Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book Review: Underland

Image: The cover of the book is a brightly multicolored illustration of a tunnel like shape surrounded by trees. The end of the path is yellow moving back into red, and then multiple layered chaotic colors. The top half is covered by leafless tree silhouettes. Each tree silhouette is a different bright color. The ground is a painterly mix of black, reds, greens, and yellows mostly whereas the sky is a mixture of blues and purples. Across the center of the book is the word "underland" in large block white letters, divining the word in half on separate lines. Below that in small letters is the byline. Below that in slightly larger letters is the author's name. Below that in very small letters is a reviewer quote too small to read. Along the right side of the cover is a red stripe with white letters saying "national bestseller."

We are living in a time where a great many of us worldwide are physically distancing ourselves from the rest of the world if we're not forced out as an essential worker. (About that: I already believed food/service workers, delivery persons, medical staff, and so on were critical to my existence, but now I hope we'll do something to honor these people for being damned superheroes out their risking their lives to literally save ours.) Those of us taking the pandemic seriously- as we should- are all likely feeling at least some of the deep loneliness pervading our world, even us introverts. I mention this because "Underland: A Deep Time Journey" by Robert Macfarlane was truly a journey to places most never get to go. It is a poetic exploration of not only the science, but of the psychology, culture, and experience that go into exploring and studying the most inaccessible and unfamiliar parts of our world. It took me out of my house and out to locations that were fascinatingly immense and vast.

Macfarlane is a very talented writer as he beautifully captures the emotionality of each of these experiences in which he accompanied experts to visit the underlands of the world. Some of his descriptions of things that I already knew about made me think and feel differently in immense ways. Regarding the unknowns, he brought a well-rounded and accessible understanding. This is the kind of book where you learn quite a lot without needing a PhD to be able to read it. Some of the biggest wow moments for me were finding out that scientists look for dark matter using dangerous underground mines, French anarchists have built a liberated zone for themselves in the abandoned catacombs below Paris, the understanding of tree and fungal networks has been regularly disrupted by authoritarianism and capitalism being forced onto what is more comparable to a mutualist structure, that the ice of glaciers is constantly moving and morphing in ways that are still baffling to this day, and more. The author also captures the serious nature of the histories of many of the locations visited such as the constant danger to workers, a history of war and suffering of an area, and the impact of radioactive toxic materials with half lives of billions of years sitting throughout the world.

We also meet lots of interesting people that are very well captured by Macfarlane. He captures these peoples personalities and interests well and manages to share his thoughts and assessments with us in ways that don't come off as leading or heavy handed. The book made me wish I was physically able to travel to these very difficult to access locations and brave enough to go on these journeys. However, for most of us, it is far safer to live vicariously through Macfarlane in this book. He definitely takes us on the journey promised in the title and I appreciated the chance to leave my house- at least in my head.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Book Review: Environments of Empire

Image: The cover of the book is a light tan background with a very light grey partial illustration of the leaves of a plant extending across the upper left section. In the center of the cover is an old illustration of a pygmy hippo facing to the right side. They are standing on a tan ground sparsely populated with light green grass patches. Their flesh is a reddish brown. Across the top of the cover in reddish brown is the title of the bbook in capital letters, the word "empire" being larger than the others. Below that in smaller blue-green letters is "networks and agents of" in capital letters and "ecological change" in italicized text. Across the bottom are the editors' names in smaller, black, capital letters of the same font.

There is a very specific audience targeted by Environments of Empire: Networks and Agents of Ecological Change. This is not necessarily unusual for an academic text, but I found this one had an exceptional amount of specificity in its focus. I am not an ecology historian PhD and I felt that while reading this book. I found that many of the essays would be far better understood by someone with an already longstanding, comprehensive understanding of worldwide colonial history. I do not. This does not make the book automatically bad. It was just not for me, and I do read academic works semi-frequently that are outside my field of education. It did not meet my expectations of the information I expected to find until the very last section.

My interest in this book came from wanting to know more about how imperialist colonization affected animals and others in various regions of the world. This book does make it clear that European imperialism and colonialism have resulted in environmental change and damage via the introduction of non-native and invasive species. It was just presented in a very Eurocentric manner. One of the writers reminds us that not everything can be defined by Western colonialism. Yet, I found that this book was defined by it. This could be from my own lack of education, so take that opinion with its source in mind.

What was not clear from the blurb is that this book is a collection of papers first presented at a 2015 conference at the University of Kassel, Germany. As I said, very specific. The authors are overwhelmingly white (passing, at least) and I am not sure if any of them are indigenous people. This may or may not be the reason that I found most of the essays to center the imperialist colonizers- often focusing on a single man's travels- rather than centering those negatively affected- the native people, nonhuman animals, and native plants- by said colonizers. The first two sections fall into this category whereas the last section- Animal Agency- finally started giving me what I came for. The rest were a slog to get through and the book reads far more like a journal than a book. That is not to say that there isn't huge overlap there in academic texts. But, most academic books I have read do not feel as if I am reading a periodical in sequence.

That said, once I got to the last section in the book, I did find myself interested in what the author's shared. "Animal Skins" details how colonialism and exotic animal trades negatively affect both indigenous human and nonhuman animal behaviors and populations. "Adapting to Change in Australian Estuaries" manages to make the intersection of settler colonialism and oyster prevalence interesting. "Brumbies as Colonizers" offers an example of how a non-native species can be more ethically accommodated and viewed after being non-consensually introduced into a non-native environment. I found all of these interesting and closer to what I was hoping to learn from this book.

Overall, this book is for academics with a very specific focus. It was not composed or written with a wide audience in mind- especially not the layman. On top of that, it is very specific in its sources both in author demographics and the original presentation of the papers at a single conference 5 years ago. That is not to say that the book is not necessary nor useful for those it is targeted at. It simply did not work very well for me.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Book Review: The Return

Image: The cover of the book is mostly a hot pink and black version of a black and white photo. It is a view of a hallway with vertical striped wallpaper that goes halfway up the wall. On the back wall, two fancy light fixtures sit partly obscured by the hallway's end. To the left at the ent of the hallway is an upholstered dining chair and next to it on the floor a dark shadow of a person can be seen standing there. Across the top in large black letters is the title. Above that in small letters it says "her friend disappeared, a stranger came back." Across the bottom in large pink letters is the author's name: Rachel Harrison.

I won a copy of this book from goodreads giveaways. I don't often enter fiction drawings unless I know the author, but I admittedly judged this book by it's excellent cover and decided, "Why not?" I feel that I can describe The Return by Rachel Harrison with a food analogy. If I am eating french fries from a frozen bag that I baked at home, I know they are not fine cuisine, but they're still fun to eat. This book is not a book I would say is written well and parts of it lack much originality. Yet, I found myself generally immersed and enjoying myself while reading it much of the time. It follows 4 female friends as they go on a vacation and a bit of a friendship reunion. One friend has recently returned after being missing for 2 years with no recollection of what had happened. It's a horror novel, so, you can imagine that things don't go very well on this vacation.

At first while reading the book, I almost gave up. It was just not drawing me in and mixed with the writing and organization, I thought I was wasting my time. I decided to stick with it anyways and did get pretty into it, especially during the middle, most suspenseful sections. One of my biggest issues though even with this section was how poorly written the most supernatural scenes were. To avoid spoilers I won't give details, but Harrison creates a decent amount of suspense and unease and then at the times where what we are waiting for happens, it's as if she rushes through them. They could have been created as longer, more eerie and unnerving scenes but every single one fell flat. When I reached the ending, I was disappointed again. I will, again, avoid spoilers. But, let's just say that the tropes involved were unoriginal, tired, and not at all in line with what I was hoping for from this cast of women characters.

