December's Bookshelf

And we close out the year with another great selection of readings that I'm hoping some of you will get the opportunity to read.  I'll be doing a 2018 year in books post shortly so I won't go much into the "year-end" retrospective, but I certainly did end with a mad flurry of reading, once my semester ended (Between December 19th and December 31, I read/listened to 12 books).  So let's take a look at the ones that grabbed my fancy enough to talk about.  

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick A. Bell

Book cover to Derrick Bell - Faces at the Bottom of the Well
Bell uses allegoric storytelling to explore the legal, cultural, and philosophical racial underpinnings of American white culture and its impact on black identity and methods of surviving in this hostile racialize structure. His approach in many ways reminds me of the philosophical dialogues that we see in the works of Plato and the like. They are sometimes clear and simple settings and other times fantastical, but with each, the story's context and the fictional protagonist (Bell, himself) engages in a tete-a-tete with other characters including one recurring character, Geneva Crenshaw. Through these discussions and thought experiments, Bell draws upon the legal and cultural history as well as contemporary thinkers such as Kimberley Crenshaw and bell hooks to which help him explain a nuanced understanding of race, racial power structures, freedom, and oppression in the US. Though published in the 1990s, his writing still holds water today in his sophisticated takedowns of how racism is leveled in the US. His final and most well-known story, The Space Traders is a haunting tale to consider in a post-Trump era. The story's premise is that aliens come to the US and offer unforetold riches to the American government if they will hand over all of their African Americans. To no surprise, it is a matter of when, not if, they will be handed over. In some ways, Bell feels like a prophet of the 2016 election, arguing that when given a clear choice, white America will choose the racist and xenophobic route, particularly if promised riches and security. I can't believe I waited this long to read Bell's work as it has been a repeated invocation in dozens of books and I can certainly understand now having finished it. What I like particularly about it is that Bell's story format makes it more accessible and comprehensible than some of the more dense texts that I've read elsewhere. He uses story to capture the essence of the issues and portray them in ways the readers connect will find expansively applicable.

Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

I stumbled across this book in a used bookstore--my favorite place to find such gems. I had likely heard of this book before in title but not in content. The novel follows the life of Rukmani, a child-bride in early 20th century rural India and her life as she moves from her family into her husband's Nathan's home. As a third daughter, the dowry she could provide was insubstantial and thus she is married away to a poor (but kind) man who works the rice fields. Together, they work year after year to yield life from the land but encounter increasing hardships as they have children--some who stick around but more who go--and deal with the inevitable ways life is made infinitely harder and more nuanced for the poor. After dealing with a particularly harsh drought, they continued to decline in their ability to sustain themselves and eventually, even the land they work on is taken from them. They make a final effort to seek out one of their sons whom they have not seen in years, but even that ends in misfortune. Obviously, this is no "feel good" book. It's a book that does not romanticize the life of the Indian poor but it does provide a strong sense of resilience, compassion, and ability and in that way resonates with many other such tales including (as the afterword notes) as The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, and (my own connection), Child of the Dark by Carolina Maria De Jesus. The book can be rather intense at times in how straightforward it is about the hardships, brutality, and sometimes, callousness of life but that is its power as well; Markandaya doesn't overplay such scenes but rather shows us through Rukmani's eyes how she witnesses or responds to such scenes in ways that make complete sense for the characters and for the situation. In this way, Markandaya shows us there is an intentionality and intelligence in what and how they move through and respond to situations to which the likely-reader (an educated person from a higher socioeconomic class) has no real understanding of (but are often willing to cast judgment).

The Melting Pot Drama in Four Acts by Israel Zangwill

After coming across the title in about four times in two weeks, I decided that I needed to fill this gap in my reading experience. So this book is the supposed original reference for the concept of the United States as a "melting pot". In that regard, it reminds me of Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), the first use of the term robots. And that comparison works in a lot of ways in that it's often surprising to see what something fairly common in our language and to see that its first use was not particularly striking or surprising. In this case, The Melting-Pot is a 4 act play about David Quixano, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who plays the violin and writes music. He lives with his uncle and his grandmother in New York since his parents were killed in one of the Russian pogroms. The play opens with a woman, Vera arriving and talking with his uncle and grandmother about wanting David to play for the Settlement, a transition place for newly arrived immigrants (not entirely clear on this point) because she believes they would love his music. David is more than happy to do it and they begin to plan. We then encounter Quincy Davenport, Jr., a rich immigrant who is sexually interested in Vera (but is also already married). Knowing that Vera is of Russian nobility, he invites her parents to America and proceeds to court them as a means of getting to Vera (and bypassing the budding romance between Vera and David). Confrontations ensue and inevitably, David and Vera are torn apart by what comes out of these encounters and it is left uncertain just what their future will be until the very end. Driving David's performance for the Settlement is the decision that he would play his piece that he's composing that is a dedication to the welcoming disposition and beauty of America. Thus, his music is dedicated an America that "is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!".

