Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino

A0C03263-3AE9-4F0F-8046-13CEA93858A3I am lucky to have really smart and interesting friends, and they often share smart and interesting books with me. Thats how Covering found its way into my life. Here is a little more about this book:

Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Racial minorities are pressed to “act white” by changing their names, languages, or cultural practices. Women are told to “play like men” at work. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. The devout are instructed to minimize expressions of faith, and individuals with disabilities are urged to conceal the paraphernalia that permit them to function. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life.

Against conventional understanding, Kenji Yoshino argues that the work of American civil rights law will not be complete until it attends to the harms of coerced conformity. Though we have come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines. 

At the same time, Yoshino is responsive to the American exasperation with identity politics, which often seems like an endless parade of groups asking for state and social solicitude. He observes that the ubiquity of covering provides an opportunity to lift civil rights into a higher, more universal register. Since we all experience the covering demand, we can all make common cause around a new civil rights paradigm based on our desire for authenticity—a desire that brings us together rather than driving us apart.

There are books that come into your life and change the way you understand your own identity and place in society. For me, this is one of those books. I have always been familiar with the concepts of passing, code switching, and assimilation, but had never heard of covering until starting this book. Yoshino does a masterful job of articulating the subtleties and nuances of covering. He clearly explains and gives examples to illustrate what it is, how it functions, and why it can be harmful (and at times helpful).

Something that makes this book unique is that Yoshino mixes his own personal stories of covering, both with his identtity as a homosexual and a Japanese American, with case law from his life as a law professor at Yale. We see covering as both something specific to the author and a much bigger part of the national conversation. While this book is focused on American law and experiences, it is easy to see that covering can be universal. While I generally dislike when an author of nonfiction tries to incorporate memoir, I think for the purposes of this book, it really works. The writing is so smart and nuanced, the parallels to his private life and the world of the courts seem well matched.

It is refreshing to watch as someone work through complicated issues of sexuality, race, gender, ableness etc., with a sense of compassion and a rigorous commitment to critical thinking. One particularly wonderful moment comes up during his discussion on the demands of covering as it pertains to women. Yoshino checks his own privilege and lens of maleness, pulling back to note how he may miss covering demands that women face. This self-awareness gave me as a reader an even deeper confidence in his point of view.

The book does lose some of it’s clarity toward the end as Yoshino looks toward the future of civil rights. He gets caught up a little in that vision, and I could have done without a lot of the ending. I understand why he speculated, but I’m not sure it was needed. This book was published in 2006, and so with 12 years of knowledge that Yoshino didn’t have at the time about the United States, some of his predictions felt wildly and naively optimistic (but I again have the luxury of hindsight).

Covering  is not a definitive text on assimilation or discrimination, it is more of a starter kit for anyone interested in understanding the more subtle world of marginalized people and the behaviors they exhibit to get by. While there are times that Yoshino seems to be flexing his massive vocabulary muscle, for the most part this is a straightforward and accessible read. There is a lot to learn from this book. I would suggest it to folks who are interested in human behavior as it pertains to discrimination and civil rights. This is great option, for teenagers going off to college or starting work after high school.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (January 17, 2006)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Covering on Amazon

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

78BB304E-DA7D-4F9A-BB17-42DF210C020EHere is yet another book I decided to read right away, because the movie is coming. I have read a little James Baldwin here and there and never been disappointed, but to be honest I was in no hurry to read this book, until I saw the trailer for the If Beale Street Could Talk.

If you’re not familiar with the this novel, here is a brief synopsis for you.

Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions–affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

This book seamlessly marries a fictional story with very clear and searing commentary on injustice in America. Baldwin never wavers in this convictions about racism and the corruptness of the criminal justice system, however these ideas don’t come at the expense of believable characters or dialogue. The people found in this book embody the spirit of Baldwin’s thoughts and they live effortlessly in his words. The interactions feel authentic and the characters all have agency. They are not puppets for Baldwin’s believes, nor are they just there to move the story along.

