Saturday, April 20, 2019

Book Review: Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers

Image: The cover of the book is divided in half with the lower half being a mint green and the upper half composed of a yellow background with a dark brown/black triangle filling the entire space of its shape. On the right side of the triangle in black letters it states, "THIS BOOK CHANGED THE WAY I DREAM," and the person quoted is in small letters too difficult for me to read. Centered on the green section in black letters are- line one: "FITZPATRICK & PLETT'S original all-new," line two and three in larger letters "MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE," line four and five in smaller letters:"SCIENCE FICTION and FANTASY from TRANSGENDER WRITERS."

I have to admit that Meanwhile Elsewhere and I got off to a rough start. I was very excited about reading this book as it's been on my to-read list since it came out. Perhaps my expectations were a bit high. One of the stories really let me down, but I am glad I didn't give up on it, because some of the stories are excellent.

The first story is erotica, which is not my bag, but the second story- Delicate Bodies by Bridget Liang- made me put the book down and ask if I wanted to read a collection edited by people that would include a story like this. It is a zombie story and a rape fantasy in which the protagonist- a trans woman who is obviously the author's zombie self- rapes and tortures cis men who have said mean things about her or refused to have sex with her because she is trans. I am not sure how much worse the mens offenses were because I quit after the second rape. Not only is rape and torture the punishment, the men are portrayed as deserving it and eventually liking the rapes. It is the epitome of rape culture, which we as trans people are not immune from promoting. This story makes that very clear. Did we really need a story portraying a trans woman as a sexual predator? The story itself doesn't even fit with the theme the editors claim they chose for the book and it is a horror story, not SF/F. I then saw a review or two in which some people claimed this was one of their favorite stories. I was disgusted by this as well. The author obviously being the rapist in the story is extra worrisome and fucked up. So, here I am, devoting a large chunk of my review to this one disgusting story that almost made me put the book down and wonder if it was included solely because the author had some sort of connection.

I eventually gave myself some space, calmed down, and decided to continue this highly anticipated read. The book does get infinitely better as it goes on. There are definitely not anymore rape fantasy horror stories. It's a mixed bag like any anthology, but many are well written and entertaining. Some of the stories seem all about being trans which was a little disappointing to me. I was hoping that a book like this would showcase more that we have talents outside of talking about transition. That said, in the afterword, the editors claim this was a conscious decision- to not choose stories that just happen to have trans characters, but to choose ones that center being trans. In other ways, stories that centered this imagined futures where transition related issues are thought of and orchestrated in different ways. This was definitely interesting. There is some real variation in topics across the stories. Like any collection, it's hit or miss, but the stories that I did like, I really liked, hence the higher rating.

The best stories in the book, according to my personal tastes, are:
(In order of appearance in the text)
"What Cheer" by RJ Edwards
"Rent, Don't Sell" by Calvin Gimpelevich
"Control Shift Down" by Paige Bryony
"After the Big One" by Cooper Lee Bombardier
"Cybervania" by Cybil Lamb
"Imago" by Tristan Alice Nieto

This does not mean all other stories were bad. These ones in particular, though, were the ones that led me to seek out the authors online and find out if they have written any books I could add to my list.

Overall, this is an important collection in that it showcases many talented trans writers who may otherwise go unnoticed. It contains one highly objectionable rapey trash story that I believe folks would do well to skip or at least go in heeding my warning. It contains a whole lot of stories that not only have good consent politics woven in, but good style and plot. I grabbed a copy of "I've Got a Time Bomb" by Sybil Lamb right after reading her story, I adored it so much. So, this is definitely worth a read as far as SF/F collections go. It's one of the better ones, and not just because it has trans people in it.

This review was also posted to my goodreads.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Book Review: Semi Queer

Image: The cover of the book is navy blue with light blue lettering. The op half of the book is an aerial view of 4.5 shipping trucks parked in spaces outlined in light blue. The trucks are all white except for the one in the center that is rainbow colored. Below that in large serif letters is "Semi Queer" and below that in capital, sans serif letters is "Inside the world of gay, trans, and black truck drivers." Below that is the author's name- Anne Balay- and "author of steel closets"

I have always been interested in and fascinated by truck driving. The idea of being alone in a big rig and traveling all over the country appeals to my introvert self. I knew, however, just like any job that there were likely many struggles I wouldn't understand until I was in the job. I did not anticipate, however, just how many struggles there are for truckers. This book put a great many things in perspective.

Anne Balay's "Semi Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers" has a limiting title despite its length. The book goes further than these three categories and also includes the voices and perspectives of Brown, Indigenous, Intersex, and Disabled drivers. The text is academic in that it is a study, but it is written accessibly. Balay- a lesbian former truck driver herself- quickly dispels the myth of an almost glamorous lone wolf driver making decent money and traveling all over while enjoying the scenery. Semi Queer is a fascinating and dark catalogue of an intensely difficult and dangerous profession. It includes a large range of voices as well as illustrations and images of some of the drivers featured. Being of marginalized identities definitely compounds the struggles of the job for many, but some also shared that it gave them freedom as well.

A common theme in the book is that truck driving for many people- especially trans people and people with felony charges- is a job choice of opportunity. Those who struggled to find employment due to their gender or race found a home in truck driving. Some narrators described trucking as "addictive" or as something that comes to be your calling- however difficult or dangerous- once one spends so many years there. Some claimed they would never recommend truck driving to anyone- especially women- and only took the job because it was the only one they could get. While voices varied greatly- they all still came back to the reality of the profession as an extremely taxing, over-regulated, often hellish, and very very dangerous thing to do.

One thing that surprised me was just how many oppressive regulations drivers have to deal with. Pretty much all drivers including the author agreed that generally, many regulations made the job more dangerous, for both truck drivers and cars on the road. The impossible sets of standards drivers must meet often contradict each other, making for a damned-if-you-do situation all around. In attempting to meet the impossible regulations, the drivers are also at risk for other dangers such as assaults at truck stops and untreated health problems.

I don't think many people realize- self included- just how little time off truck drivers can take in order to barely make a living wage. Many drivers reported having a few days at home out of an entire year. Many described losing relationships, family, or a stable residence. Many described continuing to work even when the injuries caused by the job were so significant that it consumed their life and thinking.

There were definitely differences in experiences of people based on their identity. Unfortunately, a large number of white LGBT people interviewed held racist views, choosing to blame hardships of the job and lack of opportunity on people of color and immigrants rather than on the mega corporations with all of the power. LGBT peoples experiences with identity-based oppression unsurprisingly depended on how able they were to go stealth. White, always passing, trans men reported being far more worried about trans women than themselves. Black and other people of color reported racist attacks from both employers and fellow drivers. Women across the board- cis and trans- shared experiences of assault, rape, sexual harassment, and discrimination from both employers and other truckers. Almost all of the contributors shook these things off as part of the job and things they did not feel safe reporting, claiming that a take-no-shit attitude is the way you survive. 

I was also surprised, though I shouldn't have been, by the amount of driving-related trauma drivers described as well. Many shared witnessing horrific accidents and moving through impossible and terrifying weather conditions. Again, drivers claimed these are all normal things that are part of the job rather than freak occurrences. Time and time again, they told stories of times they had to push through deadly and dangerous conditions so that they met their goals and kept their jobs. 

