HOTTREADS: Volume Eleven

Happy Pi Day! I am here to regale you with my thoughts on February's Nonfiction Challenge #Hottread, THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.

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I'm clearly behind in life as we're already racing through March but it's frickin' snowing in NYC today so honestly, what are months and seasons anyway, except constructs of humanity created in a vain attempt to control the whims of Mother Earth?

time is a flat circle

Is your mind blown? I thought so. 

Ok, back to February we go! First thing's first, this book is very, very, very long. I'm not saying this to discourage you from reading - oh no - but rather giving you a warning up front to allow yourself some time to tackle it, perhaps alongside a reading group with whom you can discuss all you're learning. Don't be like me, basically, foolishly assigning yourself to read the longest book in the shortest month and then panicking when it takes you longer than you thought to finish because you told the internet you'd read it in February and god forbid you let down the internet!!! Don't worry, I saved myself from the brink of meltdown when I remembered this is a one woman book club and literally no one cares.  And, luckily for my pride and the consistency of this book-a-month thing, I managed to finish this baby the night of February 28th, with not a moment to spare. 

Phew.

Ok wow I'm really doing a great job of selling this book, huh? 

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS tells the epic but largely untold story of The Great Migration, the mass exodus of Black Americans from the south to the North, Midwest, and West in the first half of the 20th Century. It was a movement with no defined beginning and no real leader which would completely change the American demographic fabric. Until 1910, more than 90% of Black Americans lived in the South, and most of them in rural areas, and by the 1970's, just under 50% of Black Americans lived in the North, West, and Northwest, with the majority in all regions living in urban areas. This mass migration of Black Americans led to the cities we recognize today - and read about last month in Evicted - ushering in the era of white flight, urban segregation, and broad racially based injustice in housing, education, and employment. 

Wilkerson follows the stories of three everyday Americans: Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper's wife who moves from Mississippi to Chicago with her young family; Robert Pershing Foster, a brilliant doctor with big ideas and an ego to match who chases his dreams to Los Angeles; and George Starling, whose rabble-rousing and attempts at unionizing under violent Jim Crow rule in central Florida send him fleeing to New York City for better opportunities, and to not get his ass locked up or much, much worse.  She weaves the life stories of these three, from childhood until very old age, exploring their lives in the South, their motivations for moving, and the lives they built in their new homes. Interspersed with their stories she tells the broader tale of the Great Migration, full of facts, figures, and anecdotes. The main story lines help to give a propulsive, central plot, but this is not a book you can just race through, every page is dense with information. 

I'll admit, I did find this a challenge for me, this isn't a book you can flip through easily on the subway, while trying to balance a coffee and hold onto the pole at the same time. But, again, again, I feel I'm not being a very compelling book reviewer here - I'm just keeping it real about my own shortcomings. I'm very glad I read this book and, if anything, think I did myself a bit of a disservice by trying to cram it into a challenge rather than take my time and absorb the information. I would highly recommend everyone read this and do suggest, as I said up top, bringing in a group to dive into discussion. And invite me? I HAVE A MILLION THOUGHTS. 

Two main takeaways that have lingered with me in the  few weeks since I've read: 

1) Why didn't I know about like, any of this? Granted, it's been a minute since I sat in a high school or college US History class but I don't recall The Great Migration ever being taught. We spent weeks on things like the Gold Rush and the Oregon Trail - white people boldly going where no white people have gone before! - but The Great Migration would have been a footnote, at best, though it did as much to shape the country we live in today. And it's got me thinking about the lens through which history (and let's be real, everything) is taught, and that lens is for sure white, and probably also straight, male, and Christian. Black History - along with Women's History, LGBT+ History, Native History, etc - is always kind of taught as a sidebar, like, here's Real America, kids, and then over here are some other stories. If you're only ever reading books by and about white men, except for a special Black History Month dip into the works of Langston Hughes, or a permission-slip needed, one-day-only lesson on the Stonewall Riots, it is hard, even for the most well-intentioned PBS watchers among us (ahem!) not to subconsciously absorb the narrative of certain people being inherently other.

And by other, I mean lesser

And again, it's been a while since I was in school and I don't know jack about teaching or textbooks but I feel like there's gotta be a better way. Maybe some teachers in the crowd with insights? I'd (TRULY!!) love to discuss and learn more. 

