Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Mysteries of Revelation

Personal revelation is and always has been one of the most foundational realities of my life. I was twelve years old the first time I had a spiritual experience that counts as revelatory, and I've continued to have experiences throughout my life that are profound and undeniable. When I pray into the void, there is a voice and a feeling that speaks back to me, and I have lived my life trying to seek, follow, and stay true to that voice. I believe it is God.

Why did I marry my husband? Because that voice told me to not go on a mission but stay home and get married. Why do we live where we live? Because that voice told me to get a PhD, and guided me in where to apply. Why do I practice my religion despite doubts and questions? Because that voice confirms that this is the path for me.

I've written before at various times about how revelation has guided my life (here, and here and some other places too). In the case of my decision to get a PhD, the voice and revelation were loud, clear, and incredibly direct. The path opened before me and I was certain about the revelation I received.

But my revelation and guidance hasn't always been that clear, and I think those moments are worth exploring and thinking about too. Sometimes, I don't always know what I'm supposed to do, sometimes the promptings or impressions are confusing and unclear, or sometimes, I just don't understand.

One time revelation didn't come the way I expected was after marriage, when we faced the question of when to have children. Everyone around us was getting pregnant, and I'll admit that I was fairly baby-hungry myself, but my husband wanted us to wait. Of course, I just knew the Lord would have an opinion on the subject (an opinion that would override my husband's opinion), and so I prayed fervently about wanting a baby, wanting to know when we should start trying, etc... and I got nothing. Zero. Not a flicker of response. Complete heavenly silence. It almost felt like the Lord didn't care if we had kids or not.

This made zero sense to me. How could the Lord not care about us having children? Wasn't that the point of marriage? Weren't we supposed to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth? Weren't children the point? I'd heard so many stories from so many women in my life about the strong impressions they had when they were supposed to have children, the number of children they were supposed to have, even strong impressions about the gender and birthdays of the children they were going to have. The Lord seemed to care deeply about other couples having children, why didn't he care about us?

We eventually got pregnant three years into our marriage (a compromise, two years later than I wanted, two years earlier than my husband wanted) without any sort of revelatory okay. We just went for it, and got pregnant on the first try, and considered that enough of a heavenly stamp of approval.

Pregnancies two and three proceeded in a similar manner. We would make a plan based on our own convenience and desires, I'd pray about it, and get no response. No confirmation, no denial, nothing. No feedback whatsoever. So we'd just go ahead, and always get pregnant on the first try, and assume the Lord was okay with our choices.

Through these child-bearing years, what I was getting strong and clear revelation about was my education. I received very clear affirmative impressions to get a master's degree, and then later received the strongest and clearest revelation of my life about getting a PhD. I was so confused by these revelations, because I just didn't see how me getting a PhD would fit in with our family planning, and with my vision of the kind of mother I thought I was going to be. We knew we wanted Baby #3 (who was not yet conceived when I started getting revelations about a PhD), and we knew we also wanted a Baby #4 at some point. How was that going to work with a PhD?

I decided to take a year off after graduating with my master's before starting a PhD program, and have Baby #3 that year. When I prayed about this decision, I got, again, zero feedback. The Lord wasn't saying no, but there was no positive affirmation either. So we just went for it, and I started my PhD program with an 8 month old baby. It was rough. That first year, I did not get a lot of sleep. I was tired and stressed all the time. The second year was pretty busy as well. By the third year, when I finished my course-work and began looking ahead to my dissertation phase, my husband and I started talking about Baby #4 again. We knew we wanted a fourth baby, and with our youngest now three years old, we felt like we didn't want the age gap to get much bigger.

I went to the temple one night in late November 2019 (ah, back when temples were open), and I presented our plan to the Lord. We would try to get pregnant the following year, aim for an August (2020) conception so I could deliver May (2021) and have the summer for maternity leave, then be ready by the fall to finish my program. I prayed and prayed, and then stopped to listen, and the voice that spoke back to me said:

"Your research is very important to me. Your dissertation is very important. That is the work I have called you to. Don't get distracted from your research."

Guys, I was dumbfounded. I research the reading practices of audiences in early modern England. I find my research to be fascinating and fulfilling, but nothing about it is important. Nothing about it is going to save lives or cure cancer or make the world better (okay, I mean, yes it can, but you know what I mean). I have never understood why the Lord wanted me to get a PhD in the first place, but hearing the voice tell me my research was my calling in life? The one thing I was supposed to be doing? When what I was asking for was confirmation about having another child? I just don't understand. I don't understand at all.

So I pushed back and I said, "Okay, if I promise to not get distracted and work really hard on my dissertation, can we get pregnant next year?"

And the answer was, "Well, if you really want, then go ahead. But it won't be easy."

I just. I just don't even know what to do with this revelation. This feeling that the Lord sincerely does not care one way or the other if I have children, or how many, or when, but He cares deeply that I write a fairly average dissertation (that no one will ever read) about early modern reading audiences. These are the moments that I wonder, am I just making all this up in my head? Do I really know what revelation is? Because this does not seem to follow the pattern of what I expect God to care about for me!

So now, let's fast forward to last summer. I'm gearing up for August when we plan to conceive (and remember, we have a 100% track record for getting pregnant on the first try, so we are very confident in our ability to plan this out). And I keep hearing whispers, "Get to work on your dissertation! Get started!" But it's a busy summer and I have a different writing project deadline (a book chapter that's getting published this year! eek!), and I think, once the semester starts I'll have plenty of time to start my dissertation.

Imagine my surprise when the end of August came and my period started. Despite all our usual efforts, I didn't get pregnant. It was a setback, a disappointment, and unexpected given our track record, but it was okay. We could get pregnant in September and still have most the summer for maternity leave, and it would still work. But of course, I went to the Lord to check in. I knelt down the night I started bleeding, and plead, "Can we have our baby?" And the answer was:

"If you write the first chapter of your dissertation in September, I will let you get pregnant."

Okay! Right! Dissertation chapter first, then baby! I was figuring this out, I could remember that old promise that I wouldn't get distracted from my research. If I'd wanted to get pregnant in August, I should've listened to those promptings to work on my dissertation over the summer! So I dove in. I got really really focused, blocked out all distractions (didn't check Instagram once!) and I spent September doing really deep work, writing as much as I possibly could. I knocked out a good 16 pages of that first chapter, which for one month's work is quite a bit. So the chapter wasn't finished, so what? I knew the Lord would accept my good faith effort and I just knew I was going to be pregnant. Five weeks passed without a period, and I just knew.

