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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles

This audiobook was a bit of a slog. After twenty plus hours, I kept upping the audio speed so that by the end the reader sounded like he was auditioning for Alvin and the Chipmunks. Guess I lost interest in Custer's life. He's a contradiction. He was actually a good strategist during the Civil War and thought to have been lucky because he avoided death in so many battles. He was also arrogant, insecure, brash, and racist. The book is well-documented and well-written. I just thought it got long. Perhaps the book would have been better. The end describes the battle and the controversies surrounding it as well as the army investigation into the massacre. Obviously, Custer's usually solid military strategy failed at the Battle of Bighorn, but Stiles reveals the issues he had with his superiors and facts that led to the confusion during the battle. A fascinating look into history. 

5 Smileys


Friday, May 5, 2017

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

While this book sheds light on a system that discriminates against those who can't get government assistance, it was a bit of a slog listening to 8 families living in poverty in Milwaukee. While I like narrative nonfiction and the research was extensive, I thought the stories got repetitive and confusing as the author liked interweaving their stories switching from one to the other in the middle of chapters. The audio book was not a good choice for me.

The vicious cycle of drugs, bad laws, slumlords, discrimination, health issues, and a host of problems bombards the listener. Only one of the eight individuals followed by the author breaks out of poverty and finds a stable job, but he had a professional job before succumbing to drugs; I thought his chance of finding stability was higher than the others. The other families and individuals seemed to have more obstacles to overcome from violent upbringings, low-wage jobs that weren't stable, physical disabilities, and mental issues. All of the families had multiple evictions and the majority tossed out of their homes were women and children.

A common stereotype is that people in poverty have only themselves to blame: they spend too much money, they are uneducated, they lack skills or intelligence to break out of the cycle, etc. Matthew Desmond hypothesizes that the problem with poverty is that it is profitable. The owner of a trailer park, that was barely habitable for tenants, makes $400,000 a year in profits. Another landlord drives her sports car and travels to Jamaica making a good profit on her tenants. Desmond shows the injustice of a system that denies people the right to live in a house and the social costs to communities. He argues that it is destructive and more costly to society in the long run than if a home and a stable community is established for those in need. He is not opinionated but lets the facts speak for themselves. This book reminds me of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo who looks at those who profit from the slums of India.

This book is better read than listened too. The abundance of details can derail the casual listener. I kept shoving the earbuds deeper into my head so I could drown out the usual background gym noise. But some things stand out. While black men are ending up in jail as revealed in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, this book shows how black women are being evicted at extremely high rates. One out of five black women is evicted, as opposed to one in twelve white women. Desmond shows time and again how the main thing holding poor people back is rent. He also shows how government funding programs meant to help the poor end up in the pockets of the landlord. At the end, he argues for more public housing vouchers as one way to address the issue. This is an important dialogue and while it made for dense (and sometimes confusing) listening, it was worth the effort.

5 Smileys

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Students chose this for book club and the snappy dialogue and defined characters make it a well-done interracial romance novel. Set in New York City, Natasha Kingsley, is being deported to Jamaica and trying to find a way to stay in America by contacting the US immigration office. Korean-American, Daniel Bae, is on his way to a college interview for Yale when their paths cross. When the two teenagers meet, the poetic Daniel tries to convince the logical Natasha that love at first sight is possible by asking a series of scientific questions. The author adds historical context that engages the reader whether it is an explanation of why so many Koreans own salons that cater to African Americans, immigration facts, scientific paradoxes, facts, theories, and more. 

Natasha is smart and has a clear view of the world. She won’t be patronized by adults and she’s blunt with people. At the immigration office, an adult tries to tell her the future will work out. “Don’t tell me I’ll be all right. I don’t know that place [Jamaica]. I’ve been here since I was eight years old. I don’t know anyone in Jamaica. I don’t have an accent. I don’t know my family there, not the way you’re supposed to know family. It’s my senior year. What about prom and graduation and my friends?” When Daniel meets Natasha he appreciates her direct, no-nonsense quality. Natasha is so science-driven that she explains the scientific chemicals that are released in the brain when a person falls in love trying to remove all the unexplainable romantic elements. 