2) Speaking of other people's history, goddamn if Americans ever learn from the past. This book is, of course, chockablock full of anecdotes of immigration and migration, of folks refusing to accept newcomers to their cities, even when recently newcomers themselves. This rejection is especially aimed at those who don't look quite like them, and always, ALWAYS, entirely out of self-interest and fear.

Sound familiar??

There was one story that really crystallized things for me, a brief interlude into the 1800's to touch on the Civil War Draft Riots in NYC in 1863, when a war draft led to five days of violence by Irish immigrants against Blacks living in their city. Wilkerson writes: "Anger rose among Irish working-class men, in particular, who couldn't afford to buy their way out of a war they felt they had not stake in.  They saw it as risking their lives to defend southern slaves, who would, in their minds, come north and only become competition for them." 

Wait, when was that again? 200 years ago? Or last week?

In the past few months, as we talk about refugee crises and border walls, and America turns in on herself, as we debate which lives matter, and how much, I often hear people, usually of the privileged idealist liberal bent, righteously arguing that Trumpian white nationalism doesn't represent "true American values." Unforrrrrrtchhhhhh it kinda does. Those certainly aren't my values, and they may not be yours, but America, for all of her great melting pot rhetoric, does not have the most flawless track record for inclusion. In fact, if there is one trend we see repeating itself over, and over, and over again it is the vilifying and suppression of those we view as other. 

How quickly we forget. How easy it is to lean into our fear. 

It would be nice to think that we've come a long way since 1863, when these scared Irishmen rioted, or 1953, when Robert Pershing Foster arrived in LA and wasn't allowed to practice medicine on white people buuuutttt...have we? IDK, dudes. IDK. 

ANYWAY clearly this book has resonated with me in a major way and I'd encourage you to give it a read, too. I know I made it sound pretty dense and intense and it definitely is both of those things, but it's also incredibly readable and compelling and even moving. I fell so in love with the three people she profiles, and this is going to sound corny, but felt like, honored to get to hear their stories. At the end of the day, these were just straight up regular people - they weren't celebrities or headliners, they were unremarkable, but sharing their stories was a remarkable act. Another key trait of history lessons is that we tend to focus on only the big players, the game changers. And those people are important, obviously, but there's so much to be learned from the lives of everyday people, too. And I'm so grateful for the opportunity to learn from Isabel Wilkerson and from these three remarkably unremarkable stories. 

THE END! Two thumbs way up, would recommend. Have you read it? What did you think? 

As a reminder, 2017 Reading Challenge here & up next: JUST MERCY by Bryan Stevenson. Double dog dare you to join me! 

xoxo Liz Ho 

 

HOTT READS: Volume Two

Guys, I don't know about you but I have been on a kick with the literature lately! One of the great things about my job is that I get to read books for a living. Dreamy. And yet, I'll often find myself drawing a blank when people ask if I've read anything good lately - either I've been reading books for work I might not necessarily pick up for funsies or I'm reading so far ahead my answer is all "yes! This amazing book but it doesn't come out for three years but it's gonna be hayuuuge so...stay tuned!" and that always feels vaguely pretentious and doesn't really help anyone in the here and now, does it?

But luckily for all of y'all I have apparently been neglecting my job bigtime lately and am SUPER behind in work reading but absolutely ripping through non required reading in all my spare time. 

Whoops? 

I mean, at least I'm still reading. I'm keeping those brain muscles fresh! Contributing to the greater literary conversation. Employee of the year! 

Ok enough rambling, without further ado, herewith are some #hottreads I've been digging.  As always, you can find all of my recommendations at the HottReads tab above and I'd LOVE to hear what you've been reading lately! Clearly I'm on a real bookish binge so hit me with that good stuff. 

celeste yay

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I actually read this a while back, but it just came out in paperback so it's fresh on my mind. Plus it's one of my favorite novels in ages! 

15-year-old Lydia, the favored daughter of a Chinese American family living in a small Ohio university town in the 1970's is found dead in the town lake and Ng brings their story back and forth in time, exploring how they cope with this loss and the layers of family history that formed who they are today. It's a bit of a literary thriller in that way - how did Lydia end up in that lake? Is someone to blame? - but more it is a deeply intimate look at the inner workings of an ordinary family navigating extraordinary sorrow. 

