Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Completed: The Dream of Perpetual Motion

This book was actually on our 2017 List, buuut... since we're publishing this review in 2018, we're going to give it the 2018 treatment. Which means:
  1. We’re gonna try using that template that we published back in 2016 but never used.
  2. 2017 was our year of Bitmoji Reactions to books. For 2018, we will be GIF-ing it.
Jenny's GIF response to this book:

and Kelly's GIF response:

Soo... that sums it up.  But hey—while we're here, we'll add some words...

Why did you pick this book?

Kelly: I got this book in a White Elephant at my old book group. (Side note about that White Elephant exchange: it was all books. And only books! It was SUPER fun.) (I recommend it to all book groups, in fact.)  It looked good to me—a little weird, a little sci-fi, which I generally like. Plus, his second book, Version Control was in the Tournament of Books last year and it was soooo good (one of the best books we both read of 2017) so we had… high hopes for this one.

Jenny: I then bought this book from Amazon–it’s a former library book (check out the circulation pocket!)
(PS from Kelly: I like the word "Nolichucky!")
I  was also looking forward to this book after Version Control. We’ll get back to that in a bit.

Also, your story reminds me that I always struggle to think of gifts for the White Elephant. An all-book exchange sounds *amazing*! At least then I know I’d get something I like. A few years ago, I started to just give books! It’s the best and so much better than recycling old junk. (I could probably recycle old gifts I get from kids. I have a lot of random picture frames! Lol.) In fact, this year, one of my colleagues told me she fought hard to get that bag of books. Everyone loves free books, Kelly.

What it is like to be in the “world” of this book?

Here's an exchange from when we we first started reading it:
K: I know you hate books with world building, so how about books with none at all? 
J: Yeah. Jesus. I am struggling with this one. There’s just not much for me to grip on to as I tackle this. It’s slippery and I can’t figure out how to make sense of it. So I’m just reading along, but I’m not really getting much out of it. At least that’s been true for the first 50 pages.
Overall, this “world” was super confusing. Not a lot of cues about where and when we were.

How did you feel while reading this book?

K: Confused. Kind of nervous. Like, when Astrid went to the fair and went on the ride—everything was obscured and only told from Harold’s POV. What the hell happened to her in there? And are we going to see her again?

Narrator voice: They would. And holy shit.

J: I loved Version Control so much that I mostly found myself feeling disappointed. I was confused, and I couldn’t figure out how to hang on to anything. This book just felt... slippery. Nothing stuck.

What’s something you thought the book did really well? How was it accomplished?

K: I’m kind of struggling to answer this question, but I guess, if the intent was to cause a sense of confusion/foreboding, the book did that very well? I was nearly physically sick when [big spoiler here]: after Astrid died, one of her artist friends is interviewed and claims that her last words were “Hot buttered spleen! Hot buttered spleen!” but then the pizza delivery guy clarifies. She was saying, “Turn off the machine! Turn off the machine!” Oh, god. She changed her mind and these assholes just stood around and watched her die. I had to put the book down for awhile after that. It was horrific and unpleasant, but… I guess that was well done.

J: Yeah, I mean. I don’t know how to answer this either. I did find myself thinking “what an imagination on this guy!” because there was so much rich, fantastic detail. But... I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. The whole idea of “granting wishes people didn’t even know they had” is a pretty interesting idea. I’ve thought about that idea a lot, sort of divorced from the book. Are others every able to accurately predict what we want in our heart of hearts? Do we even know that about ourselves?

What is one thing that needs improvement in the book?


J: Why did he do that? Why did his editor let him do that?! What the hell?!?!

Ahem. Now… for the more serious observation:

J: The thing that strikes me about this book is that I unfairly keep comparing it to Version Control, which I LOVED. And that’s been both good and bad. In some ways, it feels like the prototype for it. I can see flashes of similar themes and that’s interesting. But it’s also bad, because I am maybe judging this too harshly.