I took a pregnancy test and it came back negative. The next day (five weeks and one day), I started bleeding.

I've got to say I was pretty shaken by this. I was shaken in my faith of my body, my faith in our fertility (were we getting old?), but mostly, my faith was shaken in the revelation I thought I had received. I thought the promise was I'd get pregnant in September if I wrote the first chapter, and I had (at least, mostly, but was the Lord really that much of a stickler?). Why didn't the Lord fulfill His promise?

I had this sneaking suspicion that the Lord didn't want me to get pregnant at all, that He was actively preventing it so I could focus on my dissertation. I didn't know this was true for sure, I was just trying desperately to make sense of my situation. So, the Lord didn't want me to get pregnant. Okay. So that was that. We'd enjoy our three children, I'd throw my heart and soul into this dissertation, and we'd go on living our merry lives. We wouldn't go back on birth control, but we'd also not anticipate it anymore. I really thought, it must not be the Lord's will. So be it.

I continued to work on my chapter, but the pace slowed a bit. I restructured the whole thing and tweaked it, and then actually started research for my second chapter. And I was still teaching, planning online curriculum, grading papers, and keeping very busy. We had a lovely October, and I found myself thinking "It's so nice I can enjoy this soup! If I were pregnant, I wouldn't be enjoying it!" Silver linings and all. I'm fairly good at finding positives in any situation.

November came. I was tired. I kept going to bed at 8:30, then 8:00 PM, as soon as the kids were down. I was hungry. I'd eat everything I'd bring in my lunch and then feel like I was starving a half-hour later. My pants started to feel tight. I blamed PMS. Every single one of these symptoms could be PMS. Five weeks came and went. Finally, one night when tuna sandwiches was on the meal plan menu for dinner, I turned to my husband and said, "I can't eat tuna. I have to make something else." And he said, "Um, you need to take a pregnancy test."

I didn't think I was pregnant. I thought my cruel period was just late again. I really didn't think the Lord wanted me to get pregnant. But my husband ran to the store and grabbed a pregnancy test, and I took one before dinner, and it was positive. I sat and stared for a moment in wonder. I was pregnant. We were getting our Baby #4.

My due date is July 8th, later than we planned, but still with a passable period for maternity leave before I will need to return to teaching and dissertation writing in the Fall. It will work. I immediately started feeling very sick, but in the course of small mercies it was close enough to the end of the semester that I was able to power through. I finished grading papers, and I managed to write the last 2,000 words of my chapter and submit it to my advisor by the end of the semester. And then I collapsed into bed and didn't get out of it for weeks. Thanks to the pandemic (and a much more humane in-house job), my husband was around to take care of everything, from cooking all the meals and cleaning up all the messes, to setting up the decorations and spear-heading all the holiday festivities single-handedly. So I just laid in bed, fighting to keep food in my stomach, and overthinking about my situation.

I wonder so much about those revelations I received, and the timing of everything. I know I felt like the Lord promised I would get pregnant in September, but maybe He didn't specify a month? After all, is it that much of a difference that I got pregnant in October?

And also, maybe the Lord really did want me to get pregnant, really does want us to have this baby, He was just waiting for the right time when I could be sick over the winter break (and still able to get my research done). Maybe the Lord doesn't need to give me promptings and revelations about having children, because my desires already align with His will on that front?

Basically, the question I ask is, do I trust that voice I hear? Even when it doesn't seem to play out exactly the way I thought I heard that voice? Or even when I don't understand the logic of the voice? When I don't understand why my research is so important and my family planning isn't? Do I trust that voice?

Revelation may not be a science experiment with exactly repeatable outcomes. Revelation may not always make sense. I've been thinking about this a lot as we've been studying the Doctrine and Covenants this year, as that book is nothing but a collection of revelations. We believe those revelations to be the word of God, but when I read through some of those revelations I have to wonder, "Why didn't the Lord just explain it all then? Why did the Lord make this one so confusing? Why was this one so perfectly clear, when this other one takes mental gymnastics to make sense of?" It seems to me that revelation is sometimes a bit messy and mysterious, the voice of a Perfect Being trying to speak to imperfect humans who are full of biases and opinions and emotions and hormones, using human language that is changeable and corruptible, and who knows how clearly that message is getting through?

We are like antenna, radio receivers. Sometimes the message comes through clearly, but if we are just the slightest bit off, it becomes garbled. We may tweak and tune and dance about to get the signal, but sometimes it's more artform, less science. Some people get one answer, some seem to get opposite answers, sometimes it feels crystal clear, other times it's through a glass darkly. Does that mean revelation is not reliable?

Do I trust that voice?

In the end, I always come back to yes. Sometimes it's not what I expect, sometimes it doesn't make sense, sometimes there seems to be no answer whatsoever. But there are those rare moments, when I'm in just the right position, that voice sings through me, and I know. For all the less clear moments, I can't deny the perfect ones. God speaks to me, and I will always, always listen.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Processing Some Grief

Yesterday morning, I had two living grandparents. This evening, I have no living grandparents.

Apologies if that is a bit of downer way to forge back into this blog space that I've been absent from for almost half a year now, but of all the things I have to say, that is the one I need to say the loudest right now.

It was such an unintentional blogging break. At first I stayed away because things were busy, and I had other writing projects that needed my full attention. Then I stayed away because I got pregnant, and as has been the pattern, proceeded to get even sicker than any pregnancy before. I've been in survival mode for the past two months, honestly just trying to stay alive. So that explains some of the more immediate reasons for my absence.

But then there's the bigger picture. The weight of what we've all been experiencing these past months, these past weeks, and for me, these past two days. There's the protests and heated discussions around racial prejudice and police brutality (I did write a bit about that here). There's the election, the politics, the vitriol and hate being spread everywhere. There was that horrifying day on January sixth, when a sitting president goaded extremists to attack democracy. There's so much in all of this, so much that needs to be said, so much I want to add my voice to... but I'm just tired. And sick. Not an excuse, I just have to pick my battles, and right now, the battle is keeping food down in my stomach and not wretched up in the toilet (a battle I'm still losing all too frequently, despite being fifteen weeks along).

And then there's the pandemic. Remember this post, when I wrote about thriving under quarantine conditions? I've not minded this year the way many have. I'm an introvert at heart, and having the excuse to stay home, to not have people over, to not have to go to that social engagement... it's been a reprieve. Also, I must say being first-trimester pregnant in a pandemic has been nothing short of a blessing, with no expectations to be anywhere or show up or look good.

