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CBR9 Review #103

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

I’ve not read all the Hogarth Shakespeare project books yet, but I do like literary adaptations of classic works. The Austen Project books have not all been amazing, but most of the interpretations have been original and engaging, and they’ve shown me how a classic work rooted in its time finds its legs in a different century. Tracy Chevalier, whose historical fiction is among the few that I will read as a matter of necessity (with the exception of At the Edge of the Orchard), takes a turn with Shakespeare. And her play is Othello.

If you’ve read the play Othello, you’ll know about the gender and racial tensions that play into the conflict of the story. Chevalier transposes them to 1970s Washington, D.C., where an ambassador’s son, Osei, finds himself at a new school at the end of 5th grade. Used to being an outcast, he determines to tough it out until he is introduced to Dee, the pretty and popular golden girl of the grade. She befriends him eagerly and innocently, and this sets the stage for Ian to completely overturn the school before the day is through.

Chevalier packs a tight and wrenching story into a day. The tension is constant throughout the book and when the conflict finally explodes, you’re still not ready for what transpires. I found this to be a masterful retelling of the original play, while giving it an infusion of contemporary identity politics that we can resonate with to this day. Further, because it is transposed to children, the conflict and moral dilemmas add an extra urgency and heartbreak. This was a fast read, but also a very stressful one.

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CBR9 Review #102

The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan

I read The Joy Luck Club in college for a women’s literature course, and while it wasn’t my favorite book, it was certainly interesting. I do think Amy Tan gets pigeonholed quite a bit as a “Chinese” American writer, and while she writes about a heritage from China, it’s not exactly fair to think of the experiences she writes about as exclusive to Chinese-Americans, or even more broadly, Asian-Americans. I won The Opposite of Fate, a nonfiction collection, at my undergrad’s English Department annual Book Exchange one year, and I’m finally getting around to reading it.

Tan writes a lot of letters, op-eds, and essays about her life, her writing life, and her connections to fate. The essays vary in interest, topic, and scope, but they all deal on some level with the patterns that play out in the choices she makes and the events that unfold. There’s a terrific essay on playing in a band with other writers, and there’s another essay about why she doesn’t care to be described as an Asian American writer, but an American writer. There’s a letter about a flash flood she and her husband survived in their cabin retreat, and there are a lot of essays about growing up American in a Chinese family.

Nonfiction is not always my bag, but this was a decent and engaging collection of essays. I should pick up more of Tan’s work, as she tells an intriguing story. If you liked The Joy Luck Club, you’ll probably find her writing about it to be quite revealing and give you some insights into the novel and the subsequent film adaptation (which I still have not seen yet).

 

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CBR9 Review #81

Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery

It’s a little sad coming to the end of a beloved series, and this is a sad book to close the series off. I always come away from this book glad and a little verklempt at the same time. We’ve been building to the Great War, and Montgomery finally dives in, with details from the homefront aspect of fighting, which gives a new perspective to a war novel. This book, like so many others, is haunted by the soldiers who sacrificed and the families who sent their children to the warfront.

Rilla of Ingleside focuses on the youngest Blythe daughter, Rilla. She is almost fifteen and full of shallow ideas of fun and frivolity. It all changes when the war sweeps her brothers and friends away into battle, and she settles in to fight in small ways: a Junior Red Cross, frugal dress, and raising a fatherless baby. Rilla learns how to be a woman in the midst of hardship, the promise of love, and the pain of heartbreak. Further, we learn about the progress of the war and the way in which it reshaped and changed global societies forever.

I won’t get too spoilery about character deaths, but there is one that reminded me a lot of what I’d read in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, particularly in the poetic dispatches. I felt that the character was probably supposed to be a stand-in for a Rupert Brooke or a Wilfred Owen, two famous young men whose poetry immortalized their service and sacrifice. Like I said, this is a deeply melancholy book and it feels like a crushing end to the series, but it’s a bookend that girds the series in the deep family love that Anne finds and shares with her children and community. I believe it’s always been my favorite of the series, and it certainly has a lasting emotional resonance for me.

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CBR9 Review #68

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

My current research project deals with women in dystopian fiction (with some sci-fi crossover), and it’s been to my eternal shame that I’ve never read any Octavia E. Butler. Thankfully, crystalclear got me Kindred for the Cannonball exchange last Christmas, and I was more than eager to dig in. In February of 2016, I was on a conference panel with a professor who had read a paper on Kindred, which had piqued my interest in the first place. It was an intriguing historical time-travel novel, one I was not prepared for entirely.

It is the 1970s, and Dana has just celebrated her 26th birthday with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly, she is thrust into antebellum Maryland, a bizarre event made dangerous by her African-American body. In rescuing a white boy from drowning, Dana’s fate becomes tied up with his own for survival. She travels to and from Maryland, with and without Kevin, as she begins to realize that in order for her own life to be saved, she must protect this young man’s. He is, after all, her ancestor.

This book is startling, rich, and violent. Butler avoids sugarcoating the narrative, and the time-travel element, while not fully understandable or fleshed out, is nevertheless an intriguing twist on a slave narrative. Dana’s modern sensibility is a great way to explore the problem of slavery and race relations that gird the American Dream even to this day. I had a lot to chew on as I read, and the conclusion itself is rather startling, even though you get the conclusion in the very first chapter of the book. I recommend reading it, and I will be seeking out all of Butler’s other work.

