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Book Review: An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

January 19, 2021 Leave a comment

Summary:
From the Revisioning History series, this explores United States history with a focus on the Indigenous peoples. History is explored in 11 short to medium length chapters in chronological order.

Review:
I majored in US History and took a full-length course on the Indigenous peoples of the US. I also previously was interested in the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, so read a few books about and by the people of that movement. I was kind of expecting, since this is a short book targeted to a mainstream audience, that I would not encounter too much that was new, but I was pleased to discover my expectations were incorrect.

This book was published in 2014 and thus took a more modern perspective than even my course late in the first decade of the 2000s took. It ensures a perspective not of we’re studying these ancient lost peoples but rather we’re studying the history of people who exist now in modern society and how genocide was enacted against them. The exploration of colonization and how it impacted Indigenous peoples is much more nuanced than the simple guns, germs, and steel history I’d studied in college. What I learned through this book is that colonization was strategic. It wasn’t just a happenstance of how germs worked out when the nations met and greater firepower. Of course, my coursework did acknowledge colonization, but not to the extent it was delineated in this book.

Through economic penetration of Indigenous societies, the European and Euro-American colonial powers created economic dependency and imbalance of trade, then incorporated the Indigenous nations into spheres of influence and controlled them indirectly or as protectorates, with indispensable use of Christian missionaries and alcohol….a colonizing regime institutionalizes violence.

4%-5%

To me an interesting aspect of this book was its discussion of Indigenous peoples and alcohol. Growing up, I definitely heard the myth that Indigenous peoples are more genetically prone to alcoholism. In recent years, I heard the theory that rates of addiction are higher in oppressed peoples, which makes sense as alcohol and other addictive substances can provide temporary relief from trauma. This book pushed my understanding two steps further. First, alcohol being used as an intentional weapon of colonization, calling it a “weapon of war” (21%), and noting that it wasn’t just introduced, it was also promoted (13%). This book also drew my attention to the idea that, for at least some Indigenous peoples, acting the part of the “drunk Indian” can be a form of protest. I read the article the author cites as the origin of this theory, and reading fiction work by Indigenous peoples seems to support this theory as well, for at least some instances. (See the book Ceremony, I’ll be reviewing it soon).

After covering the American Indian Movement, the book wraps up with a discussion of the expanding US imperialism and modern day colonization by historic colonizers (the US and the UK are specifically discussed). Through this, I learned of a potential connection between the Monroe Doctrine and overpowered policing forces. I also learned about the modern forced removal of the Chagossian people from Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean, which is now used by the US for a military based (rented from the UK). This is just one example of many given in the chapter, but it’s the one that stuck out the most to me, partially because I didn’t know the US even had a military base in the Indian Ocean but also because the book describes the forced removal including murdering every single pet dog on the island. While of course the forced removal alone is terrible there was just something about the added insult of murdering beloved pets that ground the whole event into my brain.

I have covered just a small snippet of what I learned in this book. It is well-written. The chapters are short to medium length and filled with information. There’s nothing extraneous here. It gets right to the point, which I appreciate. The chronological order is helpful as well for leaving the book and coming back to it as you have time. Highly recommended. I’ve already added several of the other books in this series to my wishlist.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Law of Lines by Hye-Young Pyun (translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell)

January 12, 2021 Leave a comment
The cover of the book The Law of Lines.

Summary:
Two young women’s lives are told in parallel beginning with a moment of intense misfortune. Se-oh, who normally avoids leaving the home she shares with her father at all, comes home from an outing he encouraged her to go on to pick up a coat he bought for her birthday to find their home up in flames with her father inside. The detective tells her that her father set off the explosion himself due to debt, setting wheels turning in Se-oh’s life. Ki-jeong, a high school teacher, has a situation with a difficult student come to a head at the same time as she finds out that her younger half-sister’s body was found in a river. How will these two women’s lies come to entwine?

Review:
When I heard about this, it was in the context of it being a thriller. I’m not sure I’d personally call it a thriller, more of a quiet, subtle, literary mystery.