But last week my grandparents contracted Covid-19. My grandmother had already been ill for a while. She's been on hospice since last June, and when we went to Utah in July, we visited them knowing it was probably the last time we'd see her alive (honestly, we've all been a little surprised she was hanging on this long). But my grandfather, at 93, was healthy and spry, still able to fully care for my grandmother and himself. Longevity runs in his family (his older brother is still kicking at 96), and I anticipated many more years of his presence. I anticipated him meeting this last child of mine, somewhere in a Covid-free future.

But then he got the virus, and they admitted him to the hospital. Eventually, his lungs and heart began failing, and they sent him home Saturday. He passed away Sunday around noon. Amazingly, my grandmother survived him, but only by 23 hours. She passed away earlier today.

And this is how I will remember the pandemic now. Not as a theoretical disease that everyone is overreacting about, not as a problem that "other people" are dealing with, not even as that funny little disease my brother got one time that made him lose his taste for a few weeks.

Now it's the disease that took my grandparents.

Yes, they were old. Yes, my grandmother was going to die anyway. But I'm still so terribly sad about it.

And happy. They wanted to go. They were ready. My grandpa didn't want to watch another wife die (he lost his first wife to complications of MS when she was 29), he didn't want to live alone. And my grandma clung to life because, I'm sure, she didn't want to leave him. In a way, it's beautiful they got to go together. Devastating, but beautiful.

I didn't intend for this post to be a tribute to my grandparents. I intended to pop on here and say, Hi! I've missed this space! I have so many books to talk about!

But I'm in the middle of my grief, and these are the words that are coming right now. Perhaps I'm back here because I need to write, not about books (not yet, I'll get around to that), but about my grandpa.

My grandpa was named Milton E. Smith. He was the youngest son of Joseph Fielding Smith, the grandson of Joseph F. Smith, the great-grandson of Hyrum Smith. When we visited with him in July, he looked at my son Josh and said, "Your relationship with me is the same as my relationship with Hyrum Smith." And that's what my grandpa is, a link to this incredible heritage, this incredible family history we share.

I love the stories my Dad tells about having a prophet for a grandfather. He once dropped by his grandpa's home with a friend while in Salt Lake City, and they were warmly greeted by Aunt Jesse and invited to sit at the kitchen table and chat for a minute. After leaving, my Dad's friend exclaimed, "I can't believe it! There he was, the prophet of the church, just sitting at the table cracking peanuts! Like a normal person!" And my Dad was like, "Well, of course he's a normal person. He's just Grandpa."

But I love the stories my grandpa used to tell, of Joseph Fielding sneaking out of meetings to go to his son's football games (my grandpa was quarterback for the University of Utah, back in the day), or the letters they used to get while in the military or on missions that were like sermons, full of scripture and counsel. My grandpa loved to share how when he was in the Navy, stationed in Chicago, he wrote home to tell the family about going to see a Chicago Bears game. Joseph Fielding, knowing the games were played on Sundays, wrote back to my grandpa a two page letter outlining the ten commandments and stressing the importance of keeping the Sabbath day holy. That letter lives in family lore.

But my grandpa himself was a great man. He loved his family fiercely. He kept detailed records of all his children, grandchildren, and great-children, and especially our addresses so he could send, without fail every year, a birthday card with a crisp $10 bill tucked inside. Every year. For every grand-child and great-grandchild. He never missed, not even this last year as he took care of my failing grandmother (he enlisted some help at the end). My last communication with my grandpa was an email a few weeks ago that he sent explaining that the card for my oldest son's birthday would be late, as it had been accidentally sent to the wrong address at first. I guess he did miss, because he never sent a card for my daughter's birthday that happened just five days later, but I can hardly fault him.

 I will miss those cards from him every year.

When I turned eight, he traveled down to St. George for my baptism. I remember, after I was confirmed a member of the church, standing and shaking the hands of all the men in my circle. When I got to my grandfather, he refused to shake my hand and instead declared, "This deserves a hug!" before sweeping me up into a big bear hug. He was a man generous with his hugs.

My grandpa was a temple sealer, and I was privileged to have him officiate my own wedding at the Mount Timpanogos Temple. The chandeliers in the sealing rooms have a very distinctive pattern, a cross with four crystals on the bottom, and branching crosses of eight, sixteen, and so on crystals as it moved up each level. As I held hands with my soon-to-be husband across the altar, my grandpa gave a speech that I'm sure he delivered to most the couples he sealed in that room, about how we were two hands being linked that day, but above us in that chandelier symbolized all the generations before us who were also linked by the sealing power, four parents, eight grandparents, sixteen great-grandparents, and so on. Only this time, for my wedding, he could name many of the links for my side. He was one of them.

How grateful I am to be eternally sealed to my grandparents! To be eternally sealed to the incredible legacy of family before him. I cherish my heritage so much. And so, while I will miss my grandparents terribly, I know I will see them again.

And if none of you read through all of that tribute, those precious memories of mine, that's fine. This post is for me anyway. But I've got so many more things I want to write about, so many good books to talk about, so much to catch up on. I have no guarantees or promises that there will be time (I'm still pretty sick, still busy with this little thing called writing a dissertation, still teaching, still raising three kids and trying to keep a marriage alive), but I will always come back here. I've missed you. I'll be back.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Books I Read in June

Okay, this is going to be a long one, because I just counted and holy cow, I read 18 books in June! I think that ties my previous record from last July, but I'm still impressed! I mean, I was hoping that my summer schedule would open up some good reading time, but I wasn't quite expecting to make this much headway. This brings my total number of books read this year to 53. My goal for the whole year is 100, so I am now officially ahead of schedule, which feels a bit like a miracle considering how behind I got after losing my commute to quarantine. Anyway, this means there are a lot of books to talk about, and I had a really broad mix of fluff and serious stuff, so let's jump in.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

After reading The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek last December, I was not excited to jump into *another* book about the packhorse librarian women of Great Depression Kentucky (sometimes themes come in floods). But this one was also getting high recommends from some trusted sources, and I was interested in giving Moyes another shot, so I read it... and honestly this might be my favorite Moyes book (I doubt that's a universal opinion). So yes, I liked it. I don't know if I liked it better than Book Woman, they are similar but different and I generally recommend them both, especially if you enjoy historical fiction with strong female characters.

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

This was another historical fiction with a strong female lead, but this time about the plight of Chinese-Americans in a still very racist turn of the 19th-Century Atlanta Georgia (I had no idea that Chinese were not legally allowed to live anywhere, crazy!). First, I want to say this is YA, and feels like it. Second, I found the ending (and maybe the story in general) to be far too optimistic and sweet to be realistic. But there were several things I loved, foremost of which were the Miss Sweetey articles (the main character free-lances as an anonymous advice columnist), which I thought were delightful. If you enjoy sweet YA that attempts to address serious themes, this is a general recommend.