Along with PTSD from trauma, physical disabilities are inevitable for anyone sticking with trucking for many years. There is lack of access to proper healthcare (and no time for it.) Healthcare results are also often shared with employers leading to regulations that affect people's ability to work. As a result many drivers continue at full speed with injuries that become extremely disabling that might otherwise have been treatable with time off. To be a truck driver is to become injured and disabled younger and faster than people in many other professions.

The things I have listed in this review are only part of the story. My review would be even longer if I catalogued everything I learned from this book. I cannot recommend it enough. It is well written, well organized, extremely well researched, and very informative. I have a new appreciation for truck drivers- without whom we would have nothing. Marginalized truckers have it even harder. I already considered them while out on the road, but I now think about them in more complex ways. This book is fascinating and is one I believe everyone should read.

This review was also posted to my goodreads.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Book Review: Last Days at Hot Slit

Image: The cover of the book is a faded red. In the center is the title with "Last Days at" in white, italic letters and "Hot Slit" in yellow, larger, non-italic letters. Underneath in small white letters is "The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin" an below that, "Edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder."

Content Note: This review contains mention of many kinds of abuse of women that I won't specifically list for worry of leaving something out as well as suicide.

I couldn't write a review without an analysis of Andrea Dworkin and everything that has developed since her contributions to the world. Dworkin is one of the most passionate, honest, and brave writers I have ever read. I had to take my time reading this book even though Dworkin's writing sucks me in. The book is extremely intense with lots of very heavy, difficult subject matter- which is common for Dworkin, but took a lot out of me nonetheless. There were some excerpts from books I had already read and it was interesting to reread them with where I am in life now. This is not a feel-good book but it is a necessary one. So, read this book and review with care.

The first time I read Andrea Dworkin years ago, it was with great hesitation. I was a member of the third wave "sex positive" feminist world. Some people I knew seemed to think that all radical feminists were either TERFs or joyless, sex-hating, oppressive prudes. However, I did enjoy the work of Carol Adams, Audre Lorde, and others. I was on a mission to understand everyone better- especially a woman who seemed to arouse such big emotional responses from all kinds of people. I read "Woman Hating," and I recall thinking, "Almost everything I heard about Andrea Dworkin is wrong." Dworkin is not only an excellent writer, but she is someone who truly loves women- including trans people- and who has survived hell on Earth only to use it as a vehicle to change the world and help other women. According to the editors' introduction, Dworkin was the first to widely and publicly use her own rape and trauma as a vehicle to discuss feminism and womens liberation. Dworkin has since then become an exercise in balance for me. While I do not agree with everything she says, it keeps me from going to the extremes of some third wave advocates that I really dislike. I teaches me feminist history and keeps me honest. I have read some but not all other works by Dworkin. When I saw that a collection was put out, it seemed like a great place to start reading the rest.

"Last Days at Hot Slit" is a collection of nonfiction essays, speeches, book excerpts including one autobiographical fiction excerpt, letters to her parents, and finally, a heartbreaking writing titled "My Suicide" that was found on Dworkin's hard drive after her death and was previously unpublished. I will say more on that at the end of this review.

I have a pretty hard line disagreement with Dworkin on some issues found in this book, but I still gave the book I high rating. Why I did will hopefully become clear in this review. When I started the book, very early on I was put off because Dworkin seems to cosign Yoko Ono saying, "woman is the n----- of the world." This obviously problematic phrase is often highlighted as a prime example of how white feminists erase Black women from feminism or claim and tokenize oppression that is not theirs. I began to wonder, however, if I misunderstood what she was saying. The rest of the section was devoted to a discussion about how white middle class women were centered far too much and how this was harmful, about what we now call intersectionality, and about the struggles of Black, poor, lesbian, and other marginalized women. So, she cosigned this horrendous phrase but it doesn't seem to match her politics and actions otherwise. This was also an excerpt from her first book and I'd like to think she has learned from it since then. I am not sure if the editors thought about this before choosing to include it or not.

I also have big critiques of how Dworkin and others of the second wave characterize femininity. I do believe that there is always room for critique regarding how we present ourselves. What do we do because we enjoy and what do we do because it helps us exist and/or get ahead more in the world? How do the choices we make in how we present ourselves affect our lives and the world at large? Am I being honest with myself? These are good things to think about regarding gender expression. But, the anti high-femininity often takes over in some second wave feminist texts, including Dworkin's, to the point that it gets more attention than toxic masculinity- which is actually a problem. The quest for androgyny in the second wave came from a desire to abolish forced gender roles and expression. But- and I wonder if Dworkin would have come around on this had she lived longer- there is nothing wrong with gender expression including binary and commonplace kinds like cis women femininity. Having known femmes who were around when this kind of thought ruled feminism, one who was even kicked out of a feminist book store for wearing lipstick and nail polish, I can't really cosign anything that critiques stereotypical feminine expression as negative. That said, I do think there is room to interrogate why we choose to express ourselves as we do.

The rest of the book made up for my disagreements on some things. There is also something to be said of the time these were written. Older writings will often be dated, but there is still a reason these schools of thought came to be and led to where we are today. And, at worst, we can look at these arguments as a feminist time capsule. As a person with a long history of all kinds of exposure to misogyny, I have always been disillusioned by how some third wave, "sex-positive" feminists characterize certain aspects of "sexual freedom." Some people will speak loudly about an unfavorable representation of a woman in a mainstream movie, but in another breath state that any critique whatsoever of the mainstream pornography industry and how it portrays women is "anti-sex worker." Some people talk about how empowering sex work is and silence those of us who have not found it empowering whatsoever. Andrea Dworkin is not anti-sex, nor were second wave feminists overall. She is vocally pro-sex and pro-fucking (yes, she says many positive things about "fucking" in this book) while anti-rape and exploitation of women. 

Dworkin's opinions in her essays on pornography are clear- it is all abusive exploitation of women and must stop. I think the truth is somewhere in between the third and second wave characterizations, which is why reading both Dworkin and third wave, pro-sex work writings is critical. In fact, reading Dworkin's writings along with Pat Califia's on similar subjects, I found myself- to my surprise as someone who is a kinky, trans and queer weirdo that supports queer porn- to agree far more with Dworkin. The essays on rape, sex, pornography, and intercourse in this book are a great selection of such words. The misrepresentations and simplifications of her work as "anti-sex" or "sex-negative" couldn't be more wrong. The myth that Dworkin said something to the tune of "all insertive sex is rape" is patently false. The excerpts from "Intercourse" included in this book are from the later edition where she sets the record straight. Dworkin's ideas and reality came from extensive research, personal experience, and endless conversations with women. Dworkin challenges us to always be interrogating our desires and to not fall into the "anything I like and everything that turns me on is liberation" trap of some third wave feminists or especially rich white male pornographers who were some of Dworkin's largest attackers. Even if you disagree with the second wave's takes on pornography and sex work, there is still something to be gained by reading Dworkin's words.

Dworkin also tackles topics such as intra and inter-racial abuse, general prejudice and supremacist thinking, being a non-Zionist, pro-Palestinian Jew who grew up being taught a different philosophy,  public cases of women in the media, and others. Her writing on Nicole Brown Simpson and Lorena Bobbitt is quite an interesting time capsule as there are now multiple documentaries and reenactments of these cases. These series send the messages Dworkin was trying to send decades ago. Having recently binge-watched Jordan Peele's 'Lorena,' it was both refreshing and frustrating to see the truth finally being played out rather than constant jokes about a woman who was horrifically raped and abused and who violently defended herself as a result. What would have happened had we listened to Dworkin and other feminists in regards to Nicole Brown Simpson and Lorena Bobbitt?

