(Book Review) Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

a37dc3fd-8b25-47ca-91ff-c8990c67bd87What a lovely, lovely, important book. Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement by Janet Dewart Bell includes interviews with nine black women about their work in the Civil Rights Movement, often emphasizing their focus on their intersectional experiences of race, gender, and class.

In Lighting the Fires of Freedom, Bell has given brief portraits of nine important women from the Civil Rights Movement and produced their stories in their own words, based on her interviews with them. The women included are Leah Chase, June Jackson Christmas, Aileen Hernandez, Diane Nash, Judy Richardson, Kathleen Cleaver, Gay McDougall, Gloria Richardson, and Myrlie Evers. Their experiences range from careers in publishing, psychiatry, and the law as well as work in the Civil Rights Movement including marching, taking part in the Freedom Rides, and losing loved ones to racial violence.

The book also features stories from women who were at different stages of their lives during the Civil Rights Movement and that gives an idea of how generational diversity came into play. For example, Leah Chase, who Tiana in The Princess and the Frog is based on, said:

“People my age, we were a bit frightened about it. It was so different from what we were trying to do. For instance, we were working with the NAACP, trying to work in the system, abide by the rules. Don’t offend this one. Don’t offend that one. And get it done. But then here comes the young people in the Movement and they said, ‘No. We gonna do this.’ And we thought, ‘Oh, God, what are they gonna do? What are they gonna do?’ People my age were kinda frightened. We didn’t know what was gonna happen.” (13)

In my dissertation, I had a chapter about Ruby Bridges and Sheyann Webb and Rachel West-Nelson and their personal account of the march in Selma, AL, Selma, Lord, Selma. For that chapter, I did a ton of research on young people in the Civil Rights Movement, so I was excited to read the profile on Diane Nash, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the group of young people behind important Civil Rights Movement events such as the Freedom Rides. She was eventually elected the chairperson of SNCC and offers these thoughts on her fears:

“It was daunting. I’m not sure I did overcome my fear. I just kept doing what had to be done. The fear was definitely there, but fear was also a great motivator, because I knew if we were not efficient someone could get killed or injured. So that fear, I think made us extremely efficient.” (98)

Judy Richardson, who also worked with SNCC and went on to a career in publishing, notes the importance of hearing women’s stories from the Movement and also to focus on how the Civil Rights Movement made things better for everyone:

“In terms of the legacy of the Movement, I think it’s important to recognize that we didn’t just change things for black folks…So for example, with affirmative action we open up the door for lots of different kinds of people. It’s not just Latinos and Asian Americans who come in. That Stanford University study of affirmative action found it is white women who most benefited from affirmative action, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, somebody needs to tell them!'” (127).

On the intersection of race and gender, Gay McDougall, who worked in the anti-apartheid movement, said:

“Gender discrimination was everywhere, except at home, because my home and my extended family were very women dominated. But everywhere outside of home was male dominated. There were the churches, there were the schools. It’s interesting in the schools–most of them had female teachers but had male leadership and administration people. I think it was everywhere. Certainly all through the Civil Rights Movement.” (162)

I definitely recommend this book for people who are interested in both the history of the Civil Rights Movement and first-person accounts of individuals’ parts in it. The book does a great job of providing brief, poignant stories from the perspectives of women who were part of the Civil Rights Movement in various capacities and at different stages of their lives. In doing so, it provides a glimpse at the diverse opinions, talents, and perspectives that went into big moments in the Movement.


How to fix a watch band with a blowtorch

A couple of months ago, my mom gave me one of my dad’s watches. It’s a neat, self-winding watch, but, because it’s a men’s watch and I have small wrists, the band was too big. I tried to find a replacement band that would fit both the watch and me, but all I could find was the exact same band.

Empowered with the knowledge that I could replace the band if I needed to, I hit some message boards to see if watch afficianados had any advice on how to add a notch to a nylon watch band. Above you’ll see the result. Worked like a charm.

Historical Context: The Year of the Woman

freshman women in congress

Photo by Martin Schoeller for Vanity Fair

This month, there was a flurry of press about the women being sworn into the House of Representatives, among them Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress; the first two Native American women elected to Congress, Deb Haaland and Sharice Davis; and Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American woman elected to Congress, and one of the first two Muslim women to serve. They were captured in an “instantly iconic” portrait by Martin Schoeller published in Vanity Fair. These women, Ocasio-Cortez in particular, are already making a splash and defending themselves and their ideas in the press and on Capitol Hill.