K: Yeah. Sometimes a first book can be the author’s “one book” and sometimes… it’s a gearing up for the 2nd [better] book. Turns out, this was a “gearing up" book.

J: Yes. I’m glad I read this one second, because I’m not entirely sure that I ever would have read another book by him after this one.

I was tremendously bothered by the violence towards Astrid and Miranda. My guess is he means this to be symbolic: look at how women are treated by men in society! But it just felt misogynist, profoundly so. And the reason why is because neither of these women are fully formed independent characters of their own. The men tell their stories of how they violated, fucked, manipulated, or failed to save Astrid and Miranda. But those women never get to tell their own stories. Thank God this was not the case in Version Control, where Rebecca is her own character with fully explored thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams.

Hey male authors, you can’t successfully tell a story about toxic masculinity by focusing on the stories of megalomaniacal men! In this way, I think the book fails to convey what I think (I can’t really tell) is its major premise.

Everyone gets to tell their fucking story in this book except Miranda and Astrid. And you know what? Fuck that.

K: Yup.

Our books for 2018

Gee... only six eight weeks into the new year and here's our list for 2018 [Obviously, it's me, Kelly, in charge of the posting of books -- I'm a terrible procrastinator.] 

It's our EIGHTH year of keeping this lil blog going. Like last year, we are going to read all of these books together and discuss them. And then post a transcript-ish of that discussion. So yeah... our 2-woman virtual book group continues.

Our goal is to read 12 of these books in the next 12 months. Last year was our first year to not do that—we made 9 [and still need to post one of them actually.... oh, yeah. That's me again. Ha! -k] but whatevs. It's our blog and we do what we want.

This year, we picked a few "lighter reading" books—the world is on fire + Jenny has some extra busy-ness this year, sooo... yeah. Again... our blog.

We also didn't subscribe to a formal "challenge" or anything—we just looked at our TBR shelves; picked some books; said, "How about reading this together?" and agreed to it. Did I mention that it's our blog? Heh.

Without further ado, here are our books:

Listed in alphabetical order:

  1. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
  2. Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
  3. The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman
  4. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  5. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  6. for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
  7. I'm Judging You: The Do-Better Manual by Luvvie Ajayi 
  8. Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
  9. My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris
  10. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman
  11. The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed
  12. There is No Good Card for This by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell
  13. Want by Cindy Pon
  14. Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil
As with all previous years, we have 14 books to choose from, just in case we need to abandon a couple. Now... let's read!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Completed: Mr. Fox

Kelly: Let’s start with how we got this book. It was in a box from Quarterly, curated by Book Riot waaay back in 2014. The entire reason I bought the box was to get the BOOKS hat, as seen in the photo below -- this is a screenshot I just took from the Quarterly website. (Note: Mr. Fox is also in the photo.)

The hat wasn’t available then in the Book Riot store, so that was the only way to get it [it was briefly available a year or so ago but… it’s now gone again!] So I bought a box of books just to get a hat. Yup. And I bought one for you too. Yup. So that’s how we got this book. Which actually looked pretty good. Until we read it. And then we said WTF.

Jenny: I honestly don’t even know what to say about this book.

K: When we decided to read it, I was packing to move, so I went for the aBook (aBooks generally make good “mindless task” companions). I started listening, got about 20 min in, said, “Wait… what’s going on?” and restarted the book. Sometimes it takes a 2nd try to “get into” a book (especially if I’m distracted). I tried twice more with no luck, so I gave up. After we moved, I picked up the pBook and discovered… Oh! It’s just a confusing book!

J: Just last week I was talking with my students about strategies when you’re reading something that’s hard. And one thing I tell them is that you kind of have two choices: hurry up or slow down. Hurry up means just keep powering through and sometimes it starts to make sense. Slow down is when you know you weren’t as careful, and it’s time to reread. In this case, I decided to hurry up and just keep going. I think I read a lot of this book hoping it would eventually come together, but I don’t know if it ever did.