Would I read something else by this writer? Likely not, unless the next book showed promise of being much better than this one. But, Harrison is a new novelist and many first novels have lots of issues. She has some creativity and ability that can be honed into something better. So, I am open to seeing what comes next, but won't be holding my breath.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Book Review: Homesick

Image: the cover of the book is a graphic design image of minimalistic shapes creating the appearance of waves moving up the book. They begin as a light teal at the bottom and get darker towards the top forming a dark teal or green. On the top wave is the title of the book in large, uneven, capital light blue letters, partly obscured by the wave. Below that is "stories" in smaller of the same letters. Scattered across the rest of the waves are mustard colored cutouts of a house. On the bottom wave is Nino Cipri's name in black letters and under that to the right side is a mustard colored cutout of a house key.

Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri is an extremely versatile, creative, and enjoyable collection from the author. One of the things that really sets this collection apart from others of its genre is the diverse formats and genres the stories take on. There are some that are your run of the mill medium length short stories and some that read like plays. "Dead Air" in particular is one I would love to hear performed as a podcast. There are some stories that are scifi, some that are supernatural horror, and some that are just very very Queer. I actually found myself enjoying the stories with supernatural elements the most, even though the other realms are often more what I lean toward. The aforementioned "Dead Air" as well as "Presque Vu" were two of my favorites.

A diverse cast of Queer and/or trans characters show up throughout the book in a variety of ways. I am a Queer and trans person who doesn't particularly have a taste for stories where the whole thing is about someone's Queerness or transness. I do think there are a couple of places where Cipri explains too much for my liking. But, that's a personal thing. I imagine a cishet* person reading may appreciate the explanation of something someone like me understands from experience. There are plenty of stories though where the characters' identities are woven throughout seamlessly. This is the way I like to see LGBTQ characters written. Many of the characters are relatable in both their identities and their flaws and virtues. 

A variety of themes are explored throughout the book including obviously gender and sexuality as well as race, class, colonialism, personhood, and species. The novella that makes up the last third or so of the book follows a group of researchers who have discovered an ancient species with human-like intelligences. The discussions of academics and museum curators long history of colonialist grave robbing were perfectly placed. It's true that we don't see the dead bodies of pilgrims in museums, but to this day there are the corpses and bones of Inuit, Egyptian, and other Indigenous people whose graves were robbed as well as dead (and often alive) animals who were wiped out by colonialist collectors of dead creatures. It makes it difficult to attend museums and not either be angry the entire time or be indoctrinated into the othering and exploitation of the marginalized to entertain our fascination with the unknown.

There is some exploration of personhood and species membership relative to nonhuman animals, but I do wish Cipri would have taken it a bit further to include more present day species. There is discussion of "intelligent" species that exist today, but I really could have used that final push for the researchers to understand that all animals have their own intelligences, many of which far outshine our own. There is loving discussion of zoos and eating animals in this story that I can't help but noticing when reading. This is not to say it's not a well constructed and accurate picture of a group of researchers in a story like this. We all know that being a scientist or academic most assuredly does not make someone knowledgeable about everything in the world. If anything, the extreme specialization and focus increasingly required in graduate studies isolates people from wider knowledge of the world. Plenty of scientists who admire one species are cruel to vast numbers of equally sentient others due to their own interests and prejudices. But, I would not be a good animal lib proponent if I did not mention that I would have liked these particular researchers of intelligent weasels to also recognize the other intelligent rodents that make up most of the animals in laboratory cages (with no protections by law to boot.) I would have liked recognition that more recent research argues that many species have advanced communication and languages, not just humans (or fictional prehistoric weasels.) I'll step off the soapbox now. Do not let this repel you from reading this story. It is an excellent novella with an interesting premise, believable and relatable trans characters, important discussions of indigenous peoples and colonialism in academia, and many great discussions about species membership and personhood, regardless of if they met my high bar. It made me think a lot while reading it and I enjoyed it greatly.

I tossed a few criticisms out in this review, but I am still giving this book a high rating and recommendation. Many of my arguments here are things that good speculative fiction inspires us to think about. Homesick is an excellent introduction to Cipri's wide range of talents and creativity making it another book on my shelf by a QT author that I definitely look forward to more from.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

*cishet means cisgender heterosexual. Cisgender people are those who identify with the sex and gender assigned to them at birth, aka people who are not trans. 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Book Review: The Deep

Image: The cover of the book shows a light blue seascape. In the foreground near the center is a mermaid. She has dark brown skin and long black locks and float behind her head. The bottom half of her body is a dark blue shark-like body and there is webbing between her fingers. Behind her is a large whale and smaller fishes and whales in the background. Across the top is the title of the novel. "The" is in dark blue and overlaps with the word "Deep" in almost white blue. Across the bottom, in white capital small letters says "Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs William Hutson Jonathan Snipes."

When I first saw that Rivers Solomon was putting out a new novella, I immediately added it to a top priority book to read. I had the chance to read and review their debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, and it became one of my favorite science fiction books. I admit, fantasy is not usually my realm of choice for reading material. But, given my love for this author, I was excited to give this a go anyways.

I first want to say that this book gets an A+ and 5 stars for effort and creativity. The process of an author collaborating with musicians is a really interesting and cool idea. Solomon took a song and turned it into a larger story while giving credit to and including those who created the song. Great care was taken so that everyone was given attention for their work which is also something I like to see. That said, the story itself was about average. Solomon is a beautiful writer and I adore the way they take important and painful political and historical themes and include them in their writing. My issue with this book is that it seemed unfinished. It reads a little like an initial draft of ideas before the characters and world building were fully fleshed out

One of my biggest issues with the book though is this: I would have preferred to be more surprised by parts of the wajinru's (the mermaids) story. Our protagonist- Yetu- is a historian, forced to live through a painful origin history of her people via memories over and over. There is a reason I am being vague and not revealing much about the wajinru. The way this was written, the reader would have slowly realized where the wajinru came from. It could have been a real wow moment for me. But, going into the book, I already knew because the blurb gives it away. That said, the information in the blurb is a huge draw for the book. So, I see why they decided to reveal so much. But, I would have preferred to find out in the book itself.

There are some really cool parts of the book that, if fine tuned a little more or expanded upon, could have carried it further. There are LGB/I characters and interesting discussions of the differences between the wajinru and the two-legs (humans, of course.) There are interesting discussions of how home and history can be both destructive and critical to preserve, always under threat. There is so much potential in this novel. I wonder if some day, they will come back to it and make it a larger book. I also wonder, as I said before, if my general preferences got in my way. Fantasy is not my forte and this is a very fantastical book.

