In a nameless country in the Middle East, a civil war breaks out. Not only is this inconvenient for new lovers Nadia and Saeed, it’s potentially fatal if they do not find a route to evacuate as their surroundings rapidly disintegrate into armed strife. The relative simplicity of their lives as working college students is irrevocably disrupted, and while they make their way out of the country, readers journey with them, reviewing all that they leave behind. Will their new lives as refugees ever allow them to return home? If so, what will they find that remains when they return? Can their newly budding relationship survive the upending turmoils of life abroad? Mohsin Hamid’s novel is a curious one in that he makes intentional choices I have not seen before. For example, by withholding the characters’ country of origin, he makes the story more universal, forcing readers to ask themselves what is more important: the nation from which the protagonists originate or the perils to which they are subjected because of the ongoing conflict at home? This is not strictly an “Australian,” “Syrian” or “Zimbabwean” story; it’s a story of the lives and normalities that are threatened and disrupted in moments of instability. Nadia and Saeed, irrespective of their origin, need food, shelter and stability — needs often overlooked depending on how displaced people are perceived given their religion, language and state of peace or enmity with powerful countries. Another choice Hamid made was to veil the routes of passage that Nadia and Saeed use to arrive in countries that are not experiencing warfare. Words like “asylum” and “visa” do not appear in the narrative. Rather, Nadia and Saeed use an unnamed system of doors to “exit west.” Access to these doors comes at a significant monetary expense, but they make it to the other side. Each door leads to a new destination: the Mediterranean, London, California. However, the conditions they find in their new residencies continue to push them farther away from home. The journey is an adventure, and the physical travels are as important as the narrative’s emotional ones. For another work in the collection that treats the complex nature of being an immigrant or a child of immigrants, check out “How To Read the Air” by Dinaw Mengestu or Fabien Toulmé’s French-language “L’odyssée d’Hakim.” Editor’s Note: Katrina Spencer was the Literatures & Cultures Librarian, and this book review was written for The Campus before she left the college.
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This work is the most enrapturing audiobook vocal performance I’ve ever encountered. “A Brief History of Seven Killings” came on my radar after I interviewed Dr. Kemi Fuentes-George, professor of political science, for the “In Your Own Words” oral histories project. He suggested it after I asked him what works he might recommend to those wanting to learn more about diasporic Blackness. Taking real life events and creating others, it is a fictionalized and revisionist retelling of the zeitgeist surrounding an attempt made on Bob Marley’s life in 1976. But, it’s really much more than that. The most engrossing parts of the book are the glimpses readers get into the social stratification of 1970s Jamaica and the suggestion that non-governmental entities ran the country. Moreover, while Jamaica is but one Caribbean island, the people and culture it has produced have strong impacts all over the world. We see this, for example, in the plentiful nurses and domestic care workers “exported” from Jamaica to New York. From commentary on the 1960s Bay of Pigs Invasion to references to the popular television series “Starsky & Hutch,” Marlon James revives the ’70s from its crypt, highlighting the international reach of US-based media and the rise of Jamaican reggae. Unforgiving drug lords, unpredictable addicts and regular bouts of gun violence run throughout the pages (or soundbytes, if you’re listening) of this work. However, it was the extent of the homophobia, omnipresent throughout the work, that I found the most relentless of all — James makes a diligent effort to shed light on the virulent attitudes towards homosexuality that remain alive in Jamaica today. While certain cultural products and chronologies are true, others are figments of the author’s imagination. As is repeated multiple times throughout the work, some Jamaicans say that, “If it not go so, it go near so” — some recounting of history is tremulous and uneven, but its shakiness isn’t an invalidation of its veracity or near accuracy. For more works that treat similar themes, I recommend Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” which also takes an actual historical time period, its politics and accoutrements, and remixes its narratology. Television series like “Hawaii Five-0” and “Three’s Company” also gesture towards capturing this era. Editor’s Note: Katrina Spencer was the Literatures & Cultures Librarian, and this book review was written for The Campus before she left the college.
“100 Times” by Chavisa Woods is a compilation of autobiographical vignettes in which the author tells of the many times she has been sexually harassed, assaulted and/or discriminated against from the time of her childhood up until her mid-thirties. The author is a white, queer woman based in Brooklyn who also spent time growing up in the Midwest. The truth is that the stories are shocking, disconcerting and terribly familiar all at once. Unfortunately, they do not strike me as “out of the ordinary” and likely wouldn’t strike many American women as anomalous. For the record, I’m not proud of this assessment. I’m not proud to live in a society that desensitizes me to sexual harassment, assault and discrimination, and I imagine this is one of the reasons this book exists: to shake us awake, causing us to recognize, evaluate and interrogate what we have accepted as “normal.” The work is invaluable as it highlights the multitude of unwelcome and unfair behavior women are socialized to tolerate and endure. It also raises questions regarding public violation of bodily autonomy and personal space. It features moments of gaslighting and the relentless testing of boundaries many women encounter as they assert themselves in interactions with men. In her youth, for example, adults told Woods that boys’ violence towards her was reflective of their interest in her. She recounts experiences in which her expressed disinterest in a man’s sexual advances seem to embolden their pursuits, as though her “no” is not the end of the conversation but rather the beginning of a negotiation. She has also been iced out of professional enrichment and development opportunities because she is perceived as a threat or a liability on the sole basis of her sex. I’d recommend this work to any woman who has been admonished for turning down a man’s interest in her, who has been chastised regarding her clothing choices, who has been catcalled in the streets — “It was a compliment! What’s your problem?” — or who has had an appropriately angry reaction to someone disrespecting limits she has clearly set with phrases such as “Go easy on him” or “She was asking for it.” I’d also recommend it to all men, especially those who liberally use the phrases “It was just a joke,” “I was just kidding around,” or “Don’t take it so seriously.” I would also recommend this book to any man who has ever uttered the phrase, “You’re not that cute anyway” in an attempt to shake a woman’s confidence following her rejection of his advances. Readers should know that the book includes retellings of attempted rape, aggravated assault and nonconsensual drugging (i.e., roofie-ing) and I wouldn’t recommend the work to anyone who may be triggered by these themes. Another work in our collection that features autobiographical stories from women who have been sexually vicitimized is “Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture,” edited by Roxane Gay. If the book could grant me one wish, it would be a cursory roadmap that would tell us how to build toward better. But it’s not the victim’s responsibility to provide the solution. Editor’s Note: Katrina Spencer was the Literatures & Cultures Librarian, and this book review was written for The Campus before she left the college.
