Tag Archives: racism

The Mistress of Spices, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

The Mistress of Spices

What It’s About

In a quiet little Indian bodega, an elderly enchantress works her subtle magic on her customers, through the spices she sells.

Why I Think You’d Like It

I love those little shops that feel a little bit magical, and I love the idea of magic being all around us, working subtly. So, if this had only been a series of anecdotes about the customers and the spices, I would love loved it. I would have rejoiced in the ideas of subtle actions having tremendous ripples, and ordinary problems having the same import as grand quests. And this book did give me all of that, guaranteeing a positive review. It just also gave me a whole lot more than that.

In addition to all the little stories woven throughout, Tilo, the Mistress of Spices herself, has her own story. Her backstory is not what I expected, but it was brilliant and set up a whole adventure and character arc of her own. I won’t give it away, but I will say she is among my favorite protagonists of all time.

The world itself was also beautiful and extremely cool. I’ve heard it said that if you want magic to solve your characters problems, it needs rules, but if you want magic to create problems, it needs to be mysterious. In this world, the magic is somehow both at once. The spices have their associated powers and are each good for different things, but at the same time, they collectively have a will and mind of their own. It was brilliant and made for a unique and stunning fantasy world.

Then there’s the prose; beautiful and meandering, simple and philosophical. It got me thinking about fate, destiny, will and choices. I felt I was being prompted to ask questions rather than fed questions, while at the same time I was given satisfying conclusions. The ideas interacted with the plot like, well, like a well spiced dish.

All in all, this book had layer after layer to it, each one making it better and gripping me more intensely. As I reached the last pages, I was completely oblivious to the world. I was sitting in my car, waiting to meet with a friend, and not only did I not notice when the friend arrived, but I did not notice when she repeatedly banged on my window.

She forgave me, on the condition that I loaned her the book when I finished.

Content Warnings

She sees flashes of other characters lives, including times when they have been beaten, bullied or sexually abused. Some of the physical violence is on the graphic side.


Black Self-Determination, by V. P. Franklin

Black Self Determination

What It’s About

An early history of resistance and achievement by African-Americans, from the antebellum era to the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.

Why I Think You’d Like It

If you’ve read many conventional history books, the agency of Black Americans erased or downplayed. Many kids grow up thinking of them as largely helpless and ignorant up until the days of Martin Luther King. This book is one of the most thorough challenges to that notion. It uncovers a wealth of original sources that were long ignored by white historians, and tells the history of Black emancipation from their own cultural perspective.

Rather than being a simple linear history, it takes on history subject by subject. It starts with the work of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois, and puts them in the context of a contentious period of self-discovery. He shows how their perspectives didn’t align with the experiences of many freed slaves, which is context that I never got when I learned about these men.

It goes on to talk about the cultural history of Black religion, education, music. It outlines core values of the early Black community, such as freedom, education and self-determination. It especially argues how they were developed as tools to survive slavery and how they evolved to empower and strengthen their communities as slavery ended only to bring new challenges.

It is incredibly thorough, both in its scope and in its cited sources, and I sorely needed to read it. For anyone looking to unwhitewash their understanding of history, I can’t recommend it enough.

Content Warnings

Quotes periodically from writings of Black people on lynchings, beatings and other acts of violence that they witnessed or experienced. Some descriptions are fairly graphic.

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

What It’s About

The story of Darling, a mischievous Zimbabwean pre-teen in a shanty town where the adults no longer know what to do with themselves.

Why I Think You’d Like It

This is a beautiful, engaging, heartbreaking novel. It tells the Darling’s story in sporadic anecdotes of trials and misadventures. In a way, it reminded me of an Upside Down version of Tom Sawyer or Anne of Green Gables; it has the same episodic structure, the same cast of recurring friends and enemies, the same sense of childhood mischief. But of course the mischievous episodes involve stealing guavas to ward off starvation, seeing adults lose their grip on reality, parents dying of AIDS, and pregnant friends who are barely old enough to be called teens. In Darling’s life, the horrific and the diverting are all mixed up together. Innocence and corruption are experienced side by side.