Even though I have not given this book a perfect score, I still encourage people to read it as much as I would a 5 star book. The creativity, writing style, and collaboration are really interesting and great reasons to give it a try anyways. Being a novella, it's short. So, you can experience it in a short amount of time. The story itself is still interesting and entertaining despite it's flaws. I will forever keep an eye on Solomon's work and am very excited for what they do next.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Book Review: In the Dream House

Image: The cover of the book is a surrealistic painting of a two story greenish beige house on the backdrop of a dark, cloudy sky. The front of the house faces the reader with a chimney on the right side of the roof, a porch and balcony with white fence-like barriers, long brown reeds growning from the front yard, and the black silhouette of a person standing in front of the front door in the center of the bottom floor. On the upper floor, there is a large section cut out with fabric-like layers of drab red, blue and green that lead to the center of the hole where there is a face of a woman. She has light brown skin and black hair and stares directly into the camera. Across the top, slanted diagonally in large capital white letters is the title, with "a memori"  next to "the" in small written script. Across the bottom of the cover, in front of the reeds, is the author's name in white capital letters.

Carmen Maria Machado's memoir In the Dream House stands out for a great variety of reasons. The book has been heralded as an important foray into the life of someone in a queer abusive relationship, which it is. Machado captures very well the horrifying nature of psychological and emotional abuse. There are physical and other aspects to it, but she focuses predominantly on the former. One of the reasons this is so important is that most abusive relationships center around this psychological and emotional aspect. We often think of abusive relationships as a man physically and/or sexually abusing a girlfriend or wife. Yet, most abuse victims even of this caliber speak of how their abuser controlled their mind and how this is/was one of the most painful parts of their ordeal. Machado draws the reader into her experiences, allowing us to witness the feelings that range from the constant unease of walking on eggshells to the absolute fear that one may have to die to escape the ordeal.

Stylistically, Machado's work continues to stand out among all memoirs I have read. Her story is told through a series of short, poetic vignettes, each giving a small but intense look into a short period of her life. These little pieces all make the reader feel like they are right there, experiencing the whole horrid thing with her. Those of us who have ever been in a queer abusive relationship will likely relate. The way your stomach drops out when it first turns bad has a unique twist to it which Machado captures well. Aren't we supposed to be safe here? Unfortunately, LGBTQ people are human. Full of human flaws and human virtues, capable of doing great harm and of being harmed. By pretending that we all are inhuman beings, we not only are harder on ourselves and each other, but we also tend to ignore when a predator or toxic conflict is in our midst. Many of us have seen our communities turn the other cheek while being silently torn apart by serial abusers, even while fighting against the more common ones.

Through this memoir, Machado really captures the internal process of someone going through this. There is a great isolation in being abused. Not only does the abuser often control or forbid the person from being in touch with others, but the gas lighting and aggression causes the victim/survivor to retreat into themself. There are so many feelings that go into exposing what is happening- big among them being fear and shame. The shame is especially strong in feminist and queer communities as we tend to believe we should have been able to see this coming and get out of it. The truth is, when it comes to abuse, we're just as vulnerable- if not more vulnerable- than other communities. Machado also includes research of hers and reading recommendations on the topics of abuse in LGBTQ communities. These discussions have been existing for a long time, but still remain hidden.

There is a lot more I could say and analyze about this book, but I am going to stop here and encourage the reader to go out and read it. It is very difficult to put down, but please take care while reading, especially if you have any personal history with these subjects. Take breaks and take care of yourself. This book is very worth reading, even if one may find parts triggering. It is far more than a catalogue of occurrences. It is a work of art.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Book Review: Beyond Survival

Image: The cover of the book has a denim blue background with many silouettes of leafed vines crawling up from the bottom and down from the top in solid colors of light blue, hot pink, and bright yellow. They change colors where they overlap. In the upper left corner are the editors' names in small, white, illustrated capital letters. Across the center in large stenciled letters is the title of the book. Below that in smaller letters is the byline.

Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from The Transformative Justice Movement is definitely one of the most important books I will read this year, if not this decade. Edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, the text expands upon information offered by previous texts like The Revolution Starts at Home. As the editors state in the introduction, TRSAH was the "why" and Beyond Survival is the "how." This is severely needed because, while various transformative justice tactics and techniques have been used by communities over time, the process is almost always labor intensive, draining, and sometimes leaves everyone feeling worse off before they went in. That is not to say there have never been successes. This book includes many examples. But, many writers state that even the failures have something to teach and that rigid purity politics do not allow us to make mistakes and to grow. This book also tackles many different types of conflicts and events that may require accountability and transformative justice practices. Entries range from what many people think of when they hear TJ- sexual assault and intimate partner violence- to creating safer spaces for youth, LGBTQ parties, sex workers, and others.

Couched in between a beautiful foreword by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and poetic afterword by adrienne marie brown is a slew of information from many wise voices. What struck me the most about this book is how kind, grounded, and realistic the ideas, stories, and strategies put forth were and how everyone presented these things with great humility. These are not people living in a fantasy world where suddenly the police can be avoided in every scenario. Rather than saying "don't call the cops, period," they say things like, "here are many things you can do instead, and if all else fails, here's how to deal with the cops if they arrive."

In the first section, "Making the Road by Dreaming: Stories of Accountability," we get a little bit of the "why" of transformative justice. This and many other parts of the book make it readable regardless of if you have read "The Revolution Starts at Home." As we progress through this section, we hit an excerpt from "Black Queer Feminism as Praxis" where we are told with brute honesty that it ain't gonna be pretty. These processes can suck and they cannot erase harm as if it never existed. Also included in this section is Kai Cheng Thom's "What to do if You've Been Abusive," which explores the reality that we are all capable of causing- and have caused- harm to others. Rather than reinforce cancel/callout culture's victim/perpetrator for life binary, Thom asks that we be kinder, gentler, and more realistic. "Doesn't the feminist saying go, 'We shouldn't be teaching people how not to get raped, we should be teaching people not to rape'? And if so, doesn't it follow that we shouldn't only support people who have survived abuse, but should also support people in learning not to abuse?" I want to be clear, Thom is not claiming that everyone is a rapist and a rape victim, but more like someone who rapes someone may also have a history of violent abuse from a parent that influences their decision making. Someone who survives rape may have also been abusive or toxic towards a partner in the past and may be afraid to come forward both because they were raped and because they are afraid of their past. Someone who pushes past boundaries at a party may also be struggling with alcoholism and PTSD. Someone whose boundaries were violated may be overwhelmed by memories where they violated others' boundaries. It is almost more exhausting and shame inducing to try to be only one thing on either side of that coin. By healing everyone, even though revenge feels very good in fantasy land, we are able to create safer environments for everyone, especially when they are victimized.

How many of us have called for the abolition of prisons and police through one side of our mouth while branding someone for life as forever boiled down to the worst thing they've done out of the other? I know I've done it. Many of these writings had me repeatedly asking myself, "Do I want to be righteous or do I want to be effective?" This is not to say that we remove room for survivors' pain, anger, revenge fantasies, and so on. Multiple writers discuss how venting (and "vent diagrams" of) our frustrations and kill-your-rapist fantasies in healthy ways can be quite healing. This is also not to say that many people who have done harm don't automatically respond with defensiveness and refusal to be accountable. There are stories of this in the book. What is being said is that many of us can and want to do better. Philly Stands Up discusses in their entry how often people came to them to confess that they'd done something harmful and wanted to be accountable and prevent it from happening again. Basically, if we truly want to transform our communities with as little police and prison involvement as possible, then we have to also leave room for those doing harm to be human, to change, to heal, and to be accountable.