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center

A tough female fire-fighter just trying to make it in a very patriarchal profession, plus deal with the trauma of her past, falls in love with the cute new rookie, which is absolutely the last thing she needs to deal with. Despite the fact that I have almost nothing in common with this main character, I rather enjoyed this fluffy-with-just-a-touch-of-serious romance. Also, learned a bit about fire departments.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

I absolutely adored Mandel's book Station Eleven, and I've been meaning to read more of her since then... but this one was a complete disappointment. I mean, her writing is still beautiful at the sentence level, but the plot structure here was essentially nonexistent, with no real characters to connect with or root for. The ghost thing was too unexplained for my tastes. Some of the bits about the Ponzi scheme were kind of interesting, the moral dilemmas there, but mostly, this book was utterly forgettable. Don't bother.

Tightrope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This book is by the same authors as Half the Sky, a book I found to be a very important read for me about global feminist issues. The topic they tackle here is poverty in America, and it is just as important, if no less pleasant to read about. I highly recommend this to everyone, we need to be educated on these issues, because I feel like poverty in America is often far too invisible (I certainly don't see it). Honestly, the picture they portray here is of an America that is slipping in places backwards into second and even third-world territory, and we need to do something about it. I have several complaints about the book. I don't necessarily agree with every solution they put forward, and I was also disappointed that they didn't address race and poverty as intersectional issues (in that, they didn't acknowledge that poverty affects BIPOC Americans differently than white Americans), so this isn't perfect, but this is important.

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks

Fun new fantasy series recommended by my husband. Reminded me a bit of Brandon Sanderson. If you like epic fantasy, I recommend (though I've only read one book, waiting on the second one, and apparently there are four or five books in the series, so we'll see...).

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

A nice little You've Got Mail-vibes YA story about the new girl at an elite private school who starts receiving anonymous emails from a fellow student giving her pointers about how to survive. It was decently clean from what I can remember, and cute, but nothing super special.

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord

In a random coincidence completely unsought by myself, the very next book that happened to come off my holds list was another You've Got Mail YA riff about secret anonymous pen pals at an elite private school. This one also involves a snarky Twitter war and some epically bad parenting, and I quite enjoyed it, probably more than the first? All I know is that "Secret Pen Pals at Elite Private Schools YA RomCom" is now a list I have two titles for.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

I talk about this one more on the list at the end of this post, but this is a short YA novel that packs a punch and manages to cover a lot of the big issues/arguments around race in America today. Language warning, but it's a general recommend.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Look, there are problems with all of Gladwell's books, and this is no different. There are flaws in his reasoning and arguments. That said, he discusses some really pertinent ideas in this book that have to do with current events and issues. His mapping of the history of police department practices was fascinating in consideration of recent calls to defund the police, and I'm still thinking hard about his chapter on alcohol and rape (especially after reading Know My Name). In essence, lots of good interesting stuff to think about here, and I highly recommend (also, need to throw a plug in for the audio book, which is produced much more like a podcast, with actual sound bytes from interviews and news stories and music, it's fantastic!)

Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Despite ticking many of my boxes (beautiful writing, slow character-driven novel, historical fiction), this one didn't quite hit for me. I think other people who value slower literary novels may potentially really like this one, it just wasn't for me at this particular point. Also listened to this one, and I must say the production team on this audio book missed a real opportunity to add clips of all the music mentioned in the book (seriously would've been so fantastic if they had done that). Anyway, I want to try another Jiles book, because I have a feeling a different story from her might really work for me.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

I've been meaning to read this one for a while, but there's no audio version! (At least, not from any of my library sources.) So I finally got a paper copy, and breezed through it in an evening. It's light and fluffy, but seriously good writing and super enjoyable, my favorite Rowell by far.

Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Another book I've been meaning to read for ages but could not get on audio. But you guys! Five stars! Beautiful! Spoke directly to my inner soul! Essays on motherhood/wifehood, solitude, simplicity, living a balanced life... lovely, impactful writing. I want to own this and reread every year. I can't believe it was written in 1955, it still felt so incredibly relevant. Highly recommend!

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

Look, if you don't like sci-fi/fantasy, stay away from this one, and even if you do, you still might not like this one. Jemisin is just very, very different, but I'm totally intrigued by her creative world-building, even if I can't decide if I actually like her stories (and language warnings galore). This one takes a lot of effort to describe (cities are alive, they have avatars that are people, another dimension is attacking, New York is being "born"... yes, it's weird), but I will say that it was fascinating to read this after teaching H.P. Lovecraft this past semester, because Jemisin basically writes a response/reversal of the Lovecraftian racist mythos, and it was really interesting. I also learned a whole lot about New York. Oh, and major props to the audio book production team, because they went above and beyond to make a unique experience audio book (with sound mixing, etc.) that really fit the story well (though it might bother some people).

A Curse so Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

So this is a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and you know how much I enjoy a good fair-tale retelling. I wouldn't say this one is incredible or a must read, but I certainly enjoyed it enough I'll continue on with the series (trilogy, of course). It's YA and fairly clean and full of action, generally recommend.

Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon

Yes, WWII books are so overdone and I was totally turned off by how similar this title is to Code Name Verity, but do you know what got me with this one? It's a true story! I mean, it's written like a novel and takes some licence, but it is heavily researched and based on a real woman's life, Nancy Wake, who was the most highly decorated female spy working for the British SEO in France with the resistance. Her life is incredible! I probably never would've been friends with her in real life, but she is one heck of a character, that's for sure! I really want to read her actual biography now, but it's out of print and available nowhere. In general, I completely recommend, just don't look her up on Wikipedia and spoil the ending for yourself (or do, so you are emotionally prepared). The back-and-forth plot structure in this book is annoying, but otherwise a fascinating read.

The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

While I'm waiting for Book 2 of the Black Prism series to come off the holds list, I decided to jump into one of Weeks earlier trilogies. It's about an assassin's apprentice (I've seen that trope before) and was quite dark and violent, not quite as good as the other series, but good enough I'll continue with this series too. Love fantasy that does politics too.

The Flat Share by Beth O'Leary

What's summer for if not to read a bunch of fluffy Rom Coms? And if you prefer yours with a touch of substance (in this case, emotional abuse and trauma), then this is the perfect book for you. I enjoyed it.

