Hilton Als, White Girls, 2017

Jul. 26th, 2017 11:56 am
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I loved the first essay in White Girls so much that I fully became that obnoxious person monologue-ing about the book I was reading while my poor friends were just trying to drink their pinot grigio in peace. Hilton Als is a staff writer and theatre critic at the New Yorker, and I think I was expecting an ironic, distanced New-Yorker-contributor voice like Peter Hessler's in River Town or Katherine Boo's in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, both of which I enjoyed very much. But Als writes like a man in love, about being a man in love, and that first essay especially just destroyed me.

By the time I met him and longed to be his wife, SL sometimes described himself as a lesbian separatist. No man could have him.... His gifts were road maps to our love, the valley of the unconditional.


The conceit of the title is that queer Black men are like white girls in all our fucked-up-ness and yearning for the full citizenship we are never granted. Ever since my first 50books challenge in 2009, it's been an article of faith for me that Black men and white women and people of color generally and queers of all stripes and all the others have no chance unless we make common cause, in the deep sense of seeking to understand one another's inner lives. To have that conviction reflected back to me is a true gift. I am inexpressibly grateful to this book and I press it into your hands.

Deborah A. Miranda, Bad Indians, 2012

Jul. 23rd, 2017 10:54 pm
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Bad Indians opens with a line so good I'm angry I didn't write it myself: "CALIFORNIA IS A STORY. California is many stories." Deborah Miranda is a member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation, and this angry, loving book takes a knife to all the lazy and superficial versions of the California story. Of the history unit all Californian fourth graders (including my own two daughters) are required to take, Miranda writes: "[T]he Mission Unit is all too often a lesson in imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny."

A nonlinear collage of prose, poetry, pictures, transcriptions of interviews and more, Bad Indians can be hard to follow, but the effort pays off when the events of Miranda's life take their place in a precisely drawn and nuanced historical context. "The original acts of colonization and violence broke the world, broke our hearts, broke the connection between soul and flesh. For many of us, this trauma happens again in each generation," she writes. And: "I love my father. I hate my father. He died alone, in a hospice facility."

This book is essential reading for anyone who cares about the indigenous peoples of California, their present and their possible futures. Strong content warning for descriptions physical and sexual abuse of children, among many other horrors.
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Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer is one of the best things I have ever read. His latest book, The Gene, shares the former's wealth of capsule life histories that draw out the deep humanity of his subject. Ironically, though, given its subtitle, The Gene feels less personal and immediate than its predecessor.

Mukherjee is a cancer physician and researcher, and where his description of cancer is a front line soldier's portrait of a respected nemesis, The Gene is more of a flyover survey of an emerging science. I learned a great deal about the origins of Genentech and Celera and the genetic underpinnings of sex and orientation. That said, the passages about his family - his paternal uncles and their mental illnesses, played out against the backdrop of Partition; the relationship between his mother and her identical twin - are as wise and lyrical as anything Mukherjee has written.

It's a long book. As is my habit with formidable non-fiction, I listened to it on Audible. Shoutout to narrator Dennis Boutsikaris for bringing this complex material to life.
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(Hi! I'm new here. Let's jump in.)

Kel Cheris is a gifted mathematician underemployed as an infantry officer. Shuos Jedao is the technological ghost of a genocidal general. Together, they fight crime, where "crime" is defined as heresy against the calendar. In Yoon Ha Lee's brilliant device, a calendar is a social contract from which physics - and hence, weaponry - flow. Calendrical heresy disables these weapons and thus undermines the power of the state.

If you love bold, original world-building, reflections on colonialism, and complicated relationships between clever protagonists who have every reason to distrust one another, you'll eat up the Machineries of Empire series as avidly as I did. If military SF and n-dimensional chess sound like a bit of a slog, see if you can stick with it anyway. The language and imagery are utterly gorgeous, and these very timely stories have a great deal to say about complicity, responsibility, and the mechanisms of societal control.

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