I was deeply moved by Se-oh’s story. Although I did not previously know how debt works in South Korea, once I understood I felt so much empathy for the horribly tight spot Se-oh and her father found themselves in. The more of Se-oh’s story was revealed, the more saddened I was for her. It was like if you saw the aftermath of a car crash and then watched a slow-motion replay of how it came to be. That’s what reading Se-oh’s story was like. It was through Se-oh’s story that I learned the most things that were new to me about South Korean culture, and her story was also what led to me looking up some aspects of it and learning even more.

I was less engaged by Ki-jeong’s story. While I did feel empathy for her being stuck in a job she didn’t like and the apparently difficult situation with her half-sister, I didn’t feel that enough was revealed about her that was positive for me to really be on her side. I suspect I may have gotten more out of Ki-jeong’s story if I was more familiar with South Korean culture, but this is a shortcoming of my own and not the book.

If you are looking to travel to South Korea via subtle yet engaging mystery, I would recommend picking this one up.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin B. Curtice

January 5, 2021 4 comments

Summary:
This is simultaneously a memoir about her faith journey and an opinion piece from her perspective as both a Christian and a member of the Potawatomi nation (a nation Indigenous to both the US and Canada). Kaitlin fearlessly grapples with the historical and current weaponization of Christianity, how she interprets Christianity in her own life, and how her Potawatomi knowing comes into her faith.

Review:
This book, to me, is first and foremost beautiful. I read it on my kindle fire just so I could enjoy its beauty in full-color and larger size than my paperwhite. There are five parts, and each part begins with an illustrated poem from Potawotami tradition that ties into the designated part.

A lot about this book is difficult to categorize, and that is part of its strength and beauty. It is partially a memoir, although not necessarily told in a linear fashion. In fact, it reminded me quite a bit of Braiding Sweetgrass (review). It is both about a topic the author has a lot of knowledge on (the experience of Christianity as an Indigenous person), but also is a memoir because her knowledge and herself cannot be separated as they inform each other.

Although I am not biracial myself, I imagine this book would be meaningful to readers who are. Kaitlin, while a full member of the Potawatomi nation, is half white and half Potawatomi. In addition to this, her parents split up when she was young, so she also experienced both living on the reservation and living off the reservation in a white town in a white church with folks essentially considering her to be white and ignoring her Potawatomi self. She discusses what it means to her to be able to pass for white and why she generally as an adult chooses not to. (She even flies with her tribal membership card, which while officially accepted, is usually not recognized by the first TSA agent she sees).

Her insights into how to improve what is broken or ostracizing in the church in the US were simultaneously interesting and challenging. I can imagine a reader very deeply enveloped in the church may feel challenged by her willingness to question what is often accepted as the word of God and also by her desire to draw in aspects of Potawatomi ways. Similarly, I can imagine a reader who has already cast aside the church might wonder why she bothers staying with something that may seem to them to be so obviously broken. This is the beauty of the book. Kaitlin refuses to do what might seem to either side to be the easiest and rather forges her own way, encouraging others to do the same.

The problem isn’t that we search for truth; the problem is that we become obsessed with our belief that we hold the truth, and we destroy entire cultures in the process.

52%

I know I am not the only person who has been wondering lately about other white women who support the patriarchy, and Kaitlin directly addresses this with her insight that comes from being a white passing Indigenous woman in white conservative spaces. I found what she had to say helped me both establish some understanding for something I previously could not understand at all and consider new ways to potentially reach these women.

Unless your lived experience is very similar to the author’s, I expect this will be a book that challenges you. It certainly challenged me. But to be challenged is to grow, and I thank the author for sharing her understanding of the world and her experiences. Being challenged helped me to grow in my understanding. Recommended for all but especially for those who are seeking a greater understanding of the church in the US.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

December 29, 2020 Leave a comment

Summary:
17-year-old Enchanted Jones has been making it work at her new highschool in the suburbs where she’s the only Black girl. She has a good reputation on the swim team, and she takes care of her little siblings after school while her mom and dad work to afford their kids’ private schooling and their new house. But what Enchanted really wants to do is sing – an idea her parents aren’t too fond of. When she goes to a reality tv show audition, she meets R&B singer Korey Fields. He takes a shine to her, but that might not be the good thing she thinks it is.