The next section of the book, "We Got This: Tool Kits and Road Maps," is full of entries by various people and groups who have learned quite a lot through their trials in transformative justice work. All of the entries in this section had a ton of useful information to offer, but a few really stood out for me personally. These were: Fireweed Collective's, "When it all comes crashing down: Navigating crisis," Oakland Power Projects', "Maybe you don't have to call 911: Know your options," Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Mijente, and Puente Arizona's, "Excerpt From Community Defense Zone Starter Guide," and Safe OUTside the System Collective and Audrey Lorde Project's, "Excerpts from the Safer Party Toolkit." There are so many reasonable and creative ways that these groups and communities have come up with to prevent, manage, and deescalate conflicts. But, as this book makes quite clear, activist groups are not the only ones doing or capable of doing this work. These practices have been going on particularly in marginalized communities long before the words 'transformative justice' began being applied to them.

This leads us into part three, "We didn't call it TJ, but maybe it worked anyway? Messy, real stories." I have to say, I found these messy stories to be remarkably organized. It is in this section that we get to hear from sex worker and anti-violence proponents and what they have learned from their pratices to keep themselves and their communities safe. Sex workers have a ton of interesting and creative ways of doing this in a world where there is danger at every corner from both those intent on doing harm and those who claim to help. My favorite entry in this section was "Facing shame: From saying sorry to doing sorry," by Nathan Shara. This is another entry that really opened my eyes to the ways that all of us contain a massive amount of experiences where we have harmed and been harmed. Thinking of things this way seems to really invite healing from and for all parties. Slow, slow healing. Shara states in the beginning, "Solving violence is rarely as much about the moment at hand as it is about everything else the preceded it." And, "If we cannot reveal what we have done and what has been done to us without being seen as inferior, damaged, tainted, broken, monstrous, irreparable, and so on, then out of a core human drive toward dignity, we will not do it." Now, reading this review, I know some people may bristle and these quotes out of context. It may be difficult to think about some of the people who have harmed you or your friends as being deserving of kindness. Please consider still reading the larger texts before making a judgment based on ideological purity about what accountability and healing must always look like. In another favorite in this section: adrienne maree brown's, "What is/isn't transformative justice," where she discusses callout/cancel culture and asks, "Is this what we're here for? To cultivate a fear-based adherance to reductive common values? What can this lead to in an imperfect world full of sloppy, complex humans? Is it possible we will call each other out until there's no one left beside us?"

The final section, "What did we dream then, what do we know now? Movement histories and futures," we hear from "TJ Old Heads" about what they have learned in their work over the years and decades. The interviews with Shira Hassan and Mariame Kaba really stood out for me here as exceptional. Hassan offers all kinds of advice and information, including something I have discussed many times in my own circles. Regarding what she would like to see an end to in Transformative Justice: "There's this thing of everyone thinking all forms of violence are the same. And that all the tools we have are also the same. And they're actually really different for lots of reasons... where I think it gets tricky, and I think we're afraid to have these conversations, is that it's so important that everyone is validated in their experience of survival, and that my experience of sexual harrassment can dislocate me for years, and that is still different from someone else's experience of childhood sexual abuse."  When Kaba is asked why she wants to do fewer trainings, she states, "I don't think this is a work that is about experts. I want this work to be work that anyone and everyone who wants to try to do it does... I don't want people to feel that this work is something you have to get some certification in in order to be able to do." There is so much more wisdom in this section that I would have to copy the entire book to portray it. What I will say is that, once again, the common thread is humility, care, humanity, love, and an understanding that while "hurt people hurt people," it's also true that "healed people heal people.*"

*I did not invent this phrase. I saw it on a beautiful banner held by Let's Get Free.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Book Review: Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel

Image: The cover of the book is an illustration of a city street as seen from the top of a tall building. The buildings are stylized in cool colors with hints of yellow. A light lavender street stretches through the center with the silhouette of a person running down the middle. The sky taking up about 1/3 of the background fades from light blue to pinkish lavender with pink clouds. There is a very large light tan colored moon taking up about half of the visible sky. Across the front of the cover in 4 lines reads "EVERYONE ON THE MOON IS ESSENTIAL PERSONNEL" in large white capital letters. In the center, on top of transparent stripes of blue, pink, and lavender states, "STORIES: Juliann K. Jarboe" in yellow lettering.

I am so grateful that Julian K. Jarboe's debut collection, Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel came across my goodreads feed one day. Described on the publisher's page as being a "collection of body-horror fairy tales and mid-apocalyptic Catholic cyberpunk, memory and myth, loss and age... (in the) field of queer fabulism," the stories in this book are composed of many things from many places. I have never read anything quite like it. It is undoubtedly one of my favorite books with the category "queer fiction" slapped onto it. 

I hate to say it, but sometimes I have a lot of trouble with "LGBTQ" literature, even when it is written by queer and trans people. Sometimes the stories are all about being queer and trans, sometimes being queer or trans is not part of the story at all, and sometimes queer and trans characters are used purely as tokens, written with terrible ignorance. The problem with the last one is fairly obvious, but the first two are often accepted as great examples of LTGBQ literature. We are so starved for representation that we sometimes settle for that which is mediocre. It is not that some of the former fictions are never exceptional- quite a few are. It's just that, often, stories that approach characters and topics this way end up being one dimensional, unrealistic (and I don't mean from a scifi/fantasy perspective,) or even harmful. What makes Jarboe's story collection stand out in this realm is that they write stories surrounding the lives of many different kinds of queer and trans characters that are so well rounded that one cannot help to become completely immersed. Some of the stories are like poems and only one page long, yet they still drew me in. Jarboe writes stories that are about these characters without their LGBTQ existence being the ONLY thing about them. Yet they also don't attempt to use identities only in passing. Like actual life, it is part of who they are and part of their lives and experiences along with everything else in the world. I was able to see myself in so many of these characters including the ones that were of somewhat different demographic arrangements than I am. This is unfortunately rare.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book is how uniquely it spans so many different genres. Yes there is some science fiction and some LGBT fiction, but it is much more than that. It ranges from dead serious to laugh out loud funny. It includes great sadness and extraordinary satire. Their writing style is incredibly poetic and they show a great range across stories. Some stories read as if an author wrote them 100 years ago and others read with style from the future. The book is genuinely great fiction on top of having great representation. I can honestly say that I would read a full length novel based on any of these stories. The titular story- the longest in the book- is well deserving of its use in the title. Witty and satirical with hints of cyberpunk and space opera, it offers a look into another world.

I hope that this is only the beginning for Jarboe. They are truly a unique and talented voice in the wide ranging genre of fiction in general, not limited to LGBTQ or Science Fiction. This is definitely a book I see myself returning to and I can't recommend it enough.

This was also posted to my goodreads

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Book Review: Afterlife

Image: The cover of the book is a mustard yellow background with an abstract line painting of a tree. The trunk and branches of the tree are black and also form the profile of a human face halfway up the cover. The leaves of the tree are thick, short paint strokes of green, light blue, and dull red that sparsely cover most of the cover. The top of the book says, "author of the international best seller in the time of butterflies" in white. Below that in large, white, capital letters is the author's name- Julia Alvarez. Along the bottom in large white letters is the title. Below that in small white script it says, "a novel." Below that is a reviewer quote that is too small to make out.

Afterlife is author Julia Alvarez's first adult novel in 15 years and is also the first book I have read by the author. I won this book via goodreads giveaways and had entered because the story seemed like something I would like and would tackle themes that are exceedingly important in the world we are currently living in. Unfortunately, to get right to the point, the book was just not very good. I had to force myself to finish it.

