Monthly Archives: September 2012

#37: How To Be Black by Baratunde R. Thurston

A few years ago my friend Tamatha told me about Pajiba.  Later she told me about CBR and got me started last year.  This year she verbally attacked me with excitement over How To Be Black.  I don’t even think she had actually read it yet, but she was going to, and by god, I was too.  She posted her review back in May and would occasionally ask me if I had gotten a copy.  I told her it was on my To Be Read list (along with, no lie, around 600 other books) and I’d get to it.

I finally got to it.  And she was right to demand that I read it.  It’s smart, funny and honest, and since I didn’t read it during Black History Month, I am totally ahead of the game.

I liked the mix of this book.  (Was that racist?  Shit.)  It’s part memoir, part stand-up routine, part social commentary, part super depressing reality, part politics and part a whole lot of other stuff.

Thurston explains that this book is written for black people, but totally understands that white people are going to pick it up, and good for us!  He knows it’s going to be displayed prominently during February and that whites will prove that there’s no racism when they buy it.  Good job!  Problem solved.

His goal is explaining to black people all the things they need to do to help white people like me.  Each individual black person is responsible for explaining the entire population’s hopes, dreams, and beliefs while at the same time serving in sort of an undercover role for the black population.  While they make sure their white friends don’t walk around asking if they can touch a black person’s hair, they are also gathering data on the whites to share when we’re not around.  I appreciate the amount of work being a Black Friend is. They have to be cool, but not too cool.  They have to be black enough without going overboard.  They’re going to have to make mandatory office social gatherings cool… simply by showing up!  And once they reveal themselves as a Black Friend, they are going to have to answer millions of “Is it racist when…?” questions.

I particularly liked the importance he puts on Black Friend as National Black Friend serving as the Official Black Spokesperson for all black people.  I’ve seen this in action before, and I know it’s not something to be taken lightly.  When I, as a white person, need to know how the black community feels about the latest pop culture story that may or may not be racist, I need an official black spokesperson, and I need one fast.  I cannot tell you how much time is saved when one person can explain an entire population’s reaction, thoughts and feelings about an issue.  I don’t understand why more people don’t do this.  I guess it’s a black thing.  (Was that racist?  Shit.)

Side note: If you are black and don’t want to be the Black Friend or Official Spokesperson, there’s a chapter called How to Be The Angry Negro.  (I can say “negro” because it’s a direct quote, right?  Is that racist?  Shit.)

Another part of the book I liked is his Black Panel.  While he teaches black people how to be the official spokesperson for all black people, for some reason he has concerns that he can’t fully represent so many people.  This was confusing for me as a white person.  His seven person Black Panel comes in throughout the book to answer such questions as “Can you swim?” and “Have You Ever Wanted to Not Be Black?”.  In the interest of equality and to avoid a potential reverse discrimination lawsuit, he even includes a white guy.  A  Canadian white guy.  W. Kamau Bell is one of his panelists, which was a great bonus for me because I’m a huge fan of Totally Biased.  If  you haven’t seen that show yet, you should get on it.  It’s like having your own Black Friend/Official Spokesperson right in your living room.  (Was that racist to imply that you wouldn’t want him in your living room if he was there in reality and not on tv?  Shit.)

I especially responded to the chapter on Post-Racial America.  Some white people think this is a thing.  And on behalf of all white people: I am so, so sorry.  I try to get other white people to shut up, but it’s so hard.  So very hard.

On a serious note, I’m also reading a book about the state of feminism (Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work Is Done by Susan J. Douglas) and the parallels between the idea of Post-Racial America and Enlightened Sexism are so depressing, and yet hopeful because maybe we’ll all get our shit together and get stuff sorted out by helping each other.  That could be a thing, right?  Reading these books back to back has been great, but I know there are things I’m confusing between the two.  I think each book makes a point about the previous generation.  The media and younger members of the population don’t want to hear from the angry elders.  While we can appreciate the work the civil rights leaders and the bra burning protesters did, we kinda don’t want to be That Guy.  I think it’s worse for the feminists because they get dismissed as angry man haters who wear horrible shoes.  Civil rights leaders seem more honored and less ignored by members of the black community.  (I say this as a white person.  Was that racist?  Shit!)

The memoir parts about his mother are wonderful.  He had an interesting childhood and she created an environment where anything could happen.  I love how he had access to all sorts of different worlds and created for himself what it meant to be black.   

