The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Midnight Robber

By Nalo Hopkinson.

Great science fiction book that extrapolates from Caribbean culture; it’s all in a dialect. In the future planet, Toussaint, everyone has a ‘nanny’ AI in their ear that helps them but also helps keep the peace. It’s a utopia future, with no manual labor and crazy bio-design stuff. Instead of a death penalty, they send people to the New Half-Way Tree, a parallel planet that doesn’t have any of the tech or AI of Toussaint.

The main character, Tan-Tan, her mother cheats on her father, so her father challenges the guy to a duel — instead of fighting fairly, he poisons the guy, which basically gets him sent to the New Half-Way Tree. He sneaks Tan-Tan along with him, which is a bit of a dick move but it turns out he’s really a monster and abuses her in the New Half-Way Tree.

As a quick summary, Tan-Tan kills Antonio and runs away (it’s eye for eye) and lives with these half-beast people in the forest. She becomes the Midnight Robber, doing good in the small colonies on the New Half-Way Tree. But she gets kicked out of half-beast people, too, because her mother-in-law finds their secret hideout trying to kill Tan-Tan for killing Antonio. Eventually Tan-Tan has a face-off with the mother-in-law and makes some peace. Then she has her child, Antonio’s child, and it turns out the nanny AI was able to make its way into the kid. It ends with Tan-Tan giving birth.



This Will Be My Undoing

By Morgan Jerkins

This was a great book, a fascinating look at intersectionality but also just a great read. I loved hearing about her experiences in Japan (where she is not really considered black but rather just a foreigner) and in Russia (where she is definitely and negatively considered black), because I hear so little about American identity issues when we are overseas. She wrote about her desire to be a cheerleader in primary school, getting labioscopy (?) surgery in her twenties, her move to Harlem, her time at Princeton, her efforts to get a job after college, her lack of a love life and that’s intersection with her identity.

The writing is great, a powerful voice. I managed to get it from the NY public library even though it was only released in February.


By Dan Lyons

I read this in a rush, for the writing was engaging and hilarious, and it was so very relevant to my own experiences in start-ups. The story is almost fantastical; this journalist in his 50s gets laid off from Newsweek, where he was the technology editor, and decides to join a startup that looks like it will IPO and make some money. He remembers writing about the 2000s dotcom bust and how even though it went bust, lots of people made lots of money. He wants to get in on it.

So he gets a job at Hubspot, interviewed by the co-founders and hired by the VP of marketing or some other high level exec. Hubspot! Just down in Cambridge. But on his first day there are foreboding signs. No one is there to meet him. Eventually a young guy comes, a guy in his 20s that reminders the author of interns he had at Newsweek, and at some point the author realizes that this young guy is actually his boss. Holy shit.

The people who hired him never, ever come to see him. Instead he is thrown into the blogging team, writing inane, terrible articles. After complaining about this too loudly they move him onto the sales floor, a huge open area where 100 frat bros walk around with headsets throwing footballs to themselves and cold calling customers to get them to sign up. It’s a terrible cacophony, but at this point the author forces to think of himself on an anthropological mission.

Eventually he gets a new boss, someone around his age who seems respectable. But that too falls apart as this new boss inexplicably starts to gaslight him, sending him daily emails about his failings, the failings of his work, his failure to commit to the company, to go out to drinks, etc. It’s torturous, and the author needs to get out, which he does, eventually, after making about $60k in the IPO and securing a job back as an actual journalist.

Part of the shock of this story is the culture of Hubspot, a culture of 20-year old white people who are so incredibly peppy and optimistic and praising that this 50-year-old, sarcastic journalist can hardly stand it. Part of it is the peppiness, sure, but part is also that these people are crap at their jobs, have no experience but consider themselves industry leaders.

The whole thing was fascinating, scary, weird; a great read, a worrisome sign. Were the companies I was at like this? He saw almost exclusively the marketing side; I see mostly the engineering.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin

Book club book! Like Wizard of Earthsea, I took a while to get into this book, getting bored at the politics (I am bored even with the politics of my own country; I am hard-pressed to be invested in fictional politics) but engaged when they are out on the ice, just traveling. In this book an emissary from a galactical trading company arrives on the isolated planet Winter to convince them to join the trading company. But on Winter people don’t have gender; rather once a month they grow genitals depending on who is around and have sex only then. This means they could be both a mother and a father. There is even a pregnant king.