If Beale Street Could Talk moves between present day and flashbacks, and is told through the eyes of Tish. Baldwin’s economy of words is beyond impressive, with a less skilled writer this book could easily be over 400 pages, but Bladwin keeps the book short and the emotion charged through out. He knows what he is trying to do an he executes. There are scenes in this book that are so tense that I shrieked out loud and had drop the book and walk away for a few moments to get my heart rate down. That kind of writing is not common, it is extraordinary.

While I enjoyed both the main character Fonny and Tish, the supporting characters were the real stars of this book for me. From both of Fonny and Tish’s family to the waiters at a small Spanish restaurant. The world is made vivid through the thoughts and actions of those who live in and around our young lovers.

The only thing I can say that I didn’t love about this book, is that I thought it got off to a slow start. I wasn’t fully invested in the book until about 50 pages in, and in a book thats less that 200 pages, thats a good chunk. However, once I got in, I was hooked.

You should read this book before you see the movie. I would say you should read this book even if you have no intention to see this movie at all. James Baldwin is considered one of the greats for a reason, his work is great. It is that simple.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Stacks Book Club September Books

51A119E3-B576-4C05-8FB4-5B0A3767316AIts time to announce our September book club books. We have two acclaimed novels in September and we could not be more excited.

We will discuss our first book of the month, Motherhood by Sheila Heti on September 12th. Motherhood is a novel that examines what is gained and what is lost when a woman becomes a mother.

On September 26th, we will be discussing this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction, Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Less is about a struggling novelist who decides to travel the world instead of subject himself to the awkwardness of attending his ex’s wedding.

Here is how The Stacks Book Club works, you read the books and we talk about them on the podcast. If you ever have questions you want answered, send them our way, and we’ll do out best to include them in our discussions. You can email us at thestackswithtraci@gmail.com, comment on this post, or reach out to us through our Instagram @thestackspod.

Order your copies of our September books on Amazon:

If you want to have input on future books we discuss on this show, become a member of The Stacks Pack by clicking here.

The Stacks received both of these book for free from the publishers. For more information on our commitment to honesty and transparency click here.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth

IMG_5910.JPGI talked extensively aboutVulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth with Tony nominated choreographer Sam Pinkleton, on an episode of The Stacks podcast. You can hear us discuss and sort through the many layers of this book there.

If you aren’t familiar with the story of serial killer Andrew Cunanan and his crimes, here is a little more about this book.

On July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace was shot and killed on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. But months before Versace’s murder, award-winning journalist Maureen Orth was already investigating a major story on Cunanan for Vanity Fair. Culled from interviews with more than four hundred people and insights gleaned from thousands of pages of police reports, Vulgar Favors tells the complete story of Andrew Cunanan, his unwitting victims, and the moneyed world in which they lived . . . and died. Orth reveals how Cunanan met Versace, and why police and the FBI repeatedly failed to catch him. Here is a gripping odyssey that races across America—from California’s wealthy gay underworld to modest Midwestern homes of families mourning the loss of their sons to South Beach and its unapologetic decadence. Vulgar Favors is at once a masterwork of investigative journalism and a riveting account of a sociopath, his crimes, and the mysteries he left along the way.

There are parts of this book that are interesting and fascinating. There are whole sections and chapters that I couldn’t stop reading. Orth’s ability to paint the scene of Cunanan’s life and more specifically his crimes, are some of the best parts of this book. I had a hard time sleeping thinking about hist first murder. It is about as haunting as they come.

Where I struggled with this book, and ultimately what turned me away from it, was Orth’s contextualizing of the story. Orth’s tone is intolerant at best, and outwardly homophobic at worst. She has a disdain for Cunanan, which of course makes sense, but she also judges those people in his world. And his world is that of gay men in the 1990’s. I can’t help but think that the “vulgar” in the title is directed at the Cunanan and his community. She discusses sex, drugs, and lifestyle as if this community is synonymous with all gay people all over. Its generalization at its worst. If you’d never met a gay person, you might think that all they did was pay each other for sex and snort (or swallow) meth.