This was a great read.  I really appreciate his acknowledgement of how much a white person (me) can sprain an ankle trying to dance around any ideas because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  Rather than engage in what could be an enlightening conversation, I’ll just sit quietly.  Or I’ll make a statement that I assume goes for everyone.  I definitely don’t want to assume I’m talking with an Official Black Spokesperson so I feel weird about asking questions.  Thurston starts of explaining that he gets this and he’s going let you in on some secrets and ideas.  This is especially helpful if you don’t have access to your own Black Friend.


PS: It’s baa-ruh-TOON-day.  You’re welcome.


#36: The Birth House by Ami McKay

I was mad for so much of this book, but this means that I cared.  You can’t get mad about something if you don’t think it matters.

Dora Rare is seventeen and living in a remote town in Nova Scotia at the start of World War I.  She’s the first daughter to be born in many generations of Rares, so right away she’s got a strike against her.  She doesn’t fit in and she’s not sure what she should be doing with herself.  Lucky for her, she has Miss B.

Miss B has been the village’s midwife for a long time and caught Dora when she was born.  She’s brilliant when it comes to women’s health needs and can tell  by looking at a swollen belly or a puffy face if something isn’t right.  She knows the prayers to chant, the herbs to mix and the music to set those babies right and calm the mommas down.  She’s an angel.  And when she’s not needed, she’s a witch.  Dora, too, is labeled as a witch as a young girl simply because she was born a girl and doesn’t really belong anywhere.  And now that she’s spending so much time with Miss B, she’s becoming Super Witch.

Dora isn’t sure what she wants and when Miss B tells her she’s destined to take over the business of catching babies, she panics.  She’s too insignificant to be trusted with so much knowledge and with the lives of the town’s babies and women.

She loves Miss B and humors her by staying close and learning.  She decides not to decide and convinces herself that Miss B will live for a good long time and she won’t have to make a decision either way.

And then there’s Dr. Thomas.  Sure, lots of scientific advancements were happening all over the place and doctors were starting to better understand the inner workings of  the human body, but there was the whole problem of What In The Hell Is A Woman?  Clearly there is something wrong with us even under the best of circumstances.  Our wombs are made to bear children, so if you’re not pregnant, then you’re off balance.  But if you are pregnant you’re in a delicate mental state, but if you’re coddled, it’s just going to prove to you that you can boss your husband around.  Morning sickness?  You’re faking it to gain sympathy.  Can’t get pregnant?  You need to sit quietly and eat bread.

The most important thing to understand is that every emotion you’re feeling is a problem and can be cured.  And the way it can be cured is to let men tell you what to do, how to act, the proper way to respond, and make sure you’re maintaining the balance of life and your body by doing everything they say.  Or just stay out of the way and don’t let anyone notice you.  Make sure you’re pregnant.

Oh, and also?  Vibrators.

Man, things were bonkers in this crazy time of yesteryear!  Women were warned not to masturbate or terrible things would befall them.  You’ll start to pee yourself.  You’ll go blind.  Your voice won’t sound sweet.  You’ll become paralyzed.  You’ll morph into some fucked up creature that’s neither male or female.  It’s just not cool to touch yourself.

Now, if you’ll jump up here on the table and let me under your skirts, I’ll  pop in this vibrator and shake your womb clean!  Yep, huff and puff and soon you’ll be pregnant.  But this is not sexual at all.

So… we have this whole aspect of the insanity of women’s healthcare.  Wait, is this a present time book?  No?  So we’ve got all this shit sorted out and men understand how women’s bodies work and aren’t trying to control them or make policy on what can happen in regards to them?  Yes?  That has happened now?  Excellent.

On top of Dora not fitting in anywhere, not being trusted by the townsfolk, being accused of being a witch, and wanting to spend time with Miss B, our friend Dr. Thomas is doing everything he can to shut midwifery down and start the business of making money off of babies.  He’s running the brand new clinic in the big town and makes sure the men in all the nearby villages know that the true test of manhood is to be able to pay for your wife to get knocked the fuck out in the hospital and have her baby in comfort.  Sure, she’s going to be all sorts of wrecked on morphine and chloroform and your kid’s head is going to be gross and dented from being yanked out by forceps, but buddy, all this happened in a hospital and you paid for it!  Sure, Miss B doesn’t take a penny for her services and you might have dropped off a sack of potatoes or something, but this?  This is modern medicine!

Miss B is furious.  She plans on being there for any woman that needs her at any time and no doctor or law is going to make her stop.  Dora is also angry, but she’s also scared.  She knows the power men have and she sees them working with the respectable ladies in town to turn everyone against Miss B.  Before people might pretend not to notice when she was around, but now they are actively working against her and making sure everyone knows it’s illegal not to get medical help during a birth.