Melinda Gates, and her husband Bill, are computer scientists and major philanthropists whose works, software, devices and giving have far-reaching, likely unquantifiable impacts. With more money than they can spend, they have dedicated themselves to numerous humanitarian efforts, especially those concerning education within the United States, and this book, a memoir of sorts for Melinda, documents some of their efforts. I listened to this work as an audiobook on go/overdrive/ as Melinda Gates recounts her travels to some of the least privileged communities around the world. Some were burdened by fertility, others by a lack of infrastructure that kept people from accessing necessary services, and yet others were victims of the nasty nexus of unemployment and sexual abuse. Throughout the work, Melinda Gates’ focus and goal have been to bolster women and to support their needs all around the world. She repeated a central, two-part thesis over and over again throughout her work, forwarding the idea that a key factor in uplifting humanity is allowing social frameworks in which women can decide 1. when and 2. whether to have children. These succinct ideas, she proffers, allow women to dedicate a greater quantity and quality of resources to each child who is born. With such a simple and straightforward thought, she easily made me a disciple. What makes these notions more arrestingly compelling, however, is that these ideas are coming from a woman who is a known Catholic, given that, historically, the Catholic Church has not encouraged a variety of forms of birth control and Melinda Gates suggests that birth control can, in fact, assuage a number of social ills. In this respect, these beliefs might put Melinda at odds with her religion and her Catholic peers. Yet, she still dares to forward a platform that she sees has proven results. The book is not a revelation. It is not avant-garde. It is not an emotional roller coaster. It asserts basic truths that shouldn’t be labeled as “liberal,” but will be. It asserts that women have more to contribute to the world than the fruit of their loins. It asserts that women who labor have expertise to offer about improving the processes of that labor. It asserts that women are willing to engage in less than desirable work to protect their children and families. It asserts that bodily autonomy is a right. Little of this is news. It would seem that little of this would be debatable. So I have to wonder who Gates’ audience is and who exactly needs to hear this message. I fear that some people will only bend their ears to hear this message because it is coming from a rich and powerful person. But these ideas are found elsewhere throughout society in the calls to protect safe and legal abortions, to protect farmers’ rights and to decriminalize sex work, for example. I commend Melinda Gates for using her platform and visibility to shout the message louder and wider. But I can’t say any idea within the book is explicitly novel. The book suggests that even the truth must be presented persuasively.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, 2014 Is it “good”? Yes. It’s Roxane Gay. Of course it’s good. It’s Roxane Gay. She is the definition par excellence of “good.” Does it deliver on what’s promised? Hey, wait a minute there. No. Not exactly. “Bad Feminist” is a collection of essays in which Gay examines her personal life, the media and race rhetoric in the United States, all within one tome. The work is equal parts memoir, musings and in-depth cultural analysis of television, movies and gender politics. It makes you wonder how Gay effectively pitched the collection to an agent/editor given the work’s somewhat negotiated cohesion. Let’s be clear: Roxane Gay is brilliant. She’s a deep thinker and a writer who makes her complex and nuanced ideas accessible to a broad public of people. But why is a recounting of her participation in a competitive Scrabble tournament in this collection alongside her critiques of Quentin Tarantino’s slavery era cinematic film “Django Unchained”? I want to be open to new types of publication, especially if they’re featuring the black, first generation, Haitian American child of immigrants who grew up in Midwestern towns, as Gay is and as she did. However, “Bad Feminist”challenges my concept of the very concept of a “book.” Assuming a book is a compilation of writing that is centered on a singular theme or narrative, as they often, but not exclusively, are, this is not a book. It happens to be a collection of essays that exists within the same binding and perhaps the reader should be given more of a clue as to what they’re in store for. Are we praising Roxane Gay because she’s engaging topics that are long overdue for public discourse? (Yes.) Or because she is producing work that makes sense in the publications, layouts and formats in which it appears? (Not so much.) What do I mean when I say the work is “good” then? Well, what I’m actually saying is Roxane Gay herself is an impressive person. She has fought tremendous self-loathing. She is undeniably an admirable activist for women’s rights and bodily autonomy. Her voice is a critical one that sees truth and does not balk from it, even when it’s ugly— especially when it’s ugly. However, “Bad Feminist” is an uneven work. It reflects her intelligence. Yet, it is an early and “green” work that does not reflect talented, editorial skill. I wouldn’t write her off — and I have the benefit of saying this after having read and listened to her works “Hunger” and “Not That Bad.” But I think she was still getting her bearings when this one came out— still sharpening her tools. I would only recommend individual essays of this work, for example, if someone was teaching a class on media representations of Black suffering, encouraging them to review Gay’s words on “12 Years A Slave.” But it’s harder to recommend the compilation as a whole as it’s so diffuse in its focus. For other thematic works like this one, maybe see “Why I’m Not A Feminist” by Jessica Crispin (which I have yet to read) or “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde, which I’ve listened to via OverDrive. Hunger: A Memoir of My Body by Roxane Gay, 2017 Trigger Warning: This book regularly references rape and bulimia as lived experiences by the author. Brilliant. Personal. Timely. Gay’s “Hunger” is a compilation of more than 80 autobiographical essays, vignettes and commentaries in which the author tells of growing up in a loving family and how she was traumatically gang raped at the age of 12. The rape destabilized her confidence, sense of self-worth and relationship with her body for decades to come. For the record, Gay refers to herself as a “victim,” not a “survivor.” As a tween, Gay believed that if she made her body unattractive, she would never again be subjected to the sexual violence she experienced. So she ate and ate and her body grew and grew. And while she engaged this protective mechanism, she was utterly unable to reveal the cause of her excesses to her parents and family for many, many years. What’s special about this book is that Roxane Gay articulates a nuanced notion that isn’t nearly as broadly held as I believe it ought to be: who we are is wildly distinct from the bodies we inhabit. She is a smart writer, bisexual, Haitian American, a Midwesterner with a doctorate degree who also happens to be morbidly obese. And while we live in bodies that can be unruly, non-conforming and may not encounter appropriately accommodating furniture, walkways, vehicles and the sort, who we are and what we can accomplish is not determined by thigh gaps and washboard abs, despite what the culture might suggest. I would recommend this work to anyone who feels that their body is seen, read and assigned a narrative even before their thoughts are shared, heard and weighed. For more works like this, see “meaty” by Samantha Irby or “Shrill” by Lindy West. Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay, 2018 “Not That Bad” is an anthology of testimonies from people who have been victimized by rape culture. Rape culture refers to a whole series of phenomena that surround and may include rape: victim blaming and shaming, the proclivity to protect abusers, the widespread ignorance surrounding conversations that seek sexual consent and more. Editor Roxane Gay is a writer and academic who was gang raped as a child and shares some details surrounding her own story in the opening introduction. The gang rape she experienced caused her to lose her faith and to engage in eating habits that she believed would protect her from further abuse, which ushered in a decades’ long era of struggles with her weight, as documented in her memoir, “Hunger.” Gay has a strong history of seeking fair and broad representation of women’s voices and she achieves that goal in this compilation, including a few men’s testimonies as well. In “Not That Bad,” inviting over two dozen participants, Gay does everything you expect she would: she seeks out and collects a diversity of voices to speak to the nuances and fissures of a theme. She includes a Hollywood actor’s voice who was not touched, groped or raped but whose sense of bodily autonomy was violated in other ways via the media. She includes a story from a woman who studied law and was trained to discredit women through character attacks. She includes the voice of a woman who never learned to say no as she is much more familiar with acquiescence and prioritizing her sexual partner’s needs and demands. In terms of the prevalence of rape and rape culture, the book is much needed and long overdue. In some ways, rape is so commonplace that our societies have become desensitized to its impact as demonstrated by the use of rape narratives in video games or the word “rape” as a shorthand for minor, non-sexual violations or as a punchline for jokes. This collection shakes readers and re-awakens us to the actuality of rape-related trauma, reminding us that there are victims and victimizers all around us. This work is available in print and as an audiobook. For a different type of title that celebrates women’s pleasure in sex, see “Moan: Anonymous Essays on Female Orgasm.”
