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The White Fragility Controversy, Mexican Gothic, and Everything Else I Read in June

Kicking off a new monthly-wrap up of all the books I read each month.

Hi everyone–I’m trying something new! You all know by now that I love reading (see here, here, and here), and I’ve embarked on a journey to become a more conscious/better/smarter reader and book reviewer. I can say with 100% certainty that a monthly reading wrap-up won’t be interesting for all (it will probably put some to sleep; I respect that!), but I hope for the fellow bibliophiles and casual readers out there who will take as many recommendations as I can throw at them, you’ll find my monthly reading wrap-ups useful! (Follow me on Instagram if you prefer more of a timeline view of exactly what I’m reading every month.)

*A quick note on my rating system: I rate short stories out of five, and I do not rate anti-racist educational non-fiction. Fiction books and other non-fiction (like memoirs) I rate on a 10-point scale, simply because I despise half-points, and I believe these types of books are usually too detailed and unique to fit into only five identity-squashing categories. Let’s begin!

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Wow, the Goodreads synopsis really does not do this book any kind of justice. Although I thought I was in trouble during the first chapter (there is a very graphic scene of a goat being slaughtered, and Ward’s writing is so vivid that I was contemplating running for the bathroom), the book settles into a beautifully written, poetic narrative. I read half of it on a lazy Sunday afternoon and then crammed in the rest on Monday before and after work because I felt so compelled to finish. At 285 pages, you could definitely read this in a day if you felt like it.

Sing, Unburied, Sing switches between the perspectives of Leonie, a Black woman married to a white man named Michael, their biracial, 13 year-old son Jojo, and Richie, a “ghost” who knew Jojo’s grandfather when they were in prison together as young men at Parchman penitentiary–the same prison Michael is in during the present day. Leonie is a drug addict who can see ghosts, an ability that runs in her family, but only when she is high. She is haunted by the ghost of her brother, Given, who was shot and killed by Michael’s cousin years ago in an act of racial violence that was deemed a “hunting accident." Jojo is similarly haunted by Richie, but his ghost-seeing ability seems to be more fully realized, unlike his mother and grandmother before him.

Sing, Unburied, Sing takes us on a road trip with Leonie and her children to Parchman penitentiary to pick up Michael after three years in prison. If you’re a fan of beautiful writing and lyrical prose, move this book to the top of your list. There’s truly nothing I could say to do it justice, so I’ll let Ward speak for herself in this excerpt:

“I’m so close, I can hear the sound of the waters the scaly bird will lead me over tumbling with the wind. So I crawl under the house instead, and I lie in the dirt under the living room where they all sleep, making a cot of the earth. And I sing songs without words. The songs come to me out of the same air that brings the sound of the waters: I open my mouth; and I hear the rushing of the waves.”⁣ - Jesmyn Ward

It honestly reminds me of nothing I’ve ever read; it is extraordinarily unique. There is no question I’ll be picking up Ward’s 2011 novel, Salvage The Bones; winner of the National Book Award for Fiction.

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Pachinko was my book club’s pick for June, and WOW am I glad we picked it!! A multi-generational historical fiction about a South Korean family that moves to Japan during the WWII era, Pachinko is incredibly moving, and one of those books that might stay with you for a long time. I knew nothing about the racist treatment of Koreans in Japan in this time period (1910-1989), so saying that I learned a lot is a massive understatement.

I binged this book over a weekend because I had to finish it in time for our book club meeting (whoops), but it’s a thick 500-pager that I’d recommend savoring it instead. Pachinko was a beautiful, eye-opening story about race, survival, duty, shame, love, and family. The overall tone is hopeful, but the amount of suffering throughout is devastating, especially for the book’s female characters.

