Author Archives: Andrea Sigetich

White Fragility

Robin DiAngelo| Nonfiction, 2018

192 pages

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I think I am behind my friends and colleagues in reading this book.  It was on my list before the pandemic and before George Floyd, but I just read it now (in one Sunday afternoon).  Yes, I believe we all should read White Fragility.  You might not experience huge revelations, but it will definitely heighten your awareness about the white contexts in which we blindly live.  Because I know my perspective is biased as a white, I looked for reviews written by people of color.  One black reviewer said this book gave her hope.  Another said he thought this book should be required reading for all BIPOCs because it explains so much about the dominant context.

DiAngelo explains what she sees as systemic racism and makes a case for it being systemic white supremacist racism.  She sees white supremacy not as a fringe value, but something that is inherent in the system.

I really liked Chapter 10, which demonstrates fragility.  How, if you must give me feedback about something I have said or done that might be construed as racist or race-ignorant, you should do so with kindness, and the right tone, at the right time, only after we have built trust, privately, ensuring I am safe, having acknowledged my good intentions .... otherwise I might cry (sucking all the energy and emotion to me instead of you, who felt the impact of what I said). Or walk away.  Or get angry.  Or sulk.  Or disengage.  Chapters 9-12, more specifically about fragility rather than systemic racism, are quite powerful and informative.

A difficult sentence I highlighted from the Introduction:  I believe the white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.  I define white progressives as white people who think they are not racist, or are less racist, or are in the “choir”, or already “get it.”

While I think her psychological, sociological, and interpersonal views are well-substantiated, some of the more factual components of our history are not her strong points.  For example, DiAngelo says Affirmative Action never applied to private companies, only government agencies.  Untrue.  Private employers who do more than $50,000 business with the government, or who have more than 50 employees were required to develop Affirmative Action Plans.  Where is her editor at Beacon Press, and who is fact-checking?

So, in conclusion, yes I recommend this book for anyone who is curious about themselves and their role in systemic racism.  And it is neither a long nor a heavy. read.

 

These Women

Ivy Pochoda| Fiction, 2020

334 pages

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First, I digress.  I wanted to say that this book is not good writing.  But suddenly I realized, what does that mean?  What is good writing?  What is bad writing?  How can I call a book good or bad writing?  What the heck do I know?

So, I did some research.  I found professors, authors, editors, publishers ... there is almost no agreement on what makes writing good.  I often notice at book club someone will say a book was well-written, and someone else will agree.  Now I wonder, what do they mean?

Here are six different lists of qualities of good writing ...

  1. Focus, development, unity, correctness, coherence
  2. Purpose, audience, clarity, unity, coherence
  3. Structure, ideas, correctness
  4. Voice, ideas, presentation, conventions, word choice, sentence fluency
  5. Bad writing is boring and defensive; good writing makes the reader vulnerable
  6. Good content, focus, precise language, good grammar

And here are some of the impacts of good writing ...

  • Touches the reader
  • Makes the reader richer
  • Makes the reader want more
  • Unveils the unexpected
  • Gives insight
  • Tells a story
  • Makes the reader feel less alone
  • Makes the reader ask for more
  • Does something with the reader’s feelings
  • Makes readers discover what they did not know

So, all of that does not help me assess what is “good” and what is “bad” writing.  It feels rather scattered and somewhat subjective.  I like writing to engage my mind and heart; interesting language; a sense of purpose; character depth (or depth of concept in nonfiction); ease; fast pace; a path to follow that builds on itself; correct grammar.  How do YOU define “good writing”?

Now, on to These Women. We meet characters in bleak and gritty South LA who seem on the surface somewhat disreputable ... prostitutes, workers on the fringes of the sex trade, such as a dancer, a performance artist who douses her naked self with blue paint, the owner of a fish shack, and mothers and fathers of these professional women.  And yet, they are all trying to survive in a violent and disrespectful world.  Not all of them do survive.

That is where Esmeralda Perry comes in. Essie is a demoted vice cop who sees the patterns and recognizes a serial killer is at work in their midst.  And then the mystery unfolds.

So, back to bad writing and good writing.  I found the first half of These Women did not have much unity, coherence, connection, or focus.  The characters, though deep and quirky, were presented individually, and were confusing.  Dead hummingbirds, a white middle-aged female stalker, and a iPhone photographer add spice to their stories.   Essie begins to tie the threads of their lives together, at the half-way point in this book, and then a story emerges.  The killer, by the way, is not a big surprise, but does have a fascinating psyche.

Yes, it is worth a read about a slice of life you may be as unfamiliar with as I am.  Just stay with the puzzlement of the first half.  Recommended on NPR.

And let us know how you define “good” writing, please!