Okay, whew, that was a lot of books for one month. Typing all that up, I can't believe I fit all of that reading in! Clearly, this is shaping up to be a great summer of reading (although all my social justice/racism books are starting to come in, which means my July reading might look quite a bit less fluffy). How's your summer reading coming?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Magic of Writing

We were all born and raised in a literate society, meaning that most of us, even the most illiterate of us, have been so surrounded by written words, texts, and acts of reading since we were babies that we never stop and think twice about what a strange phenomena the technology of writing actually is.

Language, for most of human history, has been a strictly oral thing. According to linguist John McWhorter, people have been speaking for at least 80,000 years, but we've only been writing for fewer than 6,000 years. And this makes sense if you think about it. Language evolved as speech, sounds coming from human throats, heard by human hears, with words invented in human brains. For most of human history, language has been located entirely within the human body, and communication could only happen with those physically close enough for the sounds produced by one body to be heard by another body.

When you stop and really think about it, it seems like quite a remarkable jump to consider the idea that sounds coming out of human mouths could be correlated to scratches of lines on clay tablets. It's not an entirely logical leap, really, this idea of writing. How did someone get the idea that a symbol on a page could represent a spoken sound?

Well, it perhaps makes a little sense, if you think in terms of pictographic writing, or writing where the symbol for a bird looks like a bird. That kind of writing makes sense as soon as humans get any sort of ideas about drawing, about visually recreating things they see in the real world. The problem is that pictographic writing is incredibly limited. How do you draw abstract words and ideas?

Well, humans solved that problem too by developing partly pictographic words, partly symbolic images for words that didn't have an image to associate with it. Thus we get hieroglyphs and other symbol based languages, but the real leap, the real incredible jump, was when someone decided that we didn't need a picture for every discreet word. Instead we could have a symbol for every sound, and thus we get the phonetic alphabet.

We are inundated with this phonetic alphabet from the time we are so little that it feels too familiar, too childish, too simple to think twice about, until you try to teach a child to read and realize, well now, yes, why exactly does the symbol "A" represent both "ah" and "a" sounds? Who decided we could give visual symbols to spoken sounds? It's quite remarkable, really, if you stop to think about it.

What spoken language is in the first place is a verbal symbol representing the thing named, but that makes phonetic writing a symbol of a symbol. It is a visual symbol of a verbal symbol, twice removed from the actual object or idea or sentiment being expressed. And yet we can see thousands of those symbols typed out here in this blog post and process these symbols of symbols with no more difficulty than if we were hearing the words spoken aloud (unless of course, you happen to have a form of dyslexia, or a brain where processing all these written symbols reveals what an actually complex task it really is; the prevelance of dyslexia just serves to prove that writing is NOT natural for every human brain, because it hasn't been around long enough for all of us to adapt to it).

In our literate society today, we love our written words. We practically drown in written words. They are not just in our books, but draped all over our signs, our machines, our walls, our food containers. We spend most of our day scrolling through written words on the tiny screens in our pockets. In many cases, we even prioritize the written word over the spoken, from the casual preference of texting over speaking on the phone, to the legal preference for a written and signed contract over a verbal promise.

But it didn't always use to be this way. Back when writing was still an infant technology and most societies still operated under the forms of oral culture, some of the world's greatest minds viewed writing with suspicion and distrust. Socrates abhorred writing, believing it would destroy our need for memory (a fair criticism) and even our ability to gain and process knowledge. He didn't understand how a man could claim to be learned if he stored all the information of his learning outside his body, and couldn't just recall facts but had to look them up in books. Ironically, we only know about Socrates' negative views on writing because his student, Plato, wrote them down, thus preserving them for future generations, but Socrates was not the only great teacher to never write his own words. Christ himself left nary an iota of written record, though we know he could both read and write (I think about this often, and often wonder why, but it's topic for a different post).

I believe there are lessons to be learned from considering this, things we have lost from the oral cultures of yesteryear that are important. We must never forget that humans evolved precisely for spoken language, with our tongues and vocal chords and our ears and our brains. Writing merely borrows from the parts of our brain designed specifically for spoken language, and I believe there are great advantages to paying attention to the importance of spoken word, and listening to spoken words.

And yet, and yet, I would not give up the technology of writing for the world.

As much as I know the human brain in general evolved for verbal language, my own particular brain has been so shaped by writing that I don't know how to function without it. I don't know what I know until I write it. I don't understand my own emotions until I write them. I have no sense of identity, of personhood, until I write my own story and figure it out. I don't know what I want to say unless I figure it out in writing first. I am at best average at speaking in the moment. At worst, I find myself tongue tied and tripping, unable to recall even simple names or facts, unable to express complex opinions. But if I go to paper (or more often now, the keyboard) and hash it out, tell the story over, sort through the complex ideas... that's when the magic happens. I come to understand. I figure life out, myself out, the world out. I learn through writing. I think through writing.

Maybe Socrates is right. Maybe I could still do all of these things if I just had to rely on speech and rhetoric and memory, if I'd been raised in an oral culture. But also, maybe there's a reason writing has taken over the world. Maybe we really can do all these things better not just because we can store our words outside our body, but because the physical and psychological process of writing actually forces our brains to think more completely or more clearly, or at the very least differently than we think when we merely speak words aloud.

Whatever it is, something about writing is magic.

And that shows up in our magic stories as well. Perhaps stories about spoken magic words are more common than stories about written magic power, but the power of language in general seems to transcend medium. Historically, spells and charms were written on scraps of paper and worn in amulets, or even ingested. Runes and symbols of magic have been carved over tombs and inscribed over doorways or gates. It's perhaps not the most common trope in magic systems, but I love it when writing is given the power to change the world. Here are two books I love that use writing as an actually magical power:

The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

This is the one I chose to teach in the "Magic Writing" unit of my course this past semester. We actually spent part of our discussion arguing about whether what forgers do count as "writing," but in the end, most of my students agreed that, like Chinese calligraphy, it was definitely a form of writing. This one is probably still my favorite Sanderson piece, possibly because I love this magic system so much, and the power given to writing to change the physical world.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I think I loved this book simply because the magic system was exactly this: the power of writing to create reality. It can't just be said, it has to be written. I mean, it's also a fun action/adventure story with romance and new worlds and evil secret organizations trying to destroy everything, but mostly, I love it for the magic system. It's just my thing.