Since the midterm election, there have been articles hailing 2018 a new “Year of the Woman” and I want to provide a bit of an overview of why people are saying that and how this “Year of the Woman” compares to the last.

What is the “Year of the Woman”?

In 1992, an impressive-for-the-time number women–28–were elected to Congress, including two women from California–Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein–making it the first time a state was represented by two women in the Senate. This election nearly doubled the number of women in the House and raised the number of female senators from 2 to 6.

According to the Archives of the United States House of Representatives:

“The impressive gains by women in 1992 were not the product of any one galvanizing event, but, rather, the confluence of several long-term trends and short-term election year issues. Demographics, global politics, scandal, and the ripple effect of the women’s liberation movement all played a part in the results of that historic election.” (The Year of the Woman, 1992: History, Art & Archives of the United States House of Representatives)

The more popular interpretation, however, is that the “Year of the Woman” was a response to the controversial Anita Hill hearings during the confirmation process for Justice Clarence Thomas. Those hearings did not look good for Thomas (but he was still confirmed), and they did not look good for the Senate, as there were no women on the Senate Judicial Committee. That meant that Hill was questioned about her sexual harassment allegations by a bunch of old men. The optics are bad. It’s bad.

The Archives of the United States House of Representatives argues that:

“Expectations for a “breakthrough” year for women had been high since the late 1970s; in fact, 1984 had been hopefully, but prematurely, advertised as the “Year of the Woman.” Political observers discussed the rise of a “gender gap” and predicted that 6 million more women than men would vote in the 1984 elections. When Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York was chosen as the Democratic candidate for Vice President that year—the first woman to appear on a major party ticket—expectations soared for a strong turnout by women at the polls.”

Still, the frustration and outrage over the Hill-Thomas debacle are looked at as a flashpoint. The narrative goes that women got frustrated by their lack of representation and set out to fix it. In addition to that frustration, there was also a growing pool of female candidates with experience, more availability of funding, a number of retiring members of congress, and the redistricting after the 1990 Census helped too.

Forty-seven of the 58 African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-Pacific-American women who have served in Congress were elected between 1992 and 2016. Still, women only make up 23% of Congress as compared to 51% of the population. 

Why are people calling 2018 “Year of the Woman”?

There are clearly some parallels between 2018 and 1992. Women are still grossly underrepresented, and women of color even more so. Add in frustrations over sexist rhetoric coming out of the White House and the lingering disappointment and anger over the 2016 election and there is plenty to motivate women to run for election. Like in 1992, there is better access to funding and a spate of retirements. Then there was the confirmation hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh which featured the poignant testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about her allegations of sexual assault by Kavanaugh. He was still confirmed.  Jennifer Rubin writes for The Washington Post: 

“Absorbing the constant sting of Trump’s verbal arrows, women did not “get over” Trump’s election or learn to live with his serial affronts. They did not take kindly to his mocking of the #MeToo movement or of Christine Blasey Ford. It’s fair to say that women who would not have otherwise gotten politically involved did so because they could clearly see the mostly male political powers were not looking after their interests. So they marched, they organized, they became donors, they ran for office, they made new alliances, they ‘persisted,’ as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) complained when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) refused to sit down and be quiet as instructed on the Senate floor.” (“Year of the woman? Darn right.”)

By the numbers, how did this “Year of the Woman” stack up?

  • 7 gubernatorial pickups (4 Democrats and 3 Republicans), bringing female governors up to 9
  • Women will hold 96 seats in the House (a record); 23 seats in the Senate

According to Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institute, a “Year of the Woman” could have very practical and good results for Congress.  She explains that:

“[W]omen in legislative roles have been more likely to reach across the aisle. According to one study by political scientists, under some conditions, “while men may choose to obstruct and delay, women continue to strive to build coalitions and bring about new policies.” (“2018: Another ‘Year of the Woman’”)

The election of 117 women in 2018 also follows some longterm trends in the electorate: women vote more for Democrats and women vote more than men. Kamarck explains, “In addition to their preference for Democrats, women have voted in higher numbers than men since 1984 and 10 million more women are registered to vote than men. But women’s preferences for Democrats does not mean that Democrats win. They only win when the women’s preferences for Democrats exceed men’s preferences for Republicans—which was not the case in 2016″ (“2018: Another ‘Year of the Woman’”).

From where I’m sitting, the upward trend of the number of women serving on Capitol Hill is very slow and big problems still persist. Here’s hoping that this freshman class of go-getters can get some stuff done.