This phrase is bandied about pretty fast and loose but I, for real, could not put this book down. So much so that, my nose buried in the pages, I ended up getting on the wrong train home from work one day, finding myself deep in a different portion of Brooklyn, miles away from home. Not in the mood to re-try public transit, I got a cab and finished the novel by the faint glow of the Taxi TV, weeping in the backseat the whole ride home.

And, for what it's worth, and to me it's worth quite a bit, I've met Celeste Ng and she's just the loveliest, most gracious, wonderful person. 

Buy this book! Just do it as a favor to your old pal Liz! 

Recommended for: fans of The Lovely Bones, people who love a good cry (in the back of a taxi or elsewhere), anyone and everyone 

naming these real weird because I don't know SEO

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

Part love story, part war novel, part rumination on the addictive thrall of danger, The Lotus Eaters follows three photographers based in Saigon during the Vietnam war: Helen, a rookie struggling to prove her worth as a woman in a "mans world," and the two men she's torn between, hotshot American Sam Darrow and his Vietnamese assistant Linh. 

Upon typing out that extremely general plot synopsis, this sounds very Lifetime Original Movie and it could easily veer in that direction,but Soli draws her characters (especially Helen!) so vividly and honestly, elevating the love triangle above a cheesy trope. This book is sad, sexy and suspenseful, pulsing with the wild energy of Vietnam, the horror of war and the seductive power of ambition.  

And while The Lotus Eaters certainly had special meaning for me reading it having literally just stood in many of the spaces Soli writes about, you definitely don't need to have been to 'Nam to be drawn right in.  

Recommended for: photography geeks, people who are depressed my honeymoon recaps are nearly completed, anyone who has been or plans to visit Vietnam 

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It's What I Do by Lynsey Addario

Reading The Lotus Eaters had me suddenly obsessed with stories of photojournalists, especially female photojournalists and I remembered: aha! This memoir had been sitting on my bookshelf at work for months. Surely you saw one of the zillions of reviews, features and interviews surrounding this book's release earlier this year, 'twas unmissable.

(Note: saying a book's release is "unmissable" is pretty much the highest compliment one can grant a publicist so a huge hat tip to Lynsey's team. Clapping emoji!!)

Basically Lynsey Addariois a certified badass, fullstop. She has photographed some of the most dangerous places in the world, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, The Sudan, often the only woman in the field. Her unique perspective allowed her to get intimately close to women and families in that area and her photography is extraordinary. And she's such a brilliant writer, too. You understand, deeply, why she is so impassioned about telling these stories, why she can't pull herself away from the work even after being kidnapped and seeing colleagues die in the field. 

And talk about having it all - as a woman, she faces both frightening sexual harassment as well as the sort of low level daily sexism that women face every. single. day. She gets double the judgement her male colleagues get over her choices to postpone marriage and parenthood to follow her career, and triple that scrutiny when she does decide to become a mother and try to balance the dangerous job with motherhood. It's fine for a father to leave his wife and kids at home to chase a story but a mother do the same? Oh, the humanity! 

Though I remain convinced that war journalism is not a career I'm cut out for, I understand entirely why Lynsey and others in her field feel called to do the work. And I do believe it is a true calling. Brave and necessary work! 

Recommended for: people who just finished The Lotus Eaters and are now obsessed with female photojournalists, actual female photojournalists, badass ladies across the globe, snoots who like reading books before they become films so they can act all superior to their friends in the movie theater (Jennifer Lawrence is slated star in the movie version soon!) 

Royal We hottsauce book review

The Royal We by Jessica Morgan & Heather Cocks

Switching a full 180 from The Sudan to Kensington Palace, this is basically Will and Kate fan fiction as penned by two of the funniest lady writers out there. 

Obviously this is going to speak to a pretty specific set of readers, so to you I say: it's even better than you think it will be!!! It's smart, well plotted, emotionally compelling, witty, wonderfully populated with relatable characters, just a pure delight.

A DELIGHT!!!

Recommended for: you know exaaaaaactly who you are. 

Americanah and SEO and hottreads and yay

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Speaking of badass ladies, Chimamanda is a boss. If you've yet to watch her TEDX Talk "We Should All Be Feminists," might I suggest hopping to like, right now? Here, I'll make it easy for you: 

PREACH!!

Can white people say "preach?"