The seven librarians in the research and instruction group meet regularly to talk about how we’re connecting community members with library resources. This week, we’ve examined how our work has been affected by the pandemic. While the library is closed, we’ve been using both tried-and-true and experimental forms of communication to help researchers get what they need. To consult in real time with these research and instruction librarians, make appointments using our go links listed below: go.middlebury.edu/amy go.middlebury.edu/brenda go.middlebury.edu/carrie go.middlebury.edu/katrina go.middlebury.edu/leanne go.middlebury.edu/ryan go.middlebury.edu/wendyshook Also know that there are 13 librarians at Middlebury. Find your subject specialist at go.middlebury.edu/liasions. Or, reach them all at go.middlebury.edu/askus/. If you need the library to purchase something, just ask by logging in at go.middlebury.edu/requests. Katrina Spencer: How are you reaching community members and how is this different from normal? Brenda Ellis: I’m still teaching a few library workshops online via Zoom, and for those classes, I create exercises to “flip the classroom” i.e. students complete a guided exercise and we use our online time for demos, discussion and Q&A. Carrie Macfarlane: I’m still answering questions via email and chat, and I’ve been able to continue to meet with students, via Zoom, for individual research consultations. The main difference is that I’m now more proactive, writing to entire classes and taking advantage of every opportunity I find to tell students how to reach me. Wendy Shook: I’m working with faculty to support their technology needs for remote instruction, and helping them rethink how they deliver their course content. In concert with DLINQ, we’ve held drop-in distance learning workshops, and a lot of one-on-one support over Zoom. Katrina: What new challenges does this present and how are they being addressed? Brenda: We’re all adjusting to the new norm of communication online. I miss seeing students face-to-face. It’s my favorite part of my job. Students still email with questions, but I don’t think students realize that they can still request a consultation with us online using our go-links. I’d love to hear from you. Carrie: I really miss seeing students and faculty in person! But I love the “remote control” feature in Zoom. It allows a student and me to use the same computer. We do lots of searching and revising together in order to uncover the best primary sources and literature reviews. Ryan Clement: Access to materials can be an issue. While many resources are digitized and available to remote students, others aren’t. This includes things like data and maps, and without the ability to get into the library, materials cannot be digitized on demand. Also, students can’t just drop in. Many students would visit my office with quick questions during the busiest times of the semester. Now we have to do more planning ahead. Wendy: Oddly enough, I’m communicating with more faculty and students now. This is, in small part, because I’m more accessible electronically than I might be in Armstrong, and partly because people are having a harder time finding materials. We’ve got your back. Katrina: What are your hopes for the end of the semester? Brenda: The future of work post-college will likely involve more remote work and I see that as a positive. Doing anything in new ways can feel daunting, but I hope students will feel more confident not only with communicating online, but also navigating and critically evaluating the world of online information. Carrie: Professionally, I hope that students and faculty will remember to contact a librarian even if they think they don’t have a research question. Usually, once someone starts talking about a project, we realize there’s a way we can help. Personally, I hope we emerge from this crisis in good health. We’re all looking forward to doing all the things we’ve missed. Ryan: I hope that all of our library users experience what we already know — despite the fact that our space and our physical materials are important, our library is much more than those things. Our library is the people and services that make it up. Libraries have been flexing, shifting, and adapting for our communities for decades, and we will continue to do so. Katrina Spencer is the college’s literatures and cultures librarian.
What’s easy to recall about this collection of autobiographical essays is that blogger Samantha Irby is frustrated with dating and 21st-century sexual economies and mores; she loves food and drinks, despite her sensitive bowels, given her Crohn’s disease and wavering income; and she has a complicated, self-hating relationship with her body, which is covered in a variety of types of moles. In these respects, this author is the voice of my generation: (1) not knowing how to navigate intimacy, (2) feeling petrified and destabilized at a perceived lack of access to “the American Dream” and (3) having ongoing mental health and existential crises as we are increasingly and hyper-aware of the vulnerable, unpredictable, anatomical masses we precariously inhabit are trademark characteristics of being a millennial. Ba da bing. Other details that are more easily overlooked are that Irby is an orphan and has been since her teenage years. Her alcoholic father was largely absent from her life and her ailing mother had a debilitating illness that prevented her from parenting, perhaps when Irby needed her most. Some critics would describe this work as “raunchy” given its explicit commentary about sex and details about scatological phenomena, i.e. poop. I’d call it fresh in its aggressive honesty as it holds a steady gaze on experiences we all have, without batting an eye. At one moment, Irby critically reduces underperforming men to shreds. In another, she laments poverty, shared residences and the labors associated with the pursuit of wellness. The work is an incredibly vulnerable testament to what it means to be a woman in a capitalist and patriarchal society that teaches that a woman’s worth is irrevocably tied to her consumption of products and contingent upon her appeal to men. For more like this, see Irby’s “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” or “It Looked Different On the Model” by Laurie Notaro, one of librarian Brenda Ellis’ recommendations.
“When Katie Met Cassidy” by Camille Perri This book is everything you’d expect from a modern day romance: a mutual arousal of interest between two parties, some sexual tension, text messages, sex, the attempt to integrate one’s partner into one’s social circle, more sex, misunderstandings, efforts to reconcile moments of pain … followed by sex. The “novel” portion is that it involves two women visiting these stages of coupling. In addition to never having read a primarily prose-based book about two women falling in love, I also had never listened to one as I did with this audiobook on OverDrive (go/overdrive/). And while I want to offer praise and to promote an LGBTQIA story, the narrative was actually quite trite. Yes, we need more representation of women who love women in every form of media. We also need compelling stories that move us. This work didn’t feel artful or especially moving. It’s a popular work you pick up in an airport bookstore to pass the hours of a long layover and flight. It’s not a work that sticks with you. I won’t be reminiscing years henceforth over this tome. Essentially, Katie has just been dumped by her (male) fiancé and is emotionally reeling over the break up. In her heterosexual malaise, she encounters Cassidy at work, a woman who makes no effort to appeal to the patriarchy. They vibe, sparking a fire between them and Katie, who never knew she was allowed to explore homosexual relationships beyond close, intimate friendships, is introduced to a community of lesbians at a bar called The Met. While Katie’s not convinced she’s ready to abandon the comforts of heterosexuality, she cannot deny the attraction she feels to Cassidy. Curiously, while consuming this work, I felt that I was watching a television show or movie that was only later made into a novel. Books frequently spend more time on character development and provide more backstory. We get more information surrounding characters’ “origin stories” and find out more about what their “normal” is like in prose. This work seemed to accelerate through those steps. It’s as though the author “wrote by number,” metric or recipe: “We need a meet-cute by page X, a major conflict by page Y and a neat resolution just before the end.” It was a television dramedy, but on paper. So, while pretty tight and controlled, the writing felt as though it was for a different medium. Another disappointment is that the sex is really washed over. Given that Katie is making love to/with a woman for the first time, there’s a real opportunity for discovery there, but the author shies away from what happens in the bedroom between two women. Other works thematically like this one include “My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness” and “La fille dans l’écran”… but some erotica might be more ... satisfying. “La fille dans l’écran” by Manon Desveaux and Loubie Lou This French-language graphic narrative tells the story of two women who, despite being an ocean apart, fall in love. Barista by day, Marley is based in Montreal and dedicates her free hours to photography, spotlighting nature, landscapes and wildlife. She’s coupled with Vincent, a beau who’s well meaning but condescending and he regularly pushes her towards greater responsibility, discouraging her interest in art. Colline is based in France and though she has a striking talent as an illustrator, her debilitating social anxiety has stopped her university studies and prevents her from pursuing a fruitful career as an artist. Moreover, her mother’s tough love and overbearing nature are additional sources of pain and consternation as Colline’s confidence is already fragile. The work these women produce bring them together and, despite the distance, they make a deep and loving connection. What’s unique about this work is the authors’ need to tell the story from two perspectives, within two countries, in two time zones and with two artistic styles. It’s important to represent the feelings, personalities, milieus and aesthetics of two distinct characters and the efforts the execution is admirable. Note that the style surrounding Marley is frequently vibrant and colorful, representing cosmopolitan themes; meanwhile, the style representing Colline is more muted and sombre, representing a rural environment. The creators, Manon Desveaux and Lou Loubie, worked in tandem, creating a dual narrative, so the stories could be told side-by-side from two perspectives and with two voices. It’s a warm, LGBTQ love story that I’d recommend to anyone who finds the socially acceptable expression of their sexuality stifling, anyone who has maintained a long distance relationship and to any Francophile who likes to draw. For more works like this, see “Le bleu est une couleur chaude”/”Blue Is The Warmest Color” as a graphic novel or film adaptation and/or the Japanese manga “My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness.”To access the French-language graphic novel La fille dans l'écran, log in at go.middlebury.edu/requests to request it as an ebook.
