Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

As soon as I heard about the impending publication of The Nickel Boys, it went on my to-read list. Whitehead’s last novel, The Underground Railroad, is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. One of the things I appreciated most about The Nickel Boys is that it amplified the stories of the boys who attended the Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, and their stories should not be lost. Their stories are horrific, but we owe it to ourselves not to look away—to face what we have done as Americans. Plenty of people knew what was happening in this prison, for calling it a school is inappropriate. Many of the stories out of Dozier are coming from white men who suffered indescribable horrors at this school, but Whitehead’s novel shares the stories of their Black counterparts, who suffered the same atrocities with the additional indignities of Jim Crow, segregation, and racism.

While this novel shines a light on the abuse endured by the boys at Dozier, renamed Nickel in this book, this book is really about a young man, Elwood Curtis, hanging on to his dignity as a human being, attempting to maintain his feelings of self-worth, and passing that regard on to his friend Turner, who thinks people are basically irredeemable (where has he had the opportunity to learn otherwise?) and that the best way to make it through is to keep your head down, and scheme for what you can get. The tragic thing is that places like Nickel have crushed young men like Elwood, and they are doing it as I write this, too. America needs to come to terms with the school-to-prison pipeline and the injustice in sentencing that disproportionately punishes Black and Brown men. My personal opinion is that it’s time, past time, to talk about reparations. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates says, we allow the “how” of reparations stop us from considering the “why,” and books like The Nickel Boys provide plenty of evidence for why. 

Ben Montgomery and Waveny Ann Moore ask in their expose on Dozier, “What is the cost to society of such a place?” As the authors argue, “boys went in damaged and came out destroyed.” A former psychologist at Dozier said, “Anytime you’ve got human beings together, you’re going to have people abusing each other.” But we cannot dismiss what happened like that.

Further Reading:

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing

I had been wanting to read 1919 for a while and finally picked it up at the Harvard Book Store recently when Steve and I went to Cambridge to hear Katherine Howe discuss her new book. Ewing weaves together passages from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot (1922) with poetry inspired by the passages and photographs from the era. If you hadn’t heard about the 1919 race riot in Chicago, you are not alone. I hadn’t heard of it either, and you have to wonder how much this tragic event influenced race relations in Chicago in the decades that followed up to the present day. Did it influence redlining, for example? Redlining isn’t unique to Chicago, but it’s the city people think of when they think of redlining. What about the school system? The way in which that city can still be quite segregated, though again, it’s not alone among northern cities in that regard. The book weaves together reimagined passages from Exodus with a wide variety of poems (including haiku, haibun, two-voice poetry, and erasure poetry).

The collection includes several poems that stood out for me. “I saw Emmitt Till this week at the grocery store” imagines an Emmitt Till who survived to old age. Till would turn 78 later this month, had he lived, lest anyone think that the kind of racial violence that resulted in his murder happened a long time ago. “April 5, 1968,” an allusion to the aftermath of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, includes some gorgeous language, some of which alludes to King’s speeches. “Countless Schemes” riffs on a chilling passage from The Negro in Chicago that suggests the only solution to eliminating racial strife in the country is the elimination of African Americans, either through deportation, the establishment of a segregated state, or the hope [their word] that African Americans would die out. “Jump/Rope” evokes a jump rope chant, similar to “Miss Mary Mack” in structure and recounts the death of Eugene Williams, which sparked the 1919 riots.

1919 is an excellent poetry collection. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class. It gave me the idea that my students might be able to create a poetry project based on a social justice issue they research.

I’m so glad my poetry friends clued me in on Eve Ewing. Check this book out if you are interested in poetry, race relations, and racism, society, history, Chicago, or all of the above.

Midyear Catchup Reviews

Riss Design

Grad school has certainly cut into my reading, but I knew going into my degree program that something would need to give. I am still doing a ton of reading, but it’s mostly scholarly articles and research. I did manage to read a few things I haven’t had a chance to review on my blog, though.

My husband and I listened to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, read by Dion Graham, who was an excellent narrator. The novel is the story of Washington Black, who is enslaved on a sugar plantation in Barbados when he meets Christopher “Titch” Wilde, a scientist and inventor who changes Washington’s life. The two men embark on an adventure in a balloon that takes them all the way to the North Pole.