K: Yes! I felt like I tried “slow down” 3 times and then… “hurry up” the final time but… neither technique ended up working. Reading this book felt like walking into a movie that had already started. But, then one usually has some sort of “Oh, I’m getting it now” feeling at some point. Not with this one, though -- it felt that way the whole time.

J: It only got better for me when I decided to just read it as a metaphor, as symbolic. If that’s the case, then what can I get out of it? The best part, then, was when Mary confronts Mr. Fox about his novels, basically that his fiction makes the unreasonable and obscene seem normal. It was just impossible not to read this and think about patriarchy in general, but the past year. The normalizing of fascism and Nazism. It was fucking depressing.

K: For me, I think the “got better” part of it was focusing on individual stories throughout the book and kind of glossing over/ignoring whatever the hell was going on with the main story [Like: what is Mary? Is she a real person? A figment of his imagination? Whaaaa…?]

For instance, that story about the school to create “world class husbands” was killer. I loved this line:
“...your grade depends not on the answer you give but on the tenacity with which you cling to your choice. You earn a grade A by demonstrating, without a hint of nervousness or irritation that you are impervious to any external logic. You earn an A+ if you manage this while affecting a mild and pleasant demeanour.” [120]
Oh, the satire! The fucking sarcastic take on what makes a “perfect husband.” Brilliant.

J: I would not have come up with the Bluebeard connection on my own. I only clued in about halfway through when I saw the acknowledgements page.  Even then, I only had the most vague knowledge of the Bluebeard story. So then I looked it up on Wikipedia...and, honestly, I’m not sure it helped me much.

K: I thought I was unfamiliar with the story of Bluebeard but once I looked it up, I realized… yeah… I know that story... (just not knowing that the story was that of “Bluebeard,” if that makes sense). Regardless… I don’t really feel like this story was that Bluebeard-y. Fox is killing fictional “wives” and I’m pretty sure his actual wife knows about them the whole time (I mean, unless she doesn’t read his work?) I don’t know.

J: One thing I keep wondering is who is the intended audience for the book? It’s obviously very literary, mythical almost. Who is that appealing to? At this particular point in my life, it’s not really me. And I kind of felt bad about it. I know I didn’t really give this book my 100% full devoted attention. It didn’t feel like it was for me, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we were doing it together, I definitely would have DNF’d this one.

This is the first time in a long time I thought about cheating and reading reviews to help me make sense of the book.

K: Did you read reviews? The final story (where a fox… sort of turns into a human… I think…?) kind of reminds me of that book where that woman turns into a chair or some shit like that.

J: THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE. Ugh. I’m looking up reviews now, and honestly, I’m not sure they know what to make of it either. Here’s a review in the New York Times talking about how great it is. OH! And I just noticed that it was written by Aimee Bender, the author of PSoLC. OF COURSE.

K. Ha. It all comes around full circle, eh? Sooo… I mentioned this before as something I sort of shuffled to the side, but… do you think Mary is real?

J: I don’t know. Maybe she’s Daphne? The thing is, I didn’t care enough to do the work to find out what was going on. You used the movie metaphor earlier, but the experience of reading is like swimming in the ocean. I’m just riding the wave of the language, but not stopping to examine much. If I did, I’d probably drown.

K: Well put. I must say, though, that the language in this book is lovely. Check this passage:
The first moment in the tomb was the most forbidding. The silence, the stillness, the dark. 
Then they realised: They were together, and there was no one else. She felt his lips tremble against her forehead. After that he became courageous and brought his arms down around her. He kissed her closed eyelids and he kissed her mouth and he kissed handfuls of her hair and he kissed her elbows. She placed her brass ring on the palm of his hand and closed his fingers around it. He opened his hand and the ring was gone. It had not fallen, unless it had fallen through him, and if so, it had left no mark. No more counting kisses. 
Reynardine had thrown a candle and a box of matches in with them. They didn’t need the candle... In the darkness they learnt to waltz. Then they lit the candle anyway—why not? And they let its flame warm their stone house for a little while as they danced on behind their locked door. [108]
Just beautiful.