This work represents the most enrapturing audiobook vocal performance I’ve ever encountered. “A Brief History of Seven Killings” came on my radar after I interviewed Dr. Kemi Fuentes George, professor of political science at the college, for the In Your Own Words oral histories project (go/inyourownwords/). I asked him what works he might recommend to someone wanting to learn more about diasporic blackness, and he suggested it. Taking some real life events and creating others, it’s a fictionalized and revisionist re-telling of the zeitgeist surrounding an attempt made on Bob Marley’s life in 1976. But it’s really much more than that. The most engrossing parts of the book are the glimpses readers get into the social stratification of 1970s Jamaica and the suggestion that non-governmental entities ran the country. Moreover, while Jamaica is but one Caribbean island, the people and culture it has produced have strong impacts all over the world. We see this, for example, in the plentiful nurses and domestic care workers “exported” from Jamaica to New York. From commentary on the 1960s’ Bay of Pigs Invasion to references to the popular television series “Starsky & Hutch,” Marlon James revives the ’70s from its crypt and highlights the international reach of U.S.-based media and the rise of Jamaican reggae. Unforgiving druglords, unpredictable addicts and regular bouts of gun violence run all throughout the pages (or soundbytes, if you’re listening) of this work. It was the extent of the homophobia, however, omnipresent throughout the work, that I found the most relentless of all. James makes a diligent effort to shed light on the virulent attitudes towards homosexuality that remain alive in Jamaica today. Readers will need to negotiate the parts of the story that they believe and can rely on. While certain cultural products and chronologies are true, others are figments of the author’s imagination. As is repeated multiple times throughout the work, some Jamaicans say that “If it not go so, it go near so” — some recounting of history is tremulous and uneven, but its shakiness isn’t an invalidation of its veracity or near accuracy. For more works that treat similar themes, I recommend Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” which also takes an actual historical time period, its politics and accoutrements, and remixes its narratology. Television series like “Hawaii Five-0” and “Three’s Company” also gesture towards capturing this era.
This is likely my favorite work I’ve encountered over the last two years. Its humorous and satirical writing tells the story of Jason T. Fitger, professor of Creative Writing at the fictitious “Payne University.” Fitger is tasked with writing letters of recommendation (“LoRs”) for his students and colleagues for a variety of reasons: jobs, fellowships, promotions and the like. He’s weighed down by the busyness of tending to all things related to teaching and regrets that his mundane work precludes him from doing his preferred work: tending to his much graying writing career. Fitger’s irascibility and aggression are thinly veiled in his missives. The recipients of his sardonic epistles are frequently people he has wronged in the past —including two ex-wives — and he is convinced that they are still nursing grudges against him. Despite his eloquence, his talent for securing personal favors from his former peers is wantingly successful. Fitger is a lovable fool. With his LoRs, he often goes out of his way to support bright students and aims to be authentic in letter after letter, resisting systems that ask him to rate his students with numerical scores. As he writes, the story of his career, too, is told between the lines: he published an early and successful novel that drew a good deal of attention, likely for the scintillating scandal represented within its pages, and it was followed by works that were more disappointing as they were wanting in popularity. So now he is confined to a Midwestern university where funding for basic supports — like functional toilets and windows — is precarious for the English department while the Economics professors are treated like gods. He’s livid. His intellect is understimulated. And his efforts feel Sisyphean. Having spent more than 5 years at public institutions of higher education in the Midwest, I find this work hilarious and spot on. I liked it so much, I’ve listened to it twice on OverDrive. Author Schumacher makes many poignant critiques on the state of academia through the voice of her misanthropic Fitger. She questions the link between those who graduate with English degrees and the jobs the market allows them to apply for. She underscores the heartbreaking loss of talent surrounding students and professors who are mentally sharp, but for a variety of reasons — financial aid, time, politics, distraction, etc. — are unable to nurture their talents or produce writing that reflects their brilliance. And she eviscerates the incestuous landscape of academia in which everybody knows everybody and old wounds fester on for decades following injury Schumacher’s "Dear Committee Members" is a scathing, all-knowing love-hate letter to academia that I would recommend to any faculty member who has minimally spent 5 years as a teaching professional in higher ed or any student who aspires to join these ranks. An exegesis and tour de force, might I recommend you listen to this one as an audiobook on go.middlebury.edu/overdrive/? Robertson Dean’s vocal interpretation acumen is extraordinary. (Pro tip: Familiarize yourself with Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” upon reading or listening to this work.) For more like this, see the novel’s sequel "The Shakespeare Requirement" or anything by David Sedaris.
