Top Ten Tuesday: Nonfiction Reads

Hmm…I haven’t really been feelin any of the last 3-4 Top Ten Tuesday topics lately.  Book with my favorite color in the title? Poo. Books we’d “slay a lion” to get early? Nah…I like lions.

Anyway, I’ve decided to make up my own Top Ten Tuesday based a genre that I go to quite frequently: non-fiction. So here’s my Top Ten Favorite Non-Fiction Reads from the past 5 years or so. Enjoy!

Top Ten Nonfiction Reads

  1. Buck: A Memoir, M.K. Asante. This a very solid memoir about a young Black man’s upbringing in a middle class Philadelphia household in the 80s and 90s. His father is the very famous Molefi Asante, a scholar known for bringing Afrocentrism to the forefront of academia. Despite his well-known father, M.K. struggles with a lot of issues that don’t get talked about much, because most books written about Black life are not from a middle class perspective. Very solid, readable book.
  2. A Bestiary, Lily Hoang. This book kinda defies genre. If I could describe it, I’d give it the title of “nonfiction fiction memoir.” It’s a gathering of facts, personal stories, biographical insights, observations. Normally I hate this kinda of crazy quilt, pastiche effect (check this review) but I LOVED this book. Everything fit together perfectly.
  3. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris. This book’s a part of the dissertation research I’m working on, but it’s still an enjoyable and very fact-based read. As a Black female, I think it is lamentable that I am still more likely, simply based on my race, to be incarcerated, expelled from school, or drop out of school altogether. Black girls are also 6 times more likely to be suspended from school than White girls, even though they exhibit the same behaviors. Great read.
  4. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer. This book is an eye-opener to the world of the working poor. It is not excuse making (see this review) nor is it poverty-shaming, it is just the day to day realities for people who work 40-60 hours a week and, due to the fact that we haven’t raised the minimum wage in fucking years, barely have enough to buy toilet paper. A very readable, informative book.
  5. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond. The author of this book traveled to Milwaukee and spend time with people on all sides of the low-rent housing market for year: investors, the landlords, the people who call these places home and get put out time and time again, the judges whose sole job it is to evict people, often to the streets with no other recourse. Normally I don’t care about who wins a Pulitzer Prize, but this book deserved it–hands down.
  6. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you haven’t read any of Coates’ articles on race relations in The Atlantic then you definitely should be. He is pretty much the writer right now when it comes to critical race issues and the public conversations going on around them. I was going to write a review of this book here when I read it a while back but I realized that it was so good, I literally had nothing to say. A mic-dropper.
  7. They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan, Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, & Judy Bernstein. When I included a quote from this book on this website, one of the authors (Judy Bernstein) sent me an email and offered me a copy of this book. Of course I said yes, because this book touched my heart. It’s the story of three boys, all very young (10-13 years old) and left orphaned by their families due to the civil war in Sudan. They escape the country, but cross rivers, hostile territories, deserts, endure dangerous predators, starvation. It’s a harrowing book.
  8. A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park. Another book about one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, only with a YA centered focus and contrasted with a modern story from 2008. Salva is a boy who escaped the Sudanese Civil War in 1985, Nya is a girl who walks miles to fetch water. Their stories intersect beautifully. Loved this book!
  9. There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, Alex Kotlowitz. This story takes place in the 1980’s in the Henry Horner Homes, one of Chicago’s most notoriously violent, drug and gang infested housing projects. The story centers around Pharoah and his brother Lafeyette, living with their mother and literally dodging bullets on their way to school. Even though they’ve since torn down the Horner projects, this is still a relevant read, especially if you want to understand why Chicago leads the country in gun-related violence. There is a kinda humanizing effect here to inner-city lives that I haven’t found elsewhere in nonfiction.
  10. Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, Jonathan Kozol. I don’t think you can call yourself an educator if you’ve never read Kozol–he’s quite a prolific writer and his books are widely taught in teacher education courses. This book is a kind of follow-up to other books that he has written over the years about children in poverty. Some of the stories end on a positive note, some are tragic. It’s still a great book, however, by a great author.