I know there are others out there that I haven't read (I've heard Inkheart has a bit of this kind of magic system?), but I'd love to read some more. Do you know of any books where the magic system specifically involves writing to enact power? Please share!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Books I Read in May

Well, yes, definitely behind here on these updates, but they're more for my personal benefit than yours, right? May started off rough with end of the semester craziness, then I got sick somehow (even after being in quarantine, only trips to the grocery store! So baffling (not to mention frustrating)! I got tested, negative for flu and Covid19, so no idea what it was, but it took me out for almost a week). But the second half of the month we started settling down into a nice summer pattern, which included a lot more time for reading/listening to audio books, and maxing out my library holds now that my local branch opened for pick-up! Anyway, I read some interesting stuff last month, so let's talk about them!

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

I picked this one up after reading Amy's intriguing review, and found it super interesting. I've been in academia long enough to become incredibly frustrated by the specialization idealized there (seriously, I can't even write about Shakespeare and Austen in the same paper, because they belong to two different literary time periods, ugh!). Epstein manages to walk a fine line of not overly falling into the same trap as other pop psychology authors (like Gladwell) who narrowly focus on their own argument as the end-all be-all to the exclusion of other ideas--Epstein at least acknowledges there are some fields where specialization is preferred (like being a world class chess champion)--but in general I agree that interest across a wide range of fields is a very positive thing. In brief, I enjoyed this and generally recommend.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I wanted to like this book so much. I mean, it's about libraries! Book love! Fascinating tidbits of historical detail mixed in with the overall narrative of the Los Angeles Public Library system! It seems right up my ally! Alas, Orlean didn't quite deliver. I feel like in the hands of a different author, this could've been so much better. As it was, the most interesting part of the book was learning about the inaccurate science of arson investigation. In general, I suppose I still recommend to all my bibliophiles and library lovers out there, there are plenty of interesting details in here. Just don't expect to be wowed.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I loved this book. It wasn't exactly perfect (I think if this book could get together and have a love child with The Starless Sea, then I might find the magic book-lover story of my dreams), but still, if you like historical fantasy with a magic system that involves doors leading to other worlds, a world where writing has the power to make words come to life, sweet romances, and evil secret societies bent on destroying everything, then this is the book for you. The writing could be stronger, and it's not a story for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed this.

A Court of Thorns of Roses, A Court of Mist and Fury, and A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

Lumping my review of this trilogy all together. I saw this trilogy recommended repeatedly by some of my go-to fantasy review sources, but then I started seeing it pop up in some of my more literary review sources, and so I thought, well, everyone seems to love it? Maybe I should give it a try? And... eh. It's still very much a typical "special girl" kind of series, just with fairies and far more sex scenes than I cared for (I skimmed heavily to get through to the end). It was like a better Twilight. It was compelling enough I wanted to finish the series, and there were  a few things/characters I quite liked, but I was definitely bored by the third book, and ready to be done. Not a strong recommend from me, although the fan base is pretty rabid.

The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler

I picked this up because Janssen picked it for her May book club book and some of her reviews intrigued me. Lots of it was good, some interesting stuff to think about, but mostly not very life-changing for me personally. I maybe want to start having more family meetings and come up with a good family motto, and other people may get other useful insights out of this, but it was all stuff I've heard before or already with my family. Good stuff, but not a must read.

Well, clumping three books into one review makes this list look shorter than it should, but seven books isn't bad considering how my reading life's been going this year. June is already looking way, way up, which is so fun. Anyway, if you've read any of these, I'd love to hear your thoughts on them!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

On Teaching Lovecraft in the Age of George Floyd (Plus a Reading List)

Hi! I've been working on this post since the beginning of June, but due to my summer-haze work pace and accidentally leaving my laptop in Iowa for a week, I'm only finally getting around to publishing this today. Even if the heat of the protests is behind us, I still want to throw my two cents in the ring here, for whatever it's worth. This is an issue that needs sustained energy, and I'm only just learning how to speak up. Anyway, here we go.

I'd planned to write about this particular lesson from my magic course at some point, but the way I will write about it has now changed thanks to everything that has happened in the past weeks. I'm pretty sure the vast majority of people reading my posts are white, and so I write this for a white audience. I've decided it's important to share my opinion, my voice, my stance, for my white family and friends to know. This is a conversation I want us to be having.

For my magic and language course this past semester, I included on the syllabus a short story by H.P Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu." I chose it because there is both an "unpronouncable" and "unreadable" spoken and written language that play a major role in developing the sense of horror around the great destructive elder Gods ("Cthulhu" being one of them) that form the basis of Lovecraft's influential mythos.

But I was worried about including Lovecraft on the syllable because the man was an outspoken, well documented, agreed with Hitler, named his cat the n-word, disgusting bigot and racist. I was aware of controversies surrounding his racism, and I worried that including him on the syllabus would make it seem like I was giving Lovecraft a platform, or endorsing him as a person "worthy" of canonized status. I finally decided that there was enough value in the contribution the story added to our overall class theme that I wanted to keep it on the syllabus, and the best way to handle the controversy would be to just have an open class discussion about it.

I dedicated two class sessions to discussing Lovecraft. The first class session we kept very focused primarily on the language use in the story, and it was an interesting discussion that worked well for the course. For the next class period, however, I had the students read this article, and then when they showed up to class, I asked them to write for five minutes about what racism they noticed in the story, and what value we should place on this work knowing the views of the author, and whether I should have a place for Lovecraft on the syllabus. For context, my class had 18 students in it, only one of whom was Black, and she mostly refrained from joining in the conversation (absolutely her right), so this was generally white students talking to other white students.

And their answers provided some interesting commentary on how white people in general respond to racism. I had some students who read the whole story and did not notice any form of racism at all. It was a story about monsters under the ocean being awoken to potentially destroy the earth, nothing remotely about racism. Then I had other students who had been so angered and appalled by the racism inherent in the very details of the story that they could barely stomach finishing. It was quite the spectrum.

But I think this is the way racism works for us, as white people. Some of us may go about our lives and not "see" it. We're just living our lives, dealing with our own conflicts, no racism here! That is white privilege. It takes some training, some education, but once someone begins to point out the racism, you can see how it is there, so woven into the fabric of our society that it might be unnoticeable to you, the white protagonist, but it is there, pervasive, everywhere. It is on every page, in almost every line. And once we began examining the racism in the story, it was very hard not to see. In fact, it became clear to us as a class that Lovecraft's story wasn't about fictional alien monsters at all, but actually about racism.