Review:
I read this book in less than 24 hours because I simply could not stop thinking about Enchanted and needed to find out what happened in her world. This book both manages to be about important issues but also doesn’t feel like it’s an “issues” book. It’s Enchanted’s story, and that happens to involve today’s issues because today’s issues are real.

This book is about a lot of things, but many of the things it’s about come right back around to how society treats Black girls. How we treat them like they are grown up, when they are still children. This book beautifully depicts how truly adolescent Enchanted is – something that many of our adolescents are not allowed to be but Black girls especially. Enchanted is interested in boys and has feelings about them but she also loves Disney movie night with her little siblings. She has big dreams of stardom but she also just misses seeing her grandmother and swimming with her in the ocean. She has typical adolescent breakthrough moments of realizing what you saw and thought was beautiful as a child might actually be something else. This book asks us to believe girls, but to believe Black girls especially, because so many others will just look at them and say “oh they knew what they were doing, they were grown.”

The book is also about how wealthy abusers groom girls and take advantage of their wealth and power to separate girls from their families. The abuse depicted in this book is realistic and depicts emotional, sexual, and physical abuse and could be a trigger, so please do note that. That said, the author depicts just enough abuse for us to know what’s going on, but it never feels gratuitous or unnecessary.

While this is YA, it has important content for adults too, especially if you regularly come into contact with adolescents. Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

November 22, 2020 Leave a comment
Cover of the book The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Summary:
Dr. Cone is respected as the founder of Black liberation theology. In this book first published in 2011 he explores the connections between the Jesus’s crucifixion and the lynchings committed by white Americans against Black Americans. He also explores in a forthright manner how Christianity is experienced and expressed in Black American churches and directly addresses the seeming contradiction of Black Americans embracing the faith they encountered initially through white enslavers.

Review:
I think it’s important before giving my thoughts on this book to establish for those who may web search their way here who I am. I’m a white, US American woman with the privilege of a Masters degree. While I don’t hazard to guess who Dr. Cone intended to write for, I will say I found both a greater understanding of the Black Christian church in the US and simultaneously called out as a white US American – a couple of times as a white woman specifically. If you are a white US American and not a Christian, this is still a relevant read for you. 79% of Black US Americans consider themselves to be Christian (Pew Research Center) – a greater percent than either US Americans overall or when compared to white US Americans alone. If we are to be good allies, it’s important to understand how this faith intertwines with the atrocious history and (Dr. Cone argues, and I agree with him, continued presence of) lynching in the US.

Dr. Cone gives context for how Black US Americans, especially those who are descendants of enslaved people, came to find and embrace the Christian faith. He also discusses some prominent white and Black theologians, highlighting the differences in how they addressed or, in the case of white theologians, failed to address systemic racism in the US.

I could not find one sermon or theological essay, not to mention a book, opposing lynching by a prominent liberal white preacher.

(loc 79%)

I was particularly moved by the section that discussed how these theologians reacted to the 1963 Birmingham Baptist Church bombing, which resulted in the deaths of four Black girls – Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11). Dr. Cone’s justified palpable frustration at the general lack of response even in the face of such clear evil was important to hear.

The title of the book alludes to the answer to a couple of questions I’ve heard people ask before – how is the Black Christian experience different from that of white Christians and how did the descendants of enslaved people come to embrace the faith of those who enslaved their ancestors? According to Dr. Cone, Black US Americans saw a fellow sufferer in Jesus and a clear connection between how he was crucified and how Black US Americans are unjustly treated. He also draws attention to how Black churches pay attention to different aspects of the Bible than what you might hear in white churches.

One cannot correctly understand the black religious experience without an affirmation of deep faith informed by profound doubt. Suffering naturally gives rise to doubt. How can one believe in God in the face of such horrendous suffering as slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree? Under these circumstances, doubt is not a denial but an integral part of faith. It keeps faith from being sure of itself. But doubt does not have the final word. The final word is faith giving rise to hope.