Whew, my hand’s tired. I get fired up when writing about nonfiction, that’s all. See ya’ll later this week.

xoxo,

Kellan

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Review: Brave

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Review for "Brave" by Rose McGowan (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Oh dear, three stars here. And that’s being generous.

I’ve always been a fan of Rose McGowan–I loved her in the films “Scream,” “Jawbreaker,” the tv show “Charmed,” and when I saw that she had written a book I decided to take a peep. Overall, it’s not a horrible book, it’s just one that espouses an obnoxious brand of feminism that I find problematic. I’ll get to this later though.

Rose gives a lot of details into her early life. She grew up in a commune with the Children of God, a religious cult that would be later known for its physical and sexual abuse of women and children. She manages to escape with her father and move to America, where she moves around often. She eventually reunites with her mother, whose boyfriends were abusive to Rose. She later auditions for an extra in a movie and her career as a Hollywood actress begins.

About midway through the book, McGowan details a meeting with a well-known movie industry executive who sexually abuses her. She never names the exec but we know she’s obviously talking about Harvey Weinstein. She also talks about her relationship with Marilyn Manson, whom she started dating because, in her words, he was a really “sweet” guy. Fair enough, I thought. I never fell for his contrived, shock-rock bs either.

Anyway, toward the last quarter of the book, McGowan spends a great deal of time dishing on her relationship with another famous film director known as “RR” (obviously Robert Rodriguez). She characterizes him as an emotionally abusive man who allowed her to be seriously injured on a movie set, among other bad things. After this she lectures us on and on about cults, groupthink, the virtues of #RoseArmy (her social media followers who can’t get enough of her), why men continue to abuse women, etc. When she started to plug some EDM music album she’d created, I stopped reading. Zzzz.

Which brings me back to Rose’s “feminist” problem. I place “feminist” in quotes because before this book came out, Rose has been noted on the record multiple times with negative statements about trans women, commenting that “they don’t live in this world as women.” This is false. It’s also terribly ignorant. Trans women are raped, discriminated against, murdered, abused, and beaten quite often–exactly because they do live as women. Fortunately, Rose does not get to decide who is and isn’t a woman. It’s also exactly why I, as a feminist myself, can’t embrace her exclusionary brand of “feminism,” which seems to privilege being straight and cisgendered above all else.

So I’m giving this three stars. I like to think I’m a person who can separate the person from the book, but both of these had issues. Meh…

Review: Lockdown on Rikers: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York’s Notorious Jail

Skipping Top Ten Tuesday again…I’ve got a backlog of reviews, so enjoy!

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Review for "Lockdown on Rikers" by Mary E. Buser (2015)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
I went into this book based solely on its title, thinking it would be a critique of one of the largest and most dangerous prisons in America, the notorious Rikers Island jail complex located in New York City. The author spent time as a mental health therapist on the Island, a site of continuous controversy over its bureaucracy, officer corruption, violence, and the inhumane treatment of inmates. I also thought that this book would discuss solutions on what we could do as a society to reform jails and prisons. With both of these things in mind, I had high hopes for this book. However, this book does none of those things. What you get here is a therapist-in-training’s daily account of her interactions with inmates and her frustration with system bureaucracy and its treatment of mentally ill inmates.

I certainly understand Ms. Buser’s point in writing her story. It is a fact that many jail and prison inmates are mentally ill, and should be getting treatment and care for their conditions instead of jail time. However, this story is not particularly new or unique. We know that prisons aren’t good places for the mentally ill, and there’s been numerous exposes already written and filmed on this subject. While I commend the author for staying so long on this job and her compassion for the inmates, I am a bit disappointed that the focus of this book wasn’t more solution-based. If jail isn’t the place for the mentally ill and locking them in asylums aren’t either, then what, according to her professional opinion, is? Ms. Buser never tells us and stops far ahead of offering any kind of insight into this problem. Also disheartening is that the events here took place in the 90s, yet she is telling this story over 20 years later (this book was published in 2015). Wouldn’t this story have had much more of an impact 20 years ago? She does write an update of sorts in the epilogue, telling us very generally that “abuse on Rikers continues” but she cites few examples to back up this point.

