The summer’s officially over in the Netherlands and we are firmly in jeans and sweaters weather already. That makes it a bit funny to reach back to my July reading list, but let’s not skip anything!
This month, I’m just going to write about the highlights and let myself get into some more detail with you instead of naming them all and only scratching the surface!
Angie Thomas: The Hate U Give
I listened to The Hate U Give and it was intense. It’s an incredible story about a young Black woman who watches her best friend shot dead by a police officer at a traffic stop. The story is about her trying to navigate both her grief and her sense of split identity that comes from living in a Black neighborhood and going to a school that is predominantly white. She’s constantly managing her identity until she cannot anymore. Then she finds her power.
A friend recommended this book to me ages ago and I cannot believe it took me so long to read it. It’s a great read and right now, a must for a lot of ages.
Michelle Obama: Becoming
I won this book in our Book Club’s white elephant book exchange last December. I tried starting on it right away, but it wasn’t the right moment. July was perfect. It seems like everyone’s read Becoming, so there’s no sense in telling you what it’s about in detail. It’s Michelle’s story from childhood to post-White House.
What shines through is how life taught her that doing what the world expected mattered much less than doing what she felt was important. She was well on her way to building a great career as a lawyer when she realized that there was little meaning in it for her and so she shifted gears and advocated for communities that had a hard time accessing medical care instead. She credits her husband with helping her find a new purpose, but she definitely did a lot of legwork to get there.
It’s also fascinating to read a candid account of a woman who supported her husband’s career despite basically not liking it much. She more or less kept thinking he would run out of luck – and kept being wrong. She learned to cope with a husband who was largely absent and increasing demands on her own time and energy. She went into the White House keenly aware of how monumental the opportunity and responsibilities were. With my family currently obsessed with Hamilton – you can watch online to witness the kind of work Obama actually did in the White House. She brought in spoken word performances. She brought in students. She made it a mission to give people who might have felt excluded from the political process a new chance at ownership.
I enjoyed Becoming more for the message than the writing. Also the gossip, the peeks into private lives, of course! In the context of what’s going on in DC these days, it’s a reminder that dignity was there and it might have a chance to return.
Robin DiAngelo: White Fragility
I waffled a lot about reading White Fragility until I realized my discomfort with the idea was the thing that kept me from reading. What if it implicated me? What if I’ve been making mistakes? What if I was part of the problem?
Those doubts and fears are exactly the reason to read this book. I don’t consider myself white, although that’s an identity issue that’s taken years to resolve for myself. The first time I really thought about it was in the 1990s. I was driving two Native American performers for work, older women who had given a wonderful performance and needed a ride to their hotel. Somehow in this conversation, they ended up telling me they saw me as a woman of color and I can still recall how included I felt, how lucky I felt to be a part of that particular category.
Yet, I enjoy many privileges that come with being half white. My education, the opportunities my white father had, my international lifestyle – they have all been in part a product of loads of privilege.
So, White Fragility was intimidating – and a great read. DiAngelo is white herself, which seems problematic until she starts to address her privilege and mistakes directly. She describes being called out and how she responds to that and how she has learned to acknowledge that no matter how much work she does, her racism isn’t voluntary, it isn’t conscious, it’s there in slips, in not thinking about things, in little mistakes that she is constantly learning from. The fact that she is so honest about these moments makes the book much more relatable.
I learned about a lot of things, particularly the way white fragility keeps us from moving forward with vital conversations that could lead to the kinds of change we need. I’ll close with the suggestion that you should indeed read this book and what I found to be perhaps her most provocative statement:
“I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetuate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”
Toni Morrison: Beloved
I reread this book with a group of people who met online to chat about it. It was a great rereading experience and only confirmed my memory that Beloved is a remarkable novel by a remarkable author.
What I had forgotten about it was how brutal it was with not necessarily graphic, but piercing descriptions of the physical and emotional conditions under which slaves and former slaves lived. The first five or ten pages alone left me gasping for air. But then, that is what life was, harsh, graphic, and inescapable.
It wasn’t an easy book to read or talk about because it is so internal and complex. Things happen, but in general, the book is about the inner workings of people and memory and relationships. It raises questions about what’s right and wrong, about the strengths and limits of a mother’s love, about what right we have to judge.
Beloved isn’t a book for everyone. So who is it for? You’ve got to be very curious, have space for a bit of magic, love a lot of atmosphere, and be happy with concluding without answers. All of that, if it’s true then this is a book for you.
Amy E Herman: Visual Intelligence
One of my old high school teachers recommended this to me recently and I loved it. Amy Herman developed a course in observation skills for first responders that used art as a medium. This book is the result of many years refining and expanding that course.
The book uses art to take you through essential skills like observation, evaluation, figuring out what you don’t know, and communication. It felt like a wonderful approach to communication and management skills in the end. My only complaint is that because of the size of the paperback, some of the images are too small for me to examine well. I would have loved to see larger images so I could really look at them well.
If you’re wondering if the book is for you, you can try her visual intelligence quiz. It’s got a couple of very American questions, just so you know. I used the ideas from this book in a recent intercultural workshop to talk about the difference between observation, interpretation, and judgment. To my surprise, working with art worked better than some of the other images I’ve tried, often old photographs. I think art puts viewers in a receptive mode that’s very productive.
I also read Normal People by Sally Rooney and The Samurai’s Tale by Erik Cristian Haugaard this month. I raced through Normal People but it left me with a bit of a bitter after taste. The Samurai’s Tale was a sweet and interesting read, particularly after I realized that it was full of real historical figures. I listened to Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owns, which was lyrical and every bit as good as they say it is. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty was another audiobook, an engaging story read well.
I hope you’re reading great books and sharing them. Please let me know if you have any suggestions! I post a review every month, so you can look back and see what else I’ve been reading in 2020 if you want!