Throughout the collection, across multiple books, Dworkin discusses her own experiences with rape and intimate partner violence. She does not mince words or dance around issues. She does not question or hesitate. The power behind her words can be felt through the page as she describes being horrifically abused and stalked by her ex husband, multiple rapes, and other traumas. She talks about being harrassed and hated. She talks about chronic illness. She talks about being alone. Where this is the most intense is in the final, formerly unpublished essay- My Suicide. 

"My Suicide" is one of the most devastating, relatable, painful, accurate, and honest things I have ever read. Dworkin captures what it feels like to be drugged and raped. She captures what it feels like to be suicidal. She captures what it feels like to be chronically ill. She captures shame, regret, hopelessness, depression, fear, despair, and many other things. If you wanted a happy ending, there isn't one. Dworkin died of inflammation of the heart at only 58 years old. Her illnesses were undoubtedly compounded by both extensive trauma and how horrible it was to be a feminist that took center stage against misogynists and their supporters. If she had not died from her illnesses, would she have completed suicide? Reading this last entry makes one wonder. While reading this I just kept thinking, "Yes, someone gets it. Someone really gets it." And, without revealing too much more about myself, I can say that all I wanted to do after reading this was hold her and say, "I believe you. I am here. I understand. I truly understand. You are not alone." I say that as a person who is not very touchy-feely. But, some part of me believes that no matter how much Andrea was loved- and she was widely loved by feminists all over the world- life beat her down in ways no one can survive for long. She left us with a legacy anyways. She worked so hard and never gave up. While the last entry is full of hopeless wonder of how women and girls can survive in this world, I do hope that her last dream before death was peaceful. It is all I can hope for.

In conclusion, Andrea Dworkin gave her life for the feminist movement. None of us is perfect and no wave of feminism has been 100% right. But, we can all learn from each other. If you have not read Dworkin because of something negative you've heard, I urge you to push past that and read her with an open mind anyways. There is something to be gained for everyone in this book and this collection is an excellent place to start.

This review was also posted to my goodreads.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Book Review: Brief Answers to the Big Questions

Image: The cover of the book is different shades of blue with the expanse of space with stars and nebulae blended in. There is a large transparent circle taking up most of the cover and two smaller, vertically aligned circles inside it, each with a golden edge similar to a crescent moon. The title is in the top circle and the author's name- Stephen Hawking- is in the smaller circle. All words are capitalized in a serif font in white.

This was my first book by Stephen Hawking. I have a layman's interest in Cosmology and other physics fields. I have read Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and popular science articles specifically because those things were written with people like me in mind. I assumed that Hawking's work would be too smart or too educated for me. I saw this book having a wide appeal, in part due to its posthumous publication. So, I figured I would give it a go when I saw it available as an audiobook online.

I want to first say that I believe that the publisher did very well with the audio narration. They had Eddie Redmayne (who gave a performance of Hawking in the movie "The Theory of Everything," that Hawking very much approved of) read Hawking's friend, Kip Thorne's introduction. His daughter, Lucy Hawking, read the afterword also written by her. Ben Wishaw- a British narrator (or someone speaking in a British accent)- read the bulk of the text. But, they also made sure to include Hawking's real voice by adding a short interview question answered by him between each chapter. This was a respectful, inclusive blend of people to work on the audio of a book written by someone who identifies with his voice that was produced by computer assisted speech technology and was obviously carefully thought out. I appreciated this.

The book itself is a series of essays on "big questions" that Hawking provides his answers to. I do think a reader with a very basic knowledge of cosmology, atomic structure, introductory physics, etc would pick this book up better than someone with none. But, I do believe that someone with very little background who has not read much at all could still understand this book if they took their time with it. Physics experts, I believe, could also find this book enlightening because Hawking's prose is delightful and he talks about some pretty far out there concepts. If you have a decades long career in Physics, you may have already heard of multiverses and other dimensions and so on. Yet, I still think it is especially entertaining to hear Hawking discuss them. Hawking's use of analogy is masterful and really helps to make the book more widely accessible.

The book is repetitive at times, leading to descriptions of things given multiple times. This may be bothersome to someone with a cosmological background. But, for people new to the subject, it likely helps to hear the uncertainty principle, singularities, near light speed space travel, relativity, etc explained more than once. It also allows the reader to jump around if they choose, not requiring a linear reading of the book.

Image: One of the ways cosmologists observe evidence of a black holes is by measuring things happening around them. A black hole in the center of this galaxy is spewing gas and particles outward. Hawking explains this in detail in the book. Source: ESO/WFI (visible); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (microwave); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray), found in this article, courtesy of NASA

Hawking also discusses his disability as part of his life in a matter of fact manner. This is something that has been regularly stated by him. Unfortunately, after his death, people illustrated images of him standing from a wheelchair, walking into the stars or saying he was "finally free." While Hawking discusses the undeniable struggle and suffering of living with ALS, he also represents what is possible when disabled people are given the tools to participate in the world. The reason the lifespan of people with ALS is often so short is in part because of the lack of ability to afford assistive technology. People decide to die so as not to be a burden, because they cannot afford the healthcare to live, or because they feel trapped by the disease. But, with the right access to healthcare and technology, how many people with ALS could thrive? This is not to say that all disabled people must be super-crip Olympic athletes or cosmological geniuses to be valid and worthy of care. It is to say that we are missing out on things with so many people due to a world that is not built for them to even get in the door much of the time. Hawking did not get up and walk into the heavens when he died. He became the heavens. Each of us will breathe in the same atoms that he and Einstein have at some point. That is the real afterlife.

I wouldn't say I agree with him on everything, but we certainly have many views in common. I can respect his views on other things. I do wish he would have discussed the class issues with being a billionaire when discussing his involvement with Elon Musk, for instance. He had a fairly firm grip on global crises of finance and environment. But, perhaps brevity was intended.

Either way, it is a lovely book that fits well with the end of his life when, as the Onion (yes, the satirical newspaper) beautifully stated, "the entire life of the universe flashed before (his) eyes."

This review was also posted to my goodreads. 

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Book Review: Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good

Image: The cover of the book has a white background with silhouettes of many species of animals having sex in various colors including dogs, insects, birds, rhinos, lions, slugs, and rabbits. The title of the book is written in large purple and red uppercase letters and each word is split in half as it spans the page (each word taking up two lines.) The byline "The politics of feeling good" is in small blue letters across the bottom. Below that, in lavender letters is "written and gathered by adrienne marie brown."

Pleasure Activism is a collection of essays, interviews, poetry, and art composed and/or collected by adrienne maree brown. The structure and organization of the book is well thought out as it spaces each of these mediums apart so that the reader is not over-saturated. The book is very Queer and trans- inclusive and most of the entries and interviews are with women, gender non conforming, and/or* trans people of color. There is one somewhat academic essay but the rest of the entries involve people from a variety of backgrounds from art and performance to on the ground street activism. This makes the book very accessible to a wider audience.