Middleburians, we miss you. And while we are socially distant for the good of the globe, the library's collections don’t have to be. Here are a few pieces of advice to help get you closer to them. First, have a look at "12 Ways to Get What You Need from the Library." Second, follow the five steps below to use Overdrive and access hundreds of titles. Last, read what other Middleburians have to say about using the platform by scrolling down below and checking in regularly at go.middlebury.edu/thelibrarianisin. How to use Overdrive: Name: Jayla Johnson Year or title: 2021 Major: Political Science with Spanish minor Titles you've listened to on Overdrive: "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed What first drew you to this platform? Katrina Spencer Advantages of Audiobooks: Allows for multitasking Disadvantages of Audiobooks: Requires close attention/ listening skills so you don’t miss any content To whom would you recommend audiobooks on Overdrive and why? I would recommend audiobooks to everyone, especially students and people who are busy. Audiobooks allow students to get through books faster to meet deadlines and they allow people in general to read more but even if they don’t have the time or the ability to do so. What else should users know and why? Users should know that audiobooks on the Middlebury campus are easily accessible. Even more, the books can be used on the Overdrive app, which, if you have an iPhone, can be downloaded for free via the Apple App Store. Also, because the books can be downloaded to your phone, you do not have to have WiFi in order to listen. This is useful because it allows users to use audiobooks anywhere they want. Thus, audiobooks give students another means and opportunity to complete assignments. In addition, students have the opportunity to request books that they wish to see added to the collection. By following the instructions at go.middlebury.edu/ebookguide or reaching out to the library staff, students can access many works of interest. Name: Isabelle Elisha Year or title: Visiting Assistant Professor Department: Psychology Titles you've listened to on Overdrive: "Everything’s Trash, But It's Okay" by Phoebe Robinson and "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie What first drew you to this platform? After years of friends unsuccessfully trying to sell me on giving audiobooks a chance, Katrina Spencer convinced me to give them a try. Advantages of Audiobooks: Hands-free reading! Disadvantages of Audiobooks: Again, hands-free reading. Not having to hold a book or device means that you're free to engage in activities that may distract you from the audio book. To whom would you recommend audiobooks on Overdrive and why? Audiobooks are an excellent option for anyone who wants to read while engaging in other activities. However, their best attribute is the potential to contribute to the options of those who cannot or do not read traditional books or ebooks, but want to. After listening to and thoroughly enjoying "Americanah," I recommended it to a relative who has a disability that makes reading a challenge. What else should users know and why? Although the present Overdrive collection is limited, the Middlebury library system offers the option of requesting audiobooks. Name: Kat Cyr Year or title: Class of 2011/Interlibrary Loan Associate Major: Japanese Titles you've listened to on Overdrive: The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, "The Protector of the Small Series" by Tamora Pierce, "The Raven Cycle" by Maggie Stiefvater, "The Accident Season" by Moira Fowley-Doyle, "Bad Boy" by Walter Dean Myers, "Fresh off the Boat" by Eddie Huang What first drew you to this platform? I moonlight as a public librarian, so I had to learn how to use the system so I could troubleshoot with patrons. Advantages of Audiobooks: From an accessibility standpoint, it is much easier for some people with dyslexia or vision problems to listen to books rather than read them. There’s also the fact that you can to listen to them while driving, cleaning, bathing, knitting, etc, and you can adjust the reading speed, so, if you get bored, you can turn the speed up until everyone sounds like a chipmunk. Disadvantages of Audiobooks: It’s hard to flip back through to your favorite bits, and sometimes you just can’t get by a bad narrator. To whom would you recommend audiobooks on Overdrive and why? If you’re in a reading slump, or consider yourself too busy to sit down and read, give audiobooks a try. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the right book and/or reader at the right time and you’re hooked. And if you’re daunted by the medium as a whole, maybe start with some less literary more page-turner-style books — I find YA (young adult) to be especially fun through audio. What else should users know and why? Not all narrators are created equal. I will listen to anything Robin Miles or Adjoa Andoh reads, but my beloved "Ancillary Justice" has such an atrocious narrator in America that I just can’t. That’s sometimes how it goes — but on the flip side, I never would have picked up the spectacular Tananarive Due if not for Robin Miles’ narration of her "The Good House," so there’s that. Bonus: Katrina’s Top 3 Picks The following exemplify exquisite vocal performances. "The Book of Night Women" by Marlon James: historical fiction set in the age of plantation slavery in Jamaica. You might not be able to get to this one soon because I have it checked out. But you can place a hold! "Dear Committee Members" by Julie Schumacher: hilarious satire that pokes fun of academic life from a faculty perspective. Features a blistering, cynical voice that makes us question our systems and protocols. "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston: a fiction drama and auditory delight that prizes Black Southern vernacular. Few titles can problematize the patriarchy and provide you with the high impact, suspenseful narrative of a natural disaster. This one does both.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is an anti-slavery novel written in 1852, eleven years before Abraham Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation. It aimed to characterize enslaved African Americans as dutiful, loyal, pious and undeserving of their inhumane plight of bondage. With this simultaneouly compassionate and piteous depiction, author and abolitionist Harriett Beecher Stowe attempted, with some considerable success, to sway the hearts and minds of Americans who supported slavery, persuading them to see the institution as one that birthed many hapless victims. The book, some 500 pages long, is available in print and as an audiobook on OverDrive, and is melodramatic, generously doused in Christian themes and a historical wonder. As perhaps with any work, when approaching this text, it is important to conjure up its historical context: at the time of the book’s publication, slavery had a cultural and economic foothold in the United States for over 200 years, and largely defined the shapes of many lives, black, white and other, in the South. This likely meant that, as with our prisons today, for example, there was a broad variety of sentiment regarding slavery amongst the American populace: vociferous support, acceptance, indifference, ambivalence, abhorrent disgust, etc. Stowe was writing for an audience that held all of these views. Beyond this, when encountering the moral pathos of the work, it’s important to hold in mind the centrality of the Christian church and religious engagement in late 19th century cultural life — a time replete with revivals and broad, regular church attendance. Most everyone was within a pebble’s throw of a sermon, likely every day of the week and Stowe’s most effective position then, as a white woman, was in pulling at her readers’ heart strings and Christian sentiments as her political power pre-suffrage would not have equaled that of a man’s. White American women’s voting rights would not arrive until 1920. And, moreover, in terms of literary work, remember that while literacy and access to books was likely lower overall for the average American, the competing media of entertainment then were perhaps fewer in the absence of television, cinema, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, et al. So there is a lot to be “read” when encountering this work. The cultural lens, to say the very least, was different. There are several overlapping storylines in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and they mean to represent the voice of both the benevolent and the masochistic master, the Southern slave owner and the Northern abolitionist, the long-suffering enslaved and the fugitive in flight. It’s “good” in that the work achieved its goal, becoming one of the most popularly read works of its time, influencing both popular and political opinion and being adapted to many formats beyond the print work. Read by 21st century eyes, however, I must say it’s excessive in its pleadings; it includes caricatures, not people; and it feels too long. But I am thankful for its existence and the ways in which it helped to usher in a new era of freedom for my ancestors and other Americans. I’d recommend it to American history majors, certainly anyone in black studies and, of course, anyone studying pre-antebellum literature. For more works like this, see “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War” by Andrew Delbanco or anything by James Walvin.
Mengestu’s work treats the story of two Ethiopian immigrants who move to the Midwestern United States and try to make a life for themselves. The budding compatibility they shared at home in East Africa does not translate well to their new surroundings and they struggle to be a couple within their unhappy marriage. Their one child, Jonas, witnesses the violence and seething resentments that long fester between them, and he failingly tries to adjust to an adulthood that seems to be designed for someone from a different background. While sharp, Jonas seems unable to be an honest employee and/or a transparent spouse. His tendency is to do whatever aligns with his survival: demonstrate compliance, fib about his competencies, make alliances with people in power. However, as he performs to win others’ acceptance, he seems to lose his grasp on his true self, jeopardizing anything and everything in his life that he has held dear. The book is not spectacular. The flashbacks to Jonas’ father’s journey from Ethiopia and the major fight Jonas witnessed between his parents as a child are compelling. They do not sugar coat the trials faced by some immigrants in pursuit of greater opportunities in foreign landscapes and they recreate domestic violence with a naked realism I’ve not encountered before. However, you have to wonder what the work’s thesis is. Perhaps it was “The traumas we inherit in our childhood will eventually manifest themselves in ways beyond our control.” It’s difficult to know what Mengestu wanted readers to feel about Jonas as the character’s broad indifference towards the challenges he confronts conjure little pathos. I’d recommend this work to anyone who is interested in black African immigration patterns among groups that do not have university degrees or ample monetary resources. Other works that treat these themes include Nigerian writer Samuel Kóláwólé’s “Sweet sweet strawberry taste” available for free online, America Ferrara’s American Like Me and The Penguin Book of Migration Literature edited by Dohra Ahmad.