Darling’s narrative voice is distinctive and fascinating. I love some of the metaphors she comes up with, and how her phrasing evolves through the story. I loved the way she never apologized for her perspective, or tried to make it more comfortable for a Western reader. She bluntly states her mind and takes it for granted that this is simply how things are.

That was especially interesting during her childhood stories. I often thought, “this is how kids think. They don’t censor. They don’t apologize. They just wonder why the rest of the world is doing such a bad job conforming to their expectations.”

It got a little more dissonant as we got into her adolescence, and she immigrates to America.  I did expect her to become a bit more empathetic more quickly. In retrospect, I like that she didn’t. To clarify, she is not a mean or heartless protagonist. She does care about the well being of others. It is more that, while she gets better at the adult hypocrisy of acting how she is expected to act, she has trouble grasping the shape of another person’s suffering. If someone endured something she could directly compare to her own struggles, she would care, and care deeply. But if someone’s pain had nothing to do with her own experiences, (a teenager with an eating disorder, for example) Darling’s reaction is usually anywhere from annoyance to scorn to anger. I don’t think that made her a bad character. It made her complex, realistic and interesting. If she was frustrating at times, she was always frustrating in thought provoking ways.

The only downside is that it did make the last third of the book a little less fun, but again, I think that was honest and smart. Part of the point is that immigration did not magically solve all of her problems, and we got to see her learn that. The only thing I wish is that we had seen her press on to a level

I thought it was among the most interesting and well crafted books I’ve read. It’s probably a love it or hate it book, and if you’re interested in immigration stories that are equally brilliant but a little less dark I’d recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But if nothing I’ve said so far has put you off, you will probably love it.

Content Warnings

Violence, sex, profanity, references to bodily functions, physical emotional and sexual abuse… and of course all of that is witnessed by children, if it does not happen directly to them. It’s a book for those with strong stomachs.

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Arizona Sunrise

(apologies for posting this so late in the day. It’s been a helluva week)

I’ve described some problematic race portrayals on Adventures in Odyssey. People of color are inevitably either submissive to or violent enemies of heroic white people. This series also whitewashes historical people of color, even when all characters should be Middle-Eastern Semitic peoples.

Among white people, there’s a tendency to describe racism as something exhibited by swastika tattooed skinheads and absolutely nobody else. This is especially a problem in right-wing religious GOP-loyal communities, but white liberals are hardly exempt from it. And, god, the deeper I get into this topic the more I feel like I’m not the right person to describe it. The whole problem starts with white people talking to other white people, who haven’t experienced racism, about what racism really is. We tend to soften up our descriptions in order to make each other feel comfortable, and conversations about oppression and bigotry shouldn’t be soft and comfy.

So this episode isn’t going to explain everything about racism in all it’s forms and why they are bad. You should be looking for blogs written by POC for that. I’m just going to explain where, on the great wheel of all the diverse types of racism, AIO fits in, because that will be important context for the next video.

And to demonstrate what AIO’s race problem is, there is no better episode than Arizona Sunrise.

This episode opens with a chance meeting between Jack Allen, a friend of Whit’s who has recently opened an antique shop in town, and Cody, a small child plagued by homework. He’s supposed to do a report on a famous person from the Old West, a task which is unsurmountable because, as he says, he doesn’t know any famous people.

As luck would have it, Jack was just researching the history of an antique saddle he received. It was the property of Reverend James Klinger, a circuit preacher who preached in the Arizona territory. He even still has the page with Klinger’s biography open in his computer, and he invites Cody to look it over and see if this would be a good candidate for his report.

The article starts by talking about the Apache wars coming to an end, and “resentment between white and Indian alike.”

Well, that’s, um, a highly colored characterization. We’ll put a pin in that for now.

