Friday, October 30, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty is one of those books I happened to see in a random email, advertisement, or list that I would normally not pay any attention to. After reading the synopsis, I half-heartedly added it to my to-read list. And only after trying to check it out from the UTSA library since May, only to be deterred by whoever insisted on checking it out until January, did I finally bite the bullet and order it off of Amazon. The book somehow went from being an "I'll probably end up deleting this off of my wish list," to an "I need to read this book as soon as possible and get it onto the blog." Not exactly sure how that happened, but here we are.

The Situation: The unnamed narrator of the book hasn't had the easiest childhood. Growing up in the incredibly poor and under served "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens, California - a city that the surrounding area would rather just erase off of the map, so they do - would have been hard enough without a father who insisted on conducting his own homemade social experiments on his son. The narrator was home schooled, physically abused, and forced to be left handed. He would eventually grow up to buy the same house he had grown up on after his father passes away, and now runs one of the few farms in Los Angeles county. And because of his inability to be like his father, he earns the nickname of "sellout," primarily used by one of his father's former colleagues. As crummy as life is in Dickens, he decides to actually do something when the powers that be decide to erase Dickens off of the maps.

The Problem: The only methods for putting Dickens back on the map that our narrator can think of are not only illegal, but insanely controversial. At first he unwittingly becomes a slave owner, although his one "slave" has volunteered, and doesn't actually do any work. But then our narrator decides the way to fix Dickens is by re-establishing something the Civil Rights movement fought against: segregation. It starts with a sign on the bus designating front seats for the elderly, disabled, and white. Eventually the narrator would attempt to segregate the middle school, local businesses, and even the hospital; actions that land him in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. While the narrator is of course trying to make a point, he is also trying to answer two questions: Who am I? And how may I become myself?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is often placed in the humor category. It may seem strange to describe a book wherein the main character owns a slave and tries to reintroduce segregation as funny, but it is. Of course, it is the kind of funny where you feel bad for laughing but can't seem to stop (think Catch-22, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or anything by Flannery O'Connor). Throughout the entire book, Beatty touches nerve after sensitive nerve concerning race and prejudice in the U.S. and doesn't let up until the very end. The book is often irreverent and always unflinching as the narrator boldly tries to bring up segregation in an attempt to prove that it does actually work (yes, you read that right). Using many moments in history and various pop culture references, Beatty shows just how complicated, and also how not at all complicated, the issue of race is. And the fact that bringing segregation back to Dickens, California seems to do more for the city than desegregation ever has is just one way Beatty plays with the issue of race, while simultaneously not playing at all.

My Verdict: A book where the "N" word and the "F" word make an appearance on almost every page is going to make even the most easy-going, liberal minded person a little uncomfortable at least once. And even though that may be the point, I never felt like the book was obnoxious or annoying about it, though I am sure many others will feel differently. Beatty doesn't pull punches, touching on an incredibly sensitive subject with almost complete insensitivity, while also being incredibly serious. It's a weird line to walk, but somehow Beatty does it. There are moments that go too far, but they are almost always followed up by moments where I had to admit that a fair point had been made. The Sellout is a book that gets readers to think, while making them laugh. If you have to learn about race in the U.S. and face some seriously messed up and horrible truths about our country, you might as well get a good laugh out of it.

Favorite Moment: When the narrator describes how his unfunny father told jokes at open mic night - in APA format (ha!).

Favorite Character: This is hard because all of the characters in this book are fairly ridiculous and mostly awful people. But isn't that the way it is in real life? So I will pick the narrator, because at least he is being honest about the ridiculousness, even if he doesn't fully understand it all. 

Recommended Reading: How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston would be a fantastic follow-up, or even introduction, to this book. And if it is more irreverent humor that will make you inappropriately laugh out loud that you're after, there is also The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

Around the same time that Tommy Wallach's We All Looked Up was published, I had been searching for movie clips that showed the world ending. It wasn't enough that the movie had to do with the end of the world, but they actually had to show the world ending, which only a few of them do. So when I read the synopsis of this book on Goodreads, I knew I had to read it.