Back when I was a senior in undergrad, I enrolled in a class called “Hurston, Hughes and Wright.” We read works by recognized, early 20th century, African American authors: Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Perhaps three works by each. And it was then, at age ~20, that I first read "Their Eyes Were Watching God." It’s Hurston’s best known novel and was adapted into a 2005 screenplay in which Halle Berry played the lead. (Love Halle. Not a great film.) I read it differently then, 15 years ago, as anyone might. With nine works to read on the syllabus, and the full intention of preparing close-reading assignments, I read to complete the work, to be prepared to be quizzed on the work and to study — not to enjoy or savor — patterns, motifs, structure, imagistic language, etc. Now, at 35, I revisited the work and listened to respected actress Ruby Dee (God rest her soul) narrate the text as an audiobook and it was a wonderful ride of rich performance, a pleasure to my ears. "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is a tale, simply put, of a Southern, Black woman, Janie, who lives out three marriages in the early 20th century. But when is literature ever simple? Complexly put, the novel is about a Black woman navigating her grandmother’s generational expectations, her defiance of stifling, patriarchal expectations and having to separate from someone she loves against her will. The tale then becomes a web of economics, affectionate bonds, race, gender-based oppression, travel, displacement, social hierarchies, competition, loyalty, natural disaster and so much more. It’s about an early 20th century Black woman creating her own path, even when the road is bumpy, dark and indiscernible. Janie, the protagonist, is raised by her grandmother and when she enters puberty, her grandmother sees her granddaughter’s budding sexuality as a threat to Janie’s stability. Fearing Janie might pair up with a man with an inauspicious future, Janie’s grandmother insists upon marrying her granddaughter off to a man of means, as evidenced by his ownership of land. Spoiler alert: The marriage crumbles. Janie hits the road with another man with big dreams that come to fruition, but Janie becomes more of a trophy than an intimate partner and resentment breeds between the second couple. Spoiler alert #2: When her second husband dies, Janie has the opportunity to live as a 40-something bachelorette, despite the various men circling at her doorstep. It is “tramp”-- a meandering man of no means-- who steals her heart. His most endearing quality is that he places no ideological limits on what she’s capable of: shooting, fishing, working, dancing and playing are all welcome in their union, for both parties and they have many adventures together. So while the narrative is simple enough to plot, they are the conversations and the questions the book raises that cause a stirring in the reader. “What is marriage?” is the first question asked by Janie’s first union. “What is a wife?” is asked by Janie’s second. And “What is a loving and loyal partnership?” is asked by the third. The book overall asks, “What social obstacles, traditions and myths do we respect and uphold that might prevent a woman from realizing her greatest potential? Who do they serve? And which ought to be abolished?” Their Eyes Were Watching God is a feminist and womanist work I’d recommend to anyone who sees women as trophies, “domestic angels” or “help meets.” To get a better grasp on Hurston’s motivations for featuring Black, Southern culture, language and motifs in her works, it is important to learn more about her life and training as an anthropologist. See the graphic novel Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge for more.
In her debut collection of essays, “Shrill,” available in print and as an audiobook, author Lindy West takes a number of anti-feminist, fatphobic and misogynistic beliefs and challenges readers to examine the underpinnings of these hegemonic and harmful ideologies. What does that mean in plain English? West supports women. She believes fat bodies are worthy of respect, space and love. And she believes that women have more to offer the world than just their sexual appeal to men. She also believes this in spite of the fact that the predominant culture in the United States would suggest otherwise. West is a smart writer and an in-tune cultural critic. One of her strengths is her vulnerability. For example, in one of her essays, she recounts calling out her former boss, well- known sex columnist Dan Savage, for his insulting rhetoric surrounding fat people. In another, she tells of the abortion she had before she was ready to become a parent. In a third, she tries to explain why there really is no appropriate place for rape jokes, despite the fact that some stand-up comedians favor them. These positions and willingness to be open and confrontational about issues that are largely taboo in our culture should garner West an award for bravery. However, I’m concerned that the audience most likely to consume her work— or the words of any “shrill” woman— is an audience that is already on board with her message. And in that respect, regrettably, she may not be catalyzing widespread change — The same may be true of this very column. West’s audience is likely white women between the ages of 20 and 45 who are highly literate, regular readers, willing to appreciate rhetorical nuance and sensitive to feminist issues. Wonderful. They likely look to her to help themselves better articulate some of the ideological conundrums they encounter. That’s fine. But, I suspect that the people who most need to engage in discussions regarding a woman’s bodily autonomy, such as some male legislators in Congress, for example, will never page through this publication. The people who most need contact with this work are likely oblivious to its existence. Is it West’s responsibility to lure that readership towards her arguments? No! But how do we move a conversation forward when the interlocutors create an echo chamber? In plain English: if the only people willing to hear a message are those who already believe it, what, ultimately, are we accomplishing? Is the book good? Sure. As with any collection of essays, some are stronger and more compelling than others. I have already mentioned my favorites. To whom would I recommend it— with realistic hopes that they might read it? You can see my quote above: “white women between the ages of 20 and 45 who are highly literate, regular readers, willing to appreciate rhetorical nuance and are sensitive to feminist issues.” What more might I hope for? That there be a way to position the work so that the issues it addresses are heard by more people who will encounter the ideas as novel, provocative and so alien as to be engrossing. For more titles like this one, see Roxane Gay’s “Hunger” or Samantha Irby’s “Meaty.”
This book is many things, among them, messy, random, sexist and provocative. Based on the authors’ images in the hardback printing, they are four white, European women compiling their thoughts on how the parisienne spirit manifests itself in a variety of ways. Yes, the work is about women from Paris — but a very small and specific subset of women from Paris: white, under the age of 40 and “cishet” — cisgender and heterosexual. In that respect, the book is an anachronism and performs a lot of willful erasure of the broad diversity present in the French capital. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did at times. Were its shortcomings evident? Yes, that, too. Is it worth checking out? I would say yes, but, as is said, largely its contents “should be taken with a grain of salt.” “How To Be Parisian” is fun, yes. Reliable? Hardly. Or so I hope. What I Like About This Book: - It’s a super-fast, light and accessible read. I read it in under 2 hours and I’m a [painfully] slow reader. - It addresses feminism and feminist thought as something inherently Parisian. See the section on the three Simones starting on page 116. - It has simple but great fashion advice. What I Dislike About This Book: - The descriptions of the women characterize them as rather mentally unstable and, pointedly, neurotic. - The structure/style of the book does not appear coherent: sometimes there are listicles; sometimes there’s prose; the images of French stars and French life appear at random; and then there are recipes! In that respect, at least the book is self-aware: it’s unpredictable. - When it comes to representing the diversity present in 21st century European metropolises, the book is way off the mark. This work makes hardly any effort in this respect. Including three random images of voiceless black women, the work ignores the Haitian, Martinican, Senegalese, Vietnamese and many of the other voices that, by way of a postcolonial legacy, inherited French government, language, culture, cuisine by once making up parts of the “DOM-TOMS,” départements et territoires d’outre mer, or, that is, the overseas regions of France formed outside of what is known as the “Hexagone.” Reading this book, you’d think every parisienne was a white, waifish brunette and decidedly heterosexual. What fantasy is this? For vignettes based in Paris, borrow the DVD “Paris, Je T’aime.” Or, for another work that has been criticized for painting a colorblind, modern metropolis, see Lena Dunham’s “Girls” in the DVD collection.
