Sophia’s #CBR5 Review #54: How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

How To Be BlackI’m not sure when I first saw How To Be Black (2012) by Baratunde Thurston. I’m pretty sure this book must have popped up on Amazon at some point. I was drawn in by the simple, striking cover and intriguing blurb:

The Onion’s Baratunde Thurston shares his 30-plus years of being black, with helpful essays like “How To Be the Black Friend,” “How To Speak For All Black People,” “How To Celebrate Black History Month,” and more, in this satirical guide to race issues–written for black people and those who love them. Audacious, cunning, and razor-sharp…”

Thurston has an easy-to-read and thoughtful style of writing that I appreciated. He brings up some details of his life while he discusses what it’s like to be black in America. In order to get a wider perspective, he brings in his own panel of “experts”–mostly friends he’s met through his work, including the white Canadian and author of “Stuff White People Like.”

My favorite parts of this book were when Thurston simply discussed his own experiences. I wouldn’t mind reading an entire autobiography from him. Although I found the opinions of the panel interesting; they were too short and I didn’t know enough about the authors. I couldn’t keep them straight in my head, so I didn’t have a clear through-line of who thought what as I read.

Although this book was written tongue-in-cheek, I found it kind of depressing. Mixed in with some of the annoying, at-least-kind-of-racist people I’ve had to work with lately, I’ve never felt so hopeless about race relations in America. Thurston really got the idea across of how exhausting it is to be a minority, with so many expectations and stereotypes hemming him in from all sides,–especially when he was the extreme minority in the corporate world. Yet Thurston isn’t a negative writer at all, and he ends with a very hopeful and pragmatic chapter on his ideas for some real change.

I also found Thurston incredibly relatable. He’s only a couple years older than me. He attended Sidwell Friends School (Chelsea Clinton’s school) before getting an undergraduate degree from Harvard. He has the smart, thoughtful, the-world-can-change-just-let-me-explain-how attitude that I’ve decided those schools try to instill in all their students. And being an extreme minority in my current job, I could also relate to Thurston’s description of being the only black guy at work. Anyway, I had highlighted tons of text while I was reading, but the library stole my e-book back before I was able to write this review, so I guess I’ll just end it here.

The rest of my reviews are on my blog.

Owlcat’s CBR V review #19 of Countdown City (Last Policeman #2) by Ben H. Winters

Having read the first book in this trilogy of a pre-apocalyptic world, I was so eager to read the second book, Countdown City, I pre-ordered it and was thrilled when it arrived in July to my Kindle.

The story picks up from the previous book, now with only 77 days remaining before the asteroid’s impact in Southeast Asia. The main character, Hank Palace, has lost his job as a police detective with the Concord, NH, Police Department, the result of federalization throughout the country of security venues. The story begins when a former babysitter, who sat for him and his sister when they were little, asks his help to find her husband, who may or may not have gone “bucket list” like a lot of other people and has disappeared without telling her or anyone anything.  This is so out of character for him that his wife is absolutely sure there is much more to his leaving. With the loss of phones, cars, and other normal modern amenities, this is a task almost impossible to accomplish but he relies on his own intuition, as well as his sister, who in the previous book had joined a band of rebels who believe in true conspiracy mode that the U.S. government is not telling people everything and which is generally anarchist. He knows she may have a solution to finding this man through her various contacts, particularly the community that has taken over what used to be the University of New Hampshire. He and she travel there, he finds some answers, and pursues his quest to find the man who apparently is not the person his wife believed he was.

Consequently, he is thrown into several murderous scenarios, almost losing his own life in the process.  Throughout the book, however, because he is such a decent man with a high degree of integrity and determination, despite the world and society around him falling apart, he plows forth with finding answers, whether they are ones he or the wife want to hear.  He has his moments of doubt and many moments of fear and confusion when what had seemed black and white turns out to be grey.  He also discovers some of what his sister and others have told him about the government’s deceptions appear to be true, particularly regarding the “boat people” who travel in horrific conditions from the South Asian countries to the shores of this country, hoping for at least a minimal chance of survival when the asteroid hits by being as far away as they can be from its epicenter and within a country that has boundaries and morals.  He is dismayed and frustrated and angry but these emotions also feed his determination to accomplish the nearly impossible so he can bring some answers and “closure” to his former baby sitter.