"Pleasure activists believe that by tapping into the potential goodness in each of us we can generate justice and liberation, growing a healing abundance where we have been socialized to believe only scarcity exists" -adrienne maree brown, Introduction

I should have know from the cover- which depicts many species of animals having sex and the title- that this book would be largely about sex. However, the blurb about this book led me to believe that the book would be a more expansive discussion of "(making) social justice the most pleasurable experience." The book is not only about sex but the vast majority of it is focused on sexual pleasure and relationships. There is a small section on drugs, performance art, fashion, and parenting (which still often center sex and sexuality.)

I have spent a lot of time in Queer communities where sex was everywhere and the center of everything. So, I understand why a Queer writer would choose to focus so much on that. But, to be honest, I wanted more. I wanted larger discussions (though there are brief mentions) about how social justice activism is often so punishing and how to form better (sexual AND nonsexual) relationships with each other. I wanted sections on how to actually make activism more pleasurable, fun, and creatuve since activism is in the title. I wanted more discussion on all of the different ways we can find pleasure and how to find them. This was actually detailed wonderfully in the short outro at the end of the book. I wish the rest of the book showed the same amount of diversity in topics. Is simply having pleasure in your personal life "activism?" Where are the discussions of pleasure for people who are isolated from social activities due to disability, illness, geographical location, class, lack of accessibility of sexual partners (re: pretty privilege, etc?) How can we make life more pleasurable for those who lack access?

It feels necessary to explain a little where I am coming from in order for my criticism to make sense. I went from being a very active polyamorous Queer in radical, BDSM, and/or activist communities, that were very saturated with sex and play at all times, to being a deliberately single and celibate person focusing on platonic friendships without sex. I spent far more time in the former category but I've been doing the latter for years now. I am chronically ill/disabled and this plus having a lot of harmful and traumatic relationship experiences led me to choose my current path. I also have been sober for about 14 years due to addiction and it is near impossible to find any social and pleasure-oriented spaces for Queers where the majority of people there are not intoxicated- arguably beyond the ability to properly consent. It really sucks when you make a connection with someone who doesn't remember you the next day. It sucks when you get a dirty look asking about how much someone was drinking/using drugs before agreeing to something sexual with them, even though you are doing so to make sure you don't harm them. Intoxication and hypersexuality is the norm in most Queer spaces, even if it isn't in the normative world. So, a book that is basically only encouraging sex and getting high as forms of pleasure activism is a disappointment to me.

This is covered in places, such as in Micha Cárdenas' essay, Beyond Trans Desire, in which she states, "I have in recent years been able to build a deep self-love and self-respect that I did not learn from queer communities or radical political communities, where I often felt further devalued, excluded, and objectified. I have found a refuge in people committed to healing, service, and sobriety and that gave me the tools to question my desire and my part in putting myself in situations that caused me to feel devalued." So, in brown's inclusion of others words for portions of the book, she did cover more bases.

Brown does indeed briefly discuss celibacy and other topics. Brown does mention that drug use can turn into addiction. But, for the most part, she centers her own experience in what pleasure is. She tells the reader to masterbate, have an orgasm before each chapter, she tells the reader to smoke up, etc. This did not feel very inclusive of those of us who cannot, do not, struggle with, or or do not want to do those things. Weed is generally very safe in comparison to drugs like alcohol or heroin, but it's still dangerous or some of us- especially those of us with addiction histories or problems with/risks of developing psychosis. What about those of us who want pleasure in a sober setting? The sections on drugs make it seem like sober settings dominate and oppress which is not true. The vast majority of Queer and other social situations are dominated by alcohol and other drugs which deprives those of us who don't want to be around that from social pleasure.

I do want to say though that it is likely that the focus on drugs and sex in liberatory ways come from a society and government that still punishes people for enjoying sex and which still criminalizes drugs in heinous and murderous ways. These are both things that must be combated at all costs. The harm reduction interview in the drug section was excellent and there is absolutely a place for all of brown's essays and advice on sex and sexuality. I simply wanted more accessibility and variety.
I also have mixed feelings about the use of footnotes in this book. This is nit-picky, I know. But, the level of distraction warrants comment. There were times that the footnotes were excellent and I wished more books would use them in the way she did. For instance, when doing an interview with someone and they would mention something from a book, she would cite the author and book. However, at other times, the footnotes were very distracting. The book begins with an Audre Lorde essay that brown litters with critical footnotes even though many of the criticisms are discussed in the intro already (such as the limits of dated language.) In contrast, a later article pins "women and femmes" (will this phrase die in 2019, please) against "men and masculine people" listing all of the ways apparently only feminine people suffer sexual assault, gendered oppression, exploitation and abuse in sex work, etc but butch and androgynous women and transmasculine people are apparently both responsible for the same oppression that cishet men force upon sex workers while also not being victims themselves of said oppression. I am the first person to want to discuss to rampant problems with toxic masculinity in Queer communities. But, denying the trauma, work, and lived experiences of gender non-conforming women and trans people and placing them in the same oppressive role of cishet men who exploit sex workers is not how you do it. Erasing butch and androgynous women from the category of women and acting as if transmasculine sex workers don't exist is not how you do it. (I've known many trans men sex workers who not only exist, but also are often present themselves as women for their clients out of necessity and demand and thus are treated with the similar oppression cis and trans women face.) There were no footnotes from brown on this article nor were there any on other articles that made some iffy statements. This would be fine if the book was just a collection of essays with differing opinions. But, if you're going to criticize Lorde for having some general terms and dated language on an essay from 1978, I hope you're going to treat the people who are alive and writing today the same way.

Now that I have been honest about where I am coming from and why this book did not always work for me in the ways I had hoped, I want to talk about the ways that it does work for me. And, I want to state again, that this review is largely about my own taste and is not to say that others would no get exactly what they need from the book, which is why I still gave it a high rating.

As I mentioned, this book is very Queer and inclusive of many Queer identities and genders. It centers Black and Brown women and/or trans people in very accessible ways. It offers some great lessons regarding sexual and romantic relationships and harm reduction. It contains excellent and engaging interviews with amazing people. Brown's own contributions are always beautifully and kindly written and easy to read.

One of my favorite parts about "Pleasure Activism" is brown's very wise lessons on boundaries, moderation, knowing that you are deserving, and discovering balance. I bookmarked pages over and over where brown discusses how to create, hold, convey, and feel comfortable with and deserving of boundaries. While they are often described in relation to sexual and romantic relationships, the lessons are applicable to all areas of life. Here are a few gems:

"Your no makes way for your yes. Boundaries create the contain within which your yes is authentic. Being able to say no makes yes a choice." -amb, Introduction

 "Don't compromise your core values, don't giggle at something you find ignorant or offensive. But, don't hang up because this human with a different life than you has reached different conclusions." -amb, It's About Your Game

"Set generative boundaries. Create mutual abundance. I envision generative boundaries as organic fences, made of stacked rocks or thick bushes that become home to millions of small creature families. Porous, breathing boundaries that are clear that mark the space between partners in ways that make them both feel abundant." -amb, Liberated Relationships, Expanded

For people who are interested in entering into or who are already part of what can be a wonderful world of multi-partnered Queer filth (I mean this in every great sense of the word,) brown offers a great deal of useful relationship, sex, and dating advice. She also offers a lot of information on solo sexual pleasure. I thoroughly enjoyed her discussion of why she likes being "a second," meaning a non-primary partner to someone. I have always felt this way and sought out that position frequently when I was dating and hooking up, but had not seen many other people write about it in the way that brown has.