The gender politics are fascinating, the way the emissary finds them at times male, at times female, though of course they are neither. He often finds their sexuality base — as in primitive, for there are little inhibitions around sex (when they are in heat) and to him that makes them seem animal. He also wonders how much of their society, which has no war, is due to the genderlessness or due to the harsh climate; the planet is called Winter due to it being very cold all the time.

Overall I would recommend the book, though I was not super into it. It was fascinating.

When they call you a terrorist

A black lives matter memoir.

By Patrisee Khan-Cullors and asha bandele.

This book was striking: well written, important, about one of the founders of the black lives matter movement who grew up in Van Neyes, LA, ground zero for the war on drugs, saw the young boys in her neighbourhood get locked up for just hanging around, although there were no playgrounds, no programs, nowhere for them to just be. She got a scholarship to go to a fancy middleschool in the rich neighbourhood nearby and talks about how it devastated her, it crushed her sense of being really smart, but also how it showed her that the rich white did far more drugs, sold more drugs, and were never afraid of getting caught. Her poor black friends in her neighbourhood did little to be in trouble and yet were arrested time and time again.

Her brother had schizophrenia, and she talks about the tragedy of him being in and our jail, being terrified of jail where years later they learnt that the guards truly tortured the inmates, though if they call 911 or took him to the hospital there was a good chance he would go back to jail. It was a catch 22 they could never truly break, though they tried hard to get him back on his feet.

She saw the power of community organizing, found a non-biological family that supported her, realized she was queer but ended up being in a long term, hinted-at-non-monogamous relationship with a man who studied chinese medicine and wanted to be a healer.

It was a rough, but important, read, to see where she is coming from, how hard she worked and continues to work to try to stop the unthinkable oppression she and her peers and her family experienced and continue to experience.

brown girl dreaming

By Jacqueline Woodson.

I first saw this book at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge and was intrigued. This year when thinking of poetry books for book club it came to mind again. Then I was interested in reading more books by black women, and again it popped up. I got it from the NYC public library and read it in a dash.

It is somewhere between poetry and a novel and a memoir. Jacqueline tells her own story of growing up on Ohio and then South Carolina and then Brooklyn, topping out somewhere around age 10. She writes in an easy poetic form that is almost more stream of consciousness than poetry, though it slows the reader down and, I think, helps get into the mind of a very young girl.

Part of the story is about her family, her mother leaving her father, her father not wanting to return to the South, the birth of her little brother, the genius of her sister Dell (always reading) and her brother Hope (interested in science), her grandparents in Greenville, her grandfather who she is particularly close to, her grandmother’s religion (Jehovah’s Witness) and her grandfather not participating. But it also about the way she is treated differently in Greenville as a black child — sitting at the back of the bus, not being served in Walmart. And the protests and activism going on at the time, from the perspective of a five year old girl.

But it is also about her becoming a writer, making up endless stories as a child, being chided for this, being chided for reading below her level, her eagerness to write, her excitement as making up things ‘too good’ to believe. It is a wonderful development, how sure she is in her desire, how natural or innate it seems to her.

The book is fascinating and delightful, vivid in this strange way of tunneling into a little girl’s mind and re-seeing everything. It was a fairly fast read, the poetic form makes it short, but it was delightful. Maybe I should buy a copy so that I can read it again later.

Third Culture Kids

By David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken.

I remember this book being around during my childhood–probably around the time I moved to the U.S. when I was 15. I remember the term, presumably my mum had been reading about it. Then, recently, a good friend of mine interviewed me about ‘home’; she was doing a whole series of interviews. I talked a lot about a lack of physical home for me, given the cross-world move and also that my parents have moved away even from where we first lived in the U.S. Then she gave me this book.

The book is, in some way, simple. It is explanatory, it is helpful. It is a lot of short narratives from Third Culture Kids, a lot of advice. Accessible is perhaps the word I’m looking for. There is no larger narrative. It is expository. But is also dense; the pages are thin and it took me longer to read than I expected. While interesting, the lack of narrative sometimes made it hard to hold on.

Third Culture Kid: loosely defined, someone who has made one or more physical moves into different cultures during their childhood (aka formative years.) They also look at how there are many similarities between TCKs and Cross Cultural Kids, which could include adoptees, biracial kids, kids who speak a different language at home or whose parents are immigrants. However, TCKs often has a ‘passport country’ they return to as adults.