The writing here is nothing special. I wouldn’t be surprised if the author took her therapy notes, copied them, and reconstructed it as the dialogue and events that you read about here. Overall, this is a very underwhelming story that could have been a lot more, had new insights been presented.

Review: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

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Review for "Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America" by Linda Tirado (2014) 
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Ladies and gentlemen: this is a long review. I also have a potty mouth. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I wanted to read this book all the way through but I just couldn’t. I did finish it (thank God it’s short), but skimmed through most of it. I’ve never read a book in which the author’s tone is so negative, angry to the point where the arguments they are attempting to make are almost laughable because its obvious that they’re affected by their emotions. I got this over as quickly as possible.

Linda Tirado was an average “poor” person on the internet one evening when she came across a message board where a poster asked why poor people make bad choices (smoking, drinking, having children they cannot afford). She responded to the poster in a strongly-worded diatribe on why life is hard for poor people. Her post went viral and apparently she started a GoFundMe account and raised $60k. She promptly went on a Vegas vacation got herself a book deal.

In “Hand to Mouth,” Tirado takes us on a kind of “tour” of what it means to be poor. In the introduction, she breaks down poverty as “when a quarter is a miracle,” poor as “when a dollar is a miracle,” working class as “being broke, but in a place that’s not broke down,” and “middle class” as “being able to own some toys and to live in a nice place–no leased furniture.” “Rich,” according to Tirado, is anything above this.

[Pause]

From this page forward I knew that this individual was completely insane, but I decided to give her a chance.

Anyway, I call BS on this book for the following reasons:

— Despite the “poor-middle class-working class-poverty” distinction Tirado makes in the intro, she spends the entire book only talking about two types of people–rich and poor. If she’s just going to speak in a dichotomy, then her definitions are meaningless, because by doing so everyone who is not rich is, in her own view, “poor.” In applying the term “poor” to such a large swath of the population, she falsely attributes the same attitudes she has to everyone who is not rich. This is a classic logical fallacy. It is also simply not true, and it permeates the whole book.

— Tirado was going to college, but admits that she dropped out because, financially, she “didn’t think it would amount to anything.” While I’m not one of those snooty folk who believe college is for everyone (it’s not), I am curious to why the author did this with no apparent backup plan for a career. She also does not bother to learn a marketable trade or skill (i.e., paralegal, nursing, auto mechanic) in the place of college. Instead, after dropping out, she complains to us about working a series of low paying jobs that she hates. With no advanced degree or training, how then, can she expect better than low-paying work? Does she seriously expect, by stroke of luck, to land a job making $25 an hour despite not having demonstrated any kind of skill to do it? I’m a bit confused with her logic here.

— Tirado also admits that she was mediocre at several of the jobs she’s held, even screaming at her boss once because she was stressed and has “anger issues.” Putting anger issues aside, I am not sure what “being poor” has to do with simply being a bad employee. The “poverty” she’s referring to here seems to be one of the spirit.

— The author also attributes every unfortunate thing in her life to “poor” financial circumstances. Her lawn is shitty because she can’t pay someone to fix it. There’s tires in her grass because she can’t pay someone to haul them away. She can’t land a nice secretarial job because she’s poor and not pretty. She doesn’t want to open a bank account because they take a monthly fee, and she’s poor. There’s roaches at her house because, well, she’s poor. At some point you wonder where a sense of personal responsibility sets in, or the strength and amazing resilience of people like my grandparents (who, trust me, were dirt poor, Black, and living on a cotton field in the Mississippi Delta) and still managed to keep a clean house, a nice lawn, arrive on time to maintain stable jobs, and raise 10 law-abiding children in the process. Yes poor people are poor, but they still thrive. They find meaning in their lives, they get out of bed in the morning and yes, they manage to keep up a decent looking lawn. Fuck that.

