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2012’s 5 Star Reads!

January 4, 2013 3 comments

Last year I decided to dedicate a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year.  I not only thoroughly enjoyed assembling that post, but I also still go back to it for reference.  It’s just useful and fun simultaneously!  Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.

Please note that if the 5 star went to a book in a graphic novel series, I am just listing the whole series.  If it’s a non-graphic series, then the individual book is listed with a note about what series it is in.  With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2012!

Acacia tree against a sunset.
Acacia: The War with the Mein
(Acacia, #1)
By: David Anthony Durham
Publication Date: 2007
Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Fantasy
Themes: the complexities of good and evil
Summary:
The Akarans have ruled the Known World for twenty-two generations, but the wrongfully exiled Meins have a bit of a problem with that.  They enact a take-over plot whose first action is assassinating the king.  Suddenly his four children are flung to different parts of the Known World in exile where they will need to come to terms with who they are, who the Mein are, and the wrongs past generations of Akarans committed in order to help the Known World make a change for the better.
Current Thoughts:
I have to catch myself whenever I start to say I don’t like high fantasy now, because I do like it. I like it when done right. When it questions patriarchy and race and tradition in the context of a fantastical world.  I definitely feel like this book has cross-over potential, so I recommend it to anyone with an interest in multi-generational epics.

Glowing jellyfish against blue background.
Dark Life
(Dark Life, #1)
By: Kat Falls
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Genre: YA, Post-Apocalyptic, Scifi
Themes: ocean exploration, pioneering
Summary:
Ty was the first person born subsea.  His family are settlers on the bottom of the ocean, a new venture after global warming caused the Rising of the seas.  Ty loves his life subsea and hates Topside.  One day while adventuring around in the dark level of subsea, he stumbles upon a submarine and a Topside girl looking for her long-lost older brother.  Helping her challenges everything Ty believes in.
Current Thoughts:
I still sometimes think back to the delightfully creative underwater world that Falls presents in this book.  This is a YA book that manages to avoid the painful tropes that a lot of them fall into, plus it has a great setting.  I will definitely be reading the rest of the series.

Book title against American flag background.
Diet for a New America

By: John Robbins
Publication Date: 1987
Publisher: Stillpoint Publishing
Genre: Nonfiction–Diet, Nonfiction–Environmentalism, Nonfiction–Science
Themes: health, responsible choices
Summary:
John Robbins was born into one of the most powerful corporations in America–Baskin-Robbins.  A company based entirely on selling animal products.  Yet he took it upon himself to investigate the reality of animals products and their impact on Americans, American land, and the world overall.  This book summarizes his extensive research, including personal visits to factory farms.
Current Thoughts:
Although I already knew a lot of this information before reading this book, I believe that Robbins does an excellent job both of writing it out clearly and backing it up with respected, academic citations.  It’s my go-to book to hand to people who want to know why I’m so against factory farming and what the scientific arguments in favor of vegetarianism are.

Face of golden retriever.
A Dog Named Slugger

By: Leigh Brill
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Bell Bridge Books
Genre: Nonfiction–Memoir
Themes: animal/human relationships, disability studies
Summary:
Leigh Brill recounts in her memoir her life before, during, and after her first service dog, Slugger, a golden retriever with a heart just as golden.  Leigh had no idea her cerebral palsy could even possibly qualify her for a service dog until a similarly disabled fellow graduate student gave her some information.  Her touching memoir tracks her journey, as well as the life of Slugger.
Current Thoughts:
My love for animals means that any book about relationships with them tends to top my list.  This one stands out for its focus on issues for the disabled, and I believe that Brill’s love for her dog, both for his personality and how he helps her, really shine through.  I’d recommend this to any animal lover or to those curious about life with a service animal.

Kenyan woman standing in a field.
The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change

By: Roger Thurow
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Genre: Nonfiction–Social Justice
Themes: hunger, farming, global warming, putting a face onto the issues
Summary:
Smallholder farmers make up the majority of Kenya’s food production and yet they face multiple challenges from inefficient planting techniques to bad seed markets that lead to an annual wanjala–hunger season.  One Acre Fund, an ngo, saw the gap and came in with a vision.  Sell farmers high quality seeds and fertilizers on credit, delivered to their villages, on the condition they attend local farming classes.  Roger Thurow follows four families as they try out becoming One Acre farmers.
Current Thoughts:
I credit this book with giving me perspective in the worldwide hunger and GMO debate, and of course with giving me that ever-useful reminder that in some ways I have been very lucky.  What I tell people in order to get them to read this book is one of two things.  Either read this book because it will show you the true face of hunger or read this book to understand why some GMOs are necessary.  Most of all, I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the worldwide food debate.