Lovecraft's brand of horror operates on the scariness of the unknown. What is so terrifying about his giant elder gods is that they are presumably beyond human comprehension, so unfathomable that to even try to grasp at their existence or purpose leads men to go insane. They are the definition of the "other." And what Lovecraft tries to evoke through the way he spins his narrative is to build that sense of the unknown, the unknowable. The language that these gods use to communicate with man is barely able to translate into recognizable sound. Lovecraft chose the name "Cthulhu" because it was supposed to look and sound unpronounceable. It was supposed to feel unknowable, and therefore terrifying. Lovecraft explores a type of fear of the unknowable that assumes what is unknown is going to destroy the world as he knew it.

If you read the story closely, you can clearly see this is how Lovecraft felt about other races as well. He seemed to find them unfathomable, so different, so "other," that it was impossible to understand them, and that was horrifying to him. Or perhaps, in the deepest, most unexplored recesses of his psyche, Lovecraft knew that to come to know or understand other races would be the destruction of his world, would be the destruction of white (male) dominance, and he found that too uncomfortable to countenance.

But what we spent most of our class time discussing is how in the very act of writing a story based on the fear of the unknown, Lovecraft undermined his intention. In trying to create a name that was unpronounceable, Lovecraft created a name that people have standardized pronunciation for through the decades and we now say without hesitation (see here, although check the comments to see just how upset everyone is that we pronounce this word at all). Even while declaring the monster indescribable, Lovecraft nevertheless included enough description that readers (and artists) are still able to guess at a fairly uniform image of it.




Lovecraft opens his story with this paragraph: "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid isle of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

Then he goes on from there to tell an entire story that does nothing but piece together bits of dissociated knowledge to reveal a sensible whole story of what are supposed to be terrifying monsters bent on destroying earth. Yet by the end of the story, we are no more driven mad by horror than we are by curiosity, and there is no impulse to flee from the deadly light.

What I proposed to my class is that Lovecraft had it all wrong when he assumed we should be afraid of the unknown. While we could debate for endless ages about whether powerful alien gods are or are not actually unknowable, what we can assume (both from the story and from his real life) is that Lovecraft was deeply afraid of other races because he did not know them, did not understand them.  While it is very true that knowing another race and acknowledging that race's humanity may be difficult, and may destroy our own worldview, it is far from the most terrifying thing. The most terrifying thing may very well be our own selves, our own ability to de-humanize others.

When we keep ourselves in ignorance, when we refuse to learn about the "other," when we refuse to acknowledge the reality, the humanity, the valid experiences and emotions, of other races, that is when we become the monsters.

But we are capable of learning. We are capable of understanding. We are capable of reaching across "black seas of infinity" and piecing together dissociated pieces of knowledge to open up vistas of reality that may be terrifying, but not because they reveal monsters that will drive us mad, but because they reveal other humans we have treated wrongly. Guilt may destroy our world view, but it will not destroy our sanity. We must trust that coming to face the unknown, coming to learn about the "other," is the only way to avoid the new dark age Lovecraft touts as a desirable condition for humanity. His racism would have us wallow in darkness because it is safe and peaceful (for us, the white dominant race). The light might be terrifying, but I will always choose the light over the dark.

Light is knowable. Light is knowledge.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying that I will ever be able to truly understand what it feels like to be Black in America today. I am not saying I will ever be able to empathize completely, or really "know." What I am saying is that humans may be the only species capable of imagining what it is like to be someone else. We are a species that is capable of greater understanding. We may not be able to understand everything yet, and it may take many years of long, hard work to get there, but the work of seeking more knowledge, seeking more understanding, seeking to really listen, listen, listen, and validate the humanity and reality of the "other", will lead us to a place out of darkness. Maybe it is scary, and uncomfortable, and chaotic here, facing these unknowns. But we must always choose the light over the darkness.

I actually just finished reading Malcom Gladwell's Talking to Strangers (which, PS tangent, offers a super interesting look into the history of police work and one aspect of why police work the way they do, and how it leads to tragedy) in which he says something along the lines of how we are terrible at knowing when we are being lied to, and true communication may be almost impossible because we have such a hard time truly understanding each other. I take the more positive view that we may be terrible now, but understanding "others" is not impossible. Just difficult. It is the work of  a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes. Just because it is hard does not mean we should not try.

My class finally decided that it was probably fine for me to leave Lovecraft on the syllabus for the single reason that it allowed that conversation to happen (I even had a few students tell me that class discussion was the single most impactful class they had all semester). It was worth reading the words of a racist so that we could point out to each other what the racism was and why it was wrong. We can read Lovecraft to learn that he had it all wrong.

I've had many conversations with people about my class over the past few months, because I love sharing about this course, but some of the most disappointing conversations have been with white men who, when they ask what books I'm teaching and I mention Lovecraft, have gushed enthusiastically, "I love Lovecraft!" And I wait for the "but..." that never comes. To all those white men I was too afraid to confront in the moment, Lovecraft needs a caveat. He contributed greatly to the world of horror literature, but he was racist, and he was wrong about what is truly terrifying.

I am not perfect on this topic. I was terrified to lead a discussion on this topic (like, literally heart-fluttering panicked), and I'm terrified to write these words here and share them because I might be getting it wrong. Racism is so messy, so incredibly messy, and so incredibly uncomfortable. But I don't want my silence on the topic to speak louder than a fumbling, potentially wrong attempt at standing on the right. I'm doing what work I can to get educated, to get informed, and to understand as much as I am able to. I am learning. And here is what I have learned so far:

Racism is not an emotion or a feeling, it is a system that exists. I may not love and support the system of racism, I may not actively persecute Black people, but simply by being white and enjoying white privilege I benefit from and perpetuate the system.

Racism has caused deep, systemic, generational trauma for the Black people of America (and other countries). From the very little I know about trauma from my reading, this means that their brains have had to develop in a way to survive and exist around that trauma every single day. When faced with triggers (like the killing of a Black person by white police men), that trauma may cause an expression of release in the form of violent protest. I am not saying I condone violent protest, but I am saying that I have a lot more patience and compassion for the burning of a building due to triggering generational trauma than I do for murder by white men (white men who, I might add, are probably also suffering from various forms of trauma, but it is a trauma from a position of power, not a position of victim, so it is harder to have compassion there).

I believe it is completely unfair to ask Black people to behave with the patience and long suffering of Gandhi while excusing white men for violent murder. Black anger is uncomfortable for us, but would we feel any different in their shoes?

To my white friends and family, none of us want to believe we are bad, or wrong, or monsters. None of us want to believe that we are racists. None of us want to believe that we contribute to a world that makes life harder or more dangerous for black people. But the fact is, we do.