J: Yes, I would definitely agree with that. Her language is lush and rich. I enjoyed that part a lot, but it still felt slippery. Beautiful language alone didn’t give me enough to hang on to.

K: Oh, man… this review on Goodreads is perfect: “This book is so capital-m Meta that it's probably illegal to write a review of it.” HA! Sometimes I like a weird book, but this one didn’t really work for me.

All right! I'm publishing this on the last day of 2017. Gonna hit up Dream of Perpetual Motion now and then we'll turn our attention to 2018!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Completed: Cunt

[Jenny, you wrote this in August. It's November, and I am finally adding the Bitmojis and publishing... it is amazing to me how the events of just the last month would change some of this discussion. I'm going to leave this time capsule right here, though. -kelly]


This book was your pick, and it had been on your TBR shelf since 2000. I had never heard of it before, so it was a new to me read.

Cunt is feminist manifesto that was written in the late 90s but was updated with a long afterward in 2009. This is a difficult book to write about and we both had our struggles with it.

First of all, let's get the elephant out of the room: the fixation on a body part as the defining characteristic presents some problems given how quickly our understanding of gender is changing. In the 90s, we did not understand the concept of "transgender" in the same way we do now. Right from the get-go, you and I both had some yucky feelings about this. The author does address it in her afterward, but to me, it felt like a more wholesale rewrite was in order. The author ends up sounding like a TERF throughout the book and neither of us liked it much. I'll return to this idea at the end of the review.

Early on in my reading, I texted you saying something like, "This book is way too woo for me." You rightly pointed out that was probably the reason to KEEP reading rather than give up on it. Eventually, I decided to focus on the parts of the book that did work for me rather than the parts that didn't. For example, I was completely fine with her talking about her abortions, but was rolling my eyes at the whole, "I self-induced a miscarriage with some herbs, massages, and the power of my thoughts!"

For me, the most powerful part of the book was her discussion of rape. That was the place I was most in alignment with her. Fuck yes, the idea that women spend their entire lives afraid of being raped is just bananas. The pervasiveness of rape culture and the way it impacts us makes me so angry. At one point, she explains how her mother finally told her daughters she had been raped. She writes, "A man could, feasibly, sacrifice his coffee break raping a woman. That woman would then spend her entire life dealing with it. So would her daughters. So would theirs. This distribution of power is not acceptable" (146). This struck me as absolutely true. My friends who have been raped will never get over it, the pain is still palpable and powerful in a way that is heartbreaking. I'm sure you have had the same experience. While reading this book together, we both reflected on how there is a basic and profound difference in how much freedom men and women have over their own bodies.

During our discussions, you spoke a lot about the role of the media and how the Internet is shifting the landscape for women. The part of the afterward where she discussed George W. Bush was especially powerful for you. You and I had a similar conversation when I read a book you gave me, 100 Demons by Lynda Berry. Given the current US Administration Nightmare, there's been so much retroactive, "Hey W wasn't so bad!" rhetoric. But it's not true! And reading about the pain and anger of people at that time reminded both of us how upsetting it was. The horrifying urgency of now does not erase the mistakes of yesterday. But our reaction to/actions against the horrors are so different now than they were then... the Internet has made organizing the Resistance possible. Not that there were not effective pre-Internet protests and movements, of course. There certainly were, but today, the accessibility to the information is right at our fingertips. Rather than plan a rally months in advance, we can motivate and get the word our to our networks immediately. Even during W's presidency, the web was not nearly has complex as it is today and far more people can and are getting involved in this fight.

We had a hard time focusing on the book itself, instead using it as a springboard to talk about how the issues described play out in real life. We talked about memory and forgetting and how to make sense of how retrograde and regressive the world is becoming. This book honestly left us both a little despondent.