Women running on a beach.
Sisterhood Everlasting
(Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, #5)
By: Ann Brashares
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Themes: the pain of growing up and maturing, changing relationships
Summary:
The Septembers are all 29 years old now and spread out all over the globe.  Bee is expending her energy biking up and down the hills of San Francisco while Eric works as a lawyer.  Carmen has a recurring role on a tv show filming in NYC and is engaged to Jones, an ABC producer.  Lena teaches art at RISD and lives a quiet life in her studio apartment, except for the one day a week she practices Greek with an elderly woman.  Tibby took off to Australia with Brian months ago, and everyone else is in limbo waiting for her to get back.  They all feel a bit disconnected until Tibby sends Bee, Carmen, and Lena tickets to come to Greece for a reunion.  What they find when they arrive is not what anyone expected.
Current Thoughts:
It’s unfortunately rare that a series grows up with the characters, but Sisterhood has.  Although a lot of women’s fiction with similar themes frustrates me, this series works because I started reading it as a teenager when the women were teenagers. I understand where they’re coming from and am more willing to give them a chance.  If you ever read any of the Sisterhood books but neglected to finish the series, definitely pick them back up. It’s worth it.

Women ironing.
To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War

By: Tera W. Hunter
Publication Date: 1997
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Genre: Nonfiction–History
Themes: race, class, gender, Atlanta, domestic workers
Summary:
Hunter examines the lives of southern black women, particularly southern domestic workers, by narrowing her focus in on the development of the city of Atlanta after the Civil War.  Since many ex-slaves moved to Atlanta and then migrated again north during the Great Migration decades later, this makes for an excellent focal point for the topic.  By examining black women’s lives in Atlanta both in and out of their employer’s homes, she is able to dissect the roles of race, class, and gender in the elite’s attempts to maintain dominance in America.
Current Thoughts:
This book not only gave me the thought-provoking examination of the intersection of race, class, and gender, but it also gave me an awesome historical introduction to the city of Atlanta.  I always think of this book whenever Atlanta comes up.  It’s also a great example of readable, accessible nonfiction history writing.

Image of a country kitchen.
Vegan Vittles: Recipes Inspired by the Critters of Farm Sanctuary

By: Joanne Stepaniak
Publication Date: 1996
Publisher: Book Publishing Company (TN)
Genre: Nonfiction–Cookbook–Vegan
Themes: down-home cruelty-free cooking
Summary:
A farm sanctuary is a farm whose sole purpose is to save animals from farm factories and slaughter.  The Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York was started in 1986.  In this cookbook, one of the proprietors has gathered vegan recipes inspired by farm life.  Think down-home cooking that is cruelty-free.
Current Thoughts:
The recipes I selected out of this cookbook have solidly entered my repertoire and are repeated hits with omnis and veg*ns alike!  They are simple, easy, and adaptable.  They also fill that comfort food niche I had honestly been missing.  Highly recommended to anyone who loves comfort food.

People and zombies in snow.
The Walking Dead

By: Robert Kirkman
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre: Graphic Novel–Horror
Themes: creation of a new society, living in fear, unjust wars, truthiness, self-protection, zombies, Georgia, survival
Summary:
When cop Rick wakes up from a coma brought on by a gun shot wound, he discovers a post-apocalyptic mess and zombies everywhere.  He sets off for Atlanta in search of his wife, Lori, and son, Carl, and soon teams up with a rag-tag group of survivors camped just outside of Atlanta.
Current Thoughts:
I’m still working my way through this series, but it just progressively gets better and better.  Although the beginning is cliche, it does not take Kirkman long to become unique, surprising, and thought-provoking.  This now also features a spin-off, non-graphic, prequel series about the villain, The Governor.  I consider these to all be the same series, in spite of different formats, and I’m finding that spin-off just as enjoyable.

Living hand in dead one.
Warm Bodies
(Warm Bodies, #1)
By: Isaac Marion
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic
Themes: hope, love
Summary:
R is a zombie, and he remembers nothing about his life before he was one–except that his name starts with the letter R.  He and his group of the other living dead inhabit an old abandoned airport and are ruled by the bonies.  They hunt the living not just for the food, but also for the memories that come from ingesting their brains.  It’s like a drug.  One day when he’s out on a hunt, R eats the brain of a young man who loves a young woman who is there, and R steps in to save her.  It is there that an unlikely love story begins.
Current Thoughts:
This book reminds me that even a post-apocalyptic story can be hopeful.  I also still look back on R’s unlikely love story with a warm heart and smile.  I recommend it to those looking for an off-beat love story or a different take on zombies.