I don’t think I’m quite a TCK. I feel more like an immigrant, at this point, who immigrated during childhood. However, I related to many scenarios in the book: not understanding why my friends weren’t concerned with events happening in other countries, struggling to define what or where ‘home’ is, never knowing how to answer ‘where are you from’, using my move to make myself feel special or to explain my short-comings… The other distinction I would make, that makes me not quite a TCK, is that the American and Australian cultures are not that different — certainly closer than Togo and Norway, or many other combinations TCKs experience.

I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the enumeration of the benefits of being a TCK and the many tactics to reduce the detriments. I enjoyed rethinking my own move and how it affected me. I briefly talked to my parents about it, I would like to more, to discuss their memories of me during the move. I think there are many pieces I have blocked out.

The Metamorphosis

By Franz Kafka.

I must have picked up the book a long time ago because I’ve had it sitting around forever. Finally read it while in LA on Christmas break. I was surprised by how short it was as at least 2/3 of the book I had was critical analysis. This lead me to believe that Gregor was not dead when he truly was as I thought the story must continue. It’s funny how much that can affect my perception of the story.

It was good, strange, pretty much what people say. Intriguing that Gregor does so much for his family but they seem happier when they are forced to be on their own without his help. I guess that’s probably the main, depressing point of the story.

Perhaps because it is so famous and so referenced the story itself was a little underwhelming. I appreciate the idea and the execution, but there was little drama for me; like looking at the Mona Lisa it was hard to see it with fresh eyes. Instead it was what it was. Good but not genius; not because it is not genius but because by now it feels almost like a trope.

Boy, Snow, Bird

By Helen Oyeyemi.

I read this book all in one breath on the way to LA for Christmas, mostly on the airplane. It felt like a short novel.

I was captivated by it though I don’t really understand certain aspects. It’s a strange retelling of snow white where we follow Boy, a young girl abused by her rat-catching father in NYC who runs away shortly after finishing high school. She gets on a bus to a random, small town in Western Mass and ends up staying there, marrying Arturo, a jewelry maker with a daughter called Snow and a dead wife called Julie. At first Boy loves Snow, perhaps eight years old, a sweet little child. But then Boy becomes pregnant and upon the birth of her own daughter discovers that Arturo is actually a light-skinned black man; his entire family passing for white; Boy names her daughter Bird after Snow suggests some bird names.

Upon this passing-as-white revelation, Boy discovers that Arturo has a second sister (or was it cousin…) living in Boston who does not want to pass as white; Arturo’s mother sent her away. We are set up to believe that Boy will ask the sister to take her dark daughter, but instead Boy asks the sister to take Snow. I never understand this decision. Why does she suddenly hate Snow?

We then get a glimpse of Bird’s strange world as a teenager, a dark kid in a small town in the midst of a strange drama. She is super curious about Snow and begins to send her letters; they strike up a friendship.

Boy’s father makes a visit and meets Bird.

Snow comes to visit and befriends Bird, though Boy still hates Snow and now we learn more that Boy thinks people treat Snow like she is perfect and that this breeds in Snow a very pretentious and cruel personality; but is it true?

Finally we a get a twist that Boy’s close friend, a reporter, has been researching Boy’s mother. The reporter had an abortion and wants to write a piece about why mother’s abandon their children. What the reporter discovers is that Boy’s father *is* her mother, that the mother got raped and then perhaps had some kind of personality disorder and transitioned into a man.

This is a crazy revelation that is hard to follow. We end with Boy arranging both Snow and Bird to try to go meet her ‘mother’.

It’s strange because Boy’s mother is set up, based on the research, to be a kind and progressive woman; but Boy’s father is terribly, physically abusive. It’s hard to imagine that kind of switch. And why does Boy want to go see him or her?

We are having a book club on this book so hopefully others will have some insight.

love letters to the world

By Meia Geddes.

I originally bought her tiny chapbook-style object of just the first poem in the book from Grolier’s, then ordered the whole book I think from the Harvard Bookstore. It is a large set of prose poems, each starting with ‘Dear World,’ and ending with ‘Love, M.’ They are sweet and strange and strangely consistent in tone, though each is wonderful in their own away. Apparently she self-published it, though it is an impressive work and looks like it’s doing well; they knew her at Grolier’s, which perhaps isn’t the most impressive thing but it not too bad.

I read it over a long period, finally finishing it in LA while visiting family for Christmas.

It is a book that is not about anything in particular; is more just about living and feeling things though there is the occasional glimpse into Meia’s world it is rare.