The writing style does remind me somewhat of an author who tries to switch from writing young adult style novels to regular adult literature. I am not sure if that is what the blurb meant by it being her first adult novel in 15 years. But, there are plenty of authors who succeed in this realm and Alvarez didn't deliver. The whole book is very flat and lifeless. I felt like I did not really get to know the characters nor the atmospheres around them well at all. The prose felt very shallow and forced. It does hit on themes of immigration, citizenship, police misconduct, loss, and mental health but in very shallow, often tokenizing ways. The representation of mental health and bipolar disorder in the book is particularly exploitative. The character struggling through a mental health crisis is portrayed as a villain purposely screwing up the lives of her sisters. Some of the things she does aren't even bad or things I would necessarily consider requiring treatment. They definitely punish any weirdness or eccentricity and the way it is written seems to suggest that this is completely fine. The way her story ends, I will avoid spoilers, is written in this same exploitative way of a person's struggle used as a plot point to help the other characters move forward rather than as a journey for the disabled character herself.

Another issue with this book is the organization and style of it. It is written in the style where no quotations (or paragraph breaks or much punctuation at all) are used when people are speaking. I have read some books where authors are able to master this quite well and it works out. It did not work out in this book. I was constantly asking myself: Who said that? Was that someone talking or was that someone thinking? Was that part of the story or a quote? Then there are other sections where she randomly uses quotation marks. Why? If the story was going to have this much dialogue, why did the author nor the editor push for more punctuation or a different style?

The organization of the book is also all over the place. Once again, I have read many books that have this whole stream of consciousness way of writing and it can be done well. But this one just jumped all over the place and rushed from thing to thing. It seemed almost like a first draft of something. The book is 256 pages, but they are small pages with large lettering. So, at least it was short. I finished it because it interested me enough to know what was going to happen. In the end, I wish I would have put it down and picked up another book. Perhaps this author was just out of practice. It looks like she has written some really great novels. This was not one of them unfortunately.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Book Review: This View of Life

Image: The cover of the book is white a large multicolored arrow composed of small symbols of human bodies. It is more concentrated at the top and gets sparser as it goes down. It is on the right side. On the left side, in large black letters says "This view of life, completing the Darwinian Revolution, David Sloan Wilson."

Normally, I don't post reviews of items I only read small sections of. But, I post everything from publishers on my blog as a courtesy and I received a copy of this in the mail even though I did not request it. I don't know if it was an accident or if I had reviewed something else for them and they thought I would like this.  The last book on a similar topic that I read was one I also gave one-star to without finishing. I am overall a completionist and try to finish most things even mildly worth reading. I decided to flip through the book and see where in my queue I wanted to put it. Imagine my dismay when I get two two pages showing tortured hens in battery cages- where about 99% of those on this planet misused for eggs and flesh spend their short, miserable lives. This guy uses an experiment where someone tries to make the chickens as "productive" as possible while keeping them in horrific conditions as some amazing feat in science and as a model for how to create a better society. I think, "surely, a man claiming he has the answers to creating a better society would disparage the practice keeping sentient individuals crammed together in a rusty cage the size of a shoebox stacked on top of one another in an ammonia and feces filled shed." But, no, he barely scratches the surface.

Image: A photo of part of the page of the book showing a black and white image of a battery cage. Several suffering hens are shown with almost no feathers inside a cage approximately the size of a shoebox. You cannot see it in the photo, but the study describes most of the chickens in the cage being dead, presumably under foot of the live ones.

He not only uses the study as an example, he calls them "a beautiful example of within group and between group selection." He uses an image of a group with better breeding selection as an example of the wonderful merits of eugenics in farming. Look! These animals sitting on top of each other in these cages have slightly more feathers and pecked each other slightly less. What a lovely thing. He claims that the reason they attack each other is purely from genetic selection that increased a heritable trait of bullying. Could it possibly have anything to do with their nightmarish conditions of captivity? A non-scientist layman could easily draw such a conclusion. He calls chickens murderers and psychopaths because they attack each other as they go mad in these hellish conditions. I guarantee that if you stuff 8 people into a portajohn and leave them there their whole lives, they're going to fight and suffer immensely regardless of their genetics.

Image: Another photo of a page of the book showing another photo of battery hens that the author seems to think is a positive outcome. At least 8 hens are now shown crammed into a battery cage and they are only missing part of their feathers.

He has little to say about those who put them there aside from claiming he'd pay more for "free range" eggs but again sticks to blaming the hens for fighting in that environment rather than the people who put them in such a terrible place. He seems to know nothing about chicken behavior when they are given a healthy environment that meets their needs. Many sanctuaries have taken in fighting roosters- abused to be the most aggressive and thought to be beyond help and far more dangerous than battery hens- and not only rehabbed them but helped them to live with other fighting roosters in harmony. How? I can guarantee it has nothing to do with eugenics, battery cages, and "free range" sheds.

More perusing of the book led me to find that he also encourages nonhuman animal testing for human disease in ways that are not accurate in predicting human response even outside of the massive ethical concerns. He really seems to want to defend social darwinism, claiming that his type of social darwinism is different than the kind people use to celebrate and justify inequality. There's a lot of "this thing was really bad when (the nazis, etc, insert horrifying tragedy in history) did it, but I know a much better way to do it."

Here's an in depth review by someone with more scientific education in this field than me.

If I wanted advice about how to create a better society, this is one of the last people I would ask.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Book Review: When Animals Speak

Image: The cover of the book is a black background with a very close up image of part of an octopus. Their dark eye is near the center of the screen, lidded with a circle of flesh, and their body extends outside the upper right corner of the cover. A few of their legs curl in front in view and also cut off at the right side. Across the top in small, white, capital letters is the author's name. In large letters, with one word on each line at the center of the book is the title. Across the bottom in small white capital letters is the byline, "toward and interspecies democracy."

When Animals Speak by Eva Meijer is an extremely important academic contribution to animal studies and to the world at large. With an astute examination and interpretation of a vast amount of literature, case studies, experiments, philosophy, and other means, Meijer takes our current conceptions of others animals' abilities to communicate, behave, organize, and act to a new and very necessary level. I read a lot of books centering other animals from the more popular and political side to the very academic and scientific sides and thus, am sometimes underwhelmed by newer books on these subjects. This one, however, brought a lot of new information into my psyche and has had me thinking hard about the topics therein ever since. While I am sure she is not the only person to come up with these ideas and conclusions, as she includes the words and citations of many others, she definitely collects quite a lot of information into one place.

Due to it's academic nature, this book can be really repetitive at times. It seems to be written with the intention that someone could possibly read one chapter alone and out of context from the rest. This is not unusual in academia, but since I read it cover to cover, I often found the same things said repeatedly which could get tedious. That said, it is very well structured and organized. We always know where Meijer is going before she tackles the details and she always summarizes where she ended up.