My oldest son saw me watching a video of one of the protests and asked what was going on. I explained that a white police man had killed a Black man and people were angry about it. He asked why the police man had killed the Black man and I said the most likely reason was simply that he was Black. My son exclaimed, "That is so wrong!" A few hours later, he said, "Mom, I've been thinking about that video you showed me, and I didn't know until I saw that that Martin Luther King Jr. didn't win."

Clearly, there are a lot more conversations I need to be having with my son, but isn't his experience a little like all of ours? We learn about MLKJ in school, learn about his dream speech and assassination as part of a history lesson. And that is how we like to think about these issues. As part of history. Racism was in the past, and then we had heroes like MLKJ, and now we don't have racism any more. It's a very pretty story we tell ourselves. We want to believe it's over, and we've all learned to be good, and racism isn't a thing anymore. But my son, like all of us, has had to wake up to the harsh reality that it is not history. It is not over. MLKJ did not win. He was shot and killed by the very racism that he fought against, and it has continued to kill and kill and kill.

What can we do? We can start by listening to Black voices. We can start with reading Black writing. We can start by quieting our own knee-jerk reflex to defend ourselves and our position and just be open to listening, to validating the hurt and anger Black people feel. So now I've said my piece, I'll send you on to recommendations of Black voices as a place to start. Some of these I have read and highly recommend. Some of these are now in my queue waiting to be read, so I can keep educating myself, keep listening, keep learning, keep trying to understand, keep moving toward the light.


Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

I read this one last year and it changed my mind on so many things. My husband is a lawyer who has not read this yet, but I had multiple discussions with him about the justice system, what is wrong with it, how things need to change, and the values of mercy over justice (or not over justice, but mercy being a form of justice). Anyway, you've got to read this one. I haven't seen the movie yet but they are making the movie available for free on a bunch of platforms all through the month of June, and I will be getting around to it at some point.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

I read this one a few years ago (it was my university's book-of-the-year in 2017-18), and it is a little bit different as far as being a mash-up of genres (lyrical essays, poetry, images, even links to online videos), but if you wonder what racism looks like today, this is a heart-breaking description of it. We may not have Jim Crow laws anymore, but we still have everything from microagressions to full-on murder. This book doesn't offer solutions, just a plea to let their voices be heard.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This one has been on my to-read list for a while, but I've yet to get around to it. It's been a hot one for years, and I know it's left some (white) readers feeling conflicted and uncomfortable, but it sounds like an important read to me. It's a letter from a Black father to his son, about how to get along in a racist world.

Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Saad is a Black Muslim woman living in London (I believe it's London, somewhere in the UK at least), which apparently has just a big a problem with race as we do here in America. I recently added this to my to-read list, but I understand it's far more of a work-book with pen and paper assignments than a read-through-in-one-sitting kind of book, so I'm looking to get a physical copy from the library instead of my usual audio book route. From what I gather, this is designed specifically for white people (I think?) to help us understand our own relationships to racist systems, and how we can do better.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

I mean, no, does any white person really want to talk about race? But we're all talking about it now, so we better figure out how to have these conversations. I've heard really good things about this book, and therefore I'm adding it to my to-read list.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

So when it comes to difficult and depressing topics, I always like solutions-oriented books. It's like, yes, now I know everything is wrong and terrible, but what can I do about it? I'm hoping this book offers some of those solutions and suggestions. This is another one I've heard plenty of good things about, so it's on the list.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Okay, technically this one is not by a Black voice. DiAngelo is a white academic who made her career off of coining the term White Fragility, which as far as I understand it defines the knee-jerk defensiveness white people feel around topics of racism. Since I've seen plenty of defensiveness in conversations with family recently, I think this a topic worth learning more about, so this one is on my to-read list as well.

Adult Fiction

Homeoing by Yaa Gyasi

Okay, this is one of the best books I read in 2017. This is a sweeping multi-generational saga that follows the stories of two half-sisters from 1700s Africa, one who stays in Ghana, the other who comes to America through forced slavery, then follows the lives of their descendants through the centuries to the present day. It's a gripping look at the harmful effects of colonialism, slavery, and generational trauma, not to mention, breathtakingly written. I highly recommend this one.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

This book is a historical fantasy re-imagining of pre-Civil War life in America. The underground railroad, rather than being a metaphorical system of trails and safe-houses, is a actually a literal underground railroad, with trains in underground tunnels, and stations at various places along which the protagonists stop to rest and see different aspects of racism in American society. There's all sorts of darkness and violence, and an a-historical mash-up of some of the worst treatment our country has subjected Black people to over the centuries, but this one is definitely worth reading. It's a history that needs facing.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

This one feels so different from most of the other books on this list, because while this book does explore different issues of racism in America, it does so in a rather dishy/gossipy/beach read kind of way. In other words, it's not super dark or heavy. However, what this book does offer is a portrayal of two very different types of toxic white allies. When I first read this book, I was confused about the critique of white allies, but after recently learning about the "7 Circles of Whiteness," I can totally see how the white people depicted in this story represent toxic forms of white ally-ship. It's worth reading just to parse through that (though, language warning in effect).

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi

This one has been on my to-read list for a while. It explores themes of racism with immigration, and offers a non-American Black view of American racism (I believe). I've heard very good things about this one.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

This one has been on my radar for a while (it's been hugely popular for a few years now) but I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. As I understand it, the themes center more heavily on relationships and marriage, but there is a strong background of issues of mass incarceration and racism in the justice system, which seems to touch every Black person's life.

YA Fiction

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This is one of those beautiful poetry novels, where the story is offered in verse. This one is autobiographical, describing Woodson's childhood growing up in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and 70s, and the impact of racism and the civil rights movement on her life. I loved this book so much, and highly recommend.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This book is so good and really just hits everything: police brutality, the caught place of Black people between the "hood" and "white" success, protests, and everything else. It's powerful and beautifully written. I have to give a strong warning on the language, but I understand the language wouldn't be as authentic or real if it were watered down. I haven't seen the movie version of this yet, but I understand it's also being offered free through the month of June on various platforms.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Similar to The Hate U Give, this one covers everything around police brutality, and the hard place of young Black people between seeking success in white schools and arenas, and the community of Black friends left in the "hood". It's short, and again a strong language warning, but it packs a punch in covering all the hot issues.

Whew. Okay. This is not a definitive list of all the books out there by Black authors, or all the good books on racism. These are just a handful of the most recent I've read or plan to read eventually and want to recommend (let me know what you would add to this list!). I offer this as a starting place if you are looking to read up on these issues and want to listen to more Black voices on these topics.

We must make the effort to try and understand each other. We must work toward listening, we must move toward the light. Otherwise, we will perish in our own dark age.