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How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (audio)

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Audible, 10+ hrs.
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How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, read by the author, is a phenomenal listen. I want to read the book as well in print. Kendi has the perfect voice for this book, and it makes the personal stories far more relateable. Much of this resonated with me because I grew up in the 1990s and I saw many of these phenomena that Kendi talks about. The idea that “color” is no longer seen is obviously ridiculous, but the sentiment is even more trying when systemic processes and socialization force us to “see” color as thug or criminal or worthy of the benefit of the doubt or forgiveness, etc.

“The hate that hate produced. … More hatred makes them more powerful,” Kendi says. He himself is a victim of this, enabling the racist policies and power to continue and gain strength. Hating white people becomes hating black people and vice versa, he adds. His arguments can be convoluted and circular in his narration, which is another reason, I’d like to read the text because I tend to absorb these kinds of concepts better in print than audio. I was particularly fascinated by his conclusion that white supremacy is actually a nuclear ideology that is anti-human because many of the policies it opposes actually would have helped their poor white brethren, so the question is which white people are supreme? Those with more money, at least so it seems from the examples provided by Kendi.

Kendi also reminds us that we often look for theories and evidence that validates our points of view or biases. None of us are immune to it, but we can be watchful for data that caters to those biases and learn how to see through the fog. The story of Kendi in college coming to a conclusion that white people are aliens and that’s why they hate blacks is an illustrate of this point. What we need to understand is that racism is the lumping of one group of people into a group to be looked down upon or turned into the “enemy” or “evil” other. We all have the power to protest racist policies, no matter where in the power structure we are.

The only drawback for me was that Kendi tends to get sidetracked and the narrative becomes convoluted, which muddles the message in some ways. His narrative also is far from linear. I do like how he personalized his examples to demonstrate that all people are capable of racism. This is a message we all need to hear and understand, so that we can be prepared to move away from racism as the human race.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi reminds us not to fall under the mind control of white supremacy that we have no power — if they control your thinking, they control you. These are wise words. Now, if you are looking for a practical guide on how to accomplish real change in policy and processes, this is not the book for you. What you need is to take the lessons in this book about identifying racism and resisting those policies, affecting change, and standing up to the oppression of yourself and others.

RATING: Quatrain

Little Wars by W. Luther Jett

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Paperback, 32 pgs.
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Little Wars by W. Luther Jett (full disclosure: we are in a poetry work-shopping group together) begins with “Recessional” a poem-like hymn in which a poet realizes that he works on a poem in night as many men before him have done and that they are all connected to one another in infinite time and space and that all of these poets are these poems. This poem sets up the rest of the collection’s theme of universality and how the little wars we wage with ourselves and others have come before and likely will continue, but for the hope that we can change and be more peaceful. The slivers of light, the blue of the sky, all of these images provide us the glimpse of hope on a distant horizon.

From "Storm Bear" (pg. 14)

...With great claws,
it scattered sand, wiped away the line
we'd drawn between desire
and circumstance. Roaring,
the storm fell upon us, ... 

Wars can begin just like that; a tipping point of rage that wipes it all away, moving into the unchecked desire (for more power, for revenge, etc.). The trembling of these battles whether in the past or far from us still can be heard, if we listen close, like the narrator of “Poppies” — the reverberations remain — the consequences spiral out and are an influence on today, this moment. “We didn’t know there are no/little wars–no distance/we cannot reduce to nothing.//” (“Vanishing Point/Ach Du” pg. 17)

And “A War Story” explains just how we, ourselves, can be reduced to nothing by war — the war itself may seem large and incomprehensible, but the impact is very real, very personal. “Epitaph,” which follows it, is equally devastating in its truth about praising the dead as heroes when they would more than likely prefer to be alive and left unpraised for doing simple things you’d do normally without war at your doorstep.

Little Wars by W. Luther Jett reminds us of all the costs of war and that “we choose” to make them. What would happen if we chose another path? Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

RATING: Cinquain

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Advanced Lift-the-Flap: How Your Body Works by Rosie Dickins

Source: Purchased
Hardcover, 16 pgs.
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How Your Body Works by Rosie Dickins from Usborne is full of information in easily digestible chunks for young kids. From the organs to growth and eating, this book covers a lot. Some of the book covers nutrition and the importance of exercise, but there is a lot about immunity, germs (good and bad), and about different levels of maturing the body goes through.