Tiger in a cage overlooking a gorge.
The Wind Through the Keyhole
(The Dark Tower, #4.5)
By: Stephen King
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Fantasy, Horror
Themes: growing up, leaving aside childish things
Summary:
There’s a tale we have yet to hear about the ka-tet in the time between facing the man in the green castle and the wolves of the Calla.  A time when the ka-tet hunkered down and learned a special billy-bumbler talent, an old tale of Gilead, and the first task Roland faced as a young gunslinger after the events at Mejis.
Current Thoughts:
The Dark Tower is just a series that is flat-out worth getting into a fan girling over.  I could never ever perceive of reading and re-reading it as being a waste of time.  I’ve also noticed that growing up is a recurring theme in King’s books, and apparently is one that I enjoy.

Hand pressed against glass.
Y: The Last Man

By: Brian K. Vaughan
Publication Date: 2003
Publisher: Vertigo
Genre: Graphic Novel–Scifi–Post-apocalyptic
Themes: gender, gender norms, organization of society, Boston, United States, Israel, coming of age
Summary:
The world is changed overnight when all the men and boys in the world mysteriously drop dead.  Factions quickly develop among the women between those who want the world to remain all female and those who would like to restore the former gender balance.  One man is mysteriously left alive though–Yorick.  A 20-something, underachieving magician with a girlfriend in Australia.  He desperately wants to find her, but the US government and the man-hating Amazons have other ideas.
Current Thoughts:

Another series that I am currently in the middle of.  It is also steadily improving from the first volume.  It is colorfully illustrated, consistently funny, and thought-provoking.

Dollar bills on a white background.
Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century

By: Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Penguin Books
Genre: Nonfiction–Lifestyle
Themes: getting what you want out of life, debt slavery, finances
Summary:
Dominguez achieved Financial Independence at the ripe old age of 30 and proceeded to provide his method to friends who encouraged him to offer it as a class.  He finally wrote a book, and this edition is revised and updated for modern times by his friend and fellow achiever of Financial Independence, Vicki Robin.  Offering steps and mind-set changes, not magic formulas, they promise that if you follow the steps, you can be Financially Independent in 5 to 10 years, no matter how much debt you are currently in or how much money you make.
Current Thoughts:
This is definitely not a quick-fix book. It’s a realistic look at your finances and debt and ways to come out on top financially independent.  Following the steps is time-consuming and, admittedly, difficult to do on a month-to-month basis, but even just reading the book and following the steps for a bit gave me more of a solid structure for my finances. I paid down a significant amount of my debt in 2012 and am hopeful to pay down even more in 2013. I’m not sure I’d have been so successful with that without this book.  Plus it gives hope when you’re feeling buried in debt.

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Book Review: To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter (The Real Help Reading Project)

January 14, 2012 9 comments

Mosaic-style art depicting three black women doing laundry.Summary:
Hunter examines the lives of southern black women, particularly southern domestic workers, by narrowing her focus in on the development of the city of Atlanta after the Civil War.  Since many ex-slaves moved to Atlanta and then migrated again north during the Great Migration decades later, this makes for an excellent focal point for the topic.  By examining black women’s lives in Atlanta both in and out of their employer’s homes, she is able to dissect the roles of race, class, and gender in the elite’s attempts to maintain dominance in America.

Review:
I’ve said throughout the project that the nonfiction books have come up a bit short for me.  Although they’ve contained valuable information, they haven’t been the most readable.  Nonfiction can tell a story too, and Hunter does exactly that.  She explores so much more than just the women’s lives in relation to their employers.  Atlanta truly comes to life as we see the women commute to work via bicycle so as to avoid racist trolley lines and kick up their heels on the interracial Decatur Street after dark.  We also get to see the empowering role of secret societies in black women’s lives, as well as reclamation of performing in black face and the terrifying resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.  It is impossible not to be moved and outraged by the tale of these women’s struggles.  The book addresses three issues: classism, racism, and sexism.

