Here are short takes on some of the nonfiction I’ve been reading lately. My daughter is doing band class over Zoom as I’m trying to type this, so concentrating is… interesting.
The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. Read by Janina Edwards. NYU Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1479800650. Listened on Hoopla.
I’d bought this book in print for the library last year, but was very excited to see the audio on Hoopla. Noted literary critic Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas blends stories of herself growing up and her involvement in various fandoms with analysis of the treatment of Black girls in four key recent recent popular works – Rue in The Hunger Games book and movie, Hermione and Angelina Johnson in Harry Potter, Gwyn in the BBC’s Merlin, and Bonnie Bennett from CW’s Vampire Diaries. She has identified what she calls “the Dark Fantastic Cycle”which nearly all dark-skinned characters in fantasy and science fiction are subject to, which requires an unhappy end. Sadly, all of the characters here – with the possible exception of Angelina, who didn’t get discussed in quite the same way – are treated this way. I’ve been aware of the poor treatment of characters of color, especially in media created by white people for a long time, but the failure of white imagination to allow a true space for people of color is much more fully described here. I’ve been thinking about it lots, and was able to identify the Black Fantastic cycle both in a recent middle grade fantasy I read and in a random movie I pulled for a library patron. Naming is power! Also, I recommend the audiobook, as Janina Edwards’ rich, smooth tones made even the most academic passages compelling.
Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee. Harmony, 2020. ISBN 978-1984824738. Read ebook via Libby.
This book calling for people to step back from the culture of working all the time came out just before quarantine and went on to be a bestseller. In it, Headlee, herself a recovering workaholic, talks about how we came to no longer have time for friends and hobbies even as we’ve developed more and more tools to make both paid and house work easier and less time-consuming. Her argument – and it’s very convincing – is that we now consider busy-ness a status symbol, and we’re also afraid that we’ll be replaced at work if we don’t stay late at work and keep answering emails at all hours. This last part doesn’t ring true to my experience, and I also wanted to call her out for ableism as she urged professors and teachers to require students to take notes on paper rather than on computers. Paper is my preferred method, but for my son with dysgraphia, it just doesn’t work, and other scholars have debunked the study that claimed a clear victory for hand-written notes. (Thanks to Dr. C for pointing that out to me!)
After looking at the history, the second part talks about how to reclaim your life. Again, some of the advice was a little off-kilter to me, but I liked the general message – what are you spending your time on, and why? Keep asking why until we get to what’s really important, and then make changes so that you’re mindful about your choices. This isn’t straightforward and not everyone will be able to do the kinds of things she suggests, but it still made me think a lot, and that in itself is worthwhile.
Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. Little, Brown 2020. ISBN 978-0316453691. Read ebook on Libby and listened to audiobook purchased from Libro.fm.
This was on so many of the anti-racism book lists out in June, and of course I’d already been hearing about the book and seen both the authors at the SLJ Day of Dialogue. Even though this topic is obviously one I’ve been learning about for far longer than just this summer, the authors do a great job of synthesizing things I’d known about but not put together with a few things I hadn’t really known to make a devastating picture. And though the topic is of course heavy, Reynolds’ writing in particular makes it feel like we’re in this together, with the ability to shake our heads at the ridiculousness of all this determination not to see Black people as people, and then move on to trying to change things. I first read it on my own, and then my husband and son and I listened to it together; even though my son’s education in particular has skewed heavily towards social justice and including non-white viewpoints, so that he wasn’t sure how much he would learn, we all still found it engaging and found things to learn. And Reynolds narrating the book himself just makes the whole thing more real.
Unrig: How to Fix our Broken Democracy by Daniel G. Newman with art by George O’Connor. First Second, 2020. ISBN 978-1250295309. Read from library copy.
The founder of maplight.org and the artist behind the Olympians comic books pair up to create a work graphic nonfiction that pulls apart exactly how and why American democracy is failing – being deliberately pulled apart – who is doing and why, as well as those who are fighting back. It is simultaneously very depressing, enlightening, and contains clear and commonsense actions that could fix many of the problems faced by voters and elected officials, things that have worked in states and large cities and could work on a national scale as well. As Newman explains the policies, O’Connor’s pictures clarify even the driest of policy ideas, as well as providing vivid visual metaphors. This is well worth reading.
Have you been reading any books that make you think lately?
These are all very interesting. I didn’t know Reynolds narrates the audiobook. That’s almost enough to make me want to read it (but not really). I’ve been avoiding heavy reads (or books that make me think) unless they’re prescribed by my book club, so I really don’t have much to add there. I do find the discussions of Bonnie interesting as my daughter sucked me into TVD during the pandemic.
I feel like I have more obligation to deal with the heavy stuff, even if there’s a lot going on right now. But I chose the YA version over the adult version, and have been balancing with more light-hearted books.
I’d be curious to know what you think of TVD – I wasn’t super inspired by her description, especially when I usually only get to one TV episode a week.
Okay, the thing about TVD is that it’s about vampires (which I hate), but it’s also a really, really well written teen soap (which I love). The show does not treat its characters of color well (unsurprisingly, they all die–except Bonnie) but the writers seem to have learned their lesson in the latest spin-off (Legacies). So, you know.
Now that you mention it, I do remember reading your review. Ebony Elizabeth had a lot to say about how book Bonnie, who is white, is allowed to be a real best friend and participate in all the fun stuff. Rewriting her as Black they apparently felt that it wasn’t “realistic” for her to go to formal dances with the other girls, etc. And she’s treated as a killjoy when she is the “moral heart of the show” and should be given more Respect. But as I watch one tv episode a week if I’m lucky, plus all the issues with it, I’m not likely to try it myself.
That’s fair. I definitely would NOT have watched it if not for my daughter, so I get it.
Oh, also, I wrote a post about the show (of course).
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