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.

https://lovecraft.fandom.com/wiki/Cthulhu

https://www.reddit.com/r/Lovecraft/comments/blw0jl/cthulhu_by_andr%C3%A9e_wallin/

https://www.amazon.com/Pyramid-America-Spiral-Cthulhu-Rising/dp/B07CS9PD6Y

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.

Nonfiction:

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.

Friday, May 22, 2020

What's In A Name?

I've been intending all year to write more about the Magic Language course I taught this year, but in the midst of an extraordinarily crazy semester, survival was the name of the game. Now that the class is officially over (and I can officially say it was the single greatest teaching experience of my life), I'm hoping to write a little bit more about it here. In our first unit, we read A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, a fantasy book where the magic system revolves heavily around knowing the "true name" of people and objects. We spent a lot of time discussing how language works, if there is any connection between a word and the thing it names, and the power names hold in our society. I assigned my students a creative essay to write about their relationship with their own name, and I must say, I've never had more fun grading an assignment, because the essays I got were AMAZING. Some of my students loved their names, others hated them, some had even officially changed their names, and it was fascinating to read about. Every essay was deeply profound, and since reading them, I've been stewing all semester about what I would've written about my own name. As soon as I submitted final grades, this is the first thing I decided to do with my time. Below is my own name essay. I hope you enjoy.


“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet to the night sky. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as a sweet.” She has a point. What is a name, but a conventional piece of language, a collection of arbitrary sounds attached to us at birth. Names are just words, words just puffs of air. They mean nothing but what we ascribe them to mean. Why does it matter, what we are called, or that we are called anything at all? While some of us are eccentric enough to slip in and out of names and identities throughout life, the vast majority of us are saddled with a moniker at birth, officially to be changed only through a fee and court order. We do not choose our names, mostly. Our parents choose for us, but what do our parents know of us to pick good names? Just scrunchy blobs of newborn flesh, how are parents supposed to pick the perfect sounds to identify us?

Socrates and Cratylus debated the question of whether there were “true names,” sounds and syllables that represented and connected to a person’s true “essence,” a word that described them so perfectly that to know a person’s name was to know the person truly. They, along with the modern branch of linguistics, eventually decided this could not be how language works, and of course it is not. Words are not intrinsically connected to the things they signify. The names given us at birth are less like skin, attached to our being, and more like clothes, artificial additions. And like clothes, some names fit like gloves, others fit like baggy sweaters. Unlike clothes, names cannot be changed so easily, and sometimes the infant who snuggled in the warmth of their childish name must grow into the adult constricted by the too-tight fabric. If only names could be shed as easily as clothes, or shed entirely. What’s in a name, really? Perhaps it is a relief to some, knowing that their name, and whatever conventional baggage comes with it, is not actually a part of who they are. Names are signs, not realities of identity.

And yet, the first act of brutality the Nazi’s inflicted on inmates of those infamous concentration camps was to strip them of their names. In place, inmates were given numbers tattooed into their very flesh. There is a reasonable logic to this. Numbers are markers of identity too. Numbers can be even more individual than names; there can be an infinite amount of numbers without ever repeating, whereas one class of twenty kindergartners can have two Johns or three Marys. But reasonable logic doesn’t negate the fact that a number instead of a name is dehumanizing. Even de-biologizing. We name every living thing—the family pet, the flowers in the garden, even the algae scum on the surface of a puddle in some squalid bog gets a name (chlorella, what a beautiful name at that). To take away a person’s name and replace it with a number is not just to deny their humanity, it is to class them with the inorganic commodities bought and sold by bar code identification. Some things may be identified by number, but living souls need a name.

However arbitrary or ill-fitting our names may be, like all of language, names have power and significance because we believe in their power and significance. Our magic stories, fantastical semiotic reflections of how we imagine the real world could work, are rife with names of power: names that can summon demons, names that can control the wind or call a storm, names so evocative of dreadful evil that they must not be named. Names can be so sacred we don’t use them at all, but instead use honorific titles. While we can talk all we want about sticks and stones and words not hurting, it just isn’t true. Words matter, and the most significant words we have are the ones that have the power to identify us. To name us. We crave to be known by our names. To be called by our names. In the few instances of scripture we have where God the Father has spoken to man, he has called them by name: Adam, Moses, Joseph. To be called by name is to be known, or at least, acknowledged, a type of knowing.