I really liked this one. It’s part historical fiction and part fantasy and part road trip. Some reviewers I’ve read mention the book drags a bit in the second half, and I would agree with that assessment, but nothing put me off wanting to finish it. If you haven’t read it, definitely pick it up, and I can’t recommend Dion Graham’s narration highly enough. [rating:5/5]

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans is a children’s book that came across my radar at an English teacher conference I usually attend each year. This book is an incredibly illustrated series of vignettes in African-American history as told by a grandmotherly narrator. Kadir Nelson both writes an illustrates the story. I plan to use it as a mentor text in my Social Justice class next school year. This is one of those books I wish I had as a kid. I loved reading about science and history, and I believe this one would have fascinated me. What I loved most about it is that anyone of any age can enjoy it. It’s perfect to share with children, but it’s one of those books I think the adults would enjoy as much as the kids, and it would be perfect for storytime. An instant classic! [rating:5/5]

Kwame Alexander collaborated with Kadir Nelson on The UndefeatedThis is another book I bought as a mentor text for my students. The Undefeated is a poem by Kwame Alexandar that celebrates the strength and resilience of African Americans. Once again, this is a children’s book that will appeal to all ages. Adults will enjoy the references to historical figures, and children will enjoy the wordplay and images—actually, adults will enjoy those, too. Kadir Nelson’s artwork is brilliant, yet again, and reading these two books made me want to search out everything he writes and/or illustrates. You can check out a video trailer for the book below. [rating:5/5]

 

 

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, Katherine Howe

I happened upon The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in a bookstore shortly after it was first published and snatched it up immediately. Salem? Witches? Academia? Right up my alley for sure. As soon as I found out its followup, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs was coming out, I preordered it, which is something I rarely do. You do not have to have read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in order to enjoy its followup, but I think you will enjoy it more if you do. In fact, after finishing The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, I want to go back and read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane again.

This book offers a bit more of Deliverance’s backstory, but mainly focuses on her descendants Connie, as Physick Book did, and Temperance (also Connie’s ancestor). Readers are also treated to peeks inside the lives of each generation of the family going back to Deliverance’s parents in England. I had to go back and make a family tree for myself, but it’s a bit spoilery, so I’ll put it at the end for those of you who want to read the book first.

Just as I did with Physick Book, I connected personally in many ways with this book. Just like Connie, I called my own grandmother Granna, and I thought I’d invented the name. When I told Katherine Howe this story years ago, she said she thought she had made it up, too! Prudence’s diary reminds me a great deal of my own ancestor Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary, and Katherine Howe shared she had been inspired by Prudence Ballard’s  A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. This book has some other interesting connections. Connie is working on obtaining tenure as a history professor at Northeastern University, where I am currently pursuing a doctorate in education.

This next bit is maybe the tiniest bit of a spoiler, but I don’t think knowing it in advance hurts anyone’s enjoyment, so I’ll spill. There is a sort of interesting parallel for me in that Connie considers applying for a position at Harvard, but realizes it would not work for her. I actually applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education doctoral program. I didn’t get in (it’s at least as selective as undergraduate admissions, though I hear getting into their master’s program is pretty easy—but I already have a master’s and didn’t want to work on another one, even at Harvard). I was really bummed out about it, but I had a conversation with a friend of Steve’s, who made me feel better about the rejection and also encouraged me to apply to another program. I applied to the program at Northeastern. I was really attracted to it in the first place when I was making a list of graduate schools to apply to, but I think I was charmed by the idea of attending Harvard, just like Connie is initially charmed by the idea of the assistant professor job at Harvard, even though she knows it will not lead to tenure, and the job at Northeastern will. It’s so weird!  I know now that the program at Northeastern is much more suited to what I want to do, where I am in my professional life right now, and the goals I have for the future. Just like Connie. I know it’s a minor similarity, but I connected to it.

One of the things I like about Katherine Howe’s writing is her eye for the tiny detail—the way someone leans against a countertop or plays with their hair—it brings her characters to life. I feel like I can really see everything she is describing. Her characters are also interesting and likable. I really liked Connie’s protege Zazi Molina. Temperance herself is an awesome character as well. As in Physick Book, the book’s settings themselves, from the old house on Milk Street in Marblehead, to Connie’s apartment on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, to the probate office in Salem, all the settings come alive. This is a fun and engaging read, but you’ll also learn something about history into the bargain.