We open on James Klinger reading the Bible to a group of Apaches, and talking about sin, death and redemption. He asks them if they are following. They all say they don’t, so he prepares to break it down for them. He first asks if an Apache would ever die for his enemy. One of them immediately responds that no, an Apache would kill their enemy. Lol, what charming savages. But don’t worry, we’re dodging that bullet with Klinger’s jovial admission that many white people would as well. All Apaches, many but not all white people, gosh, we are being fair minded here, aren’t we?

Klinger goes on to explain that sin makes us like God’s enemy, yet he chose to forgive us and even die to pay the price for our sins. The Apache find this bewildering but interesting. They say they’ll think over these ideas, and Klinger says that is all that he asks. He says good-bye to them and sets off with his companion/bodyguard/heterosexual life partner, Reese. Reese asks if he expects these savages to ever turn around, and Klinger laughs and says he has to try.

A rider comes up to drag them back to the fort, because the captain is outraged about something or other. Said captain yells at Klinger for a while about how horrible and savage Apaches are, and when Klinger again says that we are all heathens under the eyes of God, at some point or another. The captain agrees but repeats that no Apache has “the ability or inclination to change.”

This back and forth goes on for a while, which Klinger not exactly denying that Apaches are heathens or savages, just asserting that he has a calling to try his best, whatever they do. Here’s where I want to make a distinction between Klinger the character and the overall message of the episode. There’s a possible argument to be made that Klinger disagrees seriously with the captain’s characterization, and is simply choosing his battles. Or maybe you don’t agree with that reading of the character at all, and that while his intentions are good he also takes an infantilizing, paternalistic attitude towards the Apaches. It’s a brief episode, so you can read a lot into his motivations from scene to scene, and what you project probably has more to do with you and your experiences than anything else. What we do know is that this episode, having limited time, has made multiple characters bring up the message that salvation is needed by some white people and all Apaches. It’s pretty safe to assume this is a perspective the writers want us to take.

The captain seems to be trying to persuade Klinger that the Apache are not worth saving, and he even brings up the fact that Klinger’s mother was killed by Apaches. But when Klinger insists that this is his calling, and nothing will dissuade him, the captain suddenly tells him that Messia, an old chief, has gone out into the desert to die. It’s supposed to be an old custom of theirs.

I did try to find evidence for this ritual. I read through several online articles on Apache death rituals, and while there was certainly some variation between different tribes, I didn’t see anything like this described, especially in the sites curated by actual Native Americans.

Anyway, the captain’s information is out of character, because everything in the dialog up until now made it clear that he in no way wants Klinger to go preach to any Apaches. The captain thinks it’s a waste of time that aggravates tensions and makes it harder to keep the peace. But Klinger has only been more and more insistent that he will do anything he can to convert as many Apaches as he can. So the captain’s response is to tell him about someone who is A. about to die and B. clearly not into the Christian thing, as he’s still doing the “old Apache spiritual tradition” thing. Yeah, that’s real in character. This unnamed authority figure is definitely a fleshed out person, not a walking tool for exposition.

Anyway, Klinger announces that he’s going to go make conversion happen. Plus, if he can also save Messia’s life, bonus. But definitely the conversion thing, as the priority.

He and Reese first go to Messia’s old village, where most of the villagers want him to clear out and stop meddling. But Messia’s granddaughter, Nalicadaeh, comes up to ask about this whole Western medicine thing. Klinger has emphasized that his doctors may be able to save Messia’s life, and Nalicadaeh believes him. Messia’s her only family, so she can’t stand to lose him. The tribe threatens to cut her out if she helps Klinger, so she decides to convert on the spot.

If you listen to people who have had some experience being pressured to convert, or otherwise abandon their culture and home, it is always a painful experience, regardless of their reasons. But as Nalicadaeh talks to Klinger, she shows no sign of conflict or mourning over her decision. She talks excitedly about what her new God can help her do, and focuses on the search. You could, again, interpret her character many ways. This could be putting on a brave face or overcompensating so Klinger will believe in her conversion and help her. But either way, the episode is not giving any complexity to her situation. From Klinger’s perspective, she is both saved from eternal damnation, and might also get her grandfather back. The fact that she has also been separated from her home forever… we aren’t invited to think about that.