P.S. Pachinko is a popular game in Japan that is sort of like pinball (I had never heard of it before reading this book!). In this novel, owning a pachinko parlor is one of the only ways for Korean men in Japan to become financially stable in the 1950s and beyond, even though the vocation is looked down upon. The original name for the book was “Motherland,” but Lee changed the title once she realized how much Koreans in Japan related to the pachinko industry. It took nearly 30 years from when Lee first had the idea for the book in 1989 to its publication in 2017, and she rewrote it several times to make sure it was historically accurate. This dedication absolutely shows, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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Emily and Geoffrey bought copies of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad for our entire team in early June. By the time I finished White Fragility, it had hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction; topping a list of mostly anti-racist books, which is incredible, except for one small thing: The book in the number one (currently number two) slot was written by a white woman. Over the past month, I’ve seen everything from reviews calling White Fragility required reading, at least for white Americans, to others saying we shouldn’t be reading this book at all (Jess wrote about this in a post last week and chose to abandon it). By the time I picked up on the controversy I was also 80% finished, but I did choose to read all the way through until the last chapter.

The fact that a white woman is profiting, both financially and through increased exposure, off of anti-racist education (likely at the expense of Black authors and educators–i.e. people buying White Fragility instead of other books, not in addition to them) is obviously a problem. I’ve heard a few Black educators say that if we choose to read White Fragility, we should also buy a few other books written by Black authors, preferably from Black-owned bookstores, so that’s exactly what I did. And yes–it’s important to buy these books or check them out from the library, not borrow or share with friends, to make sure Black authors are getting the credit and compensation they deserve for this work. This month I learned how important it is to understand that our collective reading habits have an impact not only on things like the New York Times bestseller list, but also on authors’ livelihoods as well.

All that being said, did I learn a lot from White Fragility? You better fucking bet I did. I am embarrassed about how much I didn’t know, and how much I still need to learn. Here are a few of my takeaways:

  1. Race, like gender, is socially constructed. The idea of racial inferiority was created to justify unequal treatment (not the other way around).
  2. Impact matters more than intention, every time.
  3. If you, as a non-Black person, are trying to do better to be anti-racist, you (and I!) are going to make mistakes. Forever. And when we do, it's important to reflect on that mistake and understand why we made it, correct the mistake, ask for the opportunity to sincerely apologize to the person we've offended, and learn from it.
  4. Racism is a system that all people in the United States (and many other parts of the world) are socialized into–not an isolated, one-off act of hatred against a Black person. So yes, if you are white, you are contributing to systemic racism whether you know it or not.
  5. Though Black women were *technically* granted the right to vote in 1920, they still faced so many obstacles to actually exercise that right freely until 1965 (which blew my mind).
  6. White progressives (white people who think they are not racist, or less racist) cause the most daily damage to people of color. Their energy goes into making sure others see they have “arrived,” not into the work they actually need to be doing (like self-awareness, education, and anti-racist practice). *This one stung the most for me, and I’m still trying to examine and reflect on the anti-racist content I am posting online, and why I am posting it. I’m getting better at identifying which things feel strictly performative (and resisting the urge to post this type of content), and which feel like their purpose is to inspire others to take some kind of action, but I still have work to do here.
  7. There is no such thing as “reverse racism.”

For more (or alternatively), listen to:

  1. The Lady Gang + The Stacks podcast’s two-part series discussing White Fragility (part one, part two)
  2. Taylor Nolan’s interview with Robin DiAngelo on her podcast “Let’s Talk About It”
  3. This 11-minute piece from NPR, which has a helpful transcript of the takeaways from White Fragility if you want options to both listen and read 
  4. Rachel Lindsay and Becca Kufrin’s June 9th episode of their podcast “Bachelor Happy Hour” where they discuss Becca’s fiancé’s “Blue Lives Matter” Instagram post; a perfect example of white fragility in action

A few alternatives to White Fragility to buy instead: How To Be an Antiracist or Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

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Sometimes you don’t have enough brain power to work your way through an entire novel, and sometimes you’re me in the beginning of June. I couldn’t focus for shit on anything other than work and the Black Lives Matter movement, so I read six short stories over the span of about a week that were so crazy, unique, and so completely related to the world we are currently living in that they were exactly what I needed. The “Forward Collection" was curated by one of my favorite authors, sci-fi wizard Blake Crouch (Dark Matter, Recursion). He asked five other authors to each write a short story about the future; stories that were maybe a little too crazy to write an entire book about. Fans of the show Black Mirror, this series is for you.