In the process he nearly dies, though obviously the reader is aware that isn’t going to happen because there is a third book due within this trilogy.  As in the first book, the Hank’s character is intriguing and admirable, but has enough flaws of his own to make him believable.  Other characters within the story are well developed, likeable in some ways, dislikeable in others, just as in real life.  Winters has woven the story well, though to be honest, although I’ve seen from other reviews that many thought this book was better than the first, I preferred the first.  The plot in this story was slow to develop and the multitude of characters a little difficult to keep sorted.  The ending, however, was quite believable and again, throughout, the book makes the reader wonder how he or she would react under these circumstances, with the impending doom of an asteroid strike that will undoubtedly kill of most human beings throughout the world and which has already affected society in many unpleasant, negative ways.  It is a book worth reading for those questions alone, and now I truly look forward to the third book in the trilogy, though am not certain when it will be available.  When I finished this second book, I had wished I could just keep on reading to the end event!

Owlcat’s CBR 5 review #16 of “The Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Stedman

Apparently, this is M.L. Stedman’s first novel, which I would not have guessed.  It is an incredibly complex story filled with complex characters, histories, geography, and emotions.  As I began reading it, I immediately sensed that this was a story about good people with good intentions, while also realizing it was not going to end well.  Ultimately, it does end “well” in the way a Hollywood movie has to end “well” and that, for me, was it’s only flaw, but an understandable one, because the author apparently needed to relieve the reader of the intense sadness that builds up throughout the final third of the book. There isn’t a “bad” person in this book but everyone is affected by what turns out to be a bad situation.

The story begins by introducing a WWI veteran, Tom Sherbourne, who returned from the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Somme unscathed physically but tormented with survivor’s guilt, PTSD, and having shut down and compartmentalized his feelings to protect himself.  This latter approach to life had begun in response to a harsh childhood and was exacerbated by his war experiences, so by the time he arrives in the town of Port Partogeuse, Western Australia, he has become someone who will never love and will always be alone, and at this point, is perfectly satisfied with this understanding.  He sees himself as flawed and incapable of being a person who could be loved and appreciated. Nevertheless, we see an inkling of the person he’d rather be when he rescues a woman who is on the same boat as he when he is traveling from Sydney to Port Partageuse; she is accosted by an arrogant, abusive man and he runs interference for her, and she in turn is surprised by the quiet way and self-deprecating manner he in which he presents himself.

As part of this persona, he has accepted a position to maintain the lighthouse on Janus Rock, a small island off the coast of Western Australia, feeling it is suitable employment for someone like himself, who should be alone. He understands there will be only seasonal contact with the supply boat, approximately every third month, and no shore leave for very long lengths of time.  Just before leaving Port Partageuse, however, he meets an unusual young woman, Isabel, 10 years his junior, who sparks a joy within him he hasn’t experienced before; while posted at the lighthouse, he receives intermittent correspondence from her and they reunite as friends the next time he returns to shore, and they hastily marry with her agreeing to go to Janus with him, understanding the social deprivations there.  They are so in love with each other and each is in awe of the other so that little else matters.  He in particular is so enamored of her willingness to love and accept him as he is, even when she’s unable to penetrate his reluctance to share past details about his life, that he will do anything for her, and this becomes the source of his horrible moral dilemma.

While on the island for the first two years, Isabel suffers two miscarriages and a stillbirth, and she becomes angry, sad, guilty-ridden and despairing.  Tom doesn’t know how to comfort her or make her return to him emotionally.  Their isolation only exacerbates the situation.  And then a rowboat washes onto Janus Rock and in it is a dead man and a live baby.  Tom immediately wants to report this to the authorities but after much pleading from his wife, he relents to her need to keep the baby, who is only about 3 months old, and they’ll pretend it’s theirs.  They bury the dead man, who has no identification.  Tom feels torn between what he has done and what he should have done, i.e., reported the baby’s survival so that if there was a mother waiting for her, she could be returned.  Nonetheless, they name the baby Lucy, and Isabel becomes the mother she believes God meant her to be by sending this child, arguing with Tom that the mother undoubtedly drowned, as evidenced by a woman’s sweater that had been in the boat.

