Books to Watch | February 15, 2022
February 15, 2022
This week, our choices are:
Black American Refugee: Escaping the Narcissism of the American Dream by Tiffanie Drayton, Viking (GMC)
In the early ’90s, young Tiffanie Drayton and her siblings left Trinidad and Tobago to join their mother in New Jersey, where she’d been making her way as a domestic worker, eager to give her children a shot at the American Dream. At first, life in the US was idyllic. But chasing good school districts with affordable housing left Tiffanie and her family constantly uprooted—moving from Texas to Florida then back to New Jersey. As Tiffanie came of age in the suburbs, she began to ask questions about the binary Black and white American world. Why were the Black neighborhoods she lived in crime-ridden, and the multicultural ones safe? Why were there so few Black students in advanced classes at school, if there were any advanced classes at all? Why was it so hard for Black families to achieve stability? Why were Black girls treated as something other than worthy?
Ultimately, exhausted by the pursuit of a “better life” in America, twenty-year old Tiffanie returns to Tobago. She is suddenly able to enjoy the simple freedom of being Black without fear, and imagines a different future for her own children. But then COVID-19 and widely publicized instances of police brutality bring America front and center again. This time, as an outsider supported by a new community, Tiffanie grieves and rages for Black Americans in a way she couldn’t when she was one.
An expansion of her New York Times piece of the same name, Black American Refugee examines in depth the intersection of her personal experiences and the broader culture and historical ramifications of American racism and global white supremacy. Through thoughtful introspection and candidness, Tiffanie unravels the complex workings of the people in her life, including herself, centering Black womanhood, and illuminating the toll a lifetime of racism can take. Must Black people search beyond the shores of the “land of the free” to realize emancipation? Or will the voices that propel America’s new reckoning welcome all dreamers and dreams to this land?
The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology by Amy Webb & Andrew Hessel, PublicAffairs (DJJS)
Synthetic biology will revolutionize how we define family, how we identify disease and treat aging, where we make our homes, and how we nourish ourselves. This fast-growing field—which uses computers to modify or rewrite genetic code—has created revolutionary, groundbreaking solutions such as the mRNA COVID vaccines, IVF, and lab-grown hamburger that tastes like the real thing. It gives us options to deal with existential threats: climate change, food insecurity, and access to fuel.
But there are significant risks.
Who should decide how to engineer living organisms? Whether engineered organisms should be planted, farmed, and released into the wild? Should there be limits to human enhancements? What cyber-biological risks are looming? Could a future biological war, using engineered organisms, cause a mass extinction event?
Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel’s riveting examination of synthetic biology and the bioeconomy provide the background for thinking through the upcoming risks and moral dilemmas posed by redesigning life, as well as the vast opportunities waiting for us on the horizon.
The Naked Don't Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees by Matthieu Aikins, Harper (EPP)
In 2016, a young Afghan driver and translator named Omar makes the heart-wrenching choice to flee his war-torn country, saying goodbye to Laila, the love of his life, without knowing when they might be reunited again. He is one of millions of refugees who leave their homes that year.
Matthieu Aikins, a journalist living in Kabul, decides to follow his friend. In order to do so, he must leave his own passport and identity behind to go underground on the refugee trail with Omar. Their odyssey across land and sea from Afghanistan to Europe brings them face to face with the people at heart of the migration crisis: smugglers, cops, activists, and the men, women and children fleeing war in search of a better life. As setbacks and dangers mount for the two friends, Matthieu is also drawn into the escape plans of Omar’s entire family, including Maryam, the matriarch who has fought ferociously for her children’s survival.
Harrowing yet hopeful, this exceptional work brings into sharp focus one of the most contentious issues of our times. The Naked Don’t Fear the Water is a tale of love and friendship across borders, and an inquiry into our shared journey in a divided world.
The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas by Gal Beckerman, Crown (DJJS)
We tend to think of revolutions as loud: frustrations and demands shouted in the streets. But the ideas fueling them have traditionally been conceived in much quieter spaces, in the small, secluded corners where a vanguard can whisper among themselves, imagine alternate realities, and deliberate over how to get there. This extraordinary book is a search for those spaces, over centuries and across continents, and a warning that—in a world dominated by social media—they might soon go extinct.
Gal Beckerman, an editor at The New York Times Book Review, takes us back to the seventeenth century, to the correspondence that jumpstarted the scientific revolution, and then forward through time to examine the engines of social change: the petitions that secured the right to vote in 1830s Britain, the zines that gave voice to women’s rage in the early 1990s, even the messaging apps used by epidemiologists fighting the pandemic in the shadow of an inept administration. In each case, Beckerman shows that our most defining social movements—from decolonization to feminism—were formed in quiet, closed networks that allowed a small group to incubate their ideas before broadcasting them widely.
But Facebook and Twitter are replacing these productive, private spaces, to the detriment of activists around the world. Why did the Arab Spring fall apart? Why did Occupy Wall Street never gain traction? Has Black Lives Matter lived up to its full potential? Beckerman reveals what this new social media ecosystem lacks—everything from patience to focus—and offers a recipe for growing radical ideas again.
Lyrical and profound, The Quiet Before looks to the past to help us imagine a different future.