The Situation: Peter is the popular athlete of Hamilton High with the ridiculously gorgeous girlfriend. Everyone knows who he is, and next year he will be attending Stanford on a basketball scholarship. Eliza is the resident photographer with a reputation for sleeping around. When the rumors about her first began circling, they were untrue, but since then Eliza has more than lived up to her reputation. Andy is your typical skateboarding slacker. He'd rather be getting high than doing pretty much anything else, including going to class. And Anita is the high-strung overachiever who could never do enough to satisfy her parent's high expectations. All she has ever wanted to be was a singer, but her parents have done everything they can to squash that dream.

The Problem: The asteroid ARDR-1388, or Ardor, has been discovered in the sky. At first no one is concerned, as there is a small chance of any large object in space actually colliding with Earth. But once the President of the United States makes the official announcement, the world knows there are only eight weeks before Ardor is supposed to make contact with Earth, giving humanity a 66.6% chance of survival. Now Peter, Eliza, Andy and Anita, whose lives barely intersected before, are thrown into each other's paths and their lives become increasingly entangled, especially as their surroundings become more chaotic. With possibly only eight weeks to live, now is the time to make dreams come true and come clean with those you care about. Of course, that becomes difficult when the one you care about may not feel the same way, and everyone seems to have their own idea about the best way to spend their final moments on Earth. 

Genre, Themes, History: We All Looked Up is a young adult novel set in modern-day Seattle during the final few weeks before the end of the world. The book is broken up into ten sections an slowly counts down to when Ardor is supposed to collide with Earth. Each section contains a story from each of the four main characters: Peter, Eliza, Andy, and Anita. In the beginning their stories are fairly separated, but they slowly become more intertwined, and they crossover considerably as the characters become more inseparable. As you can probably imagine, society begins to slowly unravel after the announcement is made, eventually causing even the police to give up on maintaining any semblance of order. And as the four characters weren't exactly all best friends at the start, their interactions with each other aren't always the best, even as everyone is just trying to deal with the news of their impending doom in the only way they know how. It is a look at what people do in the face of imminent doom, and for once there are no zombies. Also, the music mentioned in the book is of Wallach's own creation and can be found at

My Verdict: This book is as frustrating and complicated and poignant and insightful and heartbreaking as any decent YA novel should be. All four characters are well thought-out, and they all get pretty equal treatment. Since the narrative viewpoints are coming from four teenagers, the way they handle the impending apocalypse is naturally a bit different from how an adult would, but also not that different. And there is something to be said for an author who can write a book that holds your interest, even though you're pretty sure about how it is all going to end. Wallach still had me holding onto hope and rooting for all four of these kids, even though things seemed doomed from the beginning.

Favorite Moment: When Anita finally realizes things for what they are and makes it her mission to clear the air.

Favorite Character: Definitely Anita, although she has her frustrating moments too. She uses the approach of Ardor as a reason to live her life beyond her parents' ridiculous expectations and do what she has always wanted to do.

Recommended Reading: We All Looked Up is certainly the only end of the world YA book I have ever read, unless you count the zombie apocalypse novel This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers, but even in that one the world isn't completely taken out. Interestingly enough, the latest installment of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth series, The Long Utopia, has to deal with the potential end of one of the many versions of Earth that human beings have discovered. I would recommend either of those books to someone wanting to explore how humanity would deal with the end of life as they know it.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Nonfiction: Dancing with the Devil in the City of God by Juliana Barbassa

I picked up Juliana Barbassa's Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink because I have loved the city she focuses on ever since I visited in 2010 for a mission trip. My church has sent small missionary groups to Rio de Janeiro for many years now, and I was always told that the city is all at once one of the prettiest, and one of the filthiest, places in the world. As Barbassa was born in Brazil - and after having moved around a lot her entire life she finally settled there again and continued her journalism career - I was interested to read her thoughts and findings about a country that always seems to be moving forward and backward at the same time, while being both beautiful and sometimes unflinchingly ugly.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book written by a native of Brazil who moved away from the country at a young age due to her father's job. After living all over the world, Barbassa moved from San Francisco back to Brazil in late 2010. Interestingly enough, her new life in Brazil and coverage of Rio starts in the fall after I had visited the city with my church group that previous summer. The city was already preparing to host both the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, and many were dubious (and would remain so) that Rio could pull it off. From the story that the first few chapters of Barbassa's book tell, my team got out just in time. In an effort to clean up the city and make it safer, two promises that were made when Rio went after the Olympic bid, the police would make a serious effort to crackdown on the hold drug lords had over pretty much every slum, or favela, across the city. This crackdown would result in the loss of many lives, not just those targeted, and would cost the city a good amount of money. And the clean-up attempt was just getting started. Thousands would be removed from their homes in an effort to make space on valuable real estate for more upscale homes, sport venues, and tourist attractions. And while Brazil's economy had been showing signs of promise for years, things would once again take a dive as the World Cup drew closer, causing social unrest. The book ends just after the World Cup, when Brazil would suffer that humiliating and unforgettable loss to Germany with a final score of 7-1. For Brazil, soccer has always been more than just a sport. But in 2014, to have won the World Cup at home would have perhaps been a marker that everything would turn out okay. The fact that the team lost in their own Maracanã Stadium left many uncertain, some without hope, and still some continued to simply carry on.