(loc 64%)

Dr. Cone directly addresses the frustration of the white people who enforce segregation and lynching and Black people suffering from these things both laying claim to the same faith and how painful that is. My takeaway was that, rather than ask how white supremacists and Black US Americans can lay claim to the same faith, acknowledge that white supremacy is twisting the faith of white US Americans.

Hate and white supremacy lead to violence and alienation, while love and the cross lead to nonviolence and reconciliation.

(loc 46%)

White supremacy tears faith to pieces and turns the heart away from God.

(loc 94%)

Dr. Cone also dedicates space to Black women’s voices, and I was particularly moved by this part as it features Black women directly calling out white women as having the ability to bring change to white supremacy. I have so often heard the opposite, disempowering message that our options of action as white women are limited due to the patriarchy, but that is an overly limited viewpoint. While it is true the patriarchy limits us, we do have the ears of other white folks in a way that Black people often do not, and white women may have more influence over the men in our lives than we may realize. (When I say men in our lives I mean this in the most inclusive way possible – family members, sons, friends, colleagues, etc…) Black women in this book see and call out the power that we white women clearly have with specific examples of how white supremacy responds to perceived affronts on white women. If we have the power to cause harm to Black folks in this way, then we have the power to, at the very least disengage from it by not allowing our experiences to be used as the spark to start off the firestorm, but perhaps we can also use it to quench the violence to begin with. I think it’s important for those reading this not to mistake this as a call for white saviors but rather as a call for white women to cease (knowingly or unknowingly) inciting violence and to work against it. I think of it as the Bible says – take the log out of our own eyes first.

This book also includes some very meaningful explorations of the blues and Gospel music, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King’s theology. It ends with a call to address continued issues, especially as seen through the prison system. As a white woman who grew up rural poor with a large local issue when I was in high school being whether or not to bring in a prison as a source of jobs to an economically depressed area, I viewed this as yet another reason to address efforts toward our incredibly problematic private prison industrial complex in the US.

Through private prisons and the “war against drugs,” whites have turned the brutality of their racist legal system into a profit-making venture for dying white towns and cities throughout America.

(loc 97%)

This clearly was a meaningful read for me, and I can easily see what an important read it is for my fellow white US Americans. It does not give easy answers for what to do, but it demonstrates how white supremacy hurts everyone and leaves one with an urge to be part of the change for good.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

November 12, 2020 Leave a comment
Cover of the book The Girl from Widow Hills

Summary:
Olivia just wants to live a quiet, simple life as an administrator at a new rural hospital in the American south. She changed her name to leave behind her childhood notoriety as the little girl who was swept away by flood water when she was sleepwalking and was found days later in a drainage pipe. But when she resumes sleepwalking again and literally stumbles over a dead body outside her home, her past starts to come back to haunt her.

Review:
Those of us who grew up in the 90s were consistently regaled with the stories of the little girl Jessica who fell down a well and underwent a dramatic televised rescue in the 80s. I feel like this must be inspired by that story but with a lot of “what-if” questions tossed in. (Jessica herself has lived a very quiet life since the hullaballoo).

Olivia (the woman formerly known as Arden) is likeable yet has realistic flaws. She’s a well-rounded, real character. I especially enjoyed how she decides (early in the book) to buy a home away from the cookie cutter housing built for the hospital workers. The elderly man who sold it to her is also her neighbor, and they have an adorable relationship where they mutually care for one another. Her relationships with her coworkers at the hospital are also a realistic depiction of how she’s sort of part of the club of health care workers but not exactly one, as a staff in administration.

But what about the plot? I really enjoy how right away Olivia is an unreliable narrator to herself through no fault of her own – her sleepwalking. It’s easy to understand why she’s loathe to admit to the circumstances of how she finds the body on her land, and she also has some intense and legitimate questions about how much she can trust herself.

I can’t say too much about why I like this book so much without giving the twists away. However, suffice to say I found the twists interesting. The plot before the twists makes sense with the twist but also didn’t point so directly to it that I guessed it. While the twists solve the mystery, they also leave us with a main character who is still herself – flawed and yet likeable.