The "Hot and Heavy Homework" assignments were helpful and fun editions to the essays. They are all creative and different from what I have often seen in relationship or self help books. They are also assignments accessible to a wide range of needs.

The collection of essays titled "Skills for Sex in the #metoo Era" was my favorite in the book. I adored and devoured each essay in the section. If you are a person who skips around in anthologies like this, be sure to check out that section.
Finally, I must say that even though I have my critiques how much of the book centered on sexual pleasure and drugs, this book did inspire me to open up a bit and ask myself questions about my future in regards to relationships. Perhaps that was part of why so much of it was so hard for me. So, please keep in mind after reading my review that my process is not the same as your process and both of our processes are ok. I can see a great many people- including my younger self- getting a great deal of what they need from this book. So, I do recommend giving it a read. There is a lot of great stuff in here from brown and other important voices.

*I say "women and/or trans people" to denote a group of people including people who may be women, other trans people, or both women and trans. Trans women are women. We still lack a great phrase for the inclusion of marginalized and oppressed genders, but I refuse to use "women and femmes" for reasons which I describe in this article and an author describes well here.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Book Review: Reclaiming Our Space by Feminista Jones

Image: The cover of the book has a geometric red and pink background. On the top half, in large uppercase yellow and orange letters is "Reclaiming Our Space." Below that in small, black, uppercase letters reads, "how black feminists are changing the world from the tweets to the streets." Below that, in larger teal uppercase letters is the author's name- Feminista Jones. At the bottom of the cover in small black letters is a quote from a review, but it is too small for me to read and transcribe as my copy does not contain the quote. 

In reviewing Reclaiming Our Space by Feminista Jones, it feels necessary to recommend that the reader disregard the title of the book before diving in. I hung on to the title for a while before letting it go and wish I had let it go sooner. The book is not a book about other feminists' activism online and in person. It is largely a book about Jones' life, opinions, experiences, and writing career told through a collection of separate essays. This is not a bad thing. I would have also been interested in reading a book that presented itself as a collection of her essays or as a memoir. But, those who latch onto the title may find themselves disappointed. Jones does indeed discuss the writing and tweeting of other feminists, but only in brief snippets that almost always end up being directed back to Jones' experiences, her writing, her opinions, or her interactions with said feminist. There is also not much on the " the streets" part of the title as the book focuses heavily on social media, blogging, writing, and some other media. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It actually made me appreciate social media contributions more. It's just not quite in line with what I expected from the title.

As I mentioned, this book gave me a more positive and appreciative view of social media contributions to radicalism and activism. As someone who was born in the early 80s- before the internet was a widely accessible thing- I grew up often being told that what happened on the internet was "not real." This colored the way I have analyzed writing on social media. I had not even realized before reading this book how much the value I placed on certain formats was infected by capitalism and as a result, white supremacy. I saw newspaper articles as "real" sources and facebook rants as "opinion." While some newspapers may have more resources for fact checking, they also tend to have a narrow demographic representation. While most people can contribute to social media, making it dangerous ground for the spread of false information, it is also a platform that allows the most underprivileged voices to be seen, heard, and spread widely- usually without the compensation offered to those writing news articles. There is, of course, overlap between the two as well. This was very important for me to read and not something I have seen presented in this way.

In discussing her own experiences with social media and writing, Jones expands on this, peppering her narrative with anecdotes about various feminists on blogs and twitter who created large, influential presences on the internet. Jones also discusses the amount of backlash that Black feminists face when tackling the topic of feminism in the realms of both Blackness and womanhood. There are sections dedicated to (Heaux)teps and what Jones calls "Hotep Twitter" as well as white feminism and the harm caused by women such as Rose McGowan, Tina Fey, and other white woman who fail to understand racism or the unique struggles faced by Black women. The only negative about this is that Jones ends up devoting more time to anti-Black feminist voices than she does to the voices of Black feminists. As a result, there may be an unintended effect of misogynoir being amplified through the amount of space it is given relative to Black feminist voices (aside from Jones'.) 

When I hit the "Talk Like Sex" chapter, I was looking forward to reading something more inclusive given that Jones mentions multiple times that she is queer. However, in general, her discussions of sexuality centered heterosexuality and heterosexual sex and relationships. I was still holding onto the title of the book at this point and this essay in particular could have benefited from the inclusive of the voices of queer and/or trans women and queer sex/relationships. But, again, if the book is viewed as more of a memoir of the reader, this lack of inclusion is less disappointing. This is not to say that "Talk Like Sex" offered nothing. It included a variety of sex positive issues as well as some of Jones' theories that were framed in interesting ways. Jones' discussion of the lack of existence of "slut" and "ho" (due to the reality that it takes a value judgment of womens sexuality in order to use the words) was particularly engaging.

The last few essays of the book are what really get down to the subject matter of Black feminism and represent more of Jones' views rather than experiences. These were my favorites of the book, especially "Black Mamas Matter." The aforementioned essay tackles a topic that is often underrepresented or underappreciated in feminist discourse, despite being something discussed by Black feminists from before feminist was even a word. I believe Jones- like her sections on social media- adds some new things to this important discussion. She weaves information from popular culture throughout a discussion of Black women's (lack of adequate) healthcare, childbirth and childcare, and the general stigma and struggle Black women have faced and continue to face from all directions. "Mammy 2.0" was another essay in this section involving an engaging catalogue of past and present struggles of Black women given the stereotype. If you're the type of person who skips around a lot in essay collections and anthologies, be sure to read the last third of the book.

In summary, this book is enjoyable and important. It is likely best viewed as part memoir, part collection of essays by the author rather than an in depth book about other feminists. While Jones does drop a lot of names in the book, refreshingly, many of which we never hear, it is my opinion that she does not give them enough space to match the title. The book is still a decent contribution to "the discourse" as Jones' words stand well on their own.

This review was also posted to goodreads.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law

Image: The cover of the book is light blue with the author's name in yellow capital letters across the center top of the book, the title of the book in white capital letters in the center, and "a practical handbook" in yellow letters and at the bottom. Each set of text is separated by a thin, white, horizontal line.

Linda Tashbook's Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law is an indispensable handbook for not only family members of people with mental illness, but anyone in any proximity to mental illness and disability- including the sufferers themselves. The book is directed at family members, but it contains such a vast amount of accessible information that I can't think of anyone who would not benefit from having it around.

While the book can certainly be read cover to cover, it is designed well as the "practical handbook" that it claims to be. Each section stands on it's own, allowing the reader to jump around and skip things that aren't currently relevant. I would say I read 60-75% of the book. I marked many sections to reread later and will likely get to the ones that weren't currently relevant when the time comes to need them. As a person who is on social security disability for multiple health conditions, someone who has dealt with family members' suicide and involuntary commitment, someone who has had prisoner pen pals with severe mental illness, and someone with a former background in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, there was a huge amount of information in this book that was relevant and educational for me. Even things I thought I was pretty well versed in, such as social security disability, offered clarifying information that filled in many gaps in my knowledge.