One of the features of this book that really stood out for me was Meijer's discussions of anthropomorphism. The idea of anthropomorphism is misused by people who cannot bear the idea than other animals are more than objects for their exploitation and is a frequent rallying cry of those with a direct relationship to nonhuman animal exploitation. Some animal researchers, for instance, will often claim that any attribution of emotion, suffering, cognition, communication abilities, etc to their research captives is the dreaded anthropomorphism phenomenon and that this somehow makes what they do to animals excusable. These same people are happy to discuss the ways other animals are similar to us when it fits their occupation and hypothesis, but that quickly goes out the window when their abuse of power is taken into consideration. Meijer uses the concept of anthropormorphism as a vehicle to actually center other animals rather than to erase them. She stresses the importance that we not assume other animals are like us in every way, nor should we assume that they are all like each other. Expanding on this point, she discourages thinking that forces other animals into a human box in order to grant them consideration. Instead, differences within and between species should be acknowledged and centered in order to improve our relationships with other animals. Other animals should not have to be "like us" in order to deserve appropriate treatment and consideration. I hate to say that this is one of the first times I have seen someone discuss it in this way.

The central topic of the book, evident in the title, is that of communication and interaction with and between other animals. I began this book believing other animals had sophisticated communication, but had always heard- even other animal advocates- claim that none of them had actual language. This always seemed unlikely to me, but since I am not a linguist I figured that maybe there are many rules for something to be considered a language and that perhaps I just did not understand that. Meijer includes a lot of literature and research that is showing that other animals do indeed have structured communication that can be called language and the problem is that we are not sophisticated enough to understand it. There are well-known instances of animals learning human language (Koko the gorilla, Alex the parrot, etc) and vice versa (Jane Goodall,) but I did not realize that there was so much new research showing language being present in other species. I also felt challenged in the best ways by how far these observations went. Meijer includes studies of nonhuman primates and birds (which many people are accepting have advanced cognitive abilities,) but also addressed the abilities of other animals like bees and even worms who people as far back as Darwin have observed the ability to learn and work together in.

Reading this book helped me realize how stuck in the past a lot of my thinking about animals was. One of the more interested ways this happened was how Meijer discussed ways that other animals can be political actors in that they can take intentional actions that influence policy and actions of humans. She included the works of Jason Hribal, Aph and Syl Ko, Sunaura Taylor, and other favorites of mine and then expands upon the wisdom they have offered. She encourages us to uproot many of the ways we interact with and think about other animals. Even in animal rights and liberation communities, there is a huge problem with the unacknowledged power dynamics between humans and other animals. This can even be reinforced in harmful ways through rescue efforts in which people see themselves as saviors of the animals rather than as people working in solidarity with them. For example, the phenomenon of a stray dog being taken off the street, only to die, "unadoptable" in a shelter when s/he was actually content with the struggles of the street. We must redefine our relationship with other animals from one in which we "save" them and they are one-dimensional, innocent, voiceless beings into one in which they are seen as complex beings with varying needs and desires like us.

Meijer encourages us to not only better communicate with other animals, but to use what she calls "interspecies deliberation" to negotiate relationships that work best for everyone involved. She encourages solutions that serve both humans and other animals best rather than those which only favor one group's needs and interests. Her main point is that we are going to have interactions and relationships with other animals no matter what. As a result, positive and mutually rewarding relationships will develop and also conflicts will arise that need to be resolved. Meijer encourages cooperative actions with other animals in ways that benefit both the humans and other animals. She uses a variety of means to offer ways how we can do this, but it of course will never be easy.

Overall, I really appreciate the knowledge this book gave me and I will continue thinking about it and hopefully implementing it in my life and relationships with other animals. I definitely think anyone could benefit from the information in this book, but I think it should be critical reading for those who have intimate or frequent interactions with other animals.

This was also posted to my goodreads.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Book Review: Know My Name

Image: The cover of the book is a darker teal color with a few lines that look like twigs in gold random directions around the edges. The title of the book is in large, capital, white letters. Underneath, "a memoir" in smaller, thinner, lowercase white letters. Under that is "Chanel Miller" in the same letters as the title.

I recall reading Chanel Miller's victim impact statement (as Emily Doe) when it made the rounds years ago. Without divulging my own history in detail, I will simply say that it meant a great deal to me to read. I remember it affecting everyone I knew who was in a place that offered them the ability to read it at the time. We felt empowered and seen by this woman's words that were both brutally honest and exceedingly gentle. I recall being appalled by the sentencing hearing, or what was available about it in the media. I am a person who believes in prison abolition and am in favor of restorative justice when possible. It was not just the sentence itself that bothered me, but how it was justified and described. It was how the sentencing hearing was basically a congratulatory party for the aggressor. After that, I don't recall hearing much else until I saw Miller being interviewed on the Daily Show. When I realized who she was, I couldn't wait to read her book, Know My Name: A Memoir.  I also was afraid to read it. I steer clear of reading, listening to, and watching things that end up being trauma porn or a long detailing of horrors. I am glad I went for it anyways because Miller manages to both be honest and detailed about her experiences without the writing falling into the trauma porn category. I believe this is because she is an excellent story teller that manages to grasp the entire picture ad convey it well to her audience.

If there was ever a single piece of literature that one could hand to someone when they ask, "Why didn't she go to the police? Why didn't she report (the rape/assault/etc?)" it would be this book. It's not because it's the worst story I have read about interactions with police and hospitals after an assault. It's because it is one of the "better" ones, though I put that in quotes because there is never anything good in something like this. Miller's story represents one in which she was treated with respect by most of the people she encountered early on. She met a caring detective, concerned and gentle hospital workers, had a supportive and loving family and partner, a DA who was passionate about her case, and so on. She represents an experience in which everything early on goes as least terribly as it can, and yet her experience remains horrific and traumatizing at a level that no one should ever have to endure. The invasiveness of the police, medical exams, court systems, as well as the absolute unease that comes with knowing something happened when one was completely helpless and unconscious is enough to damage anyone. Miller wasn't given much choice whether or not to report as she woke up in the hospital. But, this terror is often as good as it gets within the system. Meaning, the best is still one of the worst things that can happen to someone. Most of the system when one chooses to report can actually add extensive amounts of trauma. The other side of the coin is that she had to endure what followed in a much more public manner than most people, creating a unique set of awful circumstances.

Miller's writing is superb and engaging. She manages to take us through a very long story that can easily become tedious if told without talent. I do not mean that the traumas themselves are tedious, but they can be difficult to capture with words and some people find court systems boring. I found my self completely drawn in by her words and story. I can't think of another book that captured what it is like to endure something like this and how it affects every aspect of one's life and the world around them. I don't read a lot of survivor stories with this much detail because I feel it is often an exercise in retraumatization on my part. But, Miller manages to capture the harrowing ordeal she went through without mincing words and also without leaving the reader wanting to completely give up on the world at the end.

I am not going to detail anything about the case or her trauma as I want her words and the book to do that. As I said, she conveys it best and does a far better job than I would. She also manages to create the necessary connections between her struggles and that of others, especially other traumas that were going on in current events around the time the book was written. I will say this. Something that struck me over and over was how talented Miller is. She is a writer, a comedian, an illustrator, and many other things. I found myself thinking, how much talent have we lost to trauma and violence? How many victims might later have become writers, artists, doctors, astronauts, performers, scientists, care takers, and so on if the rug were not ripped out from under them by sexual violence? This is not to say that one must be exceptional in order for their story to matter. On the contrary, I think that everyone has something important to offer this world and that sexual violence can place a giant, sometimes immovable, roadblock in the way of discovering what that is. My questions are rhetorical. I know we have lost countless people to these violent acts. I know countless predators have been lifted up and defended as Brock Turner was while those who survived their acts struggle to breathe. It is difficult to know how to exist in a society like that.