Although it's A manifesto, it wasn't OUR manifesto. We talked about how the framework for this call to action is so troubling: embrace the power of your cunt! Isn't it the case that men embracing the power of their dicks is a huge reason the world is completely fucked up? Do we really want to mimic these failures as a metaphor for our power as women?

You pointed out that there has to be something different, more honest and open, about the way we talk about the power of being a woman -- and all women! not just white, cisgendered, heterosexual women! -- So let's embrace our power as one that's inclusive, welcoming, and freeing. I don't need cunt-swinging to be a metaphor for my power or yours. I want the world to be different, but this fucken approach didn't quite speak to either of us.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Completed: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding


What I did While You Were Breeding is a memoir of TV writer Kristin Newman’s international travels, served up with a big helping of her international love affairs. This memoir was great for a lot of reasons. It was charming and clever; but mostly, it was such a treat to read this book after all of the heavy shit we’ve been reading.

As you know, I’m no fan of the memoir. I’m mistrustful and never truly believe that the author has such a vivid memoir [Aside: you rightly pointed out that just because my own memory is so spotty doesn’t mean that everyone’s memory is like that! Ha!] However, now that I think about it, the x-factor for the memoirs I have enjoyed does seem to be “women in the entertainment industry dish about love and romance.” This topic was a hit for me with Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Patti Smith’s Just Kids---but I think it also has to do with tone. I like the memoirs that are “Here’s a cool story that you might want to read about” vs. “I am self-important and let me tell you about my journey.” The ones I enjoy are breezy AF. They’re fast. You don’t read a lot of memoirs, either, just generally not being a fan of non-fiction.

We did have some interesting discussions about the memory issue. You pointed out that memoirs don’t have to provide absolute truth. An author’s job is to present a story as she remembers it happening, so the expectation is not that this is exactly how it happened. The key to the memoir isn’t reporting, it’s about self-reflection. I have to admit that this is fantastically good point, and if I’m able to remember this as a mantra, I may give more memoirs a chance--especially if they’re written by the ladies of Hollywood. Heh.

There’s a lot of great stuff in this book. For both of us, we related to a story that Kristin tells about going on vacation as a child. Kristin says, “I was a shy little girl and an only child, so on vacations I was usually playing alone, too afraid to go up to the happy group of kids and introduce myself. Finally, on one vacation, my mother asked me which I would rather have: a vacation with no friends, or one scary moment. So I gathered up all of my courage, and swam over to the kids, and there was one scary moment… and then I had friends for the first time on vacation. After that, one scary moment became something I was always willing to have in exchange for the possible payoff” (13). This is such a great moment in the book---both thematically for what comes after in the text, but also advice for approaching life. Even last week when we were on vacation, I thought about this moment of the book. I think it’s going to stick with me for a long time.

I especially liked how sex-positive and unapologetic Kristin is about her life and her choices. This is a book about a woman fucking her way through the world, and having the time of her life doing it. Once I got into the book, I realized how clever the title is. At first, “what I was doing when you were breeding” sounds like the author is judgmental. After all, calling parents “breeders” does feel really aggressive to me since I am one. However, as Kristin continues to tell her story, it’s clear that she is the one who has been judged. She knows people don’t approve of her choices or her many lovers, and this is a book that celebrates her life choices as being just as valid and affirming as those that are more “traditional.”

Finally, Kristin gives lots of advice and tips for how to be a good traveler. In particular, she includes a long list that shows that being a good traveler is a disposition and a state of mind. She says that the best way to travel is to be flexible, go with the flow, know your budget, and do your best to blend in with the locals. There’s another funny “lesson” in the book that is something very similar to what my brother-in-law Nate taught me: in times of stress or trouble, always go to the nearest luxury hotel.