In spite of Americans being told repeatedly that the American Dream is available to all if you work hard enough, Hunter quickly shows how the poor are fighting a losing battle and on top of it are demonized by the wealthy.  For instance, the use of debt to keep the poor enslaved:

Poor women often borrowed money in meager amounts, less than one dollar at a time, amassed running accounts for several months or years, and repaid ever-accumulating interest in small installments. Many moneylenders were usurious. It was common for borrowers to pay 250 to 3500 percent interest on small sums, which exacerbated poverty with interminable debt. Fannie Holman, a washerwoman, borrowed between $60 and $90 over a two- or three-year period. Though she would repay over $1,000, the creditor applied it to defray the interest but not the principal of the loan. (page 134)

Similarly, upper class employers’ attempts to control every aspect of their employee’s lives, claiming a right over their bodies:

Dance halls were a menace, declared Proctor, because “the servant class tried to work all day and dance all night.” He warned employers that household laborers would not perform well if they used their leisure unproductively—dancing instead of resting in preparation for the next day of work.  (page 179)

Hunter via maps and clear explanations demonstrates how the wealthy acquired the highest land in Atlanta most conveniently near shopping and such, while the poor and blacks were forced into the lowest land that, in addition, sewage was dumped into.  These conditions combined with the poor housing provided by slumlords made a perfect scenario for disease, and yet the poor were blamed for the outbreak of tuberculosis in the city and even accused of exposing wealthy whites to it:

  Tuberculosis signified more than a purely physiological condition. The disease became a medium for “framing” tensions in labor and race relations, with the rhetoric cloaked in scientific and medical legitimacy. (page 187)

Of course, the fact that black workers were poor was no coincidence.  The entire city conspired since the Civil War to make black Americans poor and keep them that way.  The wealthy whites, and in a lot of cases the poor whites, wanted black people out of sight and out of mind unless they were actively in service to them

Jim Crow and domestic labor thus represented contradictory desires among urban whites striving to distance themselves from an “inferior race,” but dependent on the very same people they despised to perform the most intimate labor in their homes. (page 105)

Segregation was not a system imposed entirely from above; it also helped to advance the interests of white workers, who were able to gain status from their position in the social hierarchy above all blacks. (page 119)

Jim Crow parks were designed not simply to put white urbanites closer to nature, but also to give them moments of reprieve and distance from blacks in order to channel racial friction in “wholesome” directions. (page 147)

Of course, on top of having their fight for the right over their own bodies and lives depicted by the ruling white class as them being uppity servants and uppity blacks, women had the additional injustice of having their femininity and womanhood called into question.

Like the defiant women in Galveston, strikers in Atlanta showed little attachment to prevailing middle-class conventions of femininity. As they did on other occasions, working-class women used street fights to settle disputes that jeopardized their unity and engaged in militant resistance. (page 89)

The moral implications of women consuming intoxicating substances troubled many middle-class blacks and whites. Women not only evaded laws prohibiting them from entering saloons, they frequented bar room “annexes,” they drank alcohol in alleys and streets, and they sold beer from their homes. (page 165)

I usually don’t quote this much, but the whole book is just so good.  The three-way injustices faced by black working class women is palpable throughout.  Facing one alone would be daunting enough, but facing three feels terrifyingly insurmountable even just reading about it, let alone living it.  And yet some black domestic workers did pull through in spite of the odds and do great things.  Women like Carrie Steele.

Former slave Carrie Steele, a stewardess and cook at the train station, volunteered her time as a probation officer for children in trouble with the law. This experience and her childhood as an orphan inspired her to start an orphanage in 1890. She believed that many of the children she came in contact with had fallen on hard times because they had no families to take care of them. Steele raised money to purchase four acres of land and the orphans’ first home by selling her own house, writing and selling her autobiography, and soliciting funds from generous individuals, black and white. By 1898 the Steele orphanage consisted of a brick building, hospital, and schoolhouse, and more than two hundred children had passed through its portals since its founding. (page 142)

Inspirational. Humbling. Awe-inspiring.  Words that describe both Carrie Steele’s life and the book as a whole. Read it.

Source: Public Library

Buy It

Discussion Questions:

  • Why do you think Decatur Street was allowed to continue in spite of being the only known location in Atlanta where the races mingled?
  • Hunter values the dance halls for the role of letting off steam and embracing black culture they played in black Americans’ lives.  How do you feel about them?
  • In spite of viewing black Americans as “unclean,” white Atlantans persisted in sending their laundry out to black homes to be washed.  Why do you think people were able to hold onto such illogical dichotomies?
  • Given the depiction of of everything stacked against them, do you view drug dealers, bootleggers, prostitutes, etc… differently now than you did before?