Recommended to thriller fans who like a flawed main character and would enjoy an adult (fictional) take on a little girl whose rescue gripped America.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall

October 31, 2020 2 comments

Summary:
Grayson Sikes is a new private investigator and is taking on one of her first cases, but it’s looking for a man’s ex-girlfriend who doesn’t seem to want to be found. She’s not too keen on trying to find a woman who wants to be gone.

Review:
Do you love black-and-white film noir but wish there was a story with a woman PI? How about a Black woman PI written by an own voices author? How about we get some actual backstory on the PI to find out just why she’s so hard-boiled anyway? And how about a femme fatale is also a Black woman? Then this, my friend, is the book for you.

I was utterly delighted to have a noir with, for once, a different case of characters but that still fits the genre’s markers. There’s even an excellent scene of Grayson pensively taking in the LA skyline with a note that its rich colors are the result of wildfires. I am here for this!

On that note, Grayson is not shy from telling it like it is. She’ll call out the wildfires. She’ll wonder if a witness is describing someone as disagreeable because she’s actually disagreeable or because that’s how Black women can be unfairly perceived. She’ll wonder if an ex-boyfriend really just wants his dog back or if it’s about control. She’ll wonder if the elderly neighbor lady is actually helpful or a busybody. Grayson’s questions are part of what makes her a good PI.

I do want to give a content warning that part of Grayson’s backstory includes both domestic violence and miscarriage [not a plot spoiler], so do please be aware if you prefer to avoid those topics.

Overall, as a fan of noir, I was delighted by finally getting some representation in this story. It both was fun to see and also made the story less predictable and more unique. More variety is a good thing! Pick this up if you love noir and want more or if you’ve never thought it was your jam because of the dripping masculinity. This twists expectations about gender in noir on its head.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

September 20, 2020 1 comment

Summary:
Member of the Potawatomi Nation and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer presents a series of essays on plants of North America, incorporating some memoirs from her life and her daughter’s recollections as well.

Review:
It’s difficult to describe how meaningful this book is. The description sounds so simple and yet, to me, it is a collection of scientific and Indigenous knowledge intertwined as near poetry. As an urban gardener who grew up rural among farms, I think of myself as plant knowledgeable, but I was humbled by this book. I also teach, and I found her ruminations on teaching and balancing teaching other people’s children versus your own to be beautifully honest. This book takes time to get through but because of the rich meaning in each essay. You find yourself wanting to savor it.

As a person who feels both spiritually and scientifically minded, this book spoke to me on a mind and soul level simultaneously in ways I cannot fully describe. I wish there was greater focus on teaching this way. I wish the two were not divorced from each other in our society. I think it would be healing to us all and to nature as well if they were not.

Allow me to try to pull out a few meaningful quotes to me by theme.

On morality, contentment, and consumerism:

Refusal to participate is a moral choice.

Transformation is not accomplished by tentative wading at the edge.

Balance is not a passive resting place.

In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition.

The consumption-driven mind-set masquerades as “quality of life” but eats us from within.

On teaching and being taught:

The professor made me doubt where I came from, what I knew, and claimed that his was the right way to think.

Teach any who will come.

I’d left my baby girls at home with their dad in order to introduce other people’s children to something they cared little about.

Facts about plants that fascinated me, include that a 3 sisters garden [growing corn, beans, and squash together the Indigenous way] yields more food than if you grew each alone, polycultures are less susceptible to pest outbreaks than monocultures, breathing in the smell of humus (the dirt, not the food) releases oxcytocin, and lichens are actually two beings together (a fungus and an alga). I also learned:

Sweetgrass thrives where it is used and disappears elsewhere.

Plantain is not indigenous but naturalized. It’s so prevalent and well-integrated that we think it’s native.

Estuaries can have the highest biodiversity and productivity of any method.

Forest ecologists estimate that the window of opportunity for cedars to get started occurs perhaps only twice a century.

I hope I have made you intrigued by this book. I loved it so much that I bought myself a copy after starting off with a digital library copy.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Purchased

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