Perhaps that is why I went through such a period of mourning when I changed my last name after marriage. I’d disparaged my maiden name while growing up. Smith. Could there be a more common, more unimaginative, more bland name in existence? My shallowest fear in life was to become a teacher before I got married and have to listen to my students call me “Miss Smith.” And yet, and yet! That name had been my identity for twenty-one years. That name tied me to the only family I’d known, to my father, and to his father before him, and his father before him. It was a name rich in legacy, a name of prophets and presidents. Though my lineage did not change with marriage, I still felt a severing, a wondering if I could claim my noble ancestors now I didn’t share their name. Would my children feel the same connection to that heritage if they never bore the name Smith? It felt like losing a part of myself, and I mourned that loss.

I considered keeping my last name (and confession, I did keep it as a middle name, but the strange place and powerlessness of middle names in our society is a topic for a different essay). However, if I had to go back and do it again I would still change my name, because I recognize how my new last name represents the new family unit I have built. It connects me deeply to my husband and my children. Tanner (a name, I might add, barely one syllable more interesting than Smith if no less common and unimaginative) is the name that unifies and identifies us as a family. It’s a powerful thing, to share this common family name. It binds us together. I wish the burden of losing and changing names and identities didn’t fall so heavily upon women in our culture, didn’t reinforce so much the paternal connection. I wish my name represented all the lost maiden names from my maternal line, the Nortons, the Prices, the Warrs… but hyphenated names are an in-elegant solution. The only perfect situation happened to my Grandma Donna Smith, who married her third cousin once removed, my Grandpa Mitt Smith, and never had to change a thing. Of course, we can’t all have looping family trees like that, or the species would be in danger.

The significance of last names, the connection to family, define people in a very specific way, but first names are another matter. If Socrates’ “true names” exist, names that define the true essence of who we are, we would expect to find them in the first name. But if first names actually reveal anything about anyone, it is more about the parents giving the name than the child receiving it. Did my mother have any clue that the name “Suzanne” was a French version of the Hebrew word for “lily”? Did she believe that flower possessed any essential connection to the babe in her womb? No. My mother gave me my name for the entirely unromantic reason that my due date was originally on the birthday of her favorite college roommate, who happened to be named Suzanne. Of course, then I actually came two weeks late, so the date was irrelevant, and I’ve never in my life met my namesake, which generally makes me question how strong their friendship actually was (if you name your child after someone, don’t you think they’d be an important enough person in your life to actually meet up with occasionally, and introduce said child to?). So for all intents and purposes, I consider my mother’s choice of my name to be arbitrary. Practically meaningless.

And yet, and yet… When I stumbled across the etymology of my name in a baby book years later, I felt a spark of recognition. I felt the clothing of my name, at times in my past too tight or too baggy, to slide in comfortably around my skin. I had loved calla lilies since I was little—pure and white, graceful curves, long and elegant. They were the flowers in my wedding bouquet. And French had been my minor in college. I did a study abroad in Paris. Now here was my name Suzanne, literally meaning French lily. Fleur-de-lys. Could a name be more perfect for me? Was it a true name? Or was it coincidence? Did my name, with the power of some unbelieved magic, shape me? Predict me? Guide me to become the essence it defined? Or was it just luck, me forging connections to an arbitrary collection of sounds randomly assigned to me by chance? Is that what all people must do who love their names? Find the connection, build the identity, create the definition they want?



I decided I wanted to name my first daughter Lily, as a way of naming her after myself without giving her the name Suzanne. Maybe that’s a selfish thing to do? But how could I give her a more significant and meaningful name? How else are parents supposed to choose names for their children? How else other than chance, whim, liking the sound of the syllables, the way it will look on some future theoretical resume, the connection to some long-dead ancestor or some beloved celebrity, trying to conform, trying to be unique, naming her after my favorite flower, myself? How else to pick the single crucial defining symbol for a being who exists more in potential than in experience? And, like all the other baggage parents pass along, children must do their best to get along under the weight (or weightlessness) of the name handed to them.

I had so many images in my mind of what this daughter would look like, how we would go see the ballet together every year, how she would let me curl her hair and we would wear matching dresses, how someday we would go to Paris together, and how her favorite flowers would be lilies too, simply because of her name, and the connection it would give the two of us. Three years ago, I gave birth to that daughter I’d been dreaming about, and I named her Lily. And she grew up to be nothing like I imagined.