And there’s another character/story distinction of note. Klinger has no idea what is wrong with Messia. He probably doesn’t know how ignorant doctors of his era were, but he certainly does know that there are many diseases where the best they can do is make the patient comfortable, then wait and see. He also probably knows that most diseases of old age are in this category. The hope he offers Nalicadaeh is slim to illusory, and he knows it. But, again, from a character perspective, maybe it does come from genuine optimism.

The writers, on the other hand, know (or could easily find out) the state of medicine in 1887. It’s not good, especially when the patient was an elderly person. Antibiotics were a theoretical possibility discussed among the doctors who bought into this newfangled “germ theory of disease” notion. Surgeries were a last resort, because even if the infection didn’t get you, blood loss probably would. A few mad scientists were messing around, rather controversially, with transfusions, but they wouldn’t figure out how to do it safely until the early twentieth century. The point is, whatever Messia needs, from heart surgery, to a removed tumor, to a bacterial infection healed, even the most competent doctor of the era probably couldn’t pull it off.

Additionally, medicines weren’t regulated in 1887. You pretty much had two options; herbal remedies based on tradition and folklore, or “patent medicines,” which were cure-alls peddled by travelling con artists. Of the two, traditional herbal remedies were the better option, as they were given by someone who actually had to stick around and see what worked and what didn’t. Patent medicines were mostly just alcohol and promises.

This matters, because Klinger is about to be heroized for bringing an old man to Western medical doctors, when the reality is there was nothing Western doctors could do that couldn’t be done just as well by Apache healers. And the writers have no excuse not to know this.

Back to the episode. When they stop to rest, Klinger and Nalicadaeh share stories of families lost to the war. He lost his family to the Apache, she lost hers to white people. Oh, how tragic it is that both of these people came from warring sides, each of which were in a morally equivalent position.


Nalicadaeh does not want to stop. She wants to keep seeking Messia through the night, while Klinger and Reese insist that they make camp for the night. Their debate is interrupted by Pialsiney, an Apache scout from the fort who claims to have been sent by the captain. Apparently the Apaches are only keeping the peace while Messia lives, and so the captain has done an ideological about face, re: saving Indians. During this conversation, Nalicadaeh sneaks off, forcing them to continue the search for both her and her grandfather.

Nalicadaeh finds Messia and guides Reese, Klinger and Pialsiney to him. She says he is very sick and must be taken to a doctor quickly. Pialsiney immediately reveals that his story was a lie. Apparently Messia killed Pialsiney’s family, in revenge for their collaboration with the white men. Messia does not deny this, and even points out the war trophies he took from them. He wants to die, Pialsiney wants to kill him, this all works out. But this talk of war trophies draws Klinger’s eyes to a familiar necklace. Turns out, Messia is the one who killed Klinger’s mother. Dun dun duuuuuunnnnn!

Yeah, obviously this isn’t going to change Klinger’s mind. I should admit that the acting is good here. He really sells us on the difficulty behind Klinger’s decision to not take revenge, or allow Pialsiney to take it. But obviously this is the only way it was going to happen. There’s gotta be a message about God and forgiveness, and a dramatic display of self sacrifice that convinces Messia to convert. So Klinger physically shields Messia and gives a speech, and then Reese subdues Pialsiney and they all head back to the fort.

Also they see a sunrise, and that’s significant because Nalicadaeh had been afraid Messia would not live to see it, and there’s an episode title namedrop along with swelling dramatic music.

We cut back to Cody reading the article aloud, and he narrates that Messia survives for several more years and converts along with Nalicadaeh, and eventually many others in their village. Cody gets excited about this story and declares that he will definitely write it up for his history day project, because, as Jack Allen says, it’s so sad that we don’t hear more about how epic and wonderful missionaries were.

Now, I thought that this would be a hard episode, because I would have to do tons of research on the reality of James Klinger, and contrast the real person with the character. Uh… not so much.