— Makes no point at all about race and/or privilege. Despite how “poor” Tirado claims to be, her being White still gives her a privileged existence over many minorities who could write this same story. At least she doesn’t live in the projects, or live in a violent, gang-infested neighborhood. At least she speaks English. At least she is a documented U.S. citizen, and doesn’t have to deal with the fear of being deported every time she leaves her house. At least her and her husband don’t have a juvenile criminal record which would prevent gainful employment. At least she doesn’t have a physical disability or a severe mental illness that completely prevents her employment. I could go on and on, yet she mentions nothing of the fact that even she has it a lot better than some because of the systemic racism and discrimination that privileges Whites and able-bodied individuals over minorities.

Now Tirado does make some points that I agree with:
— Yes, universal health care is needed.
— Yes, the myth of meritocracy (the idea that anyone can be rich, all they have to do is try hard; as well as the idea that if one is not rich, they did not try hard enough) is very real and is still very much bullshit.
— No, we shouldn’t judge poor people’s decisions to have children. We may not like the fact that a poor woman has more kids than we’d prefer, but that’s not my decision to make.
— I also agree that poor people aren’t the only ones who get hand outs from the government (bail outs and corporate tax cuts are the wealthy person’s welfare).
— No, rich people should not look down upon people in service industries (cooks, washers, retail workers, food service).

But this book is simply too angry, too simplistic, and far too emotional in its tone to be taken seriously. I don’t advise reading it.

Review: Hell is a Very Small Place

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Review for "Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement" by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, & Sarah Shourd (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

As an educator I’ve always been interested in the criminal justice system–how so many people get caught up it, how they survive there, and of course, how they can stay out. This book is a collection of essays about the subject of solitary confinement, otherwise known as administrative segregation (ad segs), special housing units (SHUs), and various other names depending on the state and institution responsible for their use. Regardless it’s all the same–23 or 24 hours a day in a small cell alone, often with no books, tv or radios, communication with outside people, papers to write with, or any form of stimulation other than the concrete walls. It is such a mind numbing and soul crushing experience that the UN has declared it torture and countless doctors and mental health experts have denounced its use. Yet, it continues on an unprecedented level in our nation’s jails and prisons.

There’s a really good historical perspective on solitary confinement in the U.S. in the beginning of the book. Solitary confinement was used widely in the 1800’s and then abandoned due to its terrifying psychological effects. In the 1970’s, the practice was picked up again, mostly due to prison overcrowding, lack of educational and training programs, higher levels of violence, etc. The essays in this volume are particularly powerful, all of them either from people currently in solitary who have been there for long periods of time (20 years or more) or from people who are now free individuals, living with the psychological effects of this practice. The last section is a series of articles by experts, all of which condemn the practice and offer solutions.

It is easy to dismiss this book and the issues it brings up with the Trump-era view that criminals are terrible people who belong in prison. It’s even easier to say that these terrible people deserve punishment on top of the punishment they’ve already received for not following the rules. This is simply not true. Many of the people who are sent to solitary are sent there for non-violent offenses, sometimes for something as simple as “possessing too many postage stamps,” “associating with known gang members” (California), or in New York state, for “wearing shower shoes outside of the shower” or “using profanity.” Time in the SHU is usually given by prison officials and the prisoner often has no right to a defense. And the punishments can be as long as the officials deem necessary–weeks, months, even years. Or, in some cases, life.

I definitely recommend this book. Despite what we think of the people in the correctional system, the fact remains that many of these “terrible” people will get out–someday. They will live next to us and share our social spaces. The question becomes one of whether we would prefer someone who’s been rehabilitated with kindness or someone who’s been locked in a cage like an animal. I personally prefer the former.