Okay, okay. I know I am literally 10 years+ behind the world in recognizing that this series is cool. A white, bow-and-arrow-wielding heroine in a fantasy region didn’t exactly “resonate” with me in 2008 or when the cinematic adaptations of this work made it to the big screen. But, in an effort to get to know how to use go/overdrive/ and our audiobook platform, I downloaded “The Hunger Games” and got to know its central character, Katniss Everdeen. So, for those of you who might have missed it, “The Hunger Games” is a three-part book series that tells of a fictional, dystopian society, Panem, in which the powers that be exercise control by forcing 12 districts to offer up their children to compete against one another to the death in deadly, outdoor arenas. In theory, 12 enter into the arena and one exits alive and victorious. When protagonist Katniss’ beloved little sister, Primrose, is selected to compete, Katniss volunteers to take her place, believing her sister would never survive. The tale, then, over the course of three books, is of Katniss’ harrowing survival as she battles for her life navigating relationships, dangerous terrain and the precarious whims of the people who play with her fate. Truth be told, I likely would not have ever picked this book up on my own. I mostly deal in memoirs, have a penchant for graphic novels and choose works with a social justice slant. However, as a librarian, I needed to be able to teach others how to use Overdrive, so I played with the technology until I got it right. It was a bonus that the audiobook format gave me an exciting narrative that I could listen to while performing mundane tasks like stretching at the gym or chopping vegetables in the kitchen. And if ever I was unexpectedly interrupted, Overdrive allowed me to rewind in 15-second increments to recuperate my place. This was the first audiobook I’ve listened to on this platform and it’s been well worth the adventure. If I have one critique, I think Collins relies too heavily on making Katniss’ self-doubt a factor of appeal. It seems to suggest, regretfully, that confidence is not an attractive quality in women. Katniss is always questioning herself, her actions, her choices and her plans and this shakiness of thought is supposed to make readers like her. It’s not enough that she is a sharp hunter, a reliable provider or that her male counterparts are hopelessly in love with her. She has to be unaware of her beauty and skill to be “worthy.” Katniss is self-sacrificing, passionate and vulnerable, too. But, for me, the excessive insecurity surrounding her competence is not endearing. Women can be confident, effective, self-knowing and attractive all at once. Other works in our collection that may feel similar include the “Harry Potter” series (found also in some foreign languages) and “A Handmaid’s Tale” which is also dystopian and centers women.
Trigger Warning: Many artists who have been accused of sexual assault and sexual impropriety will be referenced in this review. For campus resources surrounding sexual assault, visit go.middlebury.edu/sexualviolenceinfo. Also, visit MiddSafe’s site at go.middlebury.edu/middsafe or student group It Happens Here at go.middlebury.edu/ihh. To report a sexual assault, contact Middlebury College’s Title IX Coordinator Sue Ritter (email@example.com) at 802-443-3289. Her office is in Student Services Building 213. This children’s (?) book is an absolute love letter to the Dominican Republic, all of the brown people born there and those who populate its diaspora. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz scribes a brief and endearing tale around Lola, an elementary school student who was born on the Caribbean isle but can’t seem to recall any of its details. Lola’s teacher gives her ethnically and racially diverse class an assignment of drawing a picture about where they are from and Lola must tap into her community, asking neighbors and relatives about their memories, in order to create a picture of an island that lives within her. Díaz’s narrative has much in common with his own: he was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States as a child. His identity then, like Lola’s, is transnational — rich because it is informed by two places, yet negotiated, too, as it is a hybrid. On the journey, readers tour a neighborhood that is filled with people who trace links to the Dominican Republic and cultural products that come from the island, like empanadas. The omnipresent music, too, is a cultural motif. What Lola and readers realize is that many Dominicans are in diasporic spaces because they were escaping a reality that was less favorable. Without ever explicitly mentioning the Dominican Republic’s former dictator, Rafael Trujillo, and the many deaths that resulted from his power, Díaz is able to conjure a time when living on the island was equivalent to living under an ominous and encompassing threat. The book is impressive in that it features a brown girl with highly textured hair leading an adventure of historical memory. There aren’t many I can readily name that do this. A better choice could have been made in terms of the size and style of the font used within the work. The text is fine and narrow and sometimes exceeds 100 words per page, which suggests this work is not intended for young children. In that respect, I think Díaz struggled to truly identify his audience. If the readership is, say, aged 5-10, like the main character, “Islandborn” comes off as text-heavy and the political overtones that reference a dictatorship may be lost on children without a good deal of contextualization. That is, without a parent or adult nearby to provide explicit explanations of an era of pain and oppression, children attempting to read this work independently are likely to miss an important layer of the narrative. I suspect it would be remiss to review one of Díaz’s works without acknowledging the accusations against him in the wake of the #MeToo movement. To some people it is not reaching to say that over the last 15 years, particularly following the publication of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Díaz had been elevated to the status of a literary god. Díaz became known as a go-to author who would champion the voices of the marginalized and oppressed and has received non-stop invitations to speak on all sorts of topics including the politics surrounding writers of color and transnational writers in the United States. I, too, sought out his thoughts and takes on contemporary politics, following his Facebook publications with attention, admiration and gravitas. I was also impressed by his professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and his participation in workshops designed to further develop the work of new writers of color. In short, my admiration ran so deeply, I wanted to marry this man. Then some deeply concerning reports were made about his character and his behavior regarding how he has treated women and how his power allowed him to treat women abusively without repercussion. As my inclination is to believe people when they identify perpetrators of abuse, misconduct and misogyny, the stability of the pedestal upon which I and we, collectively as a culture, had placed him, was shaken. My trust as an avid and faithful fan was compromised. If he behaved poorly in the dark — which I believe he did — then what was “Islandborn” when placed in the light? Did he really believe in the power of a story featuring a young Caribbean girl of color? Or was it just a convenient marketing ploy that further branded him in a favorable light? Or something in between? Did he realize that young girls of color mature and become women of color? And that those women of color were being disrespected and violated by his allegedly abusive behavior? Are humans identifying as female only worthy of respect and protection before they develop secondary sexual characteristics that can make them desirable to men? Are they afterwards “prey” and “fair game”? Perhaps needless to say, I can’t read his work with the same eyes I would have in 2017. Díaz’s works have their merit, sure. But divorcing the writer from the work he/she/they produce(s) is, in a word, challenging. Another writer whose character has come under similar scrutiny following accusations of sexual harassment is Sherman Alexie, author of “The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian.” Bill Cosby, too, star of “The Cosby Show,” is serving time for three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand. Comedian Louis C.K. from “Louie” publicly confessed to exposing his genitals to his female colleagues, another form of sexual misconduct. Aziz Ansari, creator of “Master of None,” has been accused of misconduct. And Dr. Avital Ronell of New York University, author of many works in our collection, including “Crack Wars” and “Stupidity,” has been accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking and retaliation. I live in a conflicted space because I love(d) what some of these artists produced and, simultaneously, I hate their misogyny and abuse. If you want to read another work that treats a transnational narrative stemming from the Caribbean, see Edwidge Danticat’s “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” which, admittedly, is triggering in a host of different ways but features Haitian characters and engages a transnational discourse. Literatures & Cultures Librarian Katrina Spencer is liaison to the Anderson Freeman Center, the Arabic Department, the Comparative Literature Program, the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies (GSFS) Program, the Language Schools, the Linguistics Program and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