My daughter could read most of this on her own as an elementary school student, which is great because it provides her with interesting facts, real microscopic images of the tongue and other things, and engaged her. She was eager to lift the flaps to learn more, and she was excited to share what she learned with the rest of the family.

The book is visually engaging with full-color images of the body and germs and other things. How Your Body Works by Rosie Dickins is a book that children can read over and over. It’s definitely a fun way to introduce important topics like eating healthy and exercising as well as puberty to young kids. My daughter enjoys science, and this book really held her attention, even when she knew some of the facts already from school.

RATING: Cinquain

Diary of a Pug: Pug’s Got Talent by Kyla May

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Paperback, 80 pgs.
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Diary of a Pug: Pug’s Got Talent by Kyla May is the fourth book in the series, but readers could start with any book in the series because they are self-contained episodes and include enough background for kids if they start in the middle. Baron von Bubbles, aka Bub, is still a big fashionista, but in this one his owner, Bella, has a new focus — creating a pet talent show.

Bub learns some new show biz words and learns how sometimes assumptions about others are not accurate. My daughter loves this series, especially that Bub is afraid of water and Nutz the squirrel is always causing trouble. Diary of a Pug: Pug’s Got Talent by Kyla May is a cute story about a talent show and a pug that learns to work with other pets who may not be his favorites.

RATING: Quatrain

Everyone Disappears by W. Luther Jett

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 32 pgs.
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Everyone Disappears by W. Luther Jett (full disclosure I am in a poetry work shopping group with Luther), published by Finishing Line Press, is a follow-up to Jett’s previous chapbook, Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father.

The opening poem, “Nepenthe,” refers to the drug that banishes grief or trouble from one’s mind as mentioned in the Odyssey (yes, I looked this up). Our narrator runs through the poem, looking for those memories in every room, rifles through drawers, unseals books — trying to uncover who did die of starvation, but he has forgotten. This opening poem sets the tone for the collection. It is the search for memory, even the most painful and a wish to hold those tight to almost make the lost corporeal again.

In "Why the Ocean Tastes of Tears"

....
    The snow melts slowly.
Everyone disappears.
    when you want them to stay
everyone goes somewhere
    else and that is why
      the ocean tastes of tears.
It's the one thing you can count on
    when you close your eyes --
      you dream and if
anyone is still there when you wake
  you've witnessed a revolution.

We all cry oceans of tears for lost parents, siblings, friends, children, and that salt is bitter and if often taints our ability to see the joy in what we’ve had. But what a revelation it would be to bring them back to life, even for a moment. “There is no returning,/yet we are always looking back/” says the narrator in “Days Like This.”

There are so many somber poems in this collection — ghost towns of bones, a brother gone too soon, a mother crying, and others — but “Remembrance” is the saddest poem, yet with a sense of humor. It begins, “This is the suit/I only wear once a year.” But you know by the end, a memory will surface where this truth is no longer true and it will break your heart.

Everyone Disappears by W. Luther Jett explores the saddest of truths with a sensitive hand and deep emotional root. His lines will lull you into a trance and gut you when you don’t expect it. But there is a hope, a “star’s kiss” that pierces through that dark shroud, and we shall not forget it.

RATING: Cinquain

Frankie Sparks and the Lucky Charm by Megan Frazer Blakemore

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Paperback, 128 pgs.
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Frankie Sparks and the Lucky Charm by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is another strong book in the series that helps kids learn about science and investigation, while having fun. We love that this series provides tips on how to make your own designs and solve your own problems through science. In this one, Frankie is wondering about whether leprechauns are real, and she decides that setting a trap is the best way to find out. One problem, if she proves they don’t exist, her friend Maya might just be devastated, since she believes they are real.

Kids will learn about designing foolproof traps for leprechauns and how to design things with potential failures in mind. But how Frankie tackles her friend’s possible sadness over the results of her experiment will teach children to consider others’ feelings and work together to solve problems. It also was good to see that Frankie has more scientists in her family. Her Aunt Nichelle is working on a space garden, but of course she has to do some experiments on Earth, rather than space, but the ultimate goal is to enable astronauts to grow their own food in space. The exchange between Frankie and her aunt was fantastic. It demonstrated that kids are not alone and that they can lean on their elders to learn more and grow.