 

Born a Crime

Trevor Noah | Nonfiction Memoir 2016/2019

293  pages

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I LOVE this book!  If you want to read about a difficult subject, be sure you read it as written by a comedian.  Born a Crime is Trever Noah’s memoir about growing up in South Africa during, and shortly after the end of, apartheid.  With a black mother and a white father, Trevor was born mixed-race. It was illegal to be mixed-race, hence he was “born a crime.”

I read this book the Fourth of July weekend.  It is absorbing.  Noah tells such a good story, and you will learn much about the numerous and varied racial groups in South Africa, and the completely illicit distribution of power.  It sounds depressing, doesn’t it?  But not the way Noah writes it, through the eyes and actions of a child, teenager, and young adult.  Noah is now the host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, lives in New York City, and his book is truly educational and remarkable.  I highly recommend it.

Two interesting facts.  There is an adult version and a young adult version.  Apparently there is little difference, except swear words like “shit“ are replaced with more socially  acceptable words like “poop.”  And my friends tell me the audio book, with Trevor Noah reading, is excellent.

 

 

 

Crow Lake

Mary Lawson| Fiction, 2002

295 pages

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Crow Lake is described as a “slow-burning” novel.  Set in rural northern Ontario, the story reflects the flat hardship of the terrain.  Kate, her older brothers Matt and Luke, and her baby sister Bo are orphaned ... and survive together, alone, with the help of their local community.  Twenty years later, the poignancy of their stories, and the ways they supported and abandoned one another in their tightly woven familial bonds, continue to impact their lives.

I enjoyed this story, though I won’t give it a wholehearted endorsement.  It is a quiet story that will bring to mind your relationships with your siblings, if you have any.  I was particularly enamored by the setting, as most of my family lives in Ontario.  A personal favorite interaction, which may not bring a smile to your face unless you are Ontario-savvy, is this:

I said, “Haven’t you ever been up north?”

He pondered.  “Barrie.  I’ve been to Barrie.”

“Barrie!  Good God, Daniel!  Barrie’s not north!

Pg 38

 

Weather

Jenny Offill |  Fiction, 2020

204?/225? pages

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Recommended by my colleague and friend Dan, I don’t seem to understand this little book.  Lizzie is a librarian in a University library.  She helps her drug-addicted brother cope and maybe recover; she fantasizes about the end of the world and prepares for her “doomstead;” she clearly loves her son Eli and her husband Ben.   Some reviewers say she is an amateur therapist, but I see no evidence of that in the book.  She asks an insightful question sometimes.  That’s all.  There are many interesting sentences and paragraphs but no discernible plot.  Reviews are mostly 5’s and 1’s ... not a lot of middle road.  I will look forward to reading about what you liked about this book, Dan, and anyone else who read it and liked it.

 

 

Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs

Jennifer Finney Boylan | Nonfiction Memoir 2020

249 pages

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I thought Good Boy: My Life in a Seven Dogs was one of those sappy books where a dog and its owner fall inextricably in love and then at the end the dog dies and the reader weeps.  Actually, I was hoping it was one of those books.

It isn’t.  Instead it is exactly what it claims to be ... “my life.”  It is a memoir of the author’s life, age 11 to age 60-ish.  Dogs play an important role, but they are not the central characters. When the book begins, the author is James.  When the book ends, the author is Jennifer.  Remarkably, she spends nearly 30 years as James before she transitions.

This book is not the least bit preachy or political.  It is simply an honest heartfelt story of one person’s life.  There is nothing particularly remarkable about this person’s life, other than the obvious truth, and the fact that he and she had some of the most misbehaved and undisciplined dogs I have ever read about.  Interestingly, this is at least the fourth memoir Boylan has written about her life (and her 16th book).  She apparently tells her story though a variety of lenses, including parenting from both genders.

I enjoyed Good Boy very much.  I don’t know how it would read if you have read any of her other memoirs, but this being my first, I found her writing style light, sometimes humorous, (especially about her crazy dogs), vulnerable, very self-aware, and insightful.  I both learned and was entertained.

 

Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Beverly Daniel Tatum| Nonfiction, 1997/2017

453 pages

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Oh my, I thought I was in real trouble when I started reading this book.  The first many pages were statistics and I kept falling asleep.  Most of these statistics I already knew, but more important, they were boring to read.  I finally wised up on page 44 of the 73(really?) page prologue to the new edition and flipped to the book itself.

I breathed a great sigh of relief.  Here was the psychologist, the educator, the writer, the woman with a sociological perspective who wrote about people.  Now I could engage with what she was saying.  Beginning with differentiating between (individual) prejudice  and (systemic) racism, Tatum sheds light on many nuances of racism, from how do you explain slavery to a four-year-old and an analysis of the voices in The Lion King to racial identity, Affirmative Action, and White Supremacy.