Further Reading: 



(Book Review) The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World

449c9c25-026f-452f-8537-1a71c82be43cWhen I saw The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World by Tim Marshall lurking in my paused holds at the library, I thought it couldn’t be more timely and snapped it up.

In the book, foreign affairs expert Tim Marshall examines border walls (a term he uses broadly to also include fences and other barriers) around the globe and unpacks what they represent in the politics of particular places. The book is part of a Politics and Place series.

The book begins with an overview of just how prevalent wall-building is in our current moment and what the rise of walls reflects about political discourse in our time. One particularly striking fact:

“At least sixty-five countries,  more than a third of the world’s nation-states, have built barriers along their borders; half of those erected since World War II sprang up between 2000 and now” (2).

Given current events in the United States (the government shutdown over funding for a border wall that Trump said Mexico would pay for), I want to focus specifically on the chapter about the U.S.-Mexico Border. Of this border, Marshall writes:

“This is perhaps the most famous nonexistent wall in the world. But even though it is yet to be constructed, it is a powerful symbol of how division has driven and continues to drive the cultural and political juggernaut that is the USA” (42).

In the chapter, Marshall provides an overview of how the border wall became an issue in U.S. politics, tracking the building of fences along the border all the way back to the  acquisition of Texas in 1854, as well as in the Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama administrations. He also gives a history of how the southwestern border of the United States shifted over the course of the 1800s and the political concerns that influenced those changes. I think that history is very important for understanding some of the issues involving race, culture, and economics along that border. For example, Marshall discusses how the flow of migrant workers across the border became a political issue in the Great Depression, as the strategy was to protect jobs for U.S. workers (even leading to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of workers to Mexico—many of whom were U.S. citizens). Then, during World War II, when many U.S. citizens were off at war and the wartime industries were booming, the strategy changed to one of attracting workers from Mexico to work in farming and manufacturing in the United States.

After providing some historical context, Marshall sifts to our current moment and what the wall stands in for in the political rhetoric of the GOP. In short, he argues that the emphasis on building a wall stems from a desire to stypmie shifts in demographics that, if they follow current trends, would see nonwhite minorities, with Hispanics comprising the largest group, overtaking white Americans as the majority in the next thirty years. From there, he looks at other forms of difference that are dividing the  U.S. politically including religion, globalization, and political party.

Overall, this book provides an overview of the issues, but not a lot of depth. I think that the move from looking at the U.S.-Mexico border wall to looking at divisions in U.S. politics more broadly was kind of a bait-and-switch; I would have liked the connections to be drawn out more. There were also some odd writing moments that could have used a more meticulous copy editor. For example: “America is a violent country compared to Europe” (62) sounds weird considering that the United States is a country and Europe is a continent. Nevertheless,  for a causal reader (like me) looking for more historical and geopolitical context for the current nationalist moment, this book provides some good insights and is fairly easy to read.

Other chapters of note: I suspect the analysis of the Israel-Palestine border is fairly shallow, but so is my understanding of that conflict, so I found it helpful.  There is also an interesting chapter about China.  From there, the analysis moves from countries to continents and in this move gets less specific in its analysis.

Book Review: Sourdough by Robin Sloan (another fave)

98e0715b-5bae-479a-89ae-73eb05230a47After I posted my favorite books that I read in 2018, I felt like I had missed one: Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I really enjoyed this book. The story is so odd and the narrative voice offbeat and clever in a way that does not come off as overly ironic or affected. And it’s about sourdough bread. 🍞 🥖

In the novel, Lois Clary is living the life of a workaholic cog at a tech company in San Francisco and questioning why exactly she moved there from Michigan in the first place. Because of her long days, she does not have much time for a hobby or any personal relationships. And she’s getting sick. Her “closest friends” are the brothers who run a food stall that serves a spicy soup and sourdough bread that gives Lois a nearly religious experience. When the brothers suddenly close their shop, they gift Lois a bit of their sourdough starter. Nurturing the starter and making sourdough from it becomes a quickly rewarding hobby for Lois, and the starter seems to have a magical life of its own. As her relationship with the starter and the little microbes themselves flourish, so does Lois, taking her on an adventure into the cutting edge, underground food world of San Francisco.

e167bcb6-26d2-4302-a8e6-10e7802ae8c2Sourdough is a very silly novel, but silly in such a delightful, thoughtful way.  I enjoyed the narrative voice, especially in self-reflexive moments such as:

“Here’s a thing I believe about people my age: we are the children of Hogwarts, and more than anything, we just want to be sorted.”