Frankie Sparks and the Lucky Charm by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is a strong series of books in which kids can not only learn how to work with friends and classmates, but also adults. Along they way they will garner skills in experimentation and design, among others. We highly recommend these books.

RATING: Cinquain

Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely (audio)

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Audible, 8+ hrs.
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Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely, an audio with a full cast, was so much fun to listen to. Jason Reynolds and Truly Goodman have significant chemistry but a pact she made with her brother nearly a decade ago stands in their way of getting together, even if they had a one night of hot romance. Both of these workaholics also don’t have time for dating. Jason Reynolds is The Modern Gentleman Of New York and a best man for hire, two jobs he doesn’t want to see collide, and he needs to finish his work as a best man in order to help pay for his sister’s medical school.

While the sexual tension is palpable and the heat rises on more than one occasion, Blakely shines in her comedy. The zingers between the men and their friends, the banter between Truly and Jason is hilarious, and there is so much more fun to be had in this audiobook. There is a full cast of audiobook narrators on this one, and they clearly had a grand time making this one.

Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely is a riot, and I was laughing out loud. My daughter was dying to know what I was listening to, but sadly this is not for young ears. I needed a good laugh and this book hit the spot. The characters are well drawn and their interactions are believable — for high-end Manhattanites.

RATING: Cinquain

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (audio)

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Audible, 6+ hrs.
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White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo, narrated by Amy Landon, takes a sociologists’ approach to race (which does involve generalizations). White Americans must remember that we are products of our socialization and culture, and no aspect of society lies outside the forces of racism, even if you come from a mixed-race family, had ancestors who were once discriminated against (Irish, Italian, etc.), or experienced poverty, etc. The trick is not to see our unique experiences as making us exempt from racism but to see how those experiences shaped who we are within a racist society and to see the larger picture of how racism impacts others. Secondly, she says we need to redefine the term “racist” — we’ve been taught that racists are immoral and mean and that they consciously hate/oppress others based upon their race. However, this assumption is a societal definition propagated by a racist society. White people need to first examine what it means to be white and what that has brought them in society and cost others — this examination will be a struggle for many.

Superficial differences between races and genders are a result of geographical location and evolution, but biologically we are all the same. The race construct is just that – made up. White supremacy has taken that construct and divided resources based on a false hierarchy, hence the accessibility gaps for non-white groups and non-male groups. Many of these discussions are ones I’ve had before in college with courses and other groups — open dialogue is essential about things that are not “fact” even though they were credited as such. She does touch on exploitation as the catalyst for racism (I would read Stamped From the Beginning for more on this).

Imagine going to court to proclaim you are white because you were misclassified as another race! This actually occurred and scientific experts were called into these cases to provide “expert” testimony. DiAngelo indicates that those European immigrants are the only ones who were successful in becoming “white” after assimilation, etc. Assimilation — think about that — casting aside their customs, speaking English only, and eating only American foods, etc. Those assimilated people now benefit from their whiteness. DiAngelo also points out that if poor and working class Americans across all “races” worked together – they could become a powerful force against the upper “white” classes. However, many perceived as “white” also tend to look down on other poor and working class peoples because of their “whiteness” and the system that oppresses them both. The irony!

“Scholar Marilyn Frye uses the metaphor of a birdcage to describe the interlocking forces of oppression.16 If you stand close to a birdcage and press your face against the wires, your perception of the bars will disappear and you will have an almost unobstructed view of the bird. If you turn your head to examine one wire of the cage closely, you will not be able to see the other wires. If your understanding of the cage is based on this myopic view, you may not understand why the bird doesn’t just go around the single wire and fly away. You might even assume that the bird liked or chose its place in the cage.

But if you stepped back and took a wider view, you would begin to see that the wires come together in an interlocking pattern—a pattern that works to hold the bird firmly in place. It now becomes clear that a network of systematically related barriers surrounds the bird.

Taken individually, none of these barriers would be that difficult for the bird to get around, but because they interlock with each other, they thoroughly restrict the bird. While some birds may escape from the cage, most will not. And certainly those that do escape will have to navigate many barriers that birds outside the cage do not.”