Most of the alternating points of view are Natasha and Daniel’s, but there are side characters interspersed to round out the themes of self-identity, culture, love, science, and racism, to name a few. The poetic Daniel describes meeting Natasha and his love-at-first-sight is as follows: “It’s like knowing all the words to a song but still finding them beautiful and surprising”. While Natasha thinks of meeting him as definitely connecting with Daniel, but her practical side sees the moment and distrusts the “poetic heart”. “They’re not talking about the real heart, the one that needs healthy foods and aerobic exercise. But the poetic heart is not to be trusted.” Natasha doesn’t want to fall in love with Daniel.She will be deported in 24 hours. When Daniel saves her life and breaks her pink head phones that she's owned most of her life, it symbolizes her break with the past and all she has known. Her new cultural identity now involves interracial love and living in a new culture. 

While Natasha and Daniel don’t have a problem with their different cultural backgrounds, their family members do. Both struggle with self-identity, while at the same time being self-confident and happy with themselves. They must learn to deal with parental expectations intertwined with different cultures. When Natasha's dad first meets Daniel, his face shows his displeasure. Her dad wants to be an actor but is rejected for roles because of his ethnicity making him insecure and depressed. He misses his home country to the point that he tells a policewomen he is an illegal immigrant. He says that he doesn't know why he did that but it is obvious that he subconsciously wants to return to his home country. 

Similarly, Daniel is dealing with parents who expect him to speak Korean and marry an Asian girl. When Natasha first meets his brother, Charlie, and his dad they make racist comments. The brother brings up the stereotypical African American that shoplifts and the dad tells her to buy some relaxer because her hair is too big. Natasha responds that she likes her big hair and Daniel responds to his brother by giving him the finger. Both Natasha and Daniel are confident with themselves even though life is uncertain; whereas, the parents of both have to deal with disillusionment and unhappiness.  The feelings of alienation for immigrants is captured in the complexity of finding not only self-identity but an American or Korean or Jamaican identity as well.

Another motif explored from Daniel’s point of view is names. Daniel’s mom ponders that America names signify the individual; whereas, Korean names point to the importance of family ancestry. Daniel’s mother “agonized” over what to name her children showing her struggles with cultural identity. She decided on both American and Korean to show them where they’d been and where they were going. Daniel’s brother Charlie, however, with all his intelligence doesn’t understand the power of his past and tries to erase all that is Korean in him. He’s on probation from Harvard college and Daniel reveals that when he is grown-up and has a good job he goes by Charles Bay not his given, Charles Jae Won Bae. He refuses to speak Korean, eat Korean food, or date a Korean. This prevents him from finding true happiness in life because he doesn’t like himself and is rejecting part of his cultural identity. The result is a shallow, alienated, and self-absorbed character who is unable to have a close relationship in marriage or with family members. 

The ending is a bit convenient or forced regarding how the two meet, but it will satisfy the romantic heart. Or should I say, "poetic heart". I particularly like how this author puts words together. The cadence and rhythm of the chapters make it fast-paced and the back-and-forth dialogue between Daniel and Natasha is funny and smart. I did try the audio tape first but sort of lost track of who was speaking. I switched to the book and got more out of it in the end. But since listening is my weakest learning style, I'm biased. A fun, well-written, and enjoyable book. 


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

A well-documented book with great information, but the author's tendency to break up stories with subplots was clunky at times and slowed the pacing. The book follows the stories of four African-American women influential in mathematics and engineering while working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and later as the women's jobs were transferred to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) after the NACA became defunct. Their battles with segregation and upward mobility were uniquely stymied and enhanced by the organization and individuals they worked for and with at NACA and NASA. A fascinating look in time, the book's pacing is slowed by the shifts from one character to another during action scenes.

The author interviewed some of the women in this book and those quotes add color and strength to the story. I tend to like nonfiction that is more descriptive creating characters I can easily visualize. This author tends to use too many platitudes that make sections wordy and dry with the character descriptions become lost while the pacing slows. The personal story of Katherine (Coleman Goble) Johnson helping her son with his soapbox derby car and being the first black kid to win the national contest is inspirational; however, the author starts with the story then adds a subplot on another character and her sorority before going back to the race. She does this multiple times throughout the book and I found it irritating because it was like hitting the brakes midway while racing down a steep hill. She does it again and again.