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#CBR9 Review #67

The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch

As I’ve alluded to before, I have a sibling with Asperger’s, formerly delineated separately from the autism spectrum. The idea of autism is not new to me, especially since the diagnosis of Asperger’s was relatively new when my brother was diagnosed. What I’m saying is, I’m familiar with this subject material. I was curious to see how David Finch would handle this memoir and illuminate his audience on his personal insights. As it turns out, the read was frustrating and often unfulfilling, but not for reasons I expected.

It starts when Finch’s wife Kristen gently asks him to consider getting tested for Asperger Syndrome, just as their marriage has reached an all-new low point. Finch realizes that hmm, maybe his quirkiness doesn’t come from nowhere, that maybe he’s always viewed the world differently and perceived it unlike others. Along with his diagnosis is his determination to be a better and more loving husband and father. Oh, yeah. Did I mention that in the midst of their marital troubles, these two jokers produced TWO children? Don’t get me started on that. The novel is the “hilarious” chronicle of Finch’s journey to be a better husband and to understand how his Asperger’s makes his personal life more interesting and complicated.

To say I did not care for this book is to be generous. I get the premise of the book, and the book club discussion I went to softened me a bit. But the Type A personality in me went CRAZY over the way Finch and his wife lived their life. I am SORRY, but when it is 9 o’clock at night, you should already have been preparing or eating your food, not suddenly deciding that you want tacos only to discover 20 minutes in that, oh no, we don’t have taco cheese, and Dave HAS to go to the store to get some.

Loki

That’s not Asperger’s, that’s just bad adulting on BOTH SIDES. There were plenty of marital issues that Kristen had just as much stake in as Dave, and I got annoyed plenty of times when they would both place a burden on HIM that required just as much buy-in from HER. Needless to say, I hope those kids got counseling. As well as their children. Good gravy. You might enjoy this book more than I did, but I found it too annoying and stressful to find it remotely funny.

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#CBR9 Review #66

What Does It Mean to be White? Developing White Racial Literacy by Robin DiAngelo

Lollygagger’s most excellent and comprehensive review of Robin DiAngelo’s What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy made me eager to read it for myself. I’m linking to the original review, which I will then build on. Back? Okay, let’s get started.

DiAngelo builds on concepts of racism with which we are all familiar and then talks about how being white constructs a specific racial framework through which white people see race, racism, and other precepts of culture and context. Specifically, she talks about whiteness as a racial construct, and she can do so because she herself is white and has worked in antiracism training for many years. I found this informative, because as an ally, I want to do better for my students and community.

There are two important takeaways that I personally came out with:

*The first is the definitions, in which DiAngelo unpacks bias, prejudice, racism, and oppression. It’s useful to understand why racism is systemic, and why we need to destroy the binary of bad =racist and good=not racist, because it’s never that simple. White people are so afraid of being perceived as racists, that when they do make mistakes, their fragility shows and they can become defensive. “What do you mean? I’m not racist! I have a black friend!” [tears] We need to understand the cycles of oppression that take place and how racism is a system into which we are all born and interact with differently. When we can identify how racism works, and how oppression works, we can better understand how to dismantle it thoroughly.

*The second useful component was the discussion of white silence. Something DiAngelo mentions is that white people are often silent or afraid to “connect” because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. I myself have been all-too-guilty of this and blurt out something stupid when I do say something, because I am afraid of saying the wrong thing. DiAngelo points out that if we’re just genuine and ourselves, we’re going to make mistakes, and we’re going to embarrass ourselves sometimes. BUT if we work on those mistakes, we’ll better ourselves in the long run.

This is a book worth reading, especially if you, like me, grew up surrounded by mostly white neighbors and churchgoers and schoolmates, etc. I never thought about race much until I saw the disparity in treatment between my best friend and myself. She comes from an immigrant Dominican family and is an American citizen, but because she is dark-skinned and fluent in Spanish, she is often treated as stupid or illiterate. It was highly uncomfortable to watch and forced me to realize that I needed to educate myself on race. Since I’ve become an educator, it’s a journey upon which I’ve gladly embarked, and I recommend this book to other justice-minded friends and colleagues.

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#CBR9 Review #30

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

A few weeks back, I was engaged in a discussion on Pajiba about a certain American administrator’s relationship to black people and racist assumptions. One of the comments recommended a book: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson. I was immediately intrigued. I’m trying to read more diverse work in order to be better informed and a more effective ally. This is a highly recommended book, though I will say this: if you haven’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, stop reading this review, don’t pass go, and read Coates first. This book is a master class for when you’ve done some work.

Dyson frames his book about personal and systemic racism in the United States as a worship service. Each part of the book is split up into various parts: “Call to Worship”; “Hymns of Praise”; “Invocation”; “Scripture Reading”; “Sermon” (the longest part of the book); “Benediction”; “Offering Plate”; “Prelude to Service”; and “Closing Prayer.” Each of these parts develops Dyson’s argument well and connects his overarching theme to rich traditions and liturgy.

This is a powerfully written, incisive book. Dyson unpacks systemic racism well, and he also helps explain white privilege in a way that’s easy to understand and take ownership of. If you have had questions about white privilege and inequity in the United States, Dyson answers them well with logical arguments and personal experiences. If you read it with an open mind, you can potentially learn a lot. I certainly did.

 

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