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28. Hong Kong Encounter (3rd edition) by Piera Chen (Lonely Planet Publications)
29. More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City by William Julius Wilson
30. Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

31. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
32. War Dances by Sherman Alexie

28. Hong Kong Encounter (3rd edition) by Piera Chen (Lonely Planet Publications)
I was in Hong Kong around the middle of November for about 3 days and used this guide book. Overall, I liked the layout/design. It's a good size, decent paper and relatively durable with a pullout map. It's split by neighbourhood and they provide an area map at the beginning of each section so I could get my bearings. The book also pointed out neat highlights and was well-organized.

Two suggestions I had:

1) For all the maps, it would've been helpful to have the Chinese characters on the maps as well as English since the locals would usually know locations by the Chinese names.

2) I noticed that some Cantonese phrases were included but there wasn't a pronunciation guide.

One complaint was that on the metro/subway map, the Kowloon Southern Link was missing so Austin and East Tsim Sha Tsui stations were not on the map. The subway maps in the HK system itself are super-helpful but at first I was definitely a little confused.

29. More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City by William Julius Wilson
I think this was a good primer on the issues for someone who basically has no clue (e.g., me). It's interesting that he is taking a third and more nuanced position in arguing that it is a combination of structural and cultural factors that contribute to the issues of race and poverty, though in my reading, he does emphasize that structural factors are still more significant even if some of them appear to be nonracial. I felt his arguments were laid out clearly and backed up by actual reports and studies though it is unfortunate that because of the Moynihan report and the controversy around it (interpretations of it suggest that black culture is a factor in the breakdown of the black family and in the issue of poverty in black America), there are few or no studies around cultural factors, whether to support or critique the claims in the report.

Sometimes the writing style was dry but the content was important. I do agree with one review that he doesn't provide any concrete solutions but I think this is certainly a starting point to reframe any solutions that do arise.

30. Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Content notes are at the end of the review inside the cut.

This has been on my to-read list for what seems like forever but I'm glad I finally read it. I think this is my favourite of Ondaatje's books I've read (others were In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient and Divisadero). Gorgeous writing, as always, that evoked a sense of time and place for me - Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, with the war happening and also with the backdrop of its rich history. What also came across was the fear and grief people would have been in at the time with the various acts of violence being committed and often without warning.

I think there were some times when the characters seemed to be used as representatives of certain opinions but this could be that I recognized the sentiments from racefail discussions, etc. But I never felt they were blatant mouthpieces or speaking uncharacteristically; for example, one character briefly talks about Westerners not understanding the character's love for his country and also about the fact that he can't leave while Westerners can. Here's an excerpt:

'American movies, English books - remember how they all end?' Gamini asked that night. 'The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That's it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He's going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That's enough reality for the West. It's probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.'

I liked the characters of this book the most - not necessarily to know them or meet them but to read about them which I didn't feel as strongly about past books.

I also admired the way that descriptions of potentially dry material, such as the afore-mentioned history and the forensic methods/details used to identify a skeleton, were not dry at all and were among the most interesting in the book.

I also have to admit that part of the ending made me tear up. I was thinking we'd gotten so far through the book, surely everyone would be relatively alright? But no, and it was revealed in such a heart-breaking way for me.

Content notes - details re medical operations, acts of violence including suicide

31. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
Content notes are at the end of the review inside the cut.

This book really opened up my eyes to more of the history of the slave trade including the issues surrounding it. For example, the divide between people who were taken from Africa and people who were born in North America in terms of culture, religion and of course, language; the fact that the slaves had their own language; the argument that Africans were enslaving each other already and that the whites would do it better; Aminata's experiences back in Africa - being called a "toubab" with blackface, having to escape being enslaved again, making a deal with devil when she had to get a trader to take her to her village, the helplessness she felt when she saw other people in coffles; the pervasiveness of enslavement and oppression that slaves didn't run away even when not actually tied up; and the creation of Freetown in Sierra Leone.

And speaking on the story level - the book was just amazingly well-written. Aminata's narrative voice, the character's thoughts, emotions and motivations - all were so clearly realized. When I had to put the book down, it wasn't because I found it boring but because it was all too real and because I had become invested in what happened to Aminata.

Also, I'm really glad that the author decided to write that Aminata was reunited with her daughter. I wasn't expecting it especially when Aminata herself stopped hoping but even if people argue that it's less "realistic" or "believable", I don't care. She deserves some measure of happiness.

Content notes - enslavement and related acts of violence, including rape

32. War Dances by Sherman Alexie
I really enjoyed this book (a collection of short stories, poems and short pieces). When I starting reading this, I was tired so I went through the first story and all the short pieces first before going back to the other short stories and I think I missed connections or juxtapositions so I'm going to reread it.

I was reading this as a "Buddy Read" in my Goodreads group and one of the discussion questions was around whether he's representative or can be seen as a voice for Native Americans. I think there is an aspect to that in his writing but also, he's writing interesting, thought-provoking stuff and not always "about" Native Americans. I like the specificity of Sherman Alexie's writing; there are certain themes he comes back to but he's testing them in different situations and they seem to come from a very personal place so I think that he's balanced that well.

After finishing the book, I Googled for more about it and found a reading plus Q&A he did in Philadelphia for the book, which touches on some of these ideas (link below). I don't know if I necessarily agree with everything he's talking about but I did like the discussion and I think most of the Q&A is worth a listen (the readings too).

I also really enjoyed the different structures he used in his pieces. My favourite piece and a great example was the 15th section of "War Dances", the title piece. The section was called "Exit Interview For My Father" and starts with a list of questions to his dad that includes questions like "Your son has often made the joke that you were the only Indian of your generation who went to Catholic school on purpose. This is, of course, a tasteless joke that makes light of the forced incarceration and subsequent physical, spiritual, cultural, and sexual abuse of tens of thousands of Native American children in Catholic and Protestant boarding schools. In consideration of your son's questionable judgment in telling jokes, do you think there should be any moral limits placed on comedy?"

The section then continues with a poem the main character wrote about his dad and then a rebuttal of sorts pointing out the actual facts of the incident that the poem was meant to be about and just general points about life.


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January 2013

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