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For Brown Girls with Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts: A Love Letter to Women of Color

Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez. Seal, $28 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5416-7487-5

Latinx activist Rodríguez debuts with an impassioned and accessible guide to dismantling the “systemic oppressions” that hold back women of color. Aiming to redistribute knowledge she gained during her graduate studies to young women who may not have access to higher education, Rodríguez interweaves her life story with primers on such concepts as colonialism, the myth of meritocracy, the male gaze, and intersectionality. Born in Nicaragua and raised in Miami, Rodríguez was encouraged at age 13 by her fundamentalist Christian parents to pray for a “God-fearing” husband. But after scoring well on the SATs and realizing that her poor grades did not reflect her academic potential, Rodríguez set her sights on college, and eventually obtained a Master’s in Divinity from Vanderbilt University. She draws on incidents from her early life and academic career to discuss how “voluntourism,” even if it’s “dressed in the semblance of goodness,” obscures how the “current state of so-called developed countries is the result of greed and exploitation from developed countries”; how women of color are socialized to believe that success comes from luck (“imposter syndrome”); and how brown and Black women internalize “colorism.” Marked by its candidness and earnest commitment to the power of self-belief, this is an inspiring and well-informed call to action. Agent: David Patterson and Aemilia Phillips, Stuart Krichevsky Literary. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Matter of Black Lives: Writing from the New Yorker

Edited by Jelani Cobb and David Remnick. Ecco, $35 (848p) ISBN 978-0-06-301759-7

New Yorker staff writer Cobb (The Substance of Hope) and editor Remnick (The Bridge) present an expansive anthology of pieces from the magazine’s archives on the “political, cultural, and economic questions surrounding race and Black achievement.” James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” later published as The Fire Next Time, opens the proceedings, setting a high bar that the collection, for the most part, maintains. Other highlights include Hilton Als’s “Homecoming,” which interweaves reflections on the 1967 Brownsville uprising and the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020 with insights into the cultural burdens placed on Black artists; Renata Adler’s report on the 1964 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march, which captures the homespun feel of the movement before it was mythologized; and Sarah Broom’s “The Yellow House,” a poignant meditation on the loss of her family home in Hurricane Katrina that became a National Book Award–winning memoir. Beyond the stellar prose, what unites these pieces, which range widely in length, tone, and point of view, is Baldwin’s insight, paraphrased by Cobb, that “the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as our capacity to grapple with [the legacy of racism].” This standout anthology illuminates a matter of perennial concern. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Thanks for Waiting: The Joy (& Weirdness) of Being a Late Bloomer

Doree Shafrir. Ballantine, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-59-315674-2

Shafrir (Startup), a former BuzzFeed editor and cohost of the Forever35 podcast, delivers a heartwarming and witty account of how she figured it out—“whatever ‘it’ is”—on her own terms. “On the night I turned thirty,” she writes, “I was... drunk on cheap beer and too-strong vodka sodas in plastic cups.” Shafrir’s peers, on the other hand, were already solidly on the path to “Real Adult Life,” going to bed early and getting married “at the stroke of twenty-seven.” In a culture obsessed with milestones, Shafrir struggled with feeling left behind. But rather than mourning what some may deem a squandered youth, she looks back fondly on her “late” arrival to professional success, marriage, and motherhood. She reflects on working in media in the mid-aughts as a 29-year-old intern, navigating Tinder in her 30s, becoming one of BuzzFeed’s first editors at age 35 (“the Rubicon that, once crossed, women shriveled up and became crones living forgotten and alone”), and eventually getting married at age 38 and having a kid three years later. While Shafrir’s droll sarcasm is perfectly calibrated, it’s her vulnerability and writing about more difficult experiences—such as her struggle with infertility—that will keep readers rapt. This coming-of-age story raises the bar. (June)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us

Danielle J. Lindemann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-3742-7902-8