Over time, they become an ideal family and Tom is as much enamored of the child and fatherhood as Isabel is of the child and motherhood, and they are wonderful parents. During one trip to shore, however, the seeds of doubt begin to emerge for Tom when he hears of a woman named Hannah who lost her husband and child at sea.  He begins to feel a rift between himself and Isabel as they struggle with the possibilities that Lucy belongs to this woman and they, Tom in particular, realize their decisions have caused horrible pain to another human being.  Tom begins to relate the guilt he feels with their initial decision to the guilt he feels about surviving the war, and over time he begins to feel more and more guilty. He also realizes that no matter what choices he makes now, there will be trauma for many involved, himself included, and we see him struggle in a no-man’s land of conscience.

I won’t go into details about the decisions and results, but will say that I was in tears in several parts of the book, including the end that I previously described as a bit too “Hollywood.”  I felt somewhat manipulated at the end. Throughout the rest of the book, however, I truly felt these characters were totally realistic, well-developed, and each and every one of them deserved better than they got! Yet I also felt there were impossible decisions these characters had to make, and as each did so, could understand and feel the heart-wrenching agony for each of them.  There were some unexpected decisions but even these made sense from the point of view of the character, and none of the final decisions or choices left me thinking they weren’t true to character or to the story.

This was a book full of exploring isolation, courage, loss, grief, desperation, trauma, guilt, and morality, with a clear understanding that often right and wrong are indistinguishable, and what is considered right or wrong can be colored by one’s past, even when the past is long buried – it has its way of surfacing. Once I had finished reading this book and sat with my feelings and tears, I knew it was also a book that would stay with me for a very long time, and even while reading it, I could easily find myself asking, “What would I do?” I vacillate between giving this three stars or four, but decided it may not be great, but it’s very, very good, and a favorite, thereby earning five stars. I do warn readers, however, to be prepared for an emotional roller-coaster ride and to have plenty of tissues on hand toward the end.



ElCicco #CBR5 Review #18: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton


The House of Mirth is another selection from The Atlantic‘s list of books by and about women that men should read. The novel was published in 1905 and examines the fate of a single woman in New York society who has connections but lacks wealth. Miss Lily Bart loves living well and is known for her great beauty as well as her manners. She always knows the right thing to do and say in her social circle, and her presence is desired at society events. Lily’s goal is the same as most other women in her position — to marry a rich husband with the right connections to maintain this lifestyle of travel, parties and finery. To accomplish this goal, Lily must cultivate her friendships so as to stay invited to society’s inner circle. This becomes increasingly difficult as Lily’s lack of money and growing debts put her in a position that jeopardizes her societal ties and her very future.

Wharton’s writing is a joy to read. Descriptions of characters are often amusing and always colorful. One matron of society is “…a monumental woman with the voice of a pulpit orator and a mind preoccupied with the iniquities of her servants.” Lily’s aunt, Mrs. Peniston “… was the kind of woman who wore jet at breakfast. Lily had never seen her when she was not cuirassed in shining black, with small tight boots, and an air of being packed and ready to start; yet she never started.” And on her spinster cousin: “Grace Stepney’s mind was like a kind of moral fly-paper, to which the buzzing items of gossip were drawn by a fatal attraction, and where they hung fast in the toils of an inexorable memory.”

While Wharton’s characterizations of individuals are vivid and entertaining, it’s her dissection of this particular social class that is so illuminating, especially the position of women within the upper class. Lily’s beauty is her power, and she knows it. She has had a few opportunities to capitalize on it and marry well but always seems to undermine her own efforts. Her friend Carry Fisher, a divorcee who  lives off the wealth of her friends, says, “…sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.” Lily is very fond of the trappings, the finery of society, but she sees that the milieu in which it exists is a crass and dirty place. Her wealthy married friends are happy to have Lily around, but there is a price to their hospitality, whether it’s writing correspondence on behalf of the hostess or keeping a husband preoccupied while the wife engages in an affair. Because Lily is so beautiful and desirable, and because she becomes financially indebted to one of the husbands, she eventually becomes an object of resentment. This is where the real trouble for her begins and Wharton delineates the rigid standards to which women were held. When gossip of Lily’s debts and supposed involvement with married men reaches the ears of her wealthy but tightfisted aunt, Wharton writes, “It was intolerable of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made.” When her friend Gerty Fisher, an independent but somewhat poor single woman, urges Lily to fight against the accusations against her by telling the truth, Lily replies, “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s the easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”