The resilience of these women and the facts surrounding their careers are fascinating. The author does a great job showing the historical context of what they had to deal with during the Jim Crow laws and how they fought small battles whether it was in a segregated cafeteria or using a segregated bathroom. The 2017 movie, "Hidden Figures", is excellent and I actually liked the tighter focus and character development better than the book, but the book fills in gaps the movie doesn't explain well. It also condenses sections and I'm glad I read and watched both.

4 Smileys

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Uprooted: The Japanese American Experience During World War II by Albert Marrin

When I finished this I wanted to turn around and reread it again. I really liked author Albert Marrin's turn of phrases and found myself wanting to write them down. I read it on the elliptical machine and writing notes wasn't in my wheels - I'm not that skilled at multi-tasking. The overall message is that racism exists all over the world and that people need to learn from the past or they will repeat it. The framework of the book begins with racist views promoted by the Japanese during World War II in Japan, a bit of China, Germany, and last America. The views in America and the questionable decisions by leaders to incarcerate Japanese Americans without due process during WWII is brought to light. Marrin puts the issues in historical context and shows how the actions by leaders and the justice system as well as the use of media influenced and later changed the public's mind to overturn the unjust laws infringing on civil rights. He points out leaders that had racist views and shows how it mirrored the national or global dialogue at the time. He argues that racism harms countries and the civilians leading to poor decisions and harmful consequences. A well-written and thoughtful book that I highly recommend.

5 Smileys

Monday, March 27, 2017

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

This helped me understand some things I didn't really get in the books, "The Sellout," "Between the World and Me," and "The Underground Railroad." Living overseas for 12 years has put me out of touch with issues in the U.S. I've watched at a distance the debates on police brutality and racial profiling in the news, but haven't looked at it closely. Michelle Alexander's book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," explains how the War on Drugs initiated a crackdown that devastated the urban poor black community through laws and policies too punitive resulting in mass incarcerations creating the largest prison populations worldwide in the U.S. Case studies reveal how racial profiling is happening through the police and justice system and targeting low-income African Americans. While scholars have studied race and the justice system for many years, there is a new group that is comparing it to the Jim Crow laws of old and slavery. Michelle Alexander offers an exhaustive and well-documented look at how the current justice system does not work for poor people and needs to be restructured. 

The author effectively argues how court cases and policies have stigmatized convicted African American offenders limiting their rights as citizens. She sheds light on unjust laws and policing that tears apart families in unfair and unjust ways. While the Jim Crow analogy gets the public's attention it is problematic as argued by Yale Professor James Forman Jr. While Forman agrees with Alexander's assertion that the harsh systematic approach to mass incarceration needs to be restructured, he would like to see all minorities included and violent crimes examined, in addition to drug offenders, and inclusion of local prisons, not just federal prison populations that Alexander examines. He also thinks that the black middle and upper class that didn't exist during Jim Crow and slavery days makes for a flawed analogy. He presents an excellent counterpoint to the debate. 

5 Smileys

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Arena (Arena, #1) by Holly Jennings

In the year 2054, virtual games have become like reality TV. Society escapes the horror of the days by watching RAGE tournaments where elite gamers compete to the death in a game. Kali is the only female captain of the game and her manager exploits her and the other four on her team to make money. A side effect of gaming is addiction that is kept from the public and not treated by the industry. When Kali's teammate overdoses she starts to question the industry and its goals. If you like action, want a quick read with a Chinese-American protagonist, then give this a go. The writing and craft are bad on many levels.

The world building doesn't show much as to why the population embraces this form of entertainment. Kali mentions briefly that the other virtual games are too realistically violent and that is why their form of gaming gets the most viewers. The author doesn't create authentic characters. Kali spews platitudes from Taoism and Rooke calls her wise but she doesn't show much wisdom. There are some cringeworthy dialogue and descriptions. The first person point of view is choppy with a drumbeat of too many "I's". The gaming world is only from the view of escapism and addiction is something well-known. Why the media wouldn't talk about it because they were afraid they'd lose viewers is a weak premise. Kali's problems and overcoming them lacks depth. The romance between her and Rooke is stereotypical with the beautiful man and woman, resembling gods and goddesses, falling for each other. This author tells and doesn't show which makes it too superficial for my liking.

2 Smileys