My Verdict: There were no parts of this book that were boring or uninteresting. Even when Barbassa was rattling off numbers and statistics, the book remained engaging and the information was always relevant and helpful. The author painted this picture of a city with such scenic beauty and such promise, but years of corruption and misuse of people and land somehow undermine even the most practical plans for restoration. While plans will be announced to clean up this or put an end to that, the citizens of Rio remain doubtful because they've heard it all before, and aren't much surprised when there is no follow through. Barbassa does not shy away from the parts of Rio that are often unsuccessfully hidden from tourists. Of course there is mention of Ipanema and Copacabana, but there is also mention of the dangerous mudslides that killed thousands and crushed whole neighborhoods; the city's attempts to take land from a favela because they wanted to build it up in anticipation of the Olympics; the bloody war to end criminal control over favelas; and the various environmental issues that plague the city. Although I haven't been there in five years, and even then I was only there for ten days, it seems that Barbassa painted Rio as it is, with both its beauty and its flaws.     

Favorite Moment: Although it is probably painful to actually deal with and I'm sure it was no fun to endure, I most enjoyed Barbassa's description of the bureaucracy she had to endure while getting her first apartment. People who complain about red tape in the US have no clue how bad it could actually be.

Recommended Reading: For anyone interested in nonfiction about locations around the world, I recommend Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. This book gives fascinating insight into the New China and how the country got to where it is today.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Nonfiction: Rising Strong by Brené Brown

I first heard Brené Brown speak at the 2013 Global Leadership Summit. For years now my church has been a satellite location for the summit, which is held annually at Willow Creek Church in Illinois. So I sat in our forever freezing lobby with my volunteer shirt on and listened to Brown speak about vulnerability, and was blown away. Anyone who had read her book, Daring Greatly, raved about it and could not recommend it enough. So when I heard her speak again at this year's Global Leadership Summit and found out that she had another book coming out entitled Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, I went ahead and bought both books and decided to cover Rising Strong on this blog.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that is often categorized under "self help." Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. While I may have learned about her through the Global Leadership Summit, many people had heard one of her TED talks via YouTube. She has done research work on the topics of vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness for decades and has published her findings in four books, the latest of which is Rising Strong. Really, Rising Strong is a continuation of what is discussed in Daring Greatly, but that doesn't necessarily mean it can't be read on its own and still make sense. While Daring Greatly focuses on how being vulnerable takes courage - and how most people believe the opposite to be true - Rising Strong is more about the inevitably of falling and what it takes to get back up when we decide to show up and be seen, only to land flat on our face. It is also about vulnerability and courage, but then goes into what it takes to heal after we fall. Through research, personal stories, stories from people who have participated in her studies, and the findings of other experts, Brown continues her explanation of what it takes to be a truly "wholehearted" person. Spoiler Alert - it involves a lot of facing what we are feeling head on and not running from it, or fighting it.

My Verdict: I love Daring Greatly, everyone does. And I figured Rising Strong would be a good book, but not as good as its predecessor. Turns out I actually like this book even more. Maybe it is the subject matter; maybe it is the personal stories; maybe it is the stories of those who participated in her research; maybe it is the practical tools she gives for dealing with our hurt, shame, and anger. I don't know exactly what it is, but it is powerful and worth looking into. Simply filing this under "self help" seems insufficient to me, but I can't think of what else to call it. She is simply acknowledging that if we have the courage to show up and be seen, that we are going to (sometimes) fall and get hurt. And instead of staying down, or running away, or even coming back up swinging, there is a way to get back up that can change everything for the better.