I adored how the descriptions of the sourdough starter grew as the persona of the starter did. The starter sort of “sings” after Lois feeds it, and that starts her suspicions that it is unusual. It is also high maintenance and has to be fed and played music. Lois find that it has many quirks:

“I realized suddenly that my apartment reeked of bananas. I followed the scent to the kitchen, where the Clement Street starter had more than doubled in volume and was surging out of the crock, puffy tendrils oozing down the green ceramic. I heard a crispy, crackling pock-pock-pock; the starter was not merely bubbling but frothing. It is only barely anthropomorphization to say it looked happy.”

The relationship with the starter and the bread it produces have slight magical realist elements that reminded me subtly of Like Water for Chocolate.

Other delightful elements of the story include Lois attending a club of other women named Lois and getting to know the women a bit, and her reflections on what amounts to a pretty poor diet. My two major complaints about the book are that the ending left me wanting a bit more (not in a good way), and that the depiction of the brothers, Beoreg and Chaiman, made me a little uneasy as it seemed to verge on some stereotypes. I think Sloan mostly skirts this by making the ethic background of the brothers kind of nondescript, but it was nearly problematic.

At any rate, I found this book whimsical, delightful, and very odd and I kept thinking about it long after I read it. I’ve never made sourdough or interacted with a starter, so for all I know they could all be magic. It makes me want to try it out.

Book Review: The Suspect by Fiona Barton

c16a14ff-e93e-4dad-b0df-598aec4b5c34Last year, I listened to an audiobook of Fiona Barton’s The Child and loved the twists in the story and how the narrative jumped between characters, providing different perspectives on the case with very different agendas. That book became a go-to mystery novel recommendation for me.

I jumped at the chance to preview Barton’s new novel, The Suspect. This book sees the return of Barton characters including dogged reporter Kate Winters, her disappointing son Jake, and DI Bob Sparkes. The story opens on the disappearance of two British teenagers, Alex and Rosie, who have gone on a gap year adventure to Thailand and suddenly stop contacting their parents. Based on social media, it looks like the girls are having the time of their lives, so initially everyone but the mums and dads think the girls have just gone off on a lark and gotten a bit irresponsible about checking in at home. Quickly, however, the case turns more sinister, and, when Kate goes to Thailand to report, it all gets more personal than she ever could have imagined.

Like Barton’s other novels, the narration of the story changes perspectives throughout, moving between Kate, Sparkes, Alex, and Alex’s mother. I found all of these narrators engaging except “The Mother.” I know that that portion was supposed to represent the emotions of the families of the missing girls, but I felt the least interested in what she had to say and her portion rarely moved the story forward. I was most interested in Kate’s story and Alex’s. While DI Sparkes provided a lot of good detective work and had his own heart wrenching backstory, Kate and Alex’s narratives were really where the discrepancies between appearances and reality were starkest and most interesting.

I was also a little uneasy about the role Thailand plays in this book. Alex desperately wants to get out of Bangkok and see the beautiful sites around Thailand, but she gets stuck in a crappy hostel in the city, and as a result, Thailand comes off as nothing but seedy and corrupt. Throw in the invasion of British reporters and cops and the colonial implications were kind of iffy.

Those are my only two criticisms, though. I was sucked in by the story, kept trying to guess the ending (I almost did) and I really enjoyed the characters and their voices. I thoroughly recommend this novel for those who love a good mystery and an intrepid reporter. You do not have to have read Barton’s other books to read this one. Like Tana French’s books, the characters are consistent, but the mysteries stand alone.

I received an advance copy of The Suspect from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Suspect comes out Jan 22, 2019.

My Favorite Books of 2018

I read almost 200 books this year, and I wanted to share some of my favorites. I’ve narrowed it down mostly to books released this year (2018) or in paperback this year (2017), but a couple of older titles I read this year had to break into my list because I enjoyed them so much.


The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (2018). 2018 was the year I accidentally became a bit of a Mister Rogers expert. I saw the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor twice (and cried both times). I visited the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in Pittsburgh (see photos below). And I read three books on Fred Rogers. The Good Neighbor was the most in-depth and also my favorite. I listened to the audiobook narrated by LeVar Burton (who was exceptional) and found myself sitting in the car to listen for longer than my commute. The story and analysis are compelling and moving. I haven’t liked a biography this much in a long time, if ever.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara (2018). I’m a true crime junkie and this book was my favorite all year. It got a lot of buzz because of McNamara’s untimely death, and because of the developments in the case not long after the book was published, but it is so well written it will outlive the hype. McNamara’s prose sucked me in and the case was so scary I stayed up all night reading, and triple checked the locks on our doors for months.