She is a force. Though she be but little, she is fierce. She is strong and opinionated and stomps around our house in her favorite pair of boots. She is passion and bursts of emotion and has a flair for the dramatic. She looks nothing like me (she is 100% her father’s child), and loves wearing princess dresses but only over pants. She won’t let me touch her hair, so she runs around with wild stringy curls, little more than bedhead. She will likely never take a day of ballet lessons in her life (though I can potentially see her going out for softball, and honestly, with the way I’ve seen her tackle her older brothers I believe she would make a fair linebacker). She is the life of the party, the center of attention, color and sound and explosion. She is the opposite of me in almost every way possible, and yet the depth of my love for her takes my breath away. I stand in complete awe of her fierce, beautiful, passionate little person, but I often worry she will grow up resenting the name I gave her, for she is nothing like the quiet, slender, elegant calla lilies I painted in a watercolor to adorn her nursery before she was born.

We do not get to choose our names, but even if we could, how many of us know what name we would pick? How to choose a collection of sounds to represent our identity? Such a significant weight for a symbol to hold! How does one choose the perfect name? Does the perfect name exist? What do we do with the names we are given? Especially the ones that fit like baggy sweaters or squeeze like too-tight T-shirts. Do we suffocate? Do we chafe? Do we drown? Do we insist on nicknames or file legal petitions to change them? Or do we learn to accept them? Do we let our names define us, or do we define our names?

What I hope my daughter knows is that while it may not be a “true name,” or a name that describes her essence perfectly, it is still her name. She is not a number. She was loved enough, cherished enough, to be given a name. Her name still holds power, still holds meaning, still identifies her. There is still magic in her name. Maybe some names “fit” better than other names, maybe some names feel arbitrary and unconnected to who we want to be or feel we truly are. But also, maybe it’s about making the connection. After all, a name’s meaning isn’t tied down. There are a million ways to inhabit a name, to find the connection, and make it fit. I wasn’t always sure my name defined me. Maybe my daughter will find her own reason to love her name. Maybe she will love the connection it creates between the two of us (a mother can only hope). Or maybe she will find some other way entirely to connect her name to the essence of her identity.

I am the calla lily, but there are other varieties of lily. She can be the tiger lily.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Books I Read in April

Well, hello there! Happy May! How was April for you? I know everyone made jokes about March lasting an eternity because every day in quarantine felt ridiculously long, but let me tell you what, April seems to have just blazed by for me. Something about the sameness of each day blending in to each other made it feel like a blink, at least for me. Also, as predicted, it was a stressful and busy month work-wise (there's a joke in academia that April is the cruelest month, and that was as true in quarantine as in any other year). I just had a ton of deadlines and grading and online course production work. It was busy.

Then I went and tweaked my back stretching after yoga one morning, and it flared up my old neck and shoulder issues, and I ended up in the chiropractor by the end of the month. But that's a story for another post (or, maybe not, because who cares to read a post about minor back and shoulder issues?).

Anyway, all that preamble is to explain that, as predicted, April was another pretty off reading month for me. I got six books in, which honestly, without my commute, is surprisingly high. I've got a couple more weeks of the grading grind before I'm off for the summer, and I'm hoping my reading numbers improve drastically then. We shall see.

But for now, what I did read covered everything from the super fluff puff to the profoundly serious and important, and I can't wait to talk about some of these books with you. Let's dive in.

The Inquisitor's Tale by Adam Gidwitz

This one was recommended to me by my dissertation advisor, of all people. He said it was patterned after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and he had read it to his kids and they loved it. Recommendation enough for me! And yes, while the narrative structure has many similarities to Canterbury Tales, it is thankfully a much more complete story (which actually stretched the narrative point-of-view to the unbelievable, but just embrace it). This story takes place in medieval France, and deals with all sorts of interesting questions about miracles, religion, diversity, and book love. It follows the tale of three misfit children who seem to be able to perform miracles... or is it witchcraft? The ending surprised me, and I found the religious discussion surprisingly deep and beautiful. The book had all sorts of very accurate historical detail in it, and so I was not surprised to learn that Gidwitz's wife is actually a professor of Medieval history with a PhD from Yale. Legit. In short, I loved it, and I highly recommend it. As a content warning, there is a recurring joke employing Biblical swear words (ass), which I might feel slightly uncomfortable with my own young children reading, but if I ever do this as a read aloud (and it would make a great read aloud), I could just edit those parts.