We all have prejudices (it is the way our brain operates) or a sense of discomfort around certain people or groups — acting on those prejudices is discrimination. Racism is a structure (white supremacy) and we need to remember that we have a role to play in that structure. We need to learn to recognize our prejudices and work toward not acting on them and dismantling the structures that employ discrimination against groups different from white males. This is a tall order because many of these ideologies are reinforced in our daily lives.

One notion that came to mind, however, is the “kafkatrap” by which an accused is guilty by merely being silent. Many of us are silent, many of us fail to stand up and point out discrimination (even subtle discrimination), and does this mean we’re all complicit in racism? While this may be true, I prefer less circular arguments and prefer that we work as a human race to improve our systems for all of us. THIS will require us to have discomforting conversations and require actions that run counter to our normal daily actions. It will require us to reform and dismantle white supremacy. We’ll need to widen our view of history, particularly in schools, to acknowledge both the good and the bad, highlighting those who have exploited and committed racism to obtain the upper economic hand, among other things.

My only complaint is that DiAngelo was very repetitive toward the end. She would bring up examples she already used and talk about them again in the same manner she did in the previous chapter. I wouldn’t have noticed it as much if it wasn’t back-to-back repetition. Perhaps she believes repetition will stick with readers more and help them to see the situations she discusses in a new light. I’m unsure.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo, narrated by Amy Landon, asks us to recognize our faults, work to fix them, and to question ideologies that are considered the norm. There is much work to do. Challenging racism starts with recognizing your own prejudices and being conscious of how to modify/change your reactions and behaviors going forward. This is a very academic look at racism, which some may find too high-brow for them. Racism is real and present today (across the globe) — it is not a thing of the past, and we need to tackle it head on and in a multitude of ways. While some of her arguments are circular, she provides a good overview of racism in today’s society and the reactions that white people have when confronted with its subtleties.

RATING: Quatrain

The Other America – A Speech from The Radical King by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (audio)

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Audible, 25 min.
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The Other America – A Speech from The Radical King by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read by Wanda Sykes, is as relevant today as it has ever been. It is one of 23 speeches and essays from The Radical King, curated by Dr. Cornel West, including words never recorded in public. This is a speech was given at the “Salute to Freedom” organized by the Local 1199 in New York City and outlines his Poor People’s Campaign.

I am on the fence about Sykes’ rendition of this speech. At points I felt like she was passionate about it, but at others I felt like she were merely reading by rote.

“You see, no labor is really menial unless you’re not getting adequate wages. People are always talking about menial labor. But if you’re getting a good (wage) as I know that through some unions they’ve brought it up…that isn’t menial labor. What makes it menial is the income, the wages.”

While not from a Black family, I can tell you that as a women from a working class family, this is no less true. My father toiled for pitiful wages most of my childhood, even if he worked 40+ hours a week. The plague for the Blacks in this country is also compounded by their involuntary work as slaves — forced labor. When you can barely afford food to feed your family after bills are paid even if the labor is honest and hard work, it is clear there is something wrong with the way those jobs are compensated. People in the working class and elsewhere are as equally frustrated as they are now.

Take that 25 minutes to listen to The Other America – A Speech from The Radical King by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., read by Wanda Sykes. All men are created equal, but not in a society where wealth gaps continue to grow and justice is not served. We need to DEMAND justice.

RATING: Quatrain

Keep Moving by Maggie Smith

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Audible, 2+ hrs.
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Keep Moving by Maggie Smith, read by the author, is read in that dreaded “poet voice” that’s been in a number of articles, and it drove me crazy. I had to look past that cadence to hear Smith’s words clearly. So if that cadence bothers you, you’ll want to read the book, as opposed to listen to it.

Beyond that, this book offers notes on loss and grief of a recently divorced woman who is continuing her life journey in a way she never expected – without a life partner. It is clear that “keep moving” was a mantra she used to get through the loss of her marriage and the deaths of others. She speaks about living in the present each day and not dwelling in the past that can pull you deep into sadness and make you immobile. Her notes and stories can help those facing similar losses move forward, but in many ways it is like Smith is speaking to herself. We’re getting a sneak peak into her diary.

I love that she focuses on post-traumatic growth in one section of this memoir. This helps us to see beyond the darkness to see the positives in our trials and losses. I liked this the most about the book. Focus on that beginning, push past our fears and explore new avenues for growth. You can even think about professional growth as a way to fill the emptiness left behind.