Oh, and on top of this?  Dora is going to get married.  I’m still not sure how that happened, but apparently the rich lady in town decided she was the perfect match for her son, so off they go to the altar.  Before that happens though, Archer, her husband to be, is going to humiliate her every chance he gets so she can prove that she is worthy of him by taking it.  Wait, what?  No, it makes sense when Dora explains it.  Seriously.

OK, so then a bunch of bad stuff happens, things get worse for Dora, things get REALLY worse for Dora, and then some cool things happen and then there’s a happy ending.

I did like the book a lot even if I was often arguing with myself by trying to figure out how I would have felt if I was me but born then, and how people who actually lived during this felt.  Someone in my book group made the obvious but smart statement that as soon as an author starts to write historical fiction, his or her spin is immediately all over the page.  You can’t be sympathetic to a character in your book without taking a stand.  And I don’t want a non-fiction account of what was happening.  I want feelings and emotions.  How female of me.

There were a few parts that felt a little forced, but I really liked the supporting cast of characters, so I was willing to accept the travels.

But man… the men in this book?  Holy cow do they not come off well.  Luckily there’s a few to try to tip the scales, but overall?  What a bunch of dicks!

I had already planned on watching the movie Hysteria because I am fascinated by the medicine of vibrators during a time of no touching of the no-no parts, and after reading this I’m even more interested in it.  When a woman is sent to the doctor to be calmed down with a vibrator, I’d like to know more about how that happened.

#35: Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker

You’re still pretty young, living at home, wondering what comes next.  Life has already made it clear to you that you’re not going to be the next best anything.  Between getting thoroughly beaten by your dad at home and thoroughly beaten by the kids in the neighborhood on your way home, your position at the bottom of the shit pile is as solid as a position on the shit pile can be.  Your mom has made it clear that you never should have been born, and yet you wait… for something.  Surely something has to happen next.  Do you get older, move out, move on and become someone?  Or are you trapped in this pitiful, helpless situation for the rest of your life?

It sort of sounds like any book with a teenage protagonist, except maybe for the constant beatings, but what happens if you’re a demon and near immortal?  Not only do you suck at life, you’re going to suck at it for centuries.

Meet Jakabok Botch.

He’s never going to amount to anything and life (or what ever the demonic metaphor for life is) makes sure he knows it at every moment.  Even now, telling his story, you already know how it ends.  His very first words to you are “Burn this book.”  Is it a command?  Is he begging?  All we know is that whatever sad little things have happened to this pitiful little demon, the end result is that he’s trapped in this book.

In between begging/commanding you to burn the book before you get hurt, he tells his story.  Sometimes he does it in the hopes that you’ll burn the book as a favor, other times he does it to spite you, and then there are times when he seems to need to tell you.  It’s not a happy tale.  He is pitiful.  Even if he has a moment of greatness, it’s not that great.

Jakabok Botch was yanked out of the Ninth Circle of Hell and is now trapped on the upper world with the humans.  Even here he gets no respect and is immediately recognized as a lesser lesser demon.  It’s extra shameful when a human looks at you in disgust at seeing how little you matter.

And yet I enjoyed my time with Jakabok.  I wanted him to have that last minute comeback.  Triumph of the human spirit, and all that.  Well, triumph of whatever the demonic version of the human spirit is.  Although he threatens you and breathes down your neck, you still want to know what happened.  How does a demon get trapped in a book?  Should you fear him?  Be sad?  Laugh at his misfortune?  Who is this demon and what emotion is he worth?

I was very entertained.  I liked how Jakabok talks directly to you, immediately setting up the relationship of book and reader.  You’re in control every time your eyes flick over a word, and yet you wonder how much he is guiding you.  There were parts that did get a little creepy because you’d wonder if a really powerful demon did get trapped in a book and you were to read it, what would happen?  Well, creepy for me and my overactive imagination.  Because, seriously, demon in a book?  That can’t end well.

My favorite part about the book is when Jakabok explains the mechanics of you as a reader.  I really liked the idea of your face giving you away to the book.  A twitch of your fingers as you turned the page, an eyebrow lowering, your lips turning down… all of this gives power to the book because you don’t even know you’re doing it.  I loved it.

Jakabok’s relationship with his BFF and frenemy Quitoon was really well done.  Jakabok’s desire to be better himself, to be feared, to be loved, to be something important is both reflected and diminished in Quitoon’s presence.  With one look, Quitoon can lift him up or crush him, and Jakabok revels in his attentions.  Again, my emotions were mixed.  Is he a pitiful little puppy, groveling in the mud and making you feel embarrassed for him or is he trying to grow and learn and become what he knows he can be?