Many listeners have written in to ask if the story of James Klinger in
Arizona Sunrise is a true one. In the episode, a circuit-riding minister
sets out to save the life and the soul of an old Apache warrior. Though the
characters in this episode were fictional, the story is based on an actual
historical event. Apaches did go out into the wilderness when they thought
it was their time to die. In 1905, a Lutheran pastor went searching for an
Apache chief who had done just that. He found the chief, brought him
back to civilization, and nursed him back to health.

Link here.

There is no information that would enable us to look the story up for ourselves. This, combined with the fact that I couldn’t find any reference to that as a custom, makes me distrust their source. There was a market for sensationalized stories about Native Americans for a very, very long time, a lot of nonsense got passed off as fact, and when it comes to indigenous cultures you have to trace your sources carefully.

This is also as good a time as any to mention that I could not even find evidence that Messia, Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney are actually names in any Native American language. Searching for either Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney just gave me two pages of Google results, all of which were references to this episode on AIO fan sites. Messia brought a lot of sites where somebody had misspelled Messiah.

So we see a fake story, framed as real to an impressionable audience, which misrepresents Western medicine as superior at a time when it really wasn’t. The hero is a man whose life mission is to convince Native Americans to abandon their beliefs and culture for his, while the writers have seemingly not bothered to do even the slightest research on what those beliefs actually were.

When I was growing up, I knew a lot of adults who agreed with a lot of racist stereotypes, from savage Indians to lazy Latinos to ignorant Black people, and they were always quick to clarify that it wasn’t the people, not the skin color or genetics, no, it was just the culture. Brown people could be just as good as white people, so long as they took on white culture. But people of color who acted, you know, non-white, those people were a problem.

And I’m upset to admit it, but as a little kid, I bought it, until I started reading books that actually celebrated non-white cultures. Not all of those books were good quality, and many came from the weirdly fetishistic liberal culture that put every non-European culture onto a pedestal of enlightenment. But they lead me to an important realization; I was being taught to judge other cultures without even being taught what those cultures were. Cultures are complicated as hell. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” culture; all cultures have good and bad aspects, because they are made up of complicated humans who themselves have good and bad aspects. And nobody is either free from or completely controlled by their culture. Offloading old stereotypes onto “cultural differences” isn’t an evolution beyond racism. It’s the same old bigotry, with a new hat on.

In my next episode, I’ll talk more about how this fits into the overall philosophy of Adventures in Odyssey.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: I kinda liked Nalicadaeh running off to make the guys follow her. Way to game the system, kiddo!

Worst Moment: Any of the bits where they go on about savage Apache ways could count, but Pialsiney has a bit where he specifies that he wants to kill Messia slowly with a knife, because that’s “the Apache way.” I really hate that the line that most condemns Apache culture comes from an actual Apache… it’s like they are trying to lend an extra veneer of authenticity.

Story Rating: I mean, it was entertaining, in a mindless, inaccurate, white man’s burden King Solomon’s Mines kind of way. Oh, and in an era where there weren’t nearly as many excuses for not doing your research. Plus you’ve got to make sure you don’t notice any of the plot holes, like the captain’s lack of a character, or the clumsy frame device. So, you know, C-

Moral Rating: So, with many of these political posts, I have to make a distinction between the implicit social message and the explicitly stated moral. Obviously the explicit message is about forgiveness and how it’s awesome, and I don’t want people to think I don’t approve of that part. I’m generally pro-forgiving, although when I get to the forgiveness section I’ll be pointing out some episodes where I think their ideas about forgiveness are weirdly skewed. But you know, when it comes to the decision to kill or not kill someone who once wronged you but is now a sickly old man who can no longer hurt you and who you think deserves a second chance, I’m all for it.

But there also is some proselytizing, from Jack and Chris, about how missionaries were awesome and epic and important to history and whatnot. I… well could say a lot. For now I’ll just say that I think, if they were so awesome and important, why the fuck didn’t you write an episode around a missionary who actually existed?

So, an A for “forgiveness is good,” a D for “missionaries are so epic and historically important that I can completely make up a story about a fake missionary doing fake epic things,” and an F for “brown people are okay, they just need to be saved.”