We also spent some time talking about the ending of the book. She ends up settling down and marrying a man with kids. It’s not unexpected that she would grow and change, but in a book that celebrates her bohemian, free-wheeling lifestyle, what does it mean for her to end the book with a slow descent into normalcy? Maybe it’s related to a theme that repeats throughout the book, which is to enjoy perfect moments when they happen. Traveling, like life, demands that we be in the moment. It’s impossible to go back and recreate a perfect time. For Kristin, that crazy time of being young and free to do whatever is over, and a new adventure has begun. But I’ll always like to think of her on a beach somewhere, fucking her brains out.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Completed: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Dear Jenny,

Sometime within the past couple of years, Squirrel Girl was on my radar, but I hadn't really checked it out. When we were picking books to read this year, two of our categories were "superhero comic with a female lead" and "all-ages comic" and you suggested The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Based on our bitmojis for this book... we liked it: 

That's a lot of hearts right there.

The series is still ongoing -- we read the first 3 trade paperbacks, which collect, basically, the first 16 issues of SG + some other stories (more about that in a minute):
  • Vol 1: Squirrel Power 
  • Vol 2: Squirrel You Know It's True 
  • Vol 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now
[Aside: Is there anything not to love about these books? Even these titles are hilarious. Other volume titles are: I Kissed a Squirrel and I Liked it and Like I'm the Only Squirrel in the World. Bwahaha!]

You loved Squirrel Girl after you used it as as choice in a comic book unit. Squirrel Girl is an example of a female superhero who isn’t trying to imitate men. It’s incredibly body-positive. For example, at one point, Doreen tucks in her tail and it fills her pants. She admires herself in the mirror and says, “My ass looks awesome.” She's excited to start college, meet new friends, and start studying computer science. Squirrel Girl values teamwork, communication, and community and often solves problems through discussion and cooperation rather than butt-kicking. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’ll kick butts [and, of course, eats nuts] if she has to, but it’s refreshing to see that as a last resort rather than the first option. Squirrel Girl shows that women don't need to be like men, or to solve problems like a man, to be successful.

We talked a lot about the gender dynamics in comics: the “boys club” of writers and pencilers who close ranks and sideline female characters when things are happening, or draw them as nothing more than tits and ass. Although the Squirrel Girl creative team is a man and a woman, it just feels like a totally different kind of comic. Even though we only agreed to read the first three books, we both kept reading. You pointed out that the Mole Man arc in Book 4 could be used to teach consent and boundaries, and Doreen is a character who brought both of us hope and joy---which is something we need now more than ever!

There are many, many things to love about Squirrel Girl, not the least of which is the tiny commentary at the bottom of each page. As we were calling it, the "kid whistle" text. Heh. That's perfect, because I'm not sure that many older readers can even see that text, let alone read it. It's tiny and it's light golden brown --  it is clearly intended for those who can make it out. I don’t know if this is intentional or not, but one nice thing about it is that it slows you down as you’re reading -- I often burn right through comics, but with these, you have to slow down and take a careful look at what is written at the bottom of each page (and it’s worth it, cause it’s hilarious).

The only thing minor nit we had about these books and, really, comic books in general, is that it's difficult to figure out bizarro numbering protocol of the issues. For instance, Vols 1 and 2 are collections of "Volume 1, 1-8." Vol 3 is "Volume 2, 1-6." What? What makes up volumes? Oh, here’s someone breaking down the messed up numbering -- it was a weirdo Marvel choice to blow everything up and then re-build and SG got caught in the crossfire.  As you pointed out, this is another thing that makes the bar even higher for people to enter the world of reading comics -- as if it’s not hard enough to walk into a comic book store with zero comic knowledge [except for yours, I know -- that’s a very welcoming one!] it feels like you have to be an “insider” just to understand the numbering system! Now that I think of it… I do not think this sort of exclusionary behavior would be Doreen-approved.