This fits with his tone when he speaks directly to you.  Is he commanding you burn this book or begging you to do it?  Is he threatening you into obedience or hoping your human nature will take pity on his smallness?  And how many sentences will it take to go from one to the other?

And how on Earth (literally!) does he expect you to burn this book without finishing it?  Something huge happens that brings all the demons and all the angels to a moment on Earth to battle.  What did a human do to gain this attention and which faction will win control over the invention?  And how does Jakabok come into play?  Will he have his moment?  Is he just a bystander?  Does he get caught in the crossfire?  Does he sacrifice himself for a greater purpose?  What is going to happen before the last page ends?

This was a fun read and I’m very interested in the mixed reviews it has on Goodreads.  I think a lot of people really did not like it because it was written by Barker and they expect perfection from him.  I didn’t go into it as “OH MY GOD CLIVE BARKER! THIS IS GOING TO BE THE BEST THING I’VE READ IN THE PAST TEN YEARS!”  I was more “Hey!  Clive Barker!  Let’s crack this open and see where it takes me.”  And off we went and I had a good time.

#34: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

This is another book I absolutely raced through and felt breathless when I was done because it is that good.  I have no clue why it’s taken me so long to write this review.

It’s post 9/11 and Homeland Security is the norm.  17 year old Marcus lives in San Francisco and spends his time in the world of computers and figuring out how to outsmart the near constant surveillance of his school and city.  His real life friends and online crew bristle against the pressure being put on them on both sides of the computer, but Marcus has no clue what reality is until he’s temporarily removed from it.

While skipping school to search for the next clue for an intense online game, the Bay Bridge is blown up and Marcus and his friends are taken in for questioning.  It doesn’t matter that he knows his rights; he hasn’t been arrested, and he’s not talking to the police.  Homeland Security has him and all they want him to do is prove that he’s not guilty.  After being tortured and humiliated he finds himself willing to say or do anything they want if it means they will let him go.  At the mercy of their sadistic methods, he signs for his life and is dumped on the sidewalk, “free”.  Too bad one friend is still missing.

Terrified and angry, he can’t tell his parents what happened.  Even if he did, he’s not sure if they’d believe him.  His dad is in full Rah-Rah-America mode, celebrating the surveillance and security measures that are now in place.  Getting pulled over for questioning makes him proud to be an American and do his civic duty, and he’s angry at the thought that Marcus would dare speak out against what’s best for the country, their city, and their home.

As anger grows bigger than fear, Marcus decides to fight back.  No one can speak the truth and no one really knows what the truth is.  Using his knowledge of computers and pulling from his friends, he creates an online network that appears to be safe.  They begin frantically sharing data and stories and trying to jam Homeland’s systems.  Some of it is laughingly easy to disable and Marcus is saddened by the impotence of what was created to make people feel safe.  Was it even put in place to work or do people just want to see cameras on the streets?

Marcus knows he doesn’t have much time.  As he’s pushed closer to having to go public and needing more support, he knows he’s being watched and can be grabbed at any moment.  How much information can he get out before he disappears into a trailer again?

This book was exciting, depressing, hopeful, and wonderful.  On a happy coincidence, I’d recently read Finding George Orwell in Burma [my review is here] and then 1984 [my review is here] and this made an incredible third partner.  Doctorow read 1984 for the first time when he was twelve and in the bibliography he explains how it affected  him.  A lot of what is happening with Homeland Security is foreshadowed by Orwell and it’s terrifying to know that this is reality.  It’s easy to ignore it.  It’s easy to agree with Marcus’ dad and feel that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.  Only “those people” get caught, so why is this my problem?

The parts that take place in Marcus’ school are especially suffocating and frustrating.  High school can suck without any help, but what happens when your classmates are rewarded for reporting terrorist-like conversations and your favorite teacher suddenly can’t be found after facilitating a powerful and educational debate on the Bill of Rights?  What do you do when motion detecting sensors are placed in the hallways and classes are recorded to keep kids safe?  How do you fight back when every word you chose can be used against you?  It’s a double lock of having no power as a minor and having no power as a public high school student.  It’s enough to kick the reader into an anxiety attack because all of this can happen and it is happening.  Oh, and on top of all of this?  He’s got his first girlfriend and is dizzy with hormones and bliss.

Although the paranoia can feel overwhelming, this book is hopeful and there are fantastic references at the end.  I hope it encourages readers of all ages (this is tagged as YA) to learn more about how computers are being used, and how they can use computers.

The second book, Homeland, will be published in 2013.  I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes next.