Here is the family tree if you want it. Mild spoilers.

Deliverance Hasseltine Dane (parents are Robert and Anne Hasseltine)
+Mercy Dane Lamson
++Prudence Lamson Bartlett
+++Patience Bartlett Jacobs
++++Temperance Jacobs Hobbs
+++++Faith Hobbs Bishop
++++++Verity Bishop Lawrence
+++++++Chastity Lawrence
++++++++Charity Lawrence Crowninshield
+++++++++Sophia Crowninshield Goodwin
++++++++++Grace Goodwin
+++++++++++Constance “Connie” Goodwin

Review: Kindred, Octavia Butler (Graphic Novel Adaptation)

I had been reading Kindred on my Kindle and not making much progress. While I thought the plot was engrossing and liked the characters, there is something I can’t put my finger on that was preventing me from finishing the book. I set it aside once. Then I set it aside again. I really wanted to read it. Finally, when I found out this graphic novel edition was out, I decided this would be a way I could read it.

Octavia Butler is the queen of science fiction. This book is probably one of the most accurate descriptions of antebellum slavery I’ve read in fiction. Butler says that she actually toned it down so it would sell, however. She not only describes the brutality of slavery but also delves into the ways in which enslaved people created a family and subverted slave owners when it was possible. Mere survival was a triumph. She also unpacks the complicated relationships between enslaved people and slave owners. Rufus, for example, could easily be a one-note villain, but in Butler’s hands, he’s a fully realized and complicated person who rapes a woman because she is African-American and he can, but who also generates reader sympathy as an abused and uneducated child and a product of the time and place in which he lived.

Dana is a strong protagonist, and most of Butler’s characters are round and interesting, resisting stereotype and easy reduction. Kindred was published in 1979 and is ahead of its time in many ways. I’ve seen many more recent books that don’t deal with the themes of slavery in racism with the honesty and realism that Kindred does, in spite of its science fiction elements. One of the more interesting ideas Butler grapples with is the complex relationships forged in slavery between people who identify as white and people who identify as black today.

Review: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

I’ve watched Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown. I’ve never seen an episode I didn’t find interesting or educational, never mind entertaining, but I’m not a religious watcher, and I am not sure whether or not to call myself a fan. It was sad to hear about his death last year. I supposed that’s what made me finally decide to read his infamous memoir, Kitchen Confidential. I liked the book, and parts of it were really great. It was a bit overlong for me, but if you ask me to point to what he could have cut out, I’m not sure how to answer. The misogyny of the typical 1970s or 1980s (even 1990s) kitchen was hard to read, and it’s a major reason this book doesn’t crack four stars for me. I don’t get the sense that Anthony Bourdain himself was a terrible misogynist, but I don’t get the sense either that he has always been exactly respectful of women, nor that he has been a good ally for women experiencing sexism in restaurant kitchens. He said as much in a Medium post, in which he takes ownership of the role he has played in perpetuating this cycle:

To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.

He wrote that post in response to hearing allegations of Mario Batali’s and Ken Friedman’s sexual misconduct. Honestly, the kitchens he describes in the book sound more like pubescent locker rooms than anything else, though the afterword suggests that only a few years after the book’s publication, much had changed in restaurant kitchens. I imagine the foodie revolution, if you want to call it that, contributed to these changes.

Bourdain has a strong writing voice, and at times it’s entertaining, while at other times, it’s pretty self-important and grating. My favorite parts of the book include the chapter in which Bourdain describes what you really need in order to cook like a chef, “How to Cook Like the Pros.” The first chapter in which Bourdain travels to France with his parents and starts trying more adventurous foods for the first time, “Food is Good,” serves as a great introduction to the book. His description of his first trip to Tokyo in “Mission to Tokyo,” in which you can see the seeds for Parts Unknown being sewn, also stands out for its gorgeous descriptions of the food and the city. Bourdain has always struck me because he would literally try anything once, and it’s clear this adventurous streak was born on that trip to France when he tried vichyssoise and oysters for the first time. Bourdain’s portraits of some of the eccentrics with whom he’s worked are somewhat entertaining, but also somewhat terrifying. Maybe one shouldn’t think too hard about who is preparing one’s food?