I’m sure many black students on campus will be surprised when I tell them that I first watched “Coming to America,” a bona fide African American cult classic, this year, from beginning-to-end, at age 33, 30 years following its release. I’ll let the shocked gasps and guffaws die down before I go on. *waits.* For those who don’t know, this film, like “Friday” and “The Wiz,” is one many black Americans quote as a demonstration of being part of the “in-group.” Know that “Bye, Felicia!” reference? Yeah, that stems from “Friday.” Sure, I’ve been curious about the film in a lazy sort of way but it wasn’t until “Black Panther” came out that I actually pursued “Coming to America” with any sort of one-mindedness. Why, you ask? Because I knew that “Coming to America” also represented a fictional, African country, “Zamunda,” and I wanted to weigh its representation against “Wakanda.” Not many African Americans encounter the privilege and opportunity of engaging with African studies or setting foot on the African continent. I have been fortunate enough to do both and for that reason, to some extent, I know how distant from reality the media’s representations of African peoples, cultures, communities and geographies can be. So, part of me actively looks for friction between what is accepted as truth and what I have experienced as truth. You might call it a willful quest for cognitive dissonance — something I recommend for all of you who are being trained in critical thought. All of this said, let’s talk about the film at hand. Essentially, “Coming to America,” featuring comedian Eddie Murphy in the height of his popularity, is the story of an African (Zamundan) prince who is bored by the women he finds in his country. They have been trained since birth to please him in any and all ways. They bathe him and if he asks them to hop on one foot and bark like a dog, they do not hesitate to satisfy his request(s). The prince finds this behavior understimulating so he designs a quest of his own in which he abandons his home and heads to Queens, New York to find his “queen”-to-be. His plan, intentionally and comically haphazard, leads him to work in the fast food industry as he feels a need to disguise his riches. Long story short: he becomes enamored with a local woman and desires to pursue a courtship. As a feminist, I have some significant discomforts with the patriarchal tropes in the work. However, I must say, if you’re looking for balanced, forward-thinking comedy, it is not Eddie Murphy’s oeuvre you want to search. (Hannah Gadsby’s might work for you. Ali Wong’s is worth exploring. And Hari Kondabolu’s, too, is worth a listen.) I have enjoyed some of Murphy’s works for years — no, decades. But “insensitive,” “crass,” “sexist” and “homophobic” are all befitting of his repertoire. And the further we move into the 21st century, the less we want to take out-moded values with us. Why does this film remain popular and beloved? The story is “easy” in its predictability; it’s flagrant in its inaccurate cultural representations; it’s extreme in its, well, patriarchy. And apparently that’s what works. Or has worked. The idea that one of “our” beloved cultural films willfully misrepresents African cultures and reduces many African people to caricatures is disquieting to me, and I believe it is ignorance that keeps us from general objection. How does Zamunda compare to Wakanda? Both represent worlds of extravagance and wealth. Both depict African peoples as living in close harmony with wild animals. Both seem to have a reverence for patriarchal kingdoms and palatial residences, tropes that Hollywood cannot seem to shake. Wakanda, however, elevates women and their roles in the kingdom with the royal security force of the Dora Milaje; it values the latest uses of progressive technology; and the king’s heart is unequivocally engaged with his subjects’ well being. I wonder what a fictional African country will look like on screen in 2048? Maybe there will be no palace. Maybe there will be a neighborhood. Maybe the protagonist’s gender and gender expression will be less central to the plot. Maybe the protagonist will be *gasp* African. Overall, I think it’s important for black people to watch “Coming to America” as it is a historical document that has meaning when it comes to the black canon of film. However, ultimately, I hope we will use it as a measuring stick to demonstrate how far we’ve come 30 years hence. For more works from the black cinematic canon, see “The Color Purple” or “Roots.” Or consider some television classics like “The Jeffersons.” Literatures & Cultures Librarian Katrina Spencer is liaison to the Anderson Freeman Center, the Arabic Department, the Comparative Literature Program, the Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies (GSFS) Program, the Language Schools, the Linguistics Program and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
I didn’t really like this work. What I liked most was the author’s story. G. Willow Wilson, better known for writing Ms. Marvel (Browsing Graphic — Davis Family Library PN6728.M766 W55 2014 v.1), left the United States and converted to Islam while heading to Egypt. I’m gonna go ahead and say that’s a pretty rare occurrence. So that drew me in. One of my librarian buddies told me that he was involved in having this author guest-speak at his university, so I was curious to find out more about a white American woman who had created a brown, Muslim superheroine. Maybe I should have started with that work. In a nutshell, this graphic novel follows a host of characters as they make their way through a mystical Cairo: A drug smuggler, a journalist, an Israeli soldier, a jinn (genie) and some sort of criminal underlord are all interested in controlling the fate of the magical powers contained in a shisha pipe. The storyline is weak and does little to get the reader invested in the struggle. The work tries to blend religious wisdom from the Koran into a fantastic tale of violence, adventure and pyramids. Ultimately, I don’t think the work is very successful in creating characters that readers care about or in making readers emotionally engaged in their future. What it does do, however, is paint Cairo as a land of both yesterday and today. You see camels alongside guns. You graze past loaded comments referencing political tensions between Middle Eastern Arabs and Israelis. You encounter references to a holy text and a modern journalist’s struggle to access relevance in his work. With so many competing agendas, it is no wonder that the work comes off as a bit incoherent and distracted from its own trajectory. I’d recommend this work to people who like James Bond films and/or Indiana Jones, as they will be transported to a new land with topical suggestions of cursory foreignness without having to access much depth. For a similar work, see “Habibi” (Browsing Graphic — Davis Family Library PN6727.T48 H33 2011) by Craig Thompson or the oeuvre that is Hergé’s “Tintin.” At some point, both attempt to capture the essence of the Middle East and other lands filtered through the eyes of a Westerner. While Wilson likely does the most expansive job, underscoring points of otherness for a Western audience is frequently the Western writer’s goal, one that may create more distance, exoticism and tropes of orientalism. ‘Cairo’ by G. Willow Wilson, 2007 160 pages Call Number: Browsing Graphic — Davis Family PN6727.W53 C35 2007