Tashbook's book is very well organized and uses many tools to make the information more accessible such as anecdotes, court cases, how-to guides, terminology definitions, and general step-by-step information often difficult for the public to access. The book is broken up into five major categories: Health Law, Criminal Law, Employment Law, Consumer Law, and Death and the Law. Each major category has several specific sub-sections. Do you need to know how much someone receiving social security disability income can make and how long they can work at a part time job before losing their disability benefits? Do you need help navigating life insurance claims after the suicide of a parent? Are you wondering who is responsible for housing relatives with severe mental illness? What do you do if your child with severe mental illness is arrested for loitering? Do you need to know what kind of assets of people dealing with federally qualifying mental health disabilities count against state and federal benefits? How can you make sure someone you know with mental illness or other health struggles will receive their medications while incarcerated? Tashbook has you covered on all of these fronts and more. The information is all very easy to find in the book as well, allowing you to navigate to whatever specific section you need in the moment.

My only criticism of this book is how easy Tashbook goes on the police. She has large sections dedicated to dealing with police misconduct, but often wraps things in the idea that police are well-intentioned, law-abiding citizens that exist to protect people. Disabled people make up the largest demographic of people killed by police. Approximately half of incidences of gun violence by police and 25-50% of people killed by police have mental illness. Tashbook took the time to be hard on emergency room workers, insurance providers, and so on. I believe she should have gone harder on police. I, of course, did not expect her to shout, "ACAB" from the rooftops. But, some acknowledgement of how horrific police involvement in mental illness situations often is would have been appreciated. The way the sections on police are written makes it seem as if misconduct is rare and when it occurs it is well investigated and punished. The opposite is true and studies show this. To Tashbook's credit, she does offer a lot of information on how to make reports of police misconduct from the local all the way to federal levels. I wish it was also noted that police have always existed as agents of control rather than protection. A book dealing with mental illness and the law should not make it seem like the police are generally on the side of marginalized people.

I should note that the tone of this book is generally not preachy or opinionated. So, I understand why Tashbook (and other legal writers I have read) take a cautious approach with how they discuss the police. I just hope that people don't see police as a first resort when reading these things. Overall, though, this book is extremely important and needed and thus I can forgive this one criticism. I am glad to have this on my shelf and will undoubtedly use it as a reference for years to come.

This review was also posted to goodreads.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Book Review: Che: A Revolutionary Life (Graphic Biography)

Image: The cover of the book is a splotchy brown and tan background. "Che" is written accross the top in very large, red, capital letters that fade at the bottom. Che Guevara is drawn in black and white from the neck up and ears forward. He has a beard, a beret, and is taking a drag off of a cigar held in his hand while looking down. Under the title and across the top of his head says, "A Revolutionary Life" in white capital letters and under that, in front of his face on the left side of the cover, states (A Graphic Biography, Jon Lee Anderson & Jose Hernandez."
I won this via goodreads giveaways and it is labeled as an "advance uncorrected proof."

Let me begin by stating that the art in this book is fantastic across the board. José Hernández produced some of the best art I've seen in comics/graphic novels. This is what carried the book for the most part. Hernandez's name should be the first author.

I also want to start by saying my beliefs are anti-authoritarian and extremely left wing. So, please do not take my criticisms to be coming from a place of being anti-communism. Anti-authoritarian communism is pretty close to where I am at.

The main reason for my rating this book as mediocre is that Anderson's writing just wasn't there. I do want to give him credit- a graphic biography is a really cool idea and one difficult to execute. So, perhaps this just isn't his field. I have not read any other biographies of Che to compare, so I am unsure of how accurate this is. I can say that it seems like Anderson thought writing for comics or writing dialogue was just a shorter form version of writing an article for the New Yorker. It's common for comic writers not to be seen as legitimate. But, this book is an example of writing that is not good for comics. The dialogue is very bland outside direct quotes and the thing that carries us through the story is the artwork. I know that Anderson wrote a respected biography of Che and perhaps it just did not translate to this medium.

I also took issue with Anderson's introduction. It would be extremely important, if he is still able, to rewrite the introduction. If Anderson wants to appeal to a large audience, especially audiences that would be most interested in this kind of book, he needs to not alienate most of those younger than him. The introduction reads as if he no longer believes violent revolution exists because of iphones and the internet. The "kids these days" approach to dismissing the criticisms and concerns about Guevara's violence and oppressive ideals made him seem like a lousy historian. He brings up Guevara's homophobia in the introduction, then never touches on it in the text.

There are many issues with dismissing homophobia and complaining of identity politics. First off, gay people have been part of revolutions forever. They are often erased just like people of other oppressed groups. Secondly, this should be obvious, putting gay people into camps is egregiously disgusting. I assume that this is due to war and radical movements both being an extension of broader culture. The machismo and hatred of homosexuality, gender nonconformity, and the feminine existed before Guevara came to Cuba and before Castro. Nonetheless, oppressive, homophobic, misogynistic behavior that was part of Castro and Guevara's revolution. In the book, Castro states, "The revolution is not carried out with saints, Ernesto. It's made by real people." This is absolutely true and important to remember, especially in perfectionist call-out culture. But, it is also true that it took active, deliberate, planned efforts to round up gay people and put them into labor camps. That's a bit different than having some character flaws. I really looked forward to this being explored in the book but it was not even mentioned. The idea that kids these days put identity ahead of the revolution completely erases all of the people whose daily struggles with brocialists fit into how they were treated and heard during revolutions.

On to the content, I did enjoy the book while reading it and eventually settled into it well. It did teach me a little about Latin American leftist revolutions and gave me some history on the key players. I am unsurprised that Guevara was a brocialist. Pretty much all men who self appoint as leaders of "the revolution" are. I very much admire how Castro, Guevara, and co refused to submit to the United States. But, Guevara's behavior often seemed less idealistic and more self centered. His early journals (not included in the book) show racism against Black African people. His later trip to help "liberate" them is marred with criticisms of the people with little to no interest in learning from them. Ableism is part of every revolution, but if you want another example of self centeredness, it is "If I can climb the stairs, with asthma, why can't everyone else?" The book portrays his as a absent father and husband who blames "the revolution" for his mistreatment of his families and neglect of his responsibilities. He seemed to see women's only purpose as child creators and rearers. Many of these things are common, normal mistakes of young revolutionary men throughout history (and today.*) But, I would have appreciated if this book touched on the nuances more. I can tell it tried to, but it did not get there for me. I have asked myself if it was simply my dislike of the character they wrote about or if it was the writing. I believe it was a bit of both.

*This is not to let them off the hook and there are plenty of exceptions.

Also posted to my goodreads.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Book Review: Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another's Misfortune

Image:  The cover of the book is bright yellow and in the center is a small illustration of a banana peel on the ground. The title of the book spans the top center of the cover in capitalized black serif font letters. The author's name is at the bottom of the cover in the same lettering. In lowercase letters below her name it says, "Author of The Book of Human Emotions."

Content Warning: This review includes mention (but no gratuitous descriptions or analyses) of sexual violence.

I don't know exactly what I expected going into Tiffany Watt Smith's "SHADENFREUDE: The Joy of Another's Misfortune." I think perhaps since I have a bit of a psychology background, I expected an interesting but somewhat dry psychological analysis of the phenomenon. This book was far more than that. I thoroughly enjoyed every second of this little text and laughed out loud at many of the anecdotes and analyses. Perhaps that says more about me than it does about the book.