We’ll call that a D+, I guess.

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese

  • Genre
    • Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Coming of Age, Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • This book interweaves the stories of Jin, a Chinese American boy dealing with ostracism and bullying, Danny, a blonde white teen with a surreally stereotypical Chinese cousin, and the Monkey King, a hero from Chinese folklore seeking to become the equal of creator god Tze-Yo-Tzuh. All three are linked with themes about pride, identity, vanity and self-acceptance. At the end, they come together in a way that is clever, surprising and satisfying.
  • Characterization
    • The protagonists are all various types of hot messes, but you can’t help root for them anyway. You see where everyone is coming from, and want them to hurry up and learn their lesson so they can be happy.
    • Special shout out to the monk Wong Lai-Tsao. I love seeing hapless, unassuming people get a moment in the spotlight, especially when that comes from being who they are, not despite it.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s loads of fun, then surprisingly thought provoking. It’s a book I read once and thinking, “yeah, that was pretty good”, but found myself obsessing over it for years after. Like any story with a good twist, it’s highly re-readable; you will catch new things each time around.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
  • Content Warnings
    • Naturally, the main conflicts all revolve around characters overcoming stereotyping, bigotry and ostracism; apart from that, the content is all very lighthearted and tame.
  • Quotes
    • “It’s easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”
    • “You know, Jin, I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey.”

Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson


  • Genre
    • Short stories, Folklore, Urban Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • Eighteen short stories from one of my favorite authors. The topics wander from apocalypse to mourning to falling in love to loving yourself to discovering a giant flying elephant in your apartment. What they have in common is that they are all amazing. 
  • Character Empathy
    • It’s Nalo Hopkinson. If you don’t both like and relate to at least 90% of the characters, you’re probably a sociopath.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The stories cover a wide range of emotions. There’s funny, sad, scary, trippy, wistful, triumphant… what they all have in common is the characteristic weird and fun originality that you get from Nalo Hopkinson every time.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • One of the creepiest werewolf stories I’ve ever read (and you know how I feel about werewolves). 
    • A giant flying elephant. Did I mention that already?
    • Sometimes the protagonist is queer in a “this is one of several things about the person and not the most important thing at all” way.
    • A cherry tree who is really into body positivity and women power.
    • Look, every story here has multiple cool shiny things, and I don’t want to spoil them all because it is really fun to go in blind and discover them. Just go read it!
  • Content Warnings
    • You’ll be fine
  • Quotes
    • (From the Intro) “I’ve learned I can trust that humans in general will strive to make things better for themselves and their communities. Not all of us. Not always in principled, loving, or respectful ways. Often the direct opposite, in fact. But we’re all on the same spinning ball of dirt, trying to live as best we can. Yes, that’s almost overweeningingly Pollyanna-ish, despite the fact that sometimes I just need to shake my fist at a mofo.”

