Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

09 Feb 2013, 13:07 p.m.

Recent Books

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2013 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I know I'm missing some, but here are some books I've read in the last few months.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. SO GOOD. READ THIS. Ta-Nehisi Coates agrees with me. Want to understand the US in the twentieth century? Want to think in real terms about exit, voice, and loyalty? Read Wilkerson's narrative history of black people who decided to stop putting up with Jim Crow and escaped from the US South (sometimes in the face of local sheriffs ripping up train tickets). Riveting, thought-provoking, and disquieting in the best way. My only nit to pick: I think if her editor had cut repetitions of things she's already told the reader, she coulda cut about 15 of the 500+ pages. But that's really minor, and as a scifi reader I'm accustomed to absorbing world-building at perhaps a higher clip than expected.

By the way, "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty" is a trilemma based on the work of social scientist Albert Hirschmann. I've never read the book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty but I basically think of it this way: if you're in a situation you don't like, you have 3 choices:

  1. You can leave.
  2. You can speak up and try to change it.
  3. You can give up on your desire to change it, and learn to like what you have.

But if one or two of those avenues is blocked off, because it's unsafe for you to speak up and you're prevented from leaving, then the only way you can survive is "loyalty," even if that means twisting or losing yourself entirely and maybe even hurting other people. And some people don't survive, because the situation is so overconstrained and unlivable that it obliterates them.

(The middle option, "voice," is scary to the people in charge of the situation you don't like. They might say "love it or leave it" and gloss over the lever.)

OK, now a bunch of other books that are less I will stand over you and press this into your hands rockin'.

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. It took me a while to get into this (I just don't think the fake novel by Byron is that interesting) but the middle was pretty interesting. And of course it's a nod-worthy thing to have made, given the constraints of the form.

I reread some Asimov, Caves of Steel and Naked Sun and some Tales from the Black Widowers. I am officially no longer twelve and non-Susan-Calvin Asimov fiction may not work for me anymore as comfort reading. The ideas don't actually make sense and I get annoyed at the prejudice. But I suppose I should give him a chance to surprise me in stories of his I haven't already read.

"The Ancestors" by Brandon Massey, Tananarive Due, and L.A. Banks. I didn't realize when I got this that it's really a horror anthology, but I'm glad I read it, especially for Due's "Ghost Summer" which is, among other things, a story of the Great Migration. The Massey tale is also a reasonably good read, but the Banks was inexplicably sexist, so you can just skip that.

Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It's as good as everyone says it is -- funny, eye-opening, heartbreaking, sweet. You may not have heard that there are fun cartoons in it. There are!

Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel by C. M. Butzer. I am not the target audience for this; maybe it's for preteens who are on the verge of becoming history buffs? It's pretty short.

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce. I kind of wish I had read the Lioness Quartet when I was a teen and then read the Protector of the Small Quartet (the sequel) in my twenties. Instead, while I was working at Cody's Books, I devoured the Protector of the Small Quartet and liked it a lot ("I certainly wasn't expecting the phrase 'refugee camp,' I'll tell you that."), and now find the earlier work a little facile. But Alanna: The First Adventure is still fun and I'll still finish the quartet when I get around to it.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I adored Fitzgerald when I was fifteen, and I still love The Great Gatsby and some of his short stories are still awesome, but the racism and sexism in Tender is the Night are really offputting. There's no Nick Carraway viewpoint character who partakes less in the rich-people-acting-like-dunderheaded-jerks parade, so I was basically spending a few hundred pages thinking "all these people should get real jobs." But every once in a while Fitzgerald describes a particular emotional reaction particularly well, or articulates a gorgeous experience such that I can actually empathize with people who like to party, and that keeps me reading.

Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman memoir/polemic is fantastic, if a teensy bit on the glib side. But feminism (as presented to non-feminists) sometimes needs a dose of glib! I especially loved the chapters about the choice of whether to have children. For a taste of her style, see the book trailer. Thanks to Camille for the recommendation!

Ungifted by Gordon Korman. A perfectly reasonable Korman entry; not as poignant as Pop, not as incisive about status play as The Twinkie Squad, not as Avi-esque interrogation of character as No More Dead Dogs, but more compelling than some of his recent elementary-school stuff. In Ungiftted and Schooled we're seeing a Korman trend I believe he started with Don't Care High (and arguably in Jake, Reinvented, his take on The Great Gatsby): slyly questioning standardized school structures (not just the cliques students form, but the buckets teachers, administrators, and politicians put them in). You see some of this in The Twinkie Squad as well. How do homeschoolers, remedial students, mediocre football players, and other people outside the spotlight critique the places they land? I wish the kids from Son of Interflux's wacky arts academy could hang out with the revolutionary high schoolers of Don't Care High for an afternoon and swap tales, and I think the kids of Ungifted, Schooled, The Twinkie Squad, and Jake, Reinvented might enjoy a similar meetup. And why don't I throw Aaron Swartz in there as well as long as I'm imagining.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, recommended by my boss. Thanks, Rob. It's great! He basically takes one of the only inspiring approaches you can take in a Holocaust memoir: he realized that no matter what anyone else does to you, you always have some control of how you react in return, even if it's just how you feel about it. From nearly anyone else this would be glurge, but he has the cred to say it both descriptively and prescriptively, and has the harrowing details to back it up. When I think about this and about the idea of exit, voice, and loyalty, I see that Frankl's approach provides some more nuanced options. You can exit mentally by changing the focus of your consciousness; and you can pray or meditate, to exercise a kind of voice without endangering yourself.

The Man Who Wasn't There by Pat Barker. I didn't like this as much as I liked the Regeneration trilogy, partly because the interspersed fantasy life "screenplay" just wasn't my cup of tea -- too disorienting. And the nearly relentlessly depressing plot got me down. But I can't help but admire the closely observed details of lower-class English life, and I liked the boy's conversation with the spiritualist about her work.

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It took a while for me to get used to Coates's lyricisim, but he achieves the alchemy of drawing the reader into his childhood lingo without ever providing anything as blunt as a glossary. If you like his blogging, go ahead and pick this up to better understand where he came from. I see Baratunde Thurston loved the same quote I loved.

Ha'Penny by Jo Walton is creepy, suspenseful and good, just as Farthing was before it and just as I expect Half a Crown to be after. I liked that we saw the main character's complicated relationship with her many sisters; I don't often see that in speculative fiction. If you want a taste of this universe, try the short story "Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction", which asks: if the Small Change books show you what's up in England, what's germinating on the other side of the Atlantic?

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. I am actually glad I waited so long to read this, so I could think about stuff I've read (especially, recently, The Unwritten) and plug it in. I usually read comics for story and dialogue and have not much cared for particularly eye-catching art techniques, but now I'll have a framework to appreciate what I'm looking at!

I reread bits of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird (soothing), Charles Stross's Glasshouse (popcorn), and most extensively, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild. That last one, Hochschild specifically wrote to remind us that activists really can achieve what seems impossible. We've done it before and we will do it again. There will be setbacks and challenges and half-steps and repetitions over and over. I think about Aaron every day; something brings it up, whether it's The Muppet Movie or Thomas Clarkson or school reform or the importance of casual Wikipedia contribution or a song by The Police that I used to be able to sing along to but now I vividly notice the line about suicide. And books like Bury the Chains help me remember my context and reshoulder my pack and keep moving.