There is, however, very little about being creative during this time. This is more of an emotional journey and there are snippets of some creative pursuits and nods to the literary community, but no advice on that front, which is what I wanted when I decided to check this out.

Keep Moving by Maggie Smith is about moving forward after irrevocable change, and we need to learn to move beyond our expectations and sadness to see the good, the moments for growth, and how small steps can lead to great, gratifying changes. She also speaks about how you can snowball that movement into helping others. Moving toward living, not just coping.

RATING: Tercet

Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge by Megan Frazer Blakemore

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Paperback, 128 pgs.
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Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, is the third book in the third-grade inventor series that combines science, engineering, and social quandaries in one fun story. Frankie wants to enter the Big Sled Challenge after descending Extreme Maximus, the largest hill in their town on her saucer sled. The experience was a bit jarring, especially when her classmate Lila Jones points out that Frankie did hesitate to go down the big hill not once but twice. Frankie now feels like she has to prove something to herself and Lila. She wants to prove that she’s the best third-grade inventor.

Frankie and Maya need a third teammate, but Frankie soon finds out that her practical choice because of her size and smarts is already on another team. She must cope with disappointment. Ravi is enthusiastic to join the team and he brings with him a lot of ideas, but Frankie is very dismissive and seems to think because she’s an inventor that she’s in charge, but that’s not the meaning of teamwork. In this book, Frankie must expand her horizons, learn patience, and understand what it means to be part of a team.

These books can be read out of order, but you’ll have a greater understanding of Frankie and her struggles in social situations if you do read them in order. Frankie Sparks and the Big Sled Challenge by Megan Frazer Blakemore, illustrated by Nadja Sarell, as always tells a story using science in a kid-friendly way, offers tips for kids at the back of the book on how they can do their own inventing, and provides life lessons about working in teams, socializing with others, learning how to compromise and develop patience.

RATING: Cinquain

Political AF: A Rage Collection by Tara Campbell

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Paperback, 74 pgs.
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Political AF: A Rage Collection by Tara Campbell is a slim collection with a powerful anthem and story arc that begins with “The meadow.” This prose poem sets the reader up for the themes to come — self-indulgence, dark desire and hate, outrage, and pain. That meadow is the nation that certain people have built, hiding it behind the ideals of liberty, while at the same time bleeding its people and waiting for the blood to spill.

The anthem of this collection, “Shut up and dribble,” is a chant that calls us to action. We [and I mean everyone, not just the oppressed] should not be silent like they tell us, we should rise up for the ideals and equality denied. This is personified in “Four-cent Father,” a poem in which the death of a Black man in his own garage is settled with four cents. How can a man’s life be worth so little, and how can a man who plays music in his garage be killed by bullets? He was minding his own business, he was spending time at his home — his home was not his castle, he was not safe.

There is a deep, simmering rage in this collection. A raging against injustice, a raging against the expectations of a society that’s created a false sense of justice, and a rage that builds against the circumstances created by these illusions. “Would my grandmother’s/German immigrant bones/have ached for the man/she would never have known/but for the slavers’ greed?’ (“After the Pedestal,” pg. 21) The “American Beast” rears its ugly head, slithering under the covers and slipping into rooms where “rumbling in the voices of grownups/speaking softly after dinner/about the problems of the world.//” (pg. 25) and becomes commonplace.

The poems in Political AF: A Rage Collection by Tara Campbell will get under your skin, making you uncomfortable not just in the dark but in the light of day. These poems call on us to break the silence, acknowledge the horrors of the past, see the bleak present, and get off our butts and do something about it.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Tara Campbell is a Kimbilio Fellow, a fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and an MFA candidate at American University. Publication credits include SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Jellyfish Review, Booth, Strange Horizons, and Luna Station Quarterly.

She is the recipient of the following awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities: the 2016 Larry Neal Writers’ Award in Adult Fiction, the 2016 Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist, and Arts and Humanities Fellowships for 2018 and 2019. She is also a recipient of the 2018 Robert Gover Story Prize.

Her novel TreeVolution was published in 2016, followed in 2018 by her hybrid fiction/poetry collection Circe’s Bicycle. Her third book, a short story collection called Midnight at the Organporium, will be released by Aqueduct Press in 2019.

Check out the Gaithersburg Book Festival Panel discussion with Joseph Ross, Tara Campbell, Kim Roberts, and E. Ethelbert Miller: