Book Review: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae

Misadventures of Awkward Black GirlIssa Rae is my best friend.

Okay, so maybe she’s more of a friend of a friend. Well, really, if I’m being completely honest she was friends with my RA in college and I never talked to her… but still I knew of her!

What I’m really trying to say is that reading The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl was even more fun given that I kinda sorta knew who she was before she got famous. For anyone who’s seen her most popular web series (same name as the book) they’ll be equally happy as I was to see the awkward Issa Rae they know and love in print.

The book is a combination of really funny anecdotes and some serious personal stuff explored in a thoughtful way. Issa Rae writes about everything from her early obsession with online chatting and a humorous guide on different types of black people, to her father’s infidelity and her own challenges with body image. At first I was really surprised by the serious stuff, but I actually love that Issa Rae opened herself up so much here — fans of her work will definitely get a chance to know her better through the book.

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Who’s an Employee in the Sharing Economy?

Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr

Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr

One of the hottest topics in city news this week is that suits against two of the U.S.’s biggest sharing economy players, Lyft and Uber, will be heard by juries. The question at hand? Whether the people who drive users around in their cars should be considered employees rather than independent contractors with the two giant companies.

Lyft and Uber say that their drivers don’t count as employees because they can work whenever they want and however often they want. Drivers say they are employees because the rates they can charge are set by the companies and they can be fired for not following the rules. The decisions in these cases could potentially affect the many other sharing economy companies out there, such as Airbnb and car sharing services.

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Book Review: NW by Zadie Smith

NW“Happiness is not an absolute value. It’s a state of comparison.”
-From NW by Zadie Smith

I absolutely loved that NW was a book about place, allowing me to tie together the three interests of this website — place, race, and literature. It’s also the first Zadie Smith book I’ve read, and I have to say that I’m left wanting to read more of her work.

NW essentially has three main characters. There’s Leah and Natalie, who are childhood friends. Then, in between their stories is an interlude with Felix, a man who neither of the other two protagonists know, but who navigates the same sector of the city of London as they do.

NW is a novel about identity and defining oneself in relation to others. There’s actually not too much I can say about the plot, as the book is really about the relationships that each of the characters have and the places where the characters go. Each of the characters grew up working class, but each has found him or herself in a different place in life, often one that has to do with race and the opportunities they did or did not have.

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Access to Opportunity-Rich Neighborhoods Requires More Than Just a Good Job

Image: TJ Gehling via Flickr

Victory by TJ Gehling via Flickr

When we look at our metropolitan geographies we see a lot of patterns. One of those patterns is the persistence of pockets of poverty, particularly racialized poverty. Many people know something about America’s history with discriminatory housing policy, like the redlining that kept good loans out of communities of color. But decades after the end of those practices, aren’t most of the poor neighborhoods still left simply accidents? What people really need now are just better jobs to be able to move to opportunity-rich communities… right?

I recently had the privilege to listen to Professor Richard Rothstein of UC Berkeley pose and then debunk this very idea with a case study local to the Bay Area: Richmond, California. Rothstein explained how the existence of continued separation between neighborhoods of opportunity and poorer areas is directly related to wealth generated by white families from the WWII era, and that this segregated wealth generation was deeply supported by the government.

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The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid (Review)

The Autobiography of my MotherI was about halfway through The Autobiography of My Mother when I realized the main character really bugged me. It was several more pages before I realized the value of an unlikeable protagonist.

Xuela — Kincaid’s main character — isn’t nice. She’s not trying to be your best friend. And she’s pretty unapologetic about it. She’s a woman who marches to the beat of her own drum and shuns love in all its forms. Sex to her is just a form of physical pleasure, which she experiences no shame in fulfilling.

I started the book thinking I’d see a lot of myself in the main character’s development and story, but no such luck. Yes, there were some aspects to Xuela I understood – she was considered inferior by white people and she was not seduced by material wealth. But Xuela’s lack of emotional response to other characters – such as her husband of many years – was something I couldn’t relate to:

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Can Photography Help Lead Us to Justice?

Ruddy Roye

As much as good writing enchants me, I also love when I am reminded of the power of photography to capture a person, a moment, an idea. This week I was fortunate to come across Ruddy Roye’s Instagram account, when seeking out professional photographers to follow. A self-described “photographer with a conscience,” Roye’s street photography is fantastic by itself, but he often adds commentary to the photos that makes them even more interesting, talking about why he took a particular shot or giving some facts or a quotation each one. It seems that his work brings an important lens to black America and working class America.

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How I Braved Anu Aunty and Co-Founded a Million Dollar Company by Varun Agarwal (Review)

How I Braved Anu Aunty and Co-Founded a Million Dollar CompanyWhen you’re jobless, the pace of time becomes very slow. Like excruciatingly slow. I was getting more and more addicted to Facebook and that had become a serious problem. During those days, Farmville was at its peak and people were going crazy sending each other pigs, horses, dogs, and what not.
-Varun Agarwal

This was quite a unique read for me. Varun’s story is a book straight out of Bangalore, India, and so it feels different from the U.S.-published books I read almost exclusively. It doesn’t quite read like the memoirs and autobiographies that I’m used to, and it took a minute to adjust to the super-casual language and frequent interjections of Varun’s thoughts.

Varun wants to start a company, but he feels trapped by the expectations of his family that he get a steady, well-paying tech job and make a good impression on the aunties in his mother’s social circle. Then he and a good friend get the idea to start a clothing brand company for alums of prestigious local high schools. The book is a mixture of self-exploration, business strategy, and cultural analysis.

I liked that Varun’s book took me into a different side of the world, and through the first-person narrative of a current resident, rather than that of a non-native or an expat. However, at the same time, I have to say that I wasn’t always riveted by the story he has to tell. Maybe a lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m not really interested in starting a business right now, and I don’t quite relate to his focus on making the most money possible. Or it might have to do with my observation that the book has a distinctly “bro-ey” feel to it — Varun is often hanging out with his male friends talking about drinking or the girls they think are hot. Also, the chapters sometimes feel too short (many are just a couple pages), with not enough material to get into the interesting relationships in Varun’s life, and while he strives for a light, whimsical tone the comedy was hit-or-miss.

But I do think that Varun’s story could be particularly appealing to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial types or anyone else starting up a small business. The one thing you take away from the book is that it takes a lot of creativity and persistence to get any business up off the ground.

3Stars23/5 STARS

Respectability Politics Won’t Free Us of Police Violence

Photo:  fischfosser via Flickr

Photo: fischfosser via Flickr

I am reminded of what I have always known, but what some would choose to deny: that there is no way to work your way out — earn your way out — of this sort of crisis. In these moments, what you’ve done matters less than how you look.
-Charles Blow

The article that really gave me chills this week was Charles Blow’s account of his son having a gun pointed in his face at Yale for being a suspected burglar (aka, walking while black). Blow’s post isn’t particularly long or one of his more purposefully eloquent pieces of writing, but you can just feel the sadness and anger coming across the page that he can’t protect his son from the discrimination one experiences as a black person in the U.S.

He agonizes about what could have happened if his son had made a “suspicious” or panicked movement in his surprise and distress at having a gun pointed at him. He laments the fact that he had to have a talk with his son in the past about what to do if this very situation were to happen, even as he rejoices that he did.

Most of all, I’m thankful that Blow took a clear shot at respectability politics by pointing out that no black kid is safe from this harassment and violence. No parent of a black child is free from the specter of losing him or her through the perception that this child is a threat.

Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy (Review)

Dirty ChickOomph. I have some real complicated feelings about this book. Here goes nothing.

So, Dirty Chick has a pretty fun and interesting premise: a woman from San Francisco moves her family to a small town in New Zealand called Purua, where they quickly surround themselves with a cluster of farm animals to raise. There are endless quirky discovery stories of the challenges of animal farming, growing cheeses, and staking out a life in general in Purua, many of which are pretty funny and engaging. I particularly liked her stories about the goats, who would often use her car as a makeshift playground, jumping onto the roof and sliding down the front windshield for fun.

There’s a human and serious element to Murphy’s memoir in that her son Silas has a learning disability. Murphy and her husband are constantly worrying about him and trying to figure out how to help him grow and thrive with other children. In fact, he’s part of the reason they move to slow-paced Purua in the first place — there’s a one-room schoolhouse there where he can get the personal attention that he needs.

Alright, so all that is fine and dandy, but my real issue with Murphy’s memoir is her language about people of color, and some of the implicit messages she’s sending that go completely unchecked. This showed up pretty early in the book, when she describes Richmond, where she was living in her sailboat before moving to New Zealand as “a sketchy part of the Bay Area just east of Marin County.” Woah. Pretty hard not to interpret “sketchy” here as not meaning “black and brown.”

In another place she writes, “Richmond was poor and shabby, plagued by gang violence.” It’s not that Richmond doesn’t have challenges with violence. It’s that the perception of not being safe is all she took away (or at least chose to share with us) from living there. There is so much more to Richmond’s community, and I wonder how much of the city she actually got to know living on her sailboat? How much did she ever step outside of her comfort circle of white friends to try and get to know residents of color?

Another example I had a really hard time with was her description of a friendly indigenous man who volunteers to come to her house and cook a sheep for a party she’s throwing. So, recap: this guy that her friends know and have recommended is coming over to her house all day to cook for her for free. And her first thoughts about him are, “Despite the nice eyes, this guy didn’t look safe. I made a mental note of where my kids were.” Later, she goes on to ask her friends why the kids don’t find him scary.

I was tempted to gloss over those unsavory bits in my review, but it’s really just inexcusable. Dirty Chick has some great parts, but it’s also got a serious white privilege problem that merits a much more thoughtful examination. I’d love to see more of her work as she matures as a writer and hopefully addresses some of those issues.

Note: I received an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

2Stars22/5 STARS

Racial Justice Roundup, MLK Edition

SelmaMartin Luther King Jr.’s day of remembrance seems to have arrived at a particularly opportune time of the year, given the heightened dialogue around black lives and race relations in the U.S. I watched the Selma movie this past weekend to put myself in an even greater mode of reflection about where we’ve been as a country and where we’re headed when it comes to race. I’d definitely recommend the film.

In the social justice world I often hear talk about how society has made much progress in racial justice throughout the years, but that we have a long ways to go. This is still true. We have to acknowledge both the past and the present.

With regards to the latter, here’s roundup of racial justice links I found interesting this past week:

  • Organizers took MLK day as inspiration for a weekend-long set of actions in various cities across the U.S. Here’s what went on in just the Bay Area, for example.
  • The best long-form article I read last week was on the making of Silicon Valley with respect to race and class. An important read, given the high intensity economic pressure that Silicon Valley and the tech sector exert on low- and middle-income residents throughout the Bay Area.
  • Speaking of income and neighborhood change, this video by a young man named Kai about the changes he’s seen in his home community of the Mission District in San Francisco is quite well-done.
  • As most people heard, the Oscars were pretty white this year. I’m also particularly surprised looking down the list of past non-white actor nominees to see very few Asian/Pacific Islanders.