That segues nicely into my recommendation for Americanah, as it is a novel that is very much about race. Through the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, high school sweethearts who grew up in Nigeria's middle class before immigrating to America (Ifemelu, on a scholarship) and England (Obinze, illegally), Adichie explores the myriad ways we talk about (or, quite often don't talk about) race in the 21st Century. She made me think and sometimes cringe and often laugh out loud. 

Because, oh yeah, life lessons aside: this is a hell of a book. Jumping back and forth in time, from Philadelphia to Lagos to London to Newark and back, she follows Ifemelu and Obinze as they fall in love, fall apart, grow up and grow into themselves. All of the characters, main and tertiary, are portrayed so wholly you can instantly picture exactly who they are and how they talk and what makes them tick.

And! For the second time this post, a book turned my commute into a whole thingggg! And it's a really log weird story and now I'm going to tell you all about it! 

So. I was riding home from happy hour one Friday evening, about halfway through Americanah when the man next to me turned to me and asked "do you like that book?"

I lept for glee (internally. I wasn't about to actually get up from my coveted subway seat. I ain't no dummy). As we all know, I ALWAYS hope/assume that people are paying tons of attention to me and then get super-duper sad when it turns out that oh hey, they're not. But this guy WAS!!! 

Doubling the fun, he was a middle aged black gentleman. 

I happened to be reading this particular novel during the uprising in Baltimore a few weeks back, so between that whole mess and the book, I was very finely attuned to discussions on how to sensitively and compassionately talk about race. The three top tips I'd gleaned were to 1. LISTEN, 2. Ask polite questions to anything you don't understand, and 3. Not try to one-up or insert your own experiences into anyone else's personal story. You may have been a victim of hardship or racism or any number of things, but they have no bearing on another person's unique experience.

Those are, honestly, just pretty solid rules for living life as an empathetic human person. 

ANYWAY long story so long and borderline preachy, here I was, a brain full of white guilt and current events, being asked by an older black man to comment on a book about race. OH HAYL YES. It was my moment to shine. Liberal white people dream of nothing more than opportunities to show off just how open-minded we are. 

"How do I like the book?" I turned to him. "I LOVE it." 

He looked at me, made a face and snorted "hated it."

I started to sweat. Was this book actually garbage? Am I just a yuppie white girl trying to make myself feel OK about my privilege by reading books about the immigrant experience? Remembering the advice I'd acquired from the 9,407 consecutive Slate articles I"d read that week, I powered on.

"Why did you hate it?" I asked politely. "I think she's a wonderful writer."

"I thought she was smug," he replied. "The main character was smug. And I think the writer is smug."

At this moment I instantly forgot everything I had learned and flew into a defensive tailspin, 1. Not listening to him and 2. not asking him any more questions because, frankly, I didn't feel like hearing his answers and 3. worst of all, taking his experiences and making them allllll mine.

"OH you just called a woman SMUG?! I bet if this book was written by a man you'd appreciate it. Why must the main character be likeable? Is it just because she's female??!!" 

Etcetera. 

The man went on to stand by his assertion that the book was crap, before launching into an impassioned sales pitch about a book he DID enjoy: his own.

Turns out he was carting around a briefcase full of bound excerpts from his self-published copies of his memoir. He gave me one. If I wanted the rest, I could buy it online. 

Cool beans!

So lesson 4, I guess, is that, quite often, no matter what race or creed or gender, people juuust want to talk about themselves.

I mean, I know I do.

So in the time I just told you that story you could basically read a novel written by a member of every race on the planet earth. 

Moral of it all is that this is a VERY good book and I think you should super read it. And yes, duh, I'm a yuppie white girl trying to make myself feel OK about my privilege but also I wholeheartedly believe that we ALL should be reading a LOT LOT LOT more stories written by and about people outside of our own demographic circle, in just one tiny step towards better understanding one another as members of the same human race...while still having lots o' fun reading excellent literature. 

 I bet ya'll didn't think I could get that deep, didja?! Well I can, so there ya go. Americanah

Recommended for: human beings, yuppie white people hoping to get into uncomfortable arguments about race and gender on the subway, people trying to sell their self-published memoirs, fans of "immigrant literature" (see also: Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan...just to name a few!) 

I think that's just about enough books and ranting to keep you occupied for a few weeks. I, however, am about to find myself at the last page of my current novel so someone save me before I find myself doing the responsible thing and being good at my job again  - tell me quick: what should I read next?!?!

And you BETTAH not suggest that train guy's memoir. Or your own!

Yours in love and literature,

Liz Hott