weeks ago.  Many of those books could easily fulfill squares in this challenge (4 out of 5 of them, actually). 

If you’re looking to jump down an internet rabbit hole, the We Need Diverse Books public Facebook page always has great links to articles about diversity and publishing --  not that I'd advocate internetting when you could be reading, of course.

This is a shot glass, in case someone wants to send me a gift.

*Note: Three rows = three drinks! Drunk blooging is dangerous. Blogging, not blooging. Whatever (hiccup).

Thursday, January 25, 2018

On Persistence

How do you know when to give up?

I admit to putting a lot of books “aside,” which often means that I’m not up for reading them at a particular moment in time. Usually this has to do with difficult subject matter that requires fortitude and attention. Take, for instance, this stack of hard things that continues to wait for me on my night stand. I will read all of these books…tomorrow.

But giving up? I don’t usually do that. Librarian Nancy Pearl has a guideline for quitting. She calls it her “Rule of 50.” If you’re 50 or younger, give a book 50 pages before letting it go. If you’re older than 50, subtract your age from 100, and use that number as a stopping point. Her reasoning is that life is short, and books are many.

I see that as a good rule for airplane reads, whose purpose is to distract you from the crappiness of travel. But I don’t think that “quality” always reveals itself to me right away. What if the “takeaway” I’d get from something is not just pleasure? What if it’s a new lens or a new idea or greater understanding?

Unfortunately, that logic made me feel like I had to struggle for 10 days through Reservoir 13 by John McGregor. This book was on the Booker Prize Long List, and it supposedly had to do with the disappearance of a girl in a small town. It sounded like a literary mystery – one of my favorite genres. But it isn't. This is a novel about the rhythms of everyday life (grass grows, sheep are born, vegetables are planted, violence happens and then ends…). The artistry, I suppose, lies in the way the author plays subtly with the idea of suspense. Are we, as readers, supposed to have hope?

And I clung to hope! I did! I waited for the exciting, spine-tingling arc! I waited for the “twist!” But as days led to more days (both in the novel and in my own), I came to realize that I was expecting a different kind of book than I held in my hands. I wanted a book where the truth became clear, where wrongs were righted.

I suppose I’m not just talking about a bookish issue. When do we stop hoping for the best in the real world? When do we throw in the towel? And what distinguishes the moments where we do the opposite, where we decide to plug away, put on our raincoats, pick up our signs, and persist?

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