Favorite Moment: Finding out that Brown is also an extreme introvert like myself. Just more proof that just because someone is comfortable talking on a stage, it does not mean they are an extrovert.

Favorite Quotes: "So much of what we hear today about courage is inflated and empty rhetoric that camouflages personal fears about one's likability, ratings, and ability to maintain a level of comfort and status."

"You can choose courage or you can choose comfort, but you cannot have both." (I have heard Brown say this multiple times in different speeches, but it shows up again in Rising Strong)

"And make no mistake, not paying attention because you're not the one getting harassed or fired or pulled over or underpaid is the definition of privilege."

Recommended Reading: Naturally, I recommend Daring Greatly. Both books are incredibly helpful and allow readers to think about vulnerability, courage, anger, and shame in a very different light from what we're used to.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Historical Fiction: The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami

Today's selection was nominated for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but ended up losing to Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account follows a Muslim man from early 16th century Morocco as he follows Spanish Conquistadors to the New World.

The Situation: Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Adussalam al-Zamori decided to write down his account of what happened during his years of slavery to the Castilian explorers. After his home city of Azemmur, Morocco fell to the Portuguese in the early 16th century, the economy took a downturn, and so did Mustafa's work as a merchant. Desperate to earn some money for his mother, sister, and twin brothers, Mustafa makes the difficult decision to sell himself into slavery. After serving in a home with another slave, Mustafa is sold again so his master can cover his gambling debts. Now that he is under the ownership of a Castilian Captain, Mustafa follows his new master to the New World as the Spaniards search for gold and their own land to conquer.

The Problem: Naturally, a journey to the New World is going to be risky, but a trip that is initially dangerous continues to get more dangerous as time goes on. Each Native American tribe the group encounters can potentially mean either kindness and a new set of allies, or danger and the threat of death or being taken prisoner. Of course, the Castilians are looking to conquer what the Native Americans already consider their own, claiming it all in the name of Spain. As a slave with no freedoms of his own, Mustafa is attempting to serve his master at the best of his ability, while also dreaming of his freedom and being able to return to his family in Morocco. But both his service and his fantasies of freedom are frequently interrupted with his attempts at mere survival. And if the group isn't under threat of attack from the Native Americans, or being torn from within due to dueling egos, then there is also sickness, starvation, and thirst that they must deal with. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in the early 16th century. It begins with Mustafa stating who he is and why he has decided to write out his own account of what happened when he traveled to the New World. He then begins to go into the very beginning of the journey, before going back even further and describing his childhood in Morocco. He will then go back and forth between the trials of the New World, and the events that led him to selling himself into slavery in the first place. Eventually, the story sticks exclusively to encounters with various Native American tribes, especially as the crew grow more and more dependent on their kindness, or at least their willingness to take them in if they work and earn their keep. The group of conquerors were initially planning to come in and take over the land, while also hoping to find gold. But they are eventually reduced to working for the people they viewed as beneath them and were willing to convert for their country. While this may be a fictionalized account, many of the events and people Mustafa mentions do appear in our real history.

My Verdict: This book didn't change my life or anything, but it is a good story. And despite it not being the most original idea as a whole, the idea of having it told from the viewpoint of a man who sold himself into slavery was unique to me. Even though he voluntarily entered into that less than desirable position, he still had many of the same struggles and the same desire to one day earn his freedom. Also, some of the stories regarding interactions with the Native Americans weren't just fictionalized versions of the same stories we have all read in history books. The author put a great deal of thought and detail into Mustafa's story. And even though the reader knows Mustafa survives, because how else could he have written this first-person account, you still become invested and worry about his survival.

Favorite Moment: Pretty much any instance of the Castilians suffering at the hands of the Native Americans, since their original intent was to take their land and enslave them, or even simply kill them off.

Favorite Character: It is incredibly easy to side with Mustafa, despite his own shortcomings. Plus, his side of the story is the only one we are able to get.

Recommended Reading: For historical fiction that focuses more on European history, I recommend The Day of Atonement by David Liss.