In this insightful study, sociologist Lindemann (Commuter Spouses) dissects one of pop culture’s most derided phenomena: reality TV. She considers why the genre has become the touchstone it is in America today and argues that, though “bold and garish,” it also “holds the potential to explore new possibilities... [and] gain a keener understanding of ourselves.” She makes astute points by tracing the history of the genre all the way back to MTV’s The Real World in 1992, and offering analysis of popular shows such as Survivor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and the Real Housewives franchise. One of the genre’s main hooks, she explains, is the sociological give-and-take it presents, wherein viewers expect certain behaviors from specific cast members who, in turn, cash in on these preconceived ideas “to craft... a self.” While this “reciprocal process” often reinforces stereotypes around gender roles, sexuality, and race, she points out how such confines have also been subverted, as evidenced in Cardi B’s reappropriation of the word ratchet during her time on Love & Hip Hop “as a form of resistance.” In sum, Lindemann argues, these shows “remind us that deviance exists on a spectrum and... what is acceptable changes across social contexts.” This takes the guilt out of a popular guilty pleasure. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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App Kid: How a Child of Immigrants Grabbed a Piece of the American Dream

Michael Sayman. Knopf, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-525-65619-7

Sayman debuts with a beguiling account of how he became one of Silicon Valley’s youngest entrepreneurs. The son of Peruvian-Bolivian immigrants, he fell in love with computers as a young boy in Miami. Sayman recounts how—using Google and YouTube videos to learn how to code—he created a game, sold it on Apple’s App Store in 2010, and by age 13 was making $10,000 a month. In the midst of media coverage that followed over the next few years, he caught the attention of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who offered the then-17-year-old an internship. Just a year later, he was raking in a six-figure salary as a software engineer. The real emotional center of Sayman’s story, though, lies in the “catch-22” of being Facebook’s youngest employee, “my biggest strength and my greatest weakness.” His strength was being able to educate “the grown-ups” on the youth market—which led to his significant role in the success of Instagram Stories—while his weakness manifested in his inexperience as a manager (Google later swooped in and made him its “fastest mobile app engineer”). He also shares how—after growing up in a community where “kids still used ‘gay’ as a putdown”—he learned to be proud of his sexuality as a gay man. Readers will be enthralled by this humanizing look at the tech world. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World

Aliya Whiteley. Pegasus, $26.95 (204p) ISBN 978-1-64313-785-8

Novelist Whiteley (Skyward Inn) ruminates whimsically on her experiences foraging, cooking, and researching mushrooms. “Biology is not my best subject,” she writes, and though she explains a few mycological mysteries (for example, how the enzymes of the Aspergillus tubingensis can break down plastic), her talents come to bear when describing the shape (“a whitish woolly cylinder”), smell (“an active aroma of climbing damp and shifting soil”), and taste (“mildly nutty... a hint of earthly flavor”) of various fungi. She marvels at the symbiotic relationships mushrooms form with other organisms, and how some reproduce—Pilobolus crystallinus, she notes, disperses its spores at a speed of 32 kilometers per hour. Among other bits of trivia readers are treated to is the fact that there are 108 species of lichen on the stones of Stonehenge, and that NASA is considering using mycelium—the threadlike filaments from which mushrooms form—as building material for radiation-resistant living shelters on Mars. (There’s also a recipe for mushroom stew with cheese dumplings.) Though too lighthearted for serious mycologists, casual nature lovers will enjoy this compendium of trivia and musings. Budding fungi enthusiasts, take note. Agent: George Lucas, InkWell Management. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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A Dutiful Boy: A Memoir of Secrets, Lies and Family Love

Mohsin Zaidi. Penguin Random House UK, $17.95 trade paperback (288p) ISBN 978-1-5291-1220-7

Zaidi, a criminal attorney in Britain, debuts with a deeply affecting account of growing up gay in a devout Muslim household. For Zaidi, Shia Islam was an “all-encompassing world” that dictated, namely, that as a Muslim (and the eldest son of Pakistani immigrants), he would cultivate an abiding faith, support his parents, and find an acceptable wife. He details his life with his family in public housing in the ’90s in an East London neighborhood prone to gang violence. There, Zaidi, a soft-spoken, bookish kid tormented by bullies, threw himself into his studies and set himself apart from his peers. He also realized he was different in other ways: at age 13, after catching a glimpse of the TV show Queer As Folk, he knew he was gay. From that moment, Zaidi traces his struggle to reconcile his identity as he attended Oxford and, later, became a successful lawyer. After years of wishing he could trade his success for being “normal,” Zaidi eventually found self-acceptance and love, both in the form of romance and the support of his parents, who went from hiring a witch doctor at one point to “cure” him to fully embracing his sexuality. Zaidi’s story promises hard-earned catharsis, especially for readers struggling to claim their identity. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar

Miles Marshall Lewis. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-2502-3168-0

Pop culture critic Lewis (There’s a Riot Goin’ On) offers an insightful deep dive into the mind of Pulitzer-winning hip-hop artist and producer Kendrick Lamar, “a master of remaining in the moment.” In an incisive analysis that weaves in quotes about Lamar from such cultural figures as Ta-Nehisi Coates with the inspiring history of his career—from hitting #1 on Billboard’s album chart in 2012 with Good Kid, M.A.A.d City to garnering 11 Grammy nominations (“more than any given rapper in a single year”) a few years later with To Pimp a Butterfly—Lewis paints a captivating portrait of a luminary whose lyrics capture the struggles, triumphs, anger, and hope of an entire generation of Black Americans: “I am from the inner city, the ghetto. If I can use my platform to... talk about something that’s real, I have to do that, period,” Lamar told Lewis. Throughout, he extols the ways Lamar’s work has—like the controversial music of his predecessors (notably Tupac and Biggie)—encouraged discussions of racial disparity and politics, noting, for instance, how his song “Alright” has become a “rallying cry” for “hope and perseverance” in the Black Lives Matter movement. Fans and hip-hop enthusiasts will relish this thought-provoking work. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Prisoner: A Memoir

Hwang Sok-yong, trans. from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell and Anton Hur. Verso, $34.95 (688p) ISBN 978-1-8397-6083-9

In this sweeping narrative, Korean novelist Sok-yong (Princess Bari) recounts his years as a political prisoner in South Korea and looks back at his lifelong political activism. In 1947, the author’s family fled North Korea to the South as communism tightened its grip on the country. While his parents worked to support the family, a teenage Sok-yong traveled with his friends throughout South Korea and later quit school to join the military. He details how the atrocities he witnessed during his service in Vietnam informed his political writing in the 1970s and ’80s, which played a significant part in fueling the democracy movement in South Korea. Most potent are the recollections of his five years in the Seoul Detention Center, where he was imprisoned following a trip to North Korea in 1993. After years of endless interrogation and isolation, he was pardoned in 1998 as part of a group amnesty effort by the newly elected president. In reflecting on his “life as a writer in the prison of time, language, and this Cold War museum that is the divided Korean peninsula,” Sok-Yong reveals a moving picture of one man’s attempts to live within the ambiguities of freedom. This inspiring account shouldn’t be missed. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution Is Transforming Currencies and Finance

Eswar S. Prasad. Belknap, $35 (446p) ISBN 978-0-674-25844-0

Economist Prasad (The Dollar Trap) evaluates the potential of digital currencies and other financial technologies in this evenhanded account. Prasad believes it’s likely that physical currency will eventually be replaced by digital currencies, but argues that, without changes, neither the current, convoluted web of financial technology used by central banks, nor cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, can guarantee economic sovereignty, increase access to finance, or reduce corruption. He runs through case studies of countries, including China, Ecuador, and Sweden whose central banks have experimented with issuing “digital versions of their official currencies,” and discusses the potential impact of cryptocurrencies issued by companies such as Amazon and Facebook. Though proponents of cryptocurrencies argue that they might lead to a future with a one-world currency that could break the dominance of the dollar in international trade, Prasad casts doubt on the argument that a decline in cash usage might lead to a reduction in crime, and points out that regulatory agencies are ill-equipped to deal with “new and nontraditional financial platforms.” Marked by a refreshing absence of economic jargon and Prasad’s advocacy for a more equitable world, this is a sober-minded and informative take on an overheated topic. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/02/2021 | Details & Permalink

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