The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes (2018). This thoughtful memoir by President Obama’s speech writer turned foreign policy advisor offers a lot of insight into the biggest international projects of the Obama Administration, as well as into Obama as a person. I felt like I learned a lot, but the story was also well told.

The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist by Michelle Morgan (2018). This biography of Marilyn Monroe really starts with the idea that she was more than a sexy, dumb blonde and fleshes it out. It focuses in on a particular period of Monroe’s life and offers cogent analysis of how the culture around Monroe changed and how she herself changed as an actress and a person.

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle (2011) The follow-up to this book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship was published this year, but I think the original is the best. This book is by Fr. Greg Boyle, who runs Homeboy Industries in L.A. In his work he helps gang members transition to jobs, school, and being there for their families, stepping away from the street. In Homeboy Industries jobs, members of rival gangs work next to each other, and often learn to love each other. Boyle’s stories are moving and reflect on the humanity and dignity of each person, including the reader. I cannot recommend this book enough. Read it. Now.

How to be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery (2018). This memoir features gorgeous prose and illustrations. As an animal-lover, I highly enjoyed Montgomery’s insights and reflections on the animals she’s known and loved during her long career writing about them. It’s a light read, but you’ll need a hankie.

Happily Ever Esther: Two Men, a Wonder Pig, and Their Life-Changing Mission to Give Animals a Home by Steve Jenkins (2018). One of my joys this year was discovering Esther the Wonder Pig. I checked out the first book about her when it caught my eye in a library display and I fell in love. I had to read the sequel when it came out and it hit all the same notes of comedy, compassion, and Esther’s star quality. Check her out on Instagram @estherthewonderpig.

Calypso by David Sedaris (2018). I’m a big fan of David Sedaris’s writing (I even met him once!) and his most recent collection is now one of my favorites. Calypso is more personal than some of his other work, which is saying a lot, and deals greatly with the deaths of his sister and his mother. That’s not to say it isn’t also hilarious in Sedaris’s particular, dark way.


I Remember You by Yrsa Siguroardottir (2014). My husband and I went on a trip to Iceland this October and I had planned to do a whole Icelandic reading challenge before we went. For various big and small reasons, that didn’t happen, but I had several books on my Kindle for the trip. I devoured I Remember You while staying up, hoping for an aurora borealis sighting. It is scary, weird, and feels like an old school ghost story.

The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary by NoNiequa Ramos (2018). This book was recommended to me by a prison librarian and she made it sound like a real gut-punch of a novel. It is. I loved the narrator’s voice as much as I hated what she went through.

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin (2018). This novel is told from the perspective of a first grader in the aftermath of a school shooting. It pulls a lot on the reader’s heartstrings, but that slight manipulativeness aside, I thought the narration was effective and a smart means of asking some important questions about violence and forgiveness.

Trespassing by Brandi Reeds (2018). I read a lot of this type of psychological thriller centered on a mom or a single woman (Lianne Moriarity, Laura Lippman, etc) and this was the only pageturner this year that really kept me turning pages. The whole time, I couldn’t quite figure out where the story was going. I had to send a copy to my mom for her Spring Break because I found it so perplexing.

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (2017). Another gem of an audiobook, this story made me weep and laugh. It spans three generations of Indian-Americans and moves between India, England, and America, dwelling on the complex relationships between sisters, mothers and daughters, and people and the places they call home.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017). I found this novel very slow in the moment, but I kept thinking about it long after I was finished. It has so many elements: WWII, a female scuba diver, the mob, a sister with a disability, romance. Yet, all these parts work together in a way that I did not expect.

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory (2017). I also found this novel pretty slow-going, but the characters really held my attention. It would make a great TV miniseries. Spoonbenders focuses on a family of psychics after they have been outed as frauds on national TV. The next generation is starting to show abilities, which begs the question: were they frauds? How did they end up so down and out?

I read almost 200 books this year. That’s probably too many, considering all the other things I want to get done. And considering that reading that many meant reading quickly, often sacrificing enjoyment. Or power reading a book I didn’t like to begin with. So, I deleted my Goodreads account and plan on doing weekly book reviews on this blog and monthly recaps either here or on social media, so I can share what I’ve liked without doing any reading challenges this year. I found the reading log that I used through middle school, high school, and college, and I think it is more effective for me personally to keep my reading log offline.


In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe


Me, King Friday the 13th, and Emily