Miller does not allow the reader to get stuck with that feeling. She leaves the reader with hope and not in the way many writers on these topics tend to. I often struggle with overly optimistic takes on surviving trauma which often suggest that people come out stronger and better and now everything is over. Miller manages to leave the reader with a realistic set up. Yes, the trauma still affects us. Yes, it still hurts. No, it will not ever disappear. No, nothing was fair. Yes, the system is broken. But, it is not all that there is and it cannot take away all that we are. Miller's words are essential reading for people in every field from gender studies to law to medicine to parenting. They are definitely essential reading for those without sexual trauma who find themselves struggling to understand why someone makes the choices they do. Miller captures all of this and more in this book, all while telling her story honestly and beautifully. I hope to see more from her in the future.

This was also posted to my goodreads. 

Book Review: The Goodness Paradox

Image: The cover of the book is very pale pink with the outline of seven homogeneous muscular bodies standing side by side holding hands, composed as red silhouettes. The third body from the left has a large black X over it. The title is across the top in large black letters. Across the bottom is the byline in smaller black letters. Below that, in red letters, is the author's name.

I made a well thought out decision not to finish this book. This is the first time I have done this when I have received a review copy. I am at a place in my life where there are so many things I want to read and never enough time. As a result, I don't want to waste the time I have. Normally, I don't write much for a DNF. But, I felt obligated to spend time on this since it was a review copy I received.

The idea of this book is an interesting one. Human violence and virtue, evolution, anthropology, and so on. I was irritated quite early on, but forced myself to give the book at least 100 pages and finished out the chapter I was on at 112 (approximately 40% of the book not including notes.) Unfortunately, the more I read, the more I found wrong with the book. He even started off the first paragraph with the claim that Hitler was a vegetarian and loved animals- false information often spread by edgelord meat eaters as a "gotcha!" to silence and demean vegetarians. I had an interest in seeing that he worked with Goodall and that she offered a blurb, but left wondering if Goodall had read anything by this man. If she has, I need to interrogate my positive view of her as well.

First, this book says little about virtue. It focuses mostly on violence. Second, holy hell is it steeped deeply in thick, white, colonialism, outdated language and concepts, debunked male dominated evolutionary psych theories, anthropocentrism and ideas of other animals as disposable objects, confirmation bias, and more. I bristled first when Wrangham discusses spending time studying populations in the Congo and how he went in expecting them to be very violent primitive people because he came from a lovely, nonviolent, rural English community. Ok. Well, he was wrong, but he seemed to not understand how screwed up and detrimental to scientific progress his initial belief system was. He doesn't let go of these racist and xenophobic prejudices. One simply cannot get an accurate picture of violence in the Congo without looking at colonialism's influence. A little research on him found that this was not the first time he was accused of racial insensitivity or racism. I stuck with him, understanding that not every book or author is perfect. But, it only got worse over time. To detail every instance where Wrangham's colonialism dominated his views would involve me writing an even longer review of a book I didn't finish. Perhaps I will just include a quote from Darwin he decided to use, in which he states that an indigenous group of humans he encountered were, "...the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld..." using this as a justification for discussing tribal peoples, almost always of color or from the global south, as less advanced than white colonizers. He used assessments and quotes like this regularly without any criticism or acknowledgement of the horribleness (with the exception of saying Nazis suck and pandering to them sucks, but that's easy.)

The book is also littered with language that made me feel like I was reading something from 1950, not 2019. References to "mentally handicapped" children, claiming white colonizers "discovered" indigenous people and land, claiming being Deaf was not an "optimal design" funnily enough after he claimed eugenics was wrong, generally negatively referring to people with disabilities or with pity, the aforementioned ways of discussing peoples of the global south, and so on.

Wrangham has a very reductive approach to looking at human and other animal behavior. Even when he seems to be covering all of the bases in discussing the various reasons for said behavior, he directly contradicts himself from one section to another or uses anecdotal or insufficient research to support his points. For instance, he notes that chimps being more violent than bonobos on average could be due to environmental factors like lack of access to food. He then discusses a study done in captivity with rescued chimps and bonobos in which they were placed in a room with bananas and watched. The bonobos shared, the chimps defaulted to a dominant eater. This, to him, meant that food and environment were not the cause (which he contradicts again later.) But, did anyone really think some banana slices in a room would erase each animal's entire history before they arrived there as well as information passed down from generation to generation before that (something we know they and many other species do?) If we took humans raised in a highly violent system and put them in a room with a cookie, would we expect that to be an accurate assessment of their potential? It's just bad assessment of science. I am not saying chimps aren't naturally more predisposed to violence, just that this was a terrible way of trying to prove it.

This inability to fully understand other animals as complex beings (a pretty critical component to his field and to creating a proper analysis here) is evident in how he discusses studies of imprisoned and abused animals. He fawns over studies where animals' brains are implanted with electrodes and after an already painful and terrifying brain surgery, are stimulated into aggressive states. He uses a study with a bullfight, using an animal who is already extremely abused in order to create an aggressive response, as a legitimate way to study natural behavior. There are studies where furriers keep animals in small cages over many years trying to find the best way to make a fur coat before killing and skinning them that are treated as amazing. He romanticizes the (ab)use of chimps for entertainment. He celebrates monsters like Yerkes and his colleagues traveling to Africa to kidnap primates from the wild and bring them home to study, harm, and kill. There were so many instances where one could read it and assume he was talking about a toaster rather than a living being that he has spent his life studying- which is also troublesome. Much of this is intertwined with his lack of interrogation of his white, colonialist approach to everything. I kept asking myself- did Jane Goodall really read this book before offering a blurb or was she just helping her colleague.

Once again, this is something Wrangham has been accused of before. For instance, in a previous book which was basically incel fodder couched in some pseudo-womens-empowerment lingo, Wrangham claimed that women choosing aggressive men is why we have patriarchy, leaving less aggressive ones in the friend zone. We know clearly that human attraction is far more complicated than that, but this long history of men in evolutionary research refusing to interrogate their own patriarchal internal processes. This has even lead to them borderline excusing rape due to their highly biased perecption of why it has occurred. But, hey, I told myself, maybe he has learned more since then and grown. He has changed his tune on Bonobo aggression- previously saying females were less aggressive but in this book saying they are moreso than males. But, he does seem to contradict that later so I am not sure what is true.

This leads into one of the main reasons I put this book down. Yes, there was colonialism and oppressive thinking and obvious bias. I have read many science texts with that in it but still found something useful. The problem was, I realized I couldn't trust anything he said. From the bias to the contradictions, what was I actually learning? On top of that, the book is stylistically boring and repetitive at times. It's a shame because the topic seems extremely interesting with huge potential to tell us something great. That just wasn't happening in this book. So, I'm putting it down and will definitely avoid this author in the future.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Book Review: Racism as Zoological Witchcraft

Image: The cover of the book has a light blue background with an abstract illustration of a human eye at the center. The eye iris of the eye is composed of three layered circles. Outside the iris, a light blue outline of a forest overlaps on the right side, in the first circle is light orange with a silhouette of a deer with antlers overlapping the left side. The next circle is pink with another silhouette of fir trees on the upper left. The last circle at the center is composed of a black starry night sky with a floating white silhouette of a human on the upper right. The top half of the book has the title in large, pink, uppercase letters. Below and slightly overlapping the bottom of the eye is Aph Ko's name in large letters. Below that in small letters is, "Illustrations by Alise and Jack Eastgate, Foreword by Claire Jean Kim."