This is a great book. Read it!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books that Take Place in Another Country

For this Top Ten Tuesday I had to go back in my mental filing cabinet for a moment. I try to keep my reading choices diverse–plenty of books about people of different races, ages, religions, cultures, social backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual identities, dis/abled persons. I’ve ready plenty of books ABOUT and BY people from countries outside the U.S., but how many have I read that take place IN another country, where the entire context of the narrative is outside of the U.S.?

So in order to be consistent with my interpretation of this topic, here’s the criteria I followed:

  • The book had to take place entirely in another country. America could not be a point of reference at any time (i.e., immigration to or from the U.S. was a no-no)
  • The book could not be about Americans in countries outside the U.S. (that would make it an American experience, wouldn’t it?)
  • The book could not take place in another industrialized, European influenced nation that’s kinda like the U.S. (i.e., Canada, Britain)
  • The country could not be unnamed. There are a lot of books that have foreign settings, but for whatever artistic reason, the author does not specifically name the country where the action takes place. For example, “Beasts of No Nation” is framed in this way (the setting is understood to be Africa, but the actual name of the country is never given).
  • The country could not be fictional. I love Wakanda too, but because it technically does not exist, it wouldn’t count. I know, I know… (*frowns*)
  1. Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement. Locale: Mexico. Didn’t really care for this book, but it’s a very interesting story set in the Mexican countryside about a girl who lives in fear of kidnapping by narco-traffickers.
  2. Golden Boy, Tara Sullivan. Locale: Tanzania. Very informative, well written YA story about a young boy with albinism. Due to cultural beliefs, he is shunned by his community and sought out by shamans for slaughter for his body parts’ use in special potions. There’s a good ending here, fortunately. I loved this story!
  3. Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go, Laura Rose Wagner. Locale: Haiti. Story about two cousins, raised as sisters, who lose their family in the Haitian earthquake of 2010 and work to survive the next day, and the day after that. I cried when I read this. (*sigh*)
  4. Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez. Locale: Argentina. Very macabre, but well written short stories that take place after Argentina’s “Dirty War.”
  5. Stay With Me, Adebayo Ayobami. Locale: Nigeria. An interesting novel about the life of a middle-class Nigerian couple who cannot bear children. Lots of twists and turns here, along with cultural expectations and a whole lotta drama.
  6. Lotus, Lijia Zhang. Locale: China. Novel set in modern-day China about a young woman who, rather than go home and face shame for losing her factory job, chooses a life as a sex worker. I really liked this book.
  7. Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami. Locale: Japan. Insightful set of short stories about men who, at some time or another, either could not or would not have a successful relationship with a woman. I did the audio version of this and loved it.
  8. Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea. Locale: North Korea. Great YA nonfiction book about a young boy’s life in North Korea and eventual escape to South Korea.
  9. The Vegetarian, Han Kang. Locale: South Korea. Beautiful book about a young woman’s choice to become a vegetarian. Things don’t go well for her. There’s a whole lot more to this book though, and mannnn…it’s good.
  10. The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam. Locale: Sri Lanka. Short novel about a young man and woman’s marriage during the Sri Lankan civil war. Very excessively detailed, but it’s a great read if you’re patient enough.

 

Review: The 57 Bus

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Review for "The 57 Bus" by Dashka Slater (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After reading this book I came to the realization that I rarely read YA nonfiction. I need to change that. This was a decent book.

“The 57 Bus” probes the real life case of a Black male teenager who sets a White agender teen’s skirt on fire as they rode on a commercial bus on the way home from their respective schools in Oakland, California in 2013. It was a chance encounter–neither teen knew the other–but lives were changed forever. I think Slater does a great job of setting the scene, introducing us first to Sasha, the agender, Aspberger’s teen who wears skirts to express himself, and then to Richard, a Black male who grows up with a mother who works two jobs, the constant threat of arrest and incarceration. I also think the author does an exceptional job with the point of view of the perpetrator, being careful not to pathologize his behavior, but at the same time not excusing it either. This is hard to do, as most authors who write about people of color committing crimes generally tend to take one role or another.

Anyway, this is a great book. Definitely a quality read.