The men is Wharton’s world are largely wealthy, capable of funding their wives’ extravagances. In The House of Mirth, however, there are two men who don’t quite fit the mold and both figure prominently in Lily’s life. Lawrence Seldon is socially connected and financially stable but not rich enough for Lily. They are attracted to one another but Seldon prefers to remain detached from society. Simon Rosedale, on the other hand, is extraordinarily wealthy but lacking in connections. Rosedale, who is a Jewish businessman, is infatuated with Lily, but she and most society women find Rosedale’s presence at their gatherings distasteful. By the end of the novel, the image of Rosedale softens and it is apparent that Lily and Rosedale have quite a lot in common. At one point, he tells her, “Why should I mind saying I want to get into society? … a taste for society’s just another kind of hobby…. But I know the quickest way to queer yourself with the right people is to be seen with the wrong ones….”

Lily at first might seem shallow, but she is introspective and understands that she is a product of her upbringing and environment. Lily recognizes that she cannot be satisfied with less than what she wants, and she realizes too late the mistakes she has made. Lily does have some moral rules, unlike many of the circle she aspires to join, and her adherence to those rules, at personal cost, is both admirable and tragic. While I was ambivalent about her at the beginner of the novel, by the end, I admired and pitied her. The House of Mirth grew on me the more I read and has stayed with me.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #1: Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and Identity by Andrew Solomon


My study is of families who accept their children, and how that relates to those children’s self-acceptance…. In turn, it looks at how the acceptance of larger society affects both these children and their families.

In this ambitious work, writer Andrew Solomon examines “horizontal identities,” i.e., identities that a person finds with some group outside one’s family (vertical identity). For the purposes of this study, those identities are with marginalized groups whom society might like to cure, correct or otherwise eliminate. Over many years and through interviews with hundreds of families, researchers and other professionals, Solomon identified several marginalized identity groups and raises provocative questions as to whether they should be recognized, accepted, and valued for who they are as opposed to working toward their correction or extinction.

Each chapter deals with one identity group, and the titles are deaf, dwarfs, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, prodigies, rape, crime, and transgender. The book begins and ends with chapters on Solomon himself, as a son struggling with dyslexia and homosexuality, and as a father in a non-traditional family. Solomon provides an impressive, well researched, balanced and compassionate exposition on each topic. He does his background research into the science of his topics and lays it out clearly for the reader, but this is no dry psychology text. What illuminates Solomon’s research are the real people whom Solomon interviewed over the course of many years, watching family dynamics unfold and the real relationships of parents with their “different” children progress.

For each identity group, there is contention within and from without as to whether the difference should be eliminated or accepted and accommodated. Is it an appropriate goal to make everyone the same? The Deaf, for example, have their own culture and, as Solomon points out, it is stronger now than ever, but due to technological advances such as cochlear implants, that culture is threatened as hearing parents decide to provide implants instead of embracing their children’s deafness. Does it make sense to try to stop this from happening? Due to prenatal testing, parents can select out Down syndrome and many choose to abort a fetus at risk for Down syndrome. Is this desirable, or would it be better to welcome the difference and create a better environment for the success of those with Down syndrome? Conversely, if parents are able to select out “defects” in their children, would it not be understandable that deaf parents or parents who are dwarfs would want their children to be like them? Society cringes at the notion of purposely choosing deafness or dwarfism for children as if it were cruel and sick, but what makes us think that the lives of these people are of lesser value than any other life?