The story lacks subtlety both in its message and its uncritical love of America. In some ways I can appreciate the embrace of America's potential but even during the time of this writing, it's still a country banning Chinese people from coming to the US, Jim Crow segregation, and an absence of women voting rights. Now there is some acknowledgment of this, Vera's father makes note of lynching but it is largely brushed aside as irrelevant. The final note of the play is one that embraces looking forward and not backward; which for many marginalized peoples feels like a (pun intended) whitewashed way of forgetting real violence and inequity. So while it was an interesting book to be exposed to for one interested in exploring understanding the lives and experiences of marginalized people, it can feel a bit hollow to read it for significant meaning or even significant entertainment.

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by Roxane Gay

Book cover to Roxanne Gay - Not That Bad
This book hits readers hard, really hard. This anthology explores what its like to be on the violated end of rape culture in American society. For those who do not understand what is meant when we use the term, "rape culture" or have trouble understanding why or how people are victims, this is a necessary read. Each contributor shares her, his, or their story about what it means to be perceived as a sex object first and (rarely) a human second. The stories that are told are powerful, not just because the writers are skilled and nuanced in how they unpack their trauma, but in the many different ways in which they are violated. No two stories are alike and yet every story strikes a universal pang of injustice and frustration with how often and how varied it happens coupled with empathetic tears to know that for some readers, there is solace in knowing it is not just them who have suffered as such and that for these authors to call it out can help those who may not be able to call it out now.

Much to the chagrin of misogynists and those who like to fetishize the work of feminism into some form of man-hating, the book does not cast wide nets of blame. The individuals speak to what has happened, they identify the individuals and at times, the culture, but this is not a book that is bashing. Rather, Gay collects and has edited this work to be one that focuses on truly hearing the victims. So much so, that rarely do readers even learn the name of the perpetrator. And this is an important step in this whole process. To those who may have never been victims, this book is an important read because it should raise in those questions about whether they have every violated knowingly or unknowingly another (regardless of the answer).

Books

  • The Melting Pot Drama in Four Acts by Israel Zangwill
  • Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

Audiobooks

  • Virtual Country: Strategy for 21st Century Democracy by Richard Lang
  • Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever It Takes by Jimmy Casas
  • Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal by Alexandra Natapoff 
  • What We Talk About When We Talk about Rape by Sohaila Abdulali
  • Solomon's Code: Humanity in a World of Thinking Machines by Olaf Groth
  • Social Empathy: The Art of Understanding Others by Elizabeth Segal
  • Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
  • Great Mythologies of the World by the Great Courses
  • Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest by Finn Brunton
  • Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell
  • How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone by Brian McCullough
  • To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Tommie Shelby
  • The Habit of Noticing: Using Creativity to Make a Life by Darden Smith 
  • Digital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us about the Future of Popular Culture by Joel Waldfogel
  • Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities by Peter Plastrik
  • The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity by Alan Wolfe
  • How Does It Feel to Be Unwanted?: Stories of Resistance and Resilience from Mexicans Living in the United States by Eileen Truax
  • Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by Roxane Gay
  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Graphic Novels

  • Star Wars: Darth Vader - Dark Lord of the Sith, Vol. 2: Legacy's End by Charles Soule
  • Cat Diary: Yon & Muu by Junji Ito
  • Junji Ito's Dissolving Classroom by Junji Ito
  • Behind You: One-Shot Horror Stories by Brian Coldrick
  • Royal City, Vol. 3: We All Float on by Jeff Lemire

Wanna catch up on my latest blog posts about booksCheck out some of my 2018's books:
Curious about what I've read?  Check out the annual good reads list:
I also have more specialized lists such as ones on

What have been some of your most recent reads of late?  What book do you find yourself recommending to everyone?  What author(s) can't you get enough of?



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