Once in a while, a theorist comes along and helps you realize just how stuck in a paradigm your thinking is. There is a long history of our movements often being categorized by waves or generations- a practice that often puts white voices in the spotlight. As times and society change (and while many things stay the same,) daring authors, activists, thinkers, and others break through what is accepted at the time to create something needed and new. These people are critical to the evolution of thinking and activism. Aph Ko is one of these people.

I have followed Ko's work since Black Vegans Rock and Aphro-ism and also had the privilege of seeing her speak at an Intersectional Justice conference (of which her talk was one of the best, if not the best.) I have been regularly blown away by her ability to use the knowledge we have to create new things, rather than only repeating or strengthening ideas that already exist. In "Racism as Zoological Witchcraft: A Guide to Getting Out," Aph Ko takes many belief systems regarding anti-racism, animal liberation, intersectionality, feminism, and other kinds of radicalism and dissects them mercilessly. While reading Ko's work in this book especially, I was moved by her unapologetic passion. Ko tells the truth and creates thought exercises that stimulate the mind and create change even if a particular concept is not fully fleshed out. Ko has clearly considered things outside the box so intensely that her excitement about the evolution and change of our movements shines through the pages. 

This book is well organized and fairly short at 126 pages, not including notes and sources. Normally, I would read something this short more quickly. But, Ko introduces so many complicated concepts and discusses so many intense and serious things, that I put the book down frequently. This book requires one to take their time and think. Ko begins from the premise that many of our movements are colonized and static in how they approach the subjects at hand- focusing mainly on racism and animality (though me dividing the two into separate camps for the sake of clarity goes against Aph's thesis.) Ko has a background in media studies and uses her experience to analyze these topics in various media- the movie Get Out being central to the text.

I actually decided to rewatch Get Out after reading Ko's first analysis of it in the book. I am a person who often pays attention to how other animals intersect with humans' stories in media. However, I did not realize just how intertwined the constructs of "human" and "animal" were in Get Out until reading Ko's analysis and rewatching the film. Ko highlights how human and other animal suffering and exploitation are not just metaphors for one another, but are intimately intertwined as part of a much more insidious system of what she refers to as Zoological Racism. She weaves this analysis throughout the book as a cohesive thread.

There was one section of the book that I struggled with and that was a chapter titled Moving from Intersectionality to Multidimensional Liberation Theory. Ko previously coined the term social layerism to describe "the ways in which intersectional activists and scholars often pile oppressions on top of one another without an "intersection" or "connection" ever really taking place." This is basically a colonized, white veganism version of faux intersectionality that is separate from the concepts promoted by Black lesbian feminists like the Combahee River Collective. It seemed to me through reading this chapter, that Ko was addressing social layerism rather than actual intersectionality. The idea of multidimensionality is central to intersectionality. It is not that Black women experience racism on top of sexism or vice versa, but that the intersection creates a multidimensional experience different from either oppression on its own. Now, it's clear that Ko understands this. She even goes on to say at the end of the chapter that some people will make the argument I just made and that it is incorrect. She claims that we are so steeped in intersectionality being the accepted theory that that stands in the way of us being able to grasp multidimensionality liberation theory. That said, I still found myself searching for the difference between the two.

Ko goes on to explain multidimension liberation theory using a very helpful analogy, complete with illustration, of different kinds of houses. This is where her theories did begin to separate from and evolve past intersectionality for me. She explains that we currently look at oppressions from the front of the house seeing only the front doors as an entrance to fighting it. What oppression really is is a multidimensional house with many different entrances. We must find and explore those in order to most effectively fight oppression.

I also was both enlightened and confused by her example of Black mens experiences as being gendered and sexualized. This also seemed to be in line with or expanding upon intersectionality to me, (i.e. the intersection of being Black and male creates a unique set of struggles.) It is undoubtedly important not to place Black men in the same patriarchal category as white men, but I think she took it a bit far. She quotes mens studies theorists Johnson and Curry throughout this section. While I did understand some of what she was saying- such as Black men needing to be included in the history of white sexual violence against Black bodies, the importance of dismantling the Black male predator trope especially with their history of victimization, and the horrific history of lynching enforced through the power that both white men and women have held over Black male bodies- some of the text seemed to border on the whole #notallmen/men-get-X-too phenomenon that is often used to silence women discussing struggle and violence at the hands of men- including Black men. I am not saying Ko was silencing women. On the contrary, I believe she is trying to expand upon often one-dimensional theories about race and gender in important ways. However, I was left saying to myself, "I would never claim that I lack white privilege due to the fact that my being trans, queer, disabled, etc causes me not to experience it in the same way as a white cis het man." Is Blackness in particular the oppression that overrides any other advantage? If a disabled man is violent towards a nondisabled woman, do we discount the patriarchy and misogyny involved because he is disabled and she is not? Perhaps it is that white supremacy and animality are the central tenets and the same thinking would not apply to all marginalized people.

Johnson's quotes used by Ko were the ones that I felt uneasy about, but wasn't sure exactly why. As a result, I decided to read some of Johnson's posts online in case the small quotes out of context led to a misunderstanding on my part. Reading more from Johnson only bothered me more. He makes valid points about the oppression of Black men, but the way he frames them is from a staunchly anti-feminist viewpoint where he constantly devalues the voices of of women and often seems to suggest that Black women are oppressing Black men by asking that women be centered. He believes that Black men are incapable of having male privilege or patriarchal advantages because of their oppression based on race. He uses anecdotes artfully to paint a false picture that Black women have it easier than Black men. It is as if he does not understand the various reasons Black feminisms came about and reduces almost all of them to extremist misandrists. He demeans sensitive and gentle men, claims women actually want "hypermasculinity" "behind closed doors," and refers to hypermasculine men as real and others as just pandering to feminism. All in all, the messages about the needs of Black men to be included are overshadowed by the anti-feminism and low-key misogynoir in his writings. I could write more about this, but this was such a small section of the book that I don't want my opinions about this guy who did not write it to dominate. Also, having said all of that, I haven't stopped thinking about this. So, perhaps some of these things will settle into my mind and I will feel differently. Perhaps there are things I don't understand yet due to the phenomena that Aph Ko describes in which we are stuck in one way of thinking.

In wrapping things up, Ko discusses "Afro-zoological resistance" as the solution to these conflicts arising from the static nature of our current understandings of oppression. She states, "Animal is part of the vocabulary of white supremacist violence; it signifies the rhetorical and social branding of certain bodies, which white supremacy wants to consume, exploit, and eliminate without question." She reminds us that single-issue and "two-dimensional" intersectional movements are colonized and locked in place requiring that they be upended in order to fully understand the scope of oppression. She also discusses how this fits into animal liberation in particular stating, "...veganism isn't just about kicking a meat-eating habit and getting some veggies into your diet... It's a powerful rejection of a racist food system and a racist, cannibalistic politics that characterizes animals and nonwhite people as disposable and consumable."

Overall, Aph Ko provides the needed upheaval of current systems of anti-oppression thought and activism that is critical for the growth of all movements over time. I am very excited to watch the ideas she explores grow and affect change over time. This book raises more questions than it answers and I believe that was part of Ko's intention. I still have quite a lot to think about.

This was also posted to my goodreads.