I think the only thing about Squirrel Girl that we differed in opinions on was the Letters section: I love it and you do not. I was so surprised that you don't read them -- I find the interaction between fans and authors to be very charming (esp. from little girls). It turns out you do look at the cosplay photos, but just cannot stand the formatting of the letters on the page -- there are some justification and general design issues; the responses are bold and inconsistently formatted; and, as you recalled from our High School yearbook days: “ECHO says ‘No trapped copy!’” (there is, in fact, trapped copy). All of that doesn’t bother me -- it reminds me of Letters pages of yore, when reading comics as a kid. You made a good point there that, when we were kids, it was nice to read the letters from other people in the world and realize, “Look! Other people feel the same way as I do!” and now… we have the Internet for that. I still like old-school stuff (real mail, film cameras, etc.) so I guess that’s my thing. Thinking more about it, I just don’t think they want to spend/waste a lot of time formatting that page (if they did, they’d probably have to cut it entirely) so this is how they get those letters out there. And hey, if young kids are reading SG (and I hope they are!) then they can connect with other fans without Internet use.

In conclusion, we love Squirrel Girl and are so happy that this comic exists in the world.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Completed: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

We read this book a while ago and took tons of notes, so I’m going to try to preserve as much of the conversation as possible for this entry….which is just going to be super long! We talked about so much!

How it got on our list

Kelly: I suggested reading this book after a friend asked “Hey, have you read that book A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America? I think you would find it interesting.” I said, “No -- that does sound interesting! I’ll have to look into it.” And then she texted me a photo of the cover. And it was Stamped from the Beginning, which was already sitting on my TBR shelf! Heh. She’s an academic and you know they love their subtitles.

Since then, she’s been using it as a textbook for at least one of her classes and she says that her students are finding it super readable, so I’m looking forward to that. [Ed. Note: To everyone’s surprise “super readable” has a different context in academia than in the jennyandkellyreadbooks blog.]

Jenny: We put it on our list, and I added it to my Amazon shopping cart when I needed to have enough to get the “add-on” items. I was secretly hoping to convince you we should read it sooner rather than later. But after TPB (The Putin Book) and Underground Railroad, I figured we’d have to wait a while. We were so exhausted from those books, would we be ready to tackle something that looked so intense right away? [We weren’t.]

The book

We had a pretty long discussion about the prologue, which isn’t something you can skip. As Jenny said, “it really should have had a different name. Something like, 'Chapter one.'” We talked about how we often skip Prologues, but we're so glad we didn't skip this one, as it outlines three words that are the foundation for understanding racist ideas throughout the entire text. Kendi argues that historically, there have been three sides to the discussion about race in America:
A group we can call segregationists has blamed black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities. (2)
For an example of this IRL, listen to this podcast with Kendi where he explains it in these simple terms: Black Lives Matter is anti-racist, Blue Lives Matter is segregationist, and All Lives Matter is assimilationist. Even though these ideas weren’t exactly new, something about Kendi’s language and description was so clean and precise. Both of us had the experience of reading this book as organizing many of the things we already knew into a more logical and meaningful way in our brains.

Part of the reason this is so important is that Americans believe that assimilationist thinking isn’t racist. But both segregationist and assimilationist thinking is racist. Full stop. Even as a I go back and write this, I feel sort of dumb for not really “getting” that before. But then again, if there’s a second major take-away in this book, it’s to demonstrate just how powerful racist ideas are and the way that they so effortlessly morph and change through the generations.

Kendi argues a second major point in the prologue: racist ideas are created and used to justify racist policies. Policies are created that benefit rich white men, and racist ideas are created afterwards to justify it. As racial progress happens, new racist ideas are created to prevent that progress from happening. In other words, racist policies always come first and racist ideas come along behind to justify them.

It’s probably important to talk about the organization of the book. Stamped from the Beginning advances through American history in chronological order, with each of the five major sections using the life of a famous American at that time for showing the development and advancement of racist ideas: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison,  WEB Du Bois, and Angela Davis. As a general rule, this worked better for us when we already knew a lot about either the person or that historical era. I have previously discussed how the organization of non-fiction can feel inorganic and clunky. It makes sense to use real people to show the power of racist ideas, but the marriage of storytelling to history is never quite seamless.