There are six total stories (I rated them a 3.9/5 on average), but only four that I feel are worth mentioning (in order of how much I think you should read them):

Emergency Skin by N.K. Jemisin (5/5): From the most prominent Black female author writing science fiction today, if you read one story from this series, Jemisin’s should be it (but be warned: it’s “hard” sci-fi). In Emergency Skin, the Earth is slowly being destroyed by its inhabitants. What would happen if all the white men in positions of power suddenly left the planet? Would Earth continue to deteriorate, or would they return later to find that the remaining population found a way to take care of each other and heal the dying Earth?

The Last Conversation by Paul Tremblay (4.5/5): One of the best horror novelists writing today, Tremblay’s story is creepily too close to home right now (trigger warning for anyone who has lost a loved one during COVID). In The Last Conversation, a viral pandemic has wiped out most of the population. If you were a scientist who was somehow immune, what lengths would you go to to be with your partner again?

Summer Frost by Blake Crouch (4.5/5): Crouch’s own short story I think may be the longest in the collection, but is certainly worth it, especially if you like video games and technology. In Summer Frost, Riley, a female coder working on an advanced VR game, rescues “Max”–an unusually aware AI/non-player character–from the game when she notices it exhibiting some odd behavior. As Riley works on Max’s programming to make it more human, they grow close, and Riley’s life outside of Max begins to fall apart. Should Riley fear, or love, what she has made? What happens when you program an AI to feel?

You Have Arrived at Your Destination by Amor Towles (4/5): Listen, I didn’t love A Gentleman in Moscow (it was fiiiiine), but I did love this wild trip of a short story. The premise is simple: If you could see into your child’s potential futures and choose between several likely life paths before they were born, would you?

Bonus: The Forward Collection is available for FREE! if you have Amazon Prime via Kindle or the Kindle app.

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And finally: Mexican Gothic was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and it let me down!! I got an advanced copy from the publisher through Mystery Book Club, so I got to read it before it came out on June 30th. Everybody, and I mean everybody else in the club loved it (or at least thought it was fun and quirky), so I’m in the minority here–proceed into the below synopsis and review with that in mind.

Mexican Gothic is about a socialite, Noemi, who goes to rescue her sick cousin, Catalina, from her new husband’s strange family, who all live together in a creepy mansion in the Mexican countryside. Noemi stays in the house for weeks trying to figure out what’s going on with Catalina (tuberculosis? possession? psychosis?), and starts sleepwalking to strange places and having a series of seriously disturbing nightmares. In my opinion, almost nothing exciting happens for more than half of the book, and then(!!)–there’s magic mushrooms, incest, eating babies, and a “godlike” monster. Noemi and Catalina figure out they are trapped in the house, there’s a tiny sci-fi twist, and by the end we get to see if the cousins will eventually break free or ultimately succumb to the house and its inhabitants.

Mexican Gothic was pitched to me as a gothic horror, but it honestly reads more like a future hit show on The CW rather than a serious book that’s going to keep me up at night. I thought the majority of the book was pretty uneventful (none of Noemi’s weird nightmares last quite long enough, maybe a page at most), but most people disagree with me. The last third is definitely not boring, but honestly pretty gross if you’re easy-queasy (I'm not).

For a glowing review, read Oscar’s (and follow him!). For another “this let me down” review, watch Jesse’s BookTube review (and subscribe to their channel!)

As for what I'm reading in July...

WELL, July is my birth month, so I’m definitely going to be reading some of my unread sci-fi!! I’m almost finished with Kindred by Octavia Butler, and then I’ll probably read The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin or The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. My book club chose The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead for July (which won the Pulitzer this year!). For my anti-racist education, I’ll be reading Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, along with many of my ladies from the C&C team. I didn’t get to The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett in June, so that’s a must-read for July (how could I not, considering Leslie said it was her favorite book of the year so far???). And if I have time for more... who knows?! Shoot me some recommendations in the comments below!

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