Much of this book revolves around the families telling their stories, and that is what makes it so very compelling to read. Even though they are dealing with problems that they didn’t foresee and that they cannot eliminate, most present positive attitudes and resilience. Many become advocates for their identity group. Solomon does provide examples of families for whom the problems are too much, who are struggling and don’t necessarily see the life before them as a “trip to Holland” (a reference to a famous essay by Emily Perl Kingsley regarding the birth of her son who has Down syndrome). But he does so with compassion and little in the way of judgement. The two chapters that I was most interested it were “crime” (because I had read that he interviewed Dylan Klebold’s parents) and “schizophrenia” (because I know little about it and it seems so scary). I received an education on schizophrenia. While it is a horrible burden for those who have it and for their families, there are a lot of misconceptions about it in society at large. We should have compassion instead of fear for those who have it. The chapter on crime and the interview with the Klebolds (only a few pages in a very long chapter) reveals how kind they are and how devastated they were by their son’s actions at Columbine. There was more to that story than most people know, and I feel bad for ever blaming parents like the Klebolds for the crimes of their children.

As the parent of two children with autism spectrum disorders, I must comment on the autism chapter. We in the autism community are a divided and contentious bunch, but for the most part, I think Solomon managed to present the issues we face and our differences accurately. He starts this chapter with a heartbreaking story of a family he has known for many years now. The daughter, at the age of ten, was institutionalized because she was becoming dangerous to her family and her parents were at a loss as to how to help her, given the severity of her behaviors. Throughout the chapter, Solomon presents several stories of families struggling to help their children who are not independent and display troubling behaviors, and he recognizes how difficult the struggles are for the child and the family, especially when there is little to nothing in the way of community supports for those families.  Towards the end of the chapter, Solomon highlights the tragedy of parents murdering their autistic children and essentially getting away with it. I was stunned at the evidence he provided regarding the number of murders that have happened and the lenient sentences that parents received. The life of a child with autism is somehow less of a life to the judges who sentence. It seems “understandable” that a parent would get frustrated and kill the child, and that is sickening.

My one criticism of this chapter is about this statement of Solomon’s: “The increased rate of diagnosis is crucial to the claim that there is an epidemic — critical in lobbying for resources for research. But the higher functioning people whose inclusion has brought up the numbers are often the ones who advocate against some of that research.” That second sentence needs some evidence to back it up. I am unaware of any research that shows the higher rates of autism being related more to “higher functioning” people getting diagnosed. “Higher” versus “lower” functioning is a minefield in and of itself and is not an official part of any diagnostic criteria for autism.

Having made that criticism, I should note that others will have many more complaints about this chapter. Those in the autism community who are sure that vaccines cause autism and who are anti-Neurodiversity will hate it. Solomon wrote about Neurodiversity for New York magazine several years ago and is sympathetic to the movement. Many adults with autism have a chance to speak up for themselves in this chapter and many do so with intelligence and conviction. They like who they are and do not want to be “cured.” They want to be accepted and valued as equal members of the community, which I think parents of children with autism the world over wish for as well.The ND alienate some in the autism community, however, by taking an “anti-cure” stance (which seems to stand against scientific advancement) and criticizing interventions such as Applied Behavioral Analysis, which is the go-to intervention for autism and is only now being recognized by insurance companies as a coverable expense. Parents are made to feel that the interventions they choose are self serving for the parent and harmful to their children. Solomon quotes a parent who says,

The fact that my children have an abnormality of development does not meant that I do not love my children for who they are. As with any other condition that would threaten their future and happiness, I do as much as I can to help them be functional and as normal as possible. And no, “normal” to me does not mean “a cookie-cutter robot-child trained to do my will.” It means: “able, like most people without autism, to lead an independent, purpose-filled life — able to speak, able to communicate, able to form and keep relationships.

Far From the Tree is an ambitious, unique piece of research and reflection on identity. It should be required reading for policy makers and would be a great choice for a community book read. Each chapter could provide hours of discussion.

TheGreatUnstainer’s #CBR5 Review #01: Books v Cigarettes by George Orwell

Of all the early 20th Century writers, George Orwell continues to be an intriguing character.  Despite being a socialist, his two most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984, caused him to become the darling of the modern libertarian, of the tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist, and of the perpetual adolescent of the Internet.

But this popular caricature of Orwell as the friend to the neo-con is difficult to reconcile with the Orwell who emerges from his essays.  Books v Cigarettes — a collection of seven essays published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series — presents some of Orwells musings on society, particularly his relationship with the intelligentsia.  The collection paints a picture of an Orwell who is at once both a self-conscious outsider — almost desperate to be acknowledged as a contrary, free, and independent thinker — and a painfully self-conscious product of middle class England.

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