The first section about Cotton Mather was especially difficult. Neither of us were as familiar with this part of history, and it felt a little boring at times. Kelly said, “For the most part, even when things that I’ve never thought about were pointed out as racist, I was all ‘Yup. Yup. Oh, yeah. I totally see that. Sure.’” But we also discussed the book’s claim that Newton calling “white light” contributed to racist ideas. It raises the question if the words “white” and “black” now *only* refer to race? That was a sincere question, and one that we chewed over for a while. After all, it’s clear as day that even today in pop culture, the good guys/bad buys are often portrayed as white/light and dark/black. Jenny wondered why it’s so easy to see that now, but we struggle when we talk about where those ideas may have originated. We call our skin “white” even though it’s peach or beige. Isn’t white light really “clear” more than it is white?

Of the subsequent chapters, I’d say that I really enjoyed the Thomas Jefferson section because I think he’s the perfect example of how we lionize and excuse horrible racists. I actually want to kick the shit out of anyone who talks about Jefferson being “in a relationship” or “in love” with Sally Hemmings. And Kendi thoroughly debunks all of that, although Kelly did find reference to “intercourse” rather than rape. Overall, Kendi is firmly committed to intersectionality and always discusses how racism combines with sexism and other forms of bigotry.

Kelly found the WEB Du Bois chapter to be particularly strong, especially because his personal journey from assimilationist to antiracist is so compelling. [Kelly here -- adding this a few months after we read this book: I still think about this a LOT. The idea that we all have an opportunity to "do better" and that it's within our power to do so, if we want to. I guess it gives me hope -- if an antiracist historical icon such as Du Bois had to go on a journey to become antiracist then 1. We all probably have some journey to go on and 2. It's a journey we can all take.]

Once we get into this section, the book also starts to take on a weight and heft as the accumulated centuries of racist thought reveal themselves to be so malleable. Even though we’ve been trained to believe that things have gotten better (and they have in so many ways!), it was in this section that we also see how little has changed. As Kendi states, “Racist logic didn’t have to be logical; it just had to make common sense.” (303)

Angela Davis is a bad-ass, and learning more about her was one of the real pleasures of this book. We had a lot of questions about the source material, and at times wished for more extensive endnotes, but that's a pretty minor complaint. Several times, I wished there was a similar book on feminism that told it as a long story.

The Takeaways

Even though we didn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion on Newton, both of us did talk about how the book illuminates the world around us. Over and over again, it challenged what we have both been taught as white people, which is to assume that philosophers, scientists, and thinkers are “neutral” when it fact they are just as steeped in racist ideas as we are, and that they often explicitly advance those racist ideas to further their own agenda.

Throughout the book, we both noticed that the way racism works now is entirely the same as how it worked in the past. Here’s a list of some those moments where we exclaimed something like "This is still the same today!"
  • Rich white people use poor white people to advance their own wealth and power at the expense of black people.
  • Black people’s actions are always viewed through a lens of criminality and deviance.
  • Failures of individual black people to thrive are always blamed on individual choices rather than racist politics and policies.
  • Black women treated as either hyper-sexualized or ignored as hapless victims.
  • White people are always seen as individuals with compelling reasons for their behavior, while black people are always generalized as a part of their group identity.
  • Respectability politics (or "uplift suasion," as our author calls it) is the carrot by which black people are lured into believing whites will accept them, but it never works.
  • White Northerners believe that “real racists” are in the South, so they never evaluate the ways Northerners have created, embraced, and furthered racist ideas
Finally, although this was a often difficult read for a variety of reasons (content, writing style, disconnect with the historical figures), it was well worth it. Reading this book changed both of us --we each think about it ALL THE TIME, and the segregationist-assimilationist-antiracist language will forever be useful to us in both our personal and professional lives.