The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

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.

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders

Another Brad birthday book. I had not idea what this book would be about. I was surprised to read the inside of the book jacket and learn that it was about Lincoln’s child, who died young of Typhoid, being stuck in some kind of purgatory and the ghosts therein. It’s hard to describe it without it seeming silly or like fantasy. And yet it is not fantasy. It is classic ‘literary’, whatever exactly that means, it that it was very much about people and though it was strange and fantastical it had more of a magic realism feel than a fantasy one.

(What makes fantasy different from the magic realism of Marquez or Murakami? I’m not sure.)

The style was unusual, almost play like in that everything was attributed but it helped with this aesthetic of everyone being a ghost and thus it is all more thoughts than words.

However there were also sections which seemed like it was quotes from historical documents about Lincoln. It was a great gestalt to see twenty different descriptions of Lincoln’s eyes all smashed up together, or to read of the party they held in the White House (while Willie was sick) and people saying the moon was high, there was no moon, the moon was bright orange, etc. etc.


The Flick

Play by Annie Baker

Brad got this for me for my birthday. I haven’t read a play in *forever* and had forgotten how fast they go. I felt the majority of it was amazing — funny, weird, very human and insightful. The very end didn’t quite capture me; but then again it’s hard to really see the emotion with just the script.

It looks like they are making a movie out of the play.

The Ethical Slut

By Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.

Another book club book. The beginning was a bit too touchy feely for me, a lot of ‘everyone is different and that is okay’ kumbaya stuff that I’m not super into. The middle felt like generally good relationship advice; how to deal with jealousy, how to be self-sufficient, how to ask for what you want, etc. The last part was bit too much about polyamory for me, very detailed and specific about things not super relevant.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The second book club book for Dan’s book club. This book was insane. That’s what I kept thinking when I read it. Have read other stuff by Marquez — Chronicles of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera — and they were great books. But this was one weird and crazy.

It follows a family in a small village somewhere and covers one hundred years of their progeny, from a time when gypsies came and sold them ice and a magic carpet (both equally grand to the people) through to a banana plantation coming in with Americans and barbed wire fences and union breaking and massacres, through a four year rain… So much goes on it is hard to describe.

There was a flighty element to the writing as there was no one main character but we would jump from person to person so quickly it was hard to notice at first. The writing was beautiful and engaging and yet seems like it should have felt like a laundry of what happened and what people were thinking.

The family itself is filled with strange characters, dreamers and inventors and a civil war hero and the original parents are cousins, constantly afraid their children will have pigs tails. Incest keeps coming back to the family and their downfall is when one of the boys (many generations past the original parents) falls in love with his aunt and basically sexually assaults her, which really causes her to fall in love with them and then they have a child. They are the only ones left of the bloodline and this child is their downfall; in the end they all die.

At the book club we couldn’t figure out what the incest was about. Why was it so prominent? Did it mean something? Were we missing some cultural context?

It is a book I would read again, as so much happened it seemed to rush by and I couldn’t touch every piece to really feel it.

Weapons of Math Destruction

By Cathy O’Neil.

An easy read, much of which I’d seen before. (Read it for my Topics in Human Language Technology Class.) The basic idea is that lots of algorithms are now used to make some large decisions in life – who gets parole, what you get charged for car insurance, who gets hired – and these algorithms can have very significant problems. Not all, but many. Her criteria for being a problem algorithm (i.e a WMD) is that it’s Widespread, Mysterious, and Destructive.

Any many algorithms are just that. Used a lot, but no one really knows how they work or can justify or explain any of their outputs, and they cause a lot of hard by embedding the biases of the data into the outputs.