Code Talker, by Joseph Bruchac

Code Talker

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Military Fiction
  • Plot Summary
    • Ned Begay, veteran of WWII, tells his grandchildren stories from his days as a Navajo code talker with the Marines. 
  • Character Empathy
    • Ned tends to view people through the lens of culture first, and then sketch them out as individuals, but this doesn’t result in stereotyping or simplifying. Instead, Ned has an eye for the complexities of culture; how it influences people for good and ill, how it can share knowledge but also limit perspective. Through his eyes, you see his love for his own Navajo culture, his affinity for other marginalized groups, and his ability to see the difference between an oppressive culture and the individuals who make it up. He’s able to do the latter without minimizing the crimes or neglecting the victims.
    • At the beginning of the story I thought of Ned as a mere neutral storyteller, but by the end I was intensely attached to him. He sees the worst of humanity and reports on it accurately, but he is also determined to look for the best in humankind. He’s one of those characters that my brain won’t let me treat as a fictional character. He’s real, dammit! He’s real!
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s understated, in a good way. On the surface, it’s the voice of an old man, pragmatic rather than poetic, recounting the facts as best he’s able to for the sake of his family’s history. Beneath, it’s full of love, sympathy and insight. It never beats you over the head with its points, nor does it bandy about with false complexity. It is simply authentic.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The research is incredible, both the military history and the portrayal of the Navajos. Joseph Bruchac, an Abenaki Indian, was especially determined to get the latter especially right, and sought out as many Navajo code talkers to interview as he could find. I’ve looked at a few different reviews, both from Navajo perspectives and non-native history geeks. Everybody says it is dead on accurate; I’ve yet to find someone mention a single error. This book will probably teach you more than most non-fiction books. 
    • The bantering friendships between him and his fellow Marines. So many warm happy feels! Also, although he mentions that people die, he doesn’t usually torture you with in depth gory deaths of individuals you love, so that’s a nice change. It doesn’t feel cheap; more like Ned just didn’t want to spend time dwelling on the sad parts. These were his friends, and he doesn’t want to remember them dead. He just wants to pass on the happy memories.
  • Content Warnings
    • Obviously there’s violence, though he tends to skim over it. As I said, it seems to be that, as a narrator, Ned doesn’t want to dwell on the bad. The most intense description actually isn’t of the war at all, but his time in boarding school, when his mouth was scrubbed with soap for speaking Navajo. 
    • Racism against the protagonist and other Navajos, running the gamut from intentionally harmful programs like the boarding schools to unintentional microaggressions like the ubiquitous nickname “Chief.”
  • Quotes
    • “Never think that war is a good thing, grandchildren. Though it may be necessary at times to defend our people, war is a sickness that must be cured. War is a time out of balance. When it is truly over, we must work to restore peace and sacred harmony once again.”
    • “Strong words outlast the paper they are written upon. ”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  • Genre
    • Memoir, Autobiography
  • Summary
    • Frederick Douglass describes his resistance and ultimate escape from slavery in Maryland. 
  • Information
    • In a preface by William Lloyd Garrison, an influential abolitionist of the time, he talks about claims, commonly touted by slavery advocates, of well-treated slaves and bans on excessive punishment. Frederick Douglass, even as a slave, grew up with relative luck. Everyone agreed that Maryland was far less brutal than the deep south, and furthermore he typically got to work as a skilled laborer, rather than grueling field work. Even so, he saw enough violence and brutalities to shock anyone. On top of that, he lays out for his readers the dynamics of psychological abuse, and the ways that even the supposed “kindness” of nicer owners were ultimately just tools to dehumanize. Today, we still hear the same arguments, used to justify white supremacy as “white heritage” and other such nonsense. This book destroyed white supremacist bullshit back then, and it still does today.
    • Plus, the man’s life was fascinating. The way he not only survived but constantly improved himself, in the face of a world where his basic humanity was attacked daily, is incredible. He learned to read despite the fact that it would get him beaten or even killed, just because he wanted to, which pretty much makes him the patron saint of badass bookworms.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • I think most people would, without knowing better, assume this book is historically significant, but old, dull, stuffy, and ultimately not worth reading unless you’re an actual historian or taking a class. If you’ve thought that, let me tell you, you are completely wrong. Frederick Douglass was the furthest thing from stuffy. His prose hits this perfect balance of crisp and straightforward but expressive and moving, and despite how time and language have marched on he is still remarkably readable. It’s a short book, but there is so much in it, you will probably find yourself reading more than you intended to every time you pick it up. In other words, this book isn’t just going to enlighten you about an essential part of our history that we’re still embarrassingly bad at talking about; you will actually like reading it. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The part where he recalls how he taught himself how to read. I don’t want to spoil it but basically he figured out how to trick snotty white boys into teaching him the alphabet and it’s hilarious. 
    • When he goes on rants, it is a fucking joy to read. He comes up with the most devastatingly constructed and beautifully cutting ways to say “fuck you.”
  • Content Warnings
    • I mean, it’s the life of a slave. If you think he’s not going to describe beatings and gaslighting and people being murdered while they beg for their lives, well, you’re probably exactly the kind of person who needs to read this book. 
  • Quotes
    • “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
    • “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will… Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get.”