Vulgar Favors is a book about a man who is obsessed with lies and celebrity and Orth gets wrapped up in that herself. She name drops through out, and forces connections where none exist. Her sources, and she has a whole lot, can feel a little unreliable, who doesn’t want to distance themselves from a man who killed five people, before then killing himself?

The story is multilayered and entertaining, but Orth can’t resist turning it into spectacle. She draws conclusions and connects dots that just might not be there. Vulgar Favors is full of contradictions and hearsay. While I enjoyed the book for what it is, if you read it, read it as a period piece from 1999, and not historical fact. Its a reminder of how people felt about homosexuality not too long ago. Its a reminder of different era of technology and media. You can also watch the FX Series The Assassination of Gianni Versace; American Crime Story and be just as entertained and not feel quite as icky.

If you do read this book, which is just fine, I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; Reprint edition (October 3, 2017)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Vulgar Favors on Amazon

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

 

Ep. 8 The Stacks Book Club – Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgChoreographer Sam Pinkleton is back in time for The Stacks Book Club to take on true crime, with Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth.

Vulgar Favors examines the serial killer Andrew Cunanan, who murdered 5 men in 1997 culminating in the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace. We discuss Cunanan and his victims, but mostly we focus on the tone of the book. We examine the term “gay crime” and why we find this and so much of the book to be problematic.

While there are spoilers in this episode, this book covers a real life event, which means all of the information is out in the public. You can listen without ruining the book.

Discussed this week:8E581578-8D11-49A9-85E5-9D03E7209E74

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To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

F511F697-6F50-4094-8953-629BD40E493AI grew up in Oakland, CA and had never heard about this story. It is a true one, from 2013, and it is pretty heartbreaking. If you have never heard about this book or this story here is a little more information for you.

One teenager in a skirt. 
One teenager with a lighter.
One moment that changes both of their lives forever.

If it weren’t for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.

This book was originally an article for The New York Times. I’m glad its was turned into a book. I’m glad this book exists. It is a Young Adult Non-Fiction book, a genre I had not been familiar with before reading this book. The book is mostly written in a straight forward journalistic style, but there are moments of poetry woven between the reporting. It allows for a little reflection and processing.

The 57 Bus does an amazing job of breaking down the different terms and pronouns to use for all gender and sexual identities. Sasha’s process is complicated and nuanced, and Slater really takes the time and care to present Sasha fully, without judgement. Sasha is presented as so many things at once, a complete and complex individual.

When it comes to Richard, Slater does a good job giving us the context of his life, however I do feel that there is not the same care paid to him. I don’t know if there should be, given the circumstances. I do feel she attempts to treat both teenagers as equal, both trying to navigate the world and move into adulthood. However the subtleties and complexities of being young, black, and male in a city like Oakland are not fully dealt with. Richard feel incomplete.

For example, when Slater attempts to explain how we arrived in a place where juveniles could be prosecuted as adults and receive life in prison without the possibility of parole, she spends a few pages discussing “super predators”. A racist term created in the 1990’s to scare people into thinking that young black youth would become more violent, which led to the stricter imprisonment laws. Then at the end of this section, Slater just says, “super predators” were a myth. And like that, she dismisses this idea she has spent time setting up. That is not adequate. Especially as this is a Young Adult book directed at audience that were not alive during the time of “super predator” fear and anxiety. A more equivocal dismantling of the myth was needed.

These small slights toward the black experience in this book left me a little frustrated. Knowing that many young adults are not fully versed in the racial politics that lead to the label of black youths as bad, in need of special education, and eventually to incarceration. More could be done to give the context of the systemic racism that black youth face.

I would certainly recommend this book. Its an interesting story, and a good reminder that we’ve got to teach our children better. I would suggest reading it with a critical eye. It would be especially powerful for young people with an interest in social justice.

Tell me what you thought of this book in the comments.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 17, 2017)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy The 57 Bus on Amazon

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.