Smith uses psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, sociology, gender studies, pop culture, and other vehicles to examine the subject in very entertaining ways. She visits experts and gets their take, often detailing entertaining or moving conversations. She packs quite a lot into a small space from celebrating sports injuries to to #metoo and more. The book is broken up into different kinds of schadenfreude and different times that it presents itself. The beginning of each of these sections has three or so anecdotes of schadenfreude happening- most (or perhaps all) of which describe or mirror real life events. Gems like: a family lunch, your parents mention how lovely your brother's children are, and it absolutely definitely sounds like they're really saying  that your brother's kids are nicer than your kids, and then your brother's kid comes in sobbing with chocolate smeared all over his face, and screams: "Grandma's a fucking bitch!"

When a married anti-LGBT senator is caught having sex with a man in his office.

And, I would like to add two that I thought of repeatedly throughout the book that were not included, perhaps because it is about to get real dark in here: 

When Daniel Holtzclaw- police officer and serial rapist mainly targeting Black women- was in tears after being found guilty of multiple rapes and sexual assaults, with a recommended sentence of 263 years, ON HIS BIRTHDAY. 

When white supremacist/alt-right/nazi Richard Spencer was punched in the face during a news interview.

Both of these instances brought people out of the woodwork who claimed they normally don't celebrate pain and violence, but would make an exception in these cases. I have to agree. And some great memes came out of them.

There were some anecdotes Smith included I did not find funny. But, most of them at least made me smirk. It was an interesting experience as I often see myself as less inclined towards schadenfreude than average. Having read this book, I now believe that is not true, especially regarding schadenfreude that offers some form of poetic justice. The book helped me better understand and accept this rather than beating me down as bad for feeling it. Smith truly shows how schadenfreude is woven throughout all of our interactions and how it can serve certain social purposes. I knew a little bit about schadenfreude going in. I did not know that there is a separate word for it in a great many other languages, showing it spreads across locations and cultures.

While there is variance between individuals in just how far they will go with their schadenfreude, a unifying theme is often a feeling that the person or people had it coming. The authors seems to differentiate between sadism and schadenfreude, the former being more of a description of enjoying (and often causing) suffering in general. Misogynists, racists, corrupt politicians, and others bring obvious schadenfreude, but there is also a reality that people who are smug, lack humility, or just have an easier more privileged life also invoke joy in others when they suffer. Smith examines these phenomena both generally and personally being candid and honest about her own feelings and experiences. As she tied up the book she mentions, "I had hoped for a happy ending. Something like... I am, in short, a better person. But you already know that's not true," I laughed out loud. Yet, she follows this with some pretty brilliant life advice regarding dealing with when we find ourselves the target of schadenfreude, especially from people close to us:

If you are the victim of someone else's schadenfreude, you are seen as a worthy opponent. You have- or had, but don't worry, you'll get it again- something they want. Think back to those times when you have enjoyed their losses. Unless you very much deserve your misery, (in which case, take a long hard look at yourself,) their glee will tell you a lot about how you've made them feel.This really gave me a lot to chew on regarding schadenfreude (that isn't as clear cut as white supremacists deserving a punch to the face) in both directions. If you aren't quite able to see yourself as someone who finds joy in the misery of others at times, pick up this book and you'll find you are just as petty as the rest of us. And that's ok.

This review was also posted to goodreads.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Book Review - Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities

Image: The cover of the book is a surrealist landscape with a blue cloudy sky dotted with two blue and black butterflies which are also scattered throughout the rest of the scene. Two green globe-like hills make up the background. An elongated tan and dark brown checkerboard weaves like a road through the center with brown ground underneath it. Several playing cards and white and black chess pieces are scattered around. In the upper right corner is part of a green tree or bush with globe-like bunches of leaves and the bottom right corner is an obscured tan house with a reddish brown roof and an arrow snaking out of the front. The title of the book is at the center in white script font and in smaller letters on the bottom reads "edited by Belo Miguel Cipriani."

Review also available on goodreads.

Up until now, the vast majority of books I have won on goodreads giveaways have been mediocre to poor. There are plenty I don't win that a later read and love, but for some reason, I have bad luck with the ones I do win. I am pleased to write that with Belo Miguel Cipriani's book "Firsts: Coming of Age Stories by People with Disabilities," this was not the case. This collection of essays was an excellent read, not to mention a decent representation of the wide variety of people with disabilities.

Firsts surprised me off the bat when I read the introduction from the author who is a Blind gay man of color. Mainstream disability narratives are often dominated by white, heterosexual, and other non-marginalized voices, leaving out a huge amount of disabled voices with a variety of perspectives to offer outside the norm. Given my rough history with goodreads giveaways, I expected just that. I was so happy to continue reading and discover so many queer disabled stories in the book. Several gay and bisexual authors contributed and it was excellent to see my communities represented in this way. Cipriani was also not the only author of color.

This book also showcased a wide variety of disabilities. We get to hear from Blind folks, those with PTSD, part time and full time wheelchair users, those with severe tinnitus and hearing loss, people on the Autism spectrum, and others. It was again, a pleasant surprise to see such a wide variety of perspectives included in this book when all too often, many disability stories center on one type of disability. This has functional relevance at times such as a campaign focusing on a specific disability, but in others, such as disability accommodations and events, the lack of diverse representation is often a problem.

Even though this book hit on many unheard demographic experiences, that is not the only reason I liked it and gave it 5 stars. Most of the essays are well written and accessible and the book is well edited. The essays capture the experiences at a reading level accessible to many. The title says that they are "coming of age" stories but I would say that is not accurate. Some stories are coming of age but many others are experiences from people already well into adulthood. The stories range from heartbreaking to sentimental. One story, in which a wheelchair user details his first experience with a gay hookup website ripped out my heart. Each narrator has their own unique voice and perspectives on living with disabilities.

I can definitely feel confident recommending this book, knowing it represents a wider variety of voices than many disability stories and anthologies do. And, it's just plain entertaining. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Book Review: I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

Image: The book cover is a mint green background with scattered writing all in capital letters. There are horizontal black stripes that fill in the gaps between words. "I'm still here," on top in white letters, "Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness," in the center in black letters, and "Austin Channing Brown" on the bottom in white letters.

Austin Channing Brown's memoir is a short and compelling book despite the fact that she claims near the beginning that there was not anything flashy or exceptional in her life like growing up rich or in extreme poverty. She has plenty of interesting stories from her life to tell and she uses them very well to convey messages about larger society. The book is structured in an interesting way, breaking up the memoir with interludes like, "Why I love being a Black girl." This made the book flow well.

Brown was given a perceived white man's name by her parents in order to combat prejudices, white supremacy, and misogynoir. While this name did work to get her in the door at times, she still of course faced racism on a regular basis. At one point in the memoir, she details one day at a predominantly white workplace. This story was very effective in showing just how many microaggressions Black women deal with daily. Brown focuses a lot on these microaggressions and for good reason. It is not only the sporadic horrific murders or someone calling someone the N-word that are effects of racism and white supremacy. It is the daily slog through a society in which every stitch of its culture is built around whiteness.

Brown details microaggressions such as white people touching her hair and scrutinizing her body, being expected to speak for all Black people everywhere from grade school to the work place, white guilt and the space taken up by well-meaning but ignorant white people, and more. She also delves deep into the never ending historical pain caused by horrific events such as the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing- in which 4 KKK members murdered 4 young Black girls- and the day that white supremacist murderer Dylann Roof took the lives of 9 people and (physically) injuring another. I am sure that everyone present has the psychological injuries that will last a lifetime. Brown talks about her experiences as a Black, church-going, Christian woman. She discusses how to persevere even when it feels like there is no hope in a society in which racism never goes away, it just slightly changes its shape.