Emma by Jane Austen

This was my book club's pick for the month (because we can't check books out from the library here right now, we had to pick something everyone could access for cheap or free elsewhere). Despite being my least favorite Austen heroine, I love reading this book so much. The way the plot unfolds is just so clever and so fun. It took everything in me not to immediately dive into the rest of Austen's books, as they would've made the perfect comfort reads during quarantine, but I didn't want to upset my tradition of re-reading these in the fall (and I have a feeling I'll be just as in need of comfort reads come fall). So I restrained. But goodness, I could just reread Austen for ever and never get tired of her.

Would Like to Meet by Rachel Winters

So instead, I dove into the comfort of super fluffy romcom reads. This one was rather adorable. There were a lot of homages to all the classic romcom movies of the 90s and early 2000s, which was fun, and it managed to remain fairly clean (especially in comparison to other contemporary romances of this genre). In short, if you like fluffy romances, this one is a recommend. Nothing earth shattering, but cute.




The Fill-In Boyfriend by Kasie West

This one was quite a bit fluffier and less smart than the one above. I found it on a list somewhere comparing it to To All The Boys I've Loved Before because there is a fake dating story-line. It's not nearly as good, but it was cute enough to satisfy. And it was quite a bit cleaner, which was honestly surprising. Anyway, still not particularly memorable for me.





Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

This one was recommended to me by a trusted friend a few months ago, and I've had it on hold since then (it took forever to come in). But what a book! This book made me feel so angry. Like, seething frustration. The premise of this book is that there is gender bias against women in some of the most fundamental ways that our society is designed, some ways that are obvious, but other ways that we don't even realize because we've all been taught for so long that the male body is the standard so we don't even think about these things. I'll try to give a few brief examples. One thing she brings up is that there are fewer female concert pianists than male concert pianists, not because females are inherently less good at the piano, but because the standard piano keyboard width was designed for male hands that have on average a bigger reach. If piano keys were less wide, women could have better reach and more could be better pianists. Or the one that infuriated me, seats in cars are designed for male bodies and tested with male crash dummies, which means that women tend to die at a higher rate in car crashes because seat belts and cars are not designed for female bodies (and this seat design might also contribute to why women suffer more from car sickness!!!). Now, one or two of these types of facts might be dismissable. But Perez just keeps bringing up example after example after example in this flood of evidence that just felt overwhelming... the world is designed for men and not women. I won't say here that I agreed with absolutely everything Perez says, or with all of her data, or assumptions, or even goals of what gender equality should be, but I absolutely appreciated her overall argument that women's bodies are different and should not be ignored. Women are not men, and women are just as deserving of having tools, jobs, cities, cars, medications, and schedules designed for them as men. I also agree that women should be part of governing bodies making decisions. I could go on and on about this book (and maybe I will some day), but for now, I'll leave it with a high, high recommend. Everyone should read this and talk about it.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Okay, so when I read really good books, I usually talk my husband's ear off about them. So when I started telling him about this one immediately after the last one, his comment was, "What, are you one some kind of men-are-evil reading streak right now?" I've had both these books on hold for a while and did not intend to read them concurrently, but yes, by the end of both these books, I really did feel depressed about the work feminism still has left to do. Okay, if you haven't heard of this one, you need to read it. Required. Absolutely. Except, it is a hard, hard read. If you don't know yet, Chanel Miller was previously known as Emily Doe, or the Stanford Rape Victim. She was sexually assaulted by Stanford swimmer Brock Turner back in 2015. While her name was kept anonymous throughout the trial, her victim impact statement went viral in 2016, and I remember reading it then and being super impressed with it. Chanel eventually decided that her story needed to be told in full, and that people needed to know her name, instead of just knowing her as "Brock Turner's victim" (thus the title of the book). Here's the thing, Chanel is a beautiful writer. I mean, stunningly beautiful writer, and it is absolutely a shame that this is the book we have to get to know her through. I wish with all my heart her story, her book, could be a different story, but this is the one she gets to tell now, and I think everyone needs to read it. I want to push this book into the hands of every freshman on my campus, I want everyone to read it. It is incredible, and heartbreaking, and super powerful. It's not just a tragedy about what Brock did to her, but a tragedy about what the justice system did to her, how hard she had to work to be the "perfect victim." I don't have answers, but I know that people need to read this book and we need to keep talking about this. Absolutely, 100% recommend.

Alright, that was my reading month. A little bit of everything in there, from super fluff to heartbreaking serious, from classic to middle grade. It was a good month, and I'd love, love, love to talk more about these books to anyone willing to chat!