Anthony Bourdain was clearly an interesting person. I appreciated the fact that Bourdain was not a food snob. His appreciation for food and the people who prepare it is clear. He seems like a person who loved to learn and was always willing to open himself to new experiences. I wish he’d opened himself up a bit more, at least before he became a celebrity, to learning from and with women.

Review: White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo

I have been meaning to read Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism for a while. It’s one of those books that so many people have been talking about, and it really does explain why white people, in general, react to discussions of race, and in particular, why I have reacted in the ways that I have. DiAngelo makes it clear that our culture, our society, is racist. It’s impossible to escape racism. Since that is the case, what do we do when racism perpetrates harm? How can we respond, acknowledge the wrong done and apologize, and work to repair the relationships we have harmed? Furthermore, she clarifies that understanding our socialization and how it frames our responses is a lifelong pursuit. Her open acknowledgment of the ways in which she still trips up after doing this work is refreshing.

I can’t say I really disagreed with much of what DiAngelo argues. I have seen it many times. Unfortunately, I’ve also perpetrated some white fragility in my time as well. I didn’t have the tools to name it or even realize what I was doing, but my lack of education doesn’t mean the damage wasn’t done. I think I understand why many people of color have given up on talking about race, but I recently came upon a quote from bell hooks that I love:

[T]o successfully do the work of unlearning domination, a democratic educator has to cultivate a spirit of hopefulness about the capacity of individuals to change.

bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, p. 73

I really hope that I can engender the kind of trust that hooks describes here. I would hope to be the kind of person that has the capacity to change. Actually, hooks’s words inspired me to look at others more hopefully and positively. I can be accused of being too optimistic, but what’s the alternative?

This book is a challenging read in that if you are white, you will find yourself described in hard terms, and some reflection and self-reconciliation are necessary. I imagine it would be hard for people of color to read as well because it’s probably the kind of thing they encounter regularly… daily, even. But if racism is something you really want to understand and work on, it’s a great book with practical applications. I’m glad I read it.

I’m also glad I kept it a couple of days past my library’s due date so I could finish it. Finding time to read lately has been extremely hard. But I do need to turn it in already.

Review: Born a Crime, Trevor Noah

A colleague recommended that I read this book, though it had been sort of on the periphery of my radar for some time, as I enjoy Trevor Noah on The Daily Show and had heard good things about his memoir. My colleague said that listening to the audiobook was especially a treat, and my advice is that if you do read this book, do yourself a favor and let Trevor Noah read it to you. He is an incredible narrator, and hearing the memoir in his own words definitely added to my enjoyment of the book.

Trevor Noah had one heck of a childhood. He comes across as resourceful, clever, and funny, but it’s clear that he learned all of these attributes from his mother, Patricia, who emerges in many ways as the real hero of Trevor Noah’s memoir. I dare you to read this book and not cry at the very end. She is an incredibly strong woman, and Noah’s love for her shines through the entire book.

Moments of the book will have you laughing out loud, while others will make you cry. Born a Crime is a fantastic memoir, gripping and engaging from start to finish. You will definitely walk away from it with admiration for Trevor Noah’s strength… and his mother’s.

I’m counting this book for January’s motif in the Monthly Motif Challenge: New to You Author. I think this is Trevor Noah’s only book; I haven’t read anything he’s written before.

2018: Reading Year in Review

Happy New Year! As I usually do on the last day of the year, I’m posting a review of my year in reading. I took the trouble to make an image of my Goodreads Year in Books and then decided not to post it here. I guess I’m fickle.

First, some data:

  • I exceeded my reading goal of 50 books by one and read 51 books total.
  • I read 15,291 words, which was 2,956 fewer than last year. But I probably made that up quite easily and then some with grad school reading, which isn’t counted.
  • That’s an average of 300 pages per book; last year’s average was 366 pages, so it looks like in general, more of the books I read were shorter. That makes sense to me, as I actively sought shorter books I could finish since I started graduate school. Longer books just seemed too daunting.
  • That works out to about 42 pages per day.
  • My shortest book was P is for Pterodactyl, which I didn’t review. It’s a children’s book with 32 pages. My longest book, which I actually just finished in 2018 and started in 2017, was The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which I read for a 2017-2018 reading challenge.
  • The most popular book I read this year was The Great Gatsby, which 3,391,871 read. It’s still so widely assigned in schools. I wonder how many students are posting on Goodreads? My least popular book was The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs, which only 30 people read.