There is a lot of discussion of Black churches and Christianity in this book. I always get a little nervous regarding Christianity talk as most churches have not been kind to (Queer and trans) people like me and white Christianity has been used as a tool of genocide and colonization. Brown, while very strong in Christian faith, does understand there is a history that cannot be ignored. She says that, "...even though the Church I love has been the oppressor as often as it has been the champion of the oppressed, I can’t let go of my belief in Church—in a universal body of belonging, in a community that reaches toward love in a world so often filled with hate. I continue to be drawn toward the collective participation of seeking good, even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness." Despite being an atheist myself, I do understand the purpose churches serve for many. Brown did well to put this into words.

She ends the book with a discussion about love. In response to people insisting she should love her oppressor into stopping the oppression, she states, “More often than not, my experience has been that whiteness sees love as a prize it is owed, rather than a moral obligation it must demonstrate.” Yet, Brown urges people not to give up and still believes love is a tool for liberation. This book is more than a memoir, it is also passionate plea for racial justice. It is a quick and worthy read.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Book Review: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Image: The book cover has a tan background with a black silhouette of a person's head from the neck up facing to the right. Across the profile are 5 streaks of red painted lines and woven on top of and under the lines is "Stamped from the Beginning" in white uppercase letters. Underneath the neck of the profile is "The Definitive history of Racist Ideas in America" in smaller, italic, black letters. The lower right corner has Ibram X. Kendi's name in red letters.

Note: I normally only post advance or recent release reviews to this blog and reviews of older books to goodreads. This book came out over a year ago, but I decided it was recent and important enough to include here.

This is a long book, but it is not the kind that I spent time wishing was shorter. In fact, this book could have been much longer and held my interest in satisfying ways. Stamped from the Beginning is mostly a history of anti-Black racist ideas in (North) America. It also serves as one of the best accounts of the History of the United States I have ever read. Ibram X. Kendi covers a huge amount of important history that often goes untold or is mangled by white supremacist revisionists. I wonder what life would be like if this was the history book we had in grade school.

This book outs the "founding fathers" as slavers and racists, covers the complex intricacies of Black resistance, liberation, and assimilation, and also strives to hold space for Black women and LGBTQ Black people that is often lacking in historical accounts such as this. I do think that Kendi could have done slightly better on that last part. There were one or two times where he seemed to draw a false equivalency between Black women calling out Black men's patriarchy and Black men hating on Black women. However, most of the time- especially in the sections on Angela Davis and the epilogue- he does well to highlight the often buried history of Black womens resistance against not just white supremacy but also against patriarchy and misogyny within Black liberation movements.

Kendi avoids the racist-or-not-racist dichotomy and instead puts people into one of three camps: segregationists, assimilationists, and anti-racists. Technically, the first two are different kinds of racists, but weaving these three groups' ideologies throughout the book really helped to navigate the massive nuances in the history of racist ideas and liberation movements. He also uses terms like "gender racism" to describe the unique ways Black women deal with oppression- known to some others as misogynoir and/or intersectionality- and "upliftsuasion" in reference to assimilationist ideas and respectability politics.

Kendi calls attention to how anti-Black racism was used by wealthy whites in order to keep poor whites, non-Black people of color, white women, and other oppressed groups in their places. The painful history of indigenous enslaved people being replaced by Black enslaved people, native and poor white people offered privileges to pull them away from enslaved Black people, gynecological and other health experiments on enslaved people, IQ testing turning subjective intelligence into a faux-objective measurement targeting Black and poor people, and so on are highlighted with great detail. In the end, Kendi asserts that dismantling racism will serve the vast majority of white people more than racism does as racism has always been used as a tool to oppress everyone. Anti-Black racism has a root in and connection to every form of oppression and centering and dismantling anti-Black racism in all struggles will always help everyone in the big picture- even white people.

I highly recommend this as a history book about the USA, not just about racist ideas. It is by far the most comprehensive and accurate history of my country of residence that I have read.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Book Review: As Black As Resistance

Image: The cover of the book is a blurry black and white, vintage photograph of several dark skinned people leaning back against a wall. The women are wearing light colored dresses and the men are wearing light colored shirts and dark pants. One of the men is holding a small child perhaps of toddler ago. The title of the book, stylized to look like a shadow on the wall, is in black capitalized letters above their heads. Superimposed over the photograph, in small white letters are the authors' names and the byline for the book.

It has been a while since I felt that a book truly spoke my language. I read a lot of books about social justice, racial justice, feminism, and so on and while many of them are very good, I often leave feeling like they didn't quite match up with the level of unapologetic radical love that I was hoping for. As Black As Resistance by Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson really carved out a space in my heart while reading it. The book is short, but is not what I would call a short read. It is rather academic so it required me to take my time. I usually have some pretty strong critiques about academic social justice focused writing. Aside from accessibility to the masses, the biggest one is that a ton of academic texts I read aren't really saying much of anything. They often focus on talking big and self congratulation more than they do conveying a profound message. This book is not one of those academic writings. It is saying a hell of a lot and has a lot to offer in a very small space. Even though I know it would be a difficult read for some people, it is still a book I would hand out- especially as an introduction to... well... everything in the United States.

Samudzi and Anderson really wrap up a lot of topics into this small space and they use the voices they have quite well. They do not fall into the trappings that some books with a focus do where they leave other topics or the most marginalized people of the centered demographic behind. This book lifts up Blackness and centers the most oppressed Black people (Black women, LGBTQ people, etc.) At the same time, they leave no one else behind. The authors exemplify the "trickle up" system of resistance in which fighting for the most affected by systemic issues of oppression always positively affects everyone. The authors are direct, unapologetic, passionate, and fierce and at the same time there is a thread of great love and kindness woven throughout their writing. They do not attempt to ease the reader into the reality that the United States is a place of great horrors. Even if you are a person who is already familiar with many of the topics and much of the information in this book, I am going to guess that- like me- you will find it refreshing to read something so unapologetic that is, for once, not trying to couch what it is saying in something else. Dismantling white supremacy requires dismantling the United States, Black people (and some other oppressed groups) lack true citizenship and rights in the United States, slavery and settler colonialism are still present today and will be for as long as the United States exists. Period.

The section on self defense was my favorite part of this book. Part of this was because it was the part that really exposed me to things written in a way that I had not seen much before. But, part of it was because it was so empowering. Samudzi and Anderson tackle the historical inaccuracies about Black "nonviolent" resistance. They include quotes from W.E.B. DuBois, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr, and others all of whom defend the use of guns and violence for self defense. They also tackle the idea sometimes promoted by white manarchists that all fighting or violence is automatically self defence or justifiable. The writers take on a nuanced critique of violence and self defense in a way that calls attention to the critical need for communities to defend themselves and to not allow white washed rhetoric and false histories of nonviolent civil rights movemements be used to pacify them.

Even if you are a person who struggles with more academic writing, this is one that is worth grabbing your dictionary or google for and giving a shot. The authors also have a lot of footnotes where they do define many concepts and subjects, but some folks who are unfamiliar with anarchism or far left racial justice will still need help. It's worth it. This book is definitely one I will recommend to people for years to come.