The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson

The Chaos

  • Genre
    • Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Young Adult
  • Plot summary
    • The line between external and internal battles gets blurred when a strange phenomenon makes monsters from stories and dreams come to life. The story follows Scotch, a mixed racial teenager looking for her brother while the city tries to survive The Chaos.
  • Character empathy rating
    • Have I mentioned how incredible Nalo Hopkinson is at this? Scotch is every bit as likable as Makeda from Sister Mine, and so are all the other characters. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Does “modern day Alice in Wonderland with snarky teens and Afro-Caribbean folklore” sound appealing to you? If that sounds good to you, why are you not at the library RIGHT NOW?
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Scotch calls her personal monsters “Horseless Head-men.” How awesome is that?
    • She’s actually trouble in normal teenager ways, while still being a very good and likable person. Teen trouble, like kid trouble, is one of those things were we tend to all copy each other instead of actually write young people like they are. It’s great to read a teen who actually feels like the way you were when you were in high school. 
    • There’s a dance scene, and normally those are pretty boring to read about, but this time I could see it in my head perfectly and I don’t know how Nalo Hopkinson did that but it was amazing. 
    • Baba Yaga is a character and she’s fabulous.
    • The scribble monster who might also be a puppy.
  • Content Warnings
    • Honestly, I think you’re good.
  • Quotes
    • “In the dance movies, people can dance their way out of any trouble. If some bad guy’s coming at you, just take him out with a flying roundhouse kick, right?  After all, aren’t you a capoerirista along with being able to get buck with the best of them and pick up the tango after watching someone do it for, like, five seconds?  Oh yeah, and let’s pretend that standing on one foot while you fling one leg up in the air and swing it in a circle doesn’t have you unbalanced with your crotch open to attack from someone who has the sense to just throw a quick jab at you and get out of the way.”

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


  • Genre
    • Drama, Realistic Fiction, Romance
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of Ifemelu, Nigerian immigrant who becomes a successful writer and returns home, and Obinze, the college boyfriend who she hopes to reunite with.
  • Character Empathy
    • Much of this book is about making you understand people. Why do some people become religious extremists, or pick up a sugar daddy, or attempt suicide? Why do people lie and steal identities? Why do people try to hide their accents? Why do people change their hairstyle? This book never preaches. You don’t get to come to conclusions as simple as “she did the wrong thing” or “she did the right thing.” You just learn to understand.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • You’re surprised at how much you laugh, given that the protagonist grows up with war and then endures poverty, sexism and racism. Ifemelu survives by her wit, both in the sense of her intelligence and her snark. Her ability to cut through bullshit is absolutely delightful. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Nearly half of the book is just Ifemelu sitting in a hair salon getting braids and reminiscing about Obinze, and I don’t even care. She makes a hair salon so vivid and funny I could have spent the whole book there. If she ever writes a spin-off about the braiders at the salon I will buy it immediately.
    • So much feminism. It’s feminist heaven.
    • Obinze and Ifemelu are so damn shippable. I’m not typically a romance reader, because I’m too picky about couples chemistry. You can’t just tell me two people are soulmates; you have to really sell it. At the end of this I was making threats to the book about what would happen to it, library copy or no, if it didn’t end well for them.
    • Relationship conflicts that aren’t contrived and do resolve in ways that make sense for the characters.
    • Speaking as a white person to other whites, I’ve learned a lot from this whole project, but nobody has schooled me like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This should be required reading.
  • Content Warnings
    • One sex scene may be triggering for survivors. It also might be comforting, in a “somebody gets it” kind of way. It doesn’t dominate the story but it’s a necessary turning point, and it doesn’t sexualize the event in the slightest.
  • Quotes
    • “Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”
    • “If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.”
    • “The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”
    • “What a beautiful name,” Kimberly said. “Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.” Kimberly was smiling the kindly smile of people who thought “culture” the unfamiliar colorful reserve of colorful people, a word that always had to be qualified with “rich.” She would not think Norway had a “rich culture.”
    • “She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself.”