My progress with reading challenges was mixed. I only read 1 book for the Author Love Challenge. I just never did get around to reading the other James Baldwin books I wanted to read, but I am reading If Beale Street Could Talk right now. I came close to reading the 6 books I committed to reading for the Back to the Classics Challenge; I read a total of 5. Only one was not a re-read. I surpassed my commitment of 5 books for the British Books Challenge by reading 11. The Foodies Read Challenge was another close one: I read 5 out of the 6 books I committed to reading; 3 out of the 5 were cookbooks I read cover to cover. I also surpassed my commitment level of 5 books for the Historical Fiction Challenge at 7 books. I knew when I took on the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge that I’d never complete it because the number of books minimum was too high, but I am proud of the fact that the books I read for the challenge represent 11 different countries. I almost completed the Monthly Motif Challenge. It shouldn’t have done so, but the one motif that tripped me up was Vacation Reads. I just couldn’t think of anything to count for that one. So I counted 11 out of 12 books I committed to reading. I only read 1 book for the R. I. P. Challenge this year. I committed to 4, so I didn’t do well, but that was right when I was starting grad school and looking for balance with school, work, and life, so I can’t feel bad about it. I finished the Chronological Sherlock Homes Challenge. I started it in January of 2017, so it was a matter of finishing the remaining stories. I committed to reading 10 books for the Share-a-Tea Challenge, but I ultimately gave up on that one because I just drink a ton of tea, but I don’t drink a lot of different kinds, so it felt funny to say the same thing every time. I only counted 2 books for that one.

Of the 51 books I read, the stats further break down like so:

  • 28 books of fiction
  • 16 books of nonfiction
  • 7 books of poetry or verse
  • No dramas
  • 9 audio books
  • 8 re-reads
  • No graphic novels/memoirs
  • 2 children’s picture books
  • 2 YA/middle grade books

My favorites from selected categories are below with linked reviews if available or Amazon links if not—I didn’t have as much time to blog when I started grad school.

Fiction

There There 

Nonfiction

Poetry

Audio

 

YA/Middle Grades

My least favorite books of the year were We Have Always Lived in the CastleSo Long and Thanks for All the Fish, and The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs.

And finally, here is my map, which includes the settings or home base of the authors for each of the books I read:

Here’s to a happy reading year in 2019!

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann

I read Killers of the Flower Moon on the recommendation of a friend. Some of my own family lived in Oklahoma at the time of the events described in this book, though they lived near the Texas border in the southern part of the state rather than near Osage County. This is not history you will likely hear about in school, partly because the victims are subsumed into the greater genocide that white Americans perpetrated against Native Americans.

The book has all the drama of a true crime story. In spite of the fact that the book opens with several Osage murders, the pace is a bit boggy until Grann begins to unravel the web of deceit and murder at the heart and uncovers the vast murder conspiracy to defraud the Osage of their money and oil headrights. It was also difficult to keep up with the large number of people in the story, and a table or glossary of some kind would have helped. Still, the story is riveting, and once the pace picks up, the story is hard to put down and moves swiftly. Punctuated with photographs throughout and descriptions of Osage County, the story also evokes the setting, placing the reader right there in the midst of the events.

Reading this book for me had me wondering about my own family history. Many of my ancestors lived in Oklahoma when it was still “Indian Territory.” My great-great-grandmother is listed on the 1900 U.S. Census as living in “Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory.” I have never heard any stories about their relationships with Native Americans. Of course, there is the ubiquitous untrue story about having Native American ancestry in the family. Later on, my grandmother was born in the same area of the state, and I remember visiting my great-grandparents while they were living in Ardmore, OK. In fact, I still have a lot of family living there. I remember my great-grandmother’s younger brother Willard, who grew yellow watermelons and sold them. I remember his twin sister Wilma, who introduced me to German chocolate cake. Looking at the faces of white people in the photographs in Grann’s book was like looking at my own family members. It reminded me again how connected all of us really are and how much of what happened in the past still touches us in the present.