In the end, I went back and finished the prologue.  The only reason to read the prologue first is if you are uncertain systemic racism exists and you need to be informed and convinced before you would care to read the book itself. Otherwise, save it for last.

I don’t want to recommend this book specifically.  There is a plethora of books to read on this topic of racism, activism, identity, history.   A library full.  And I suspect you will find what I found.  On a topic I feel I know something about, there is much, much, much more for me to learn.  I don't care what you read.  But if you do choose to read something, inspired perhaps by the murder of George Floyd and protests in most every town in our country and beyond, please tell us about it here.

 

 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Alix E. Harrow | Fiction 2019

371 pages

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I read a lot.  I guess that is obvious if you are reading my blog.  Sometimes, oftentimes, I will get into a book and then want to rush through to see what the next magic is in that pile from the library. When I find a book that invites me to slow down and savor every word, well, I simply fall in love.  Such is my experience with The Ten Thousand Doors of January.  I read it slowly, one chapter at a time.  I didn’t want to rush.

January is a girl and young woman living in the early part of the 1900’s, who has a special connection to doors.  She learns that doors are portals to “elsewhere.”  Her father is off chasing artifacts around the world, while January is raised by a benevolent benefactor.  But, of course, all is not as it seems.

This is another debut novel that delights.  What is it about debut novels?  There is something so fresh ... a new voice, a new intention.  I usually have the sense that debut novelists choose every word and write every sentence very carefully.

I happened upon this book through one of those “if you liked that book, you will like this book...” references, with “that book” being The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern.  The Ten Thousand Doors of January has less magic than Morgenstern’s books do, so I know that Harrow’s realism will appeal to some of my blog readers.  I became a bit confused about what was happening around pages 250-300, but recovered by the end, and I sincerely recommend.

 

Normal People

Sally Rooney | Fiction, 2018

273 pages

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This is the story of Marianne and Connell.  We witness four years of their lives in Ireland, from school through university.  They move in and out of each other’s lives, always good friends, sometimes lovers, sometimes not seeing each other for months.  But yet, they understand each other.  Deeply.  In school, Connell was popular and well liked and everyone ignored Marianne.  In University, the tables turned and Marianne came into her own, while Connell struggled with shyness and uncertainty.  Both, by the way, are brilliant, which perhaps explains much of their attraction to one another.

I sometimes complain about lack of character development, and so I must give credit where credit is due.  Sally Rooney has created two immensely rich and well-developed characters, both with flaws, both with gifts.  The story is frustrating, as they cannot land on what relationship they want with each other.  Sort of like a new jazz improv band that hasn’t figured things out yet.  When they come together and play in unison, the music is good.  Not yet great, but good.  But when they spin off and do their own thing, nothing really clicks, everything is imperfect and out of sync.

My memory of my discovery of this book is indelible. It was March 15 and my friend Carol and I were in Dudley’s bookstore downtown for a cup of tea.  We were sitting far apart and didn’t hug and yes, the next day Oregon went into lockdown.  On this, my last excursion into the world for a long time, Normal People was propped open on a shelf with a recommendation from a Dudley’s staff member.

I didn’t know how I was going to rate this book until the last page.  I give it three hearts.  It comes with my recommendation, with a bit of hesitation.  It is well-written and an interesting read, but is ultimately unsatisfying in some way.  Oftentimes relationships do not fall into easy, explicable molds.  This is true for Marianne and Connell.  Normal People will make you think.

 

Know My Name

Chanel Miller | Nonfiction 2019

368 pages

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On January 17, 2015, Chanel Miller (known to the public as Emily Doe) was sexually assaulted outside a fraternity house at Stanford University.  This is the true story of the next four years of her life, as told by Chanel.

Wow.  I have not been sexually assaulted.  I thought I knew intellectually what it was probably like to be living with this experience.  What I didn’t know could fill a book. Literally.  This book is powerful, educational, and a page-turner.  It is an amazing crafting of a memoir.  Chanel’s mom, a Chinese immigrant, tells her at one point, “Good and bad things come from the universe holding hands.  Wait for the good to come.”  (P 138).  This statement foretells a long, difficult journey.

Miller’s victim statement was read aloud in the US House of Representatives. Miller was interviewed on 60 Minutes, and Know My Name graced the NYT best seller list, Washington Post’s Top Ten Books of 2019, and “best-selling books” in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

The story is not easy to read, truth be told.  And her story must be read.  It is important, compelling, and engaging.  One reviewer called it “Unapologetically large.”  I highly recommend Know My Name.