Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan Wright

Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan WrightFrankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright
Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 0143128795
on January 23, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Pages: 281
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he's created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by "Baghdad's new literary star" (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

I read this novel at the suggestion of some friends on Twitter. While I didn’t finish it in time for our online book discussion, I resolved to finish it before I had to return it to the library.

I found the book’s premise intriguing, and I appreciate the fact that it is one of the few books by an Iraqi author that captured the attention of Western readers—which is a shame. However, if I’m being honest, I had no trouble putting the book aside for days at a time. I wouldn’t say I wanted to stop reading it because I did want to finish it. I am also contending with being in graduate school and all the extra time that it takes to finish work for my classes. I also believe the book was engaging and well-written, but perhaps just not for me. I liked a few of the characters, especially Elishva and Hadi. In all, however, I found the book’s various threads a bit disjointed.

three-half-stars

Review: Deaf Republic, Ilya Kaminsky

Review: Deaf Republic, Ilya KaminskyDeaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
Published by Graywolf Press ISBN: 1555978312
on March 5, 2019
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 80
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

Ilya Kaminsky's astonishing parable in poems asks us, What is silence? Deaf Republic opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, Petya, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—they all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language. The story follows the private lives of townspeople encircled by public violence: a newly married couple, Alfonso and Sonya, expecting a child; the brash Momma Galya, instigating the insurgency from her puppet theater; and Galya's girls, heroically teaching signing by day and by night luring soldiers one by one to their deaths behind the curtain. At once a love story, an elegy, and an urgent plea, Ilya Kaminsky's long-awaited Deaf Republic confronts our time's vicious atrocities and our collective silence in the face of them.

Finalist for the T. S. Eliot Prize
Finalist for the Forward Prize for Best Collection

The conceit of Deaf Republic is interesting, especially given that Kaminsky is deaf. This collection is described as a commentary on our times, and it’s true we are living in an era when a lot of people don’t seem to be listening. They don’t seem to be seeing either, but that’s another issue.

Yesterday, I saw a tweet by Kaminsky that feels appropriate to share.

This tweet is in response to the rash actions of the person currently occupying the White House, which many speculate may lead to war. I suppose that remains to be seen. I admit to feeling some unease, which is a reason I picked up this book. Unfortunately, the book didn’t do much to make me feel better. The closing poem makes it clear—whether we are living through a time or war or peace, the U.S. lumbers along, blind to the damage it causes its own citizens, never mind what it does to other countries. It’s a fairly pessimistic collection, and yet, there is also the fact that the citizens of the town continued to fight, even as the soldiers began killing them. Always a dedicated few who want their freedom will risk everything to achieve it.

I appreciate what Kaminsky was doing, and the collection coheres well. The first (above) and final poems stand out for me. I am not sure how many of the individual poems stand up on their own, but I think that’s my personal response. Most of my poetry-loving friends adore this collection. Still, I admire what Kaminsky attempted and achieved, especially because the commentary about human nature is fairly spot-on.

three-half-stars

Review: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David Treuer

Review: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David TreuerThe Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN: 0399573194
on January 22, 2019
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 512
Format: Paperback
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five-stars


A sweeping history—and counter-narrative—of Native American life from the Wounded Knee massacre to the present.

Dee Brown's 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was the first truly popular book of Indian history ever published. But it promulgated the impression that American Indian history essentially ended with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee—that not only did one hundred fifty Sioux die at the hands of the U. S. Cavalry but Native civilization did as well.

Growing up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, training as an anthropologist, and researching Native life past and present for his nonfiction and novels, David Treuer uncovered a different narrative. Instead of disappearing, and despite—or perhaps because of—intense struggles to preserve their language, their culture, their very families, the story of American Indians since the end of the nineteenth century to the present is one of unprecedented growth and rebirth.

In The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, Treuer melds history with reportage and memoir. Beginning with the tribes' devastating loss of land and the forced assimilation of their children at government-run boarding schools, he shows how the period of greatest adversity also helped to incubate a unifying Native identity. He traces how conscription in the US military and the pull of urban life brought Indians into the mainstream and modern times, even as it steered the emerging shape of their self-rule and spawned a new generation of resistance. In addition, Treuer explores how advances in technology allowed burgeoning Indian populations across the continent to come together as never before, fostering a political force. Photographs, maps, and other visuals, from period advertisements to little-known historical photos, amplify the sense of accessing a fascinating and untold story. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is an essential, intimate history—and counter-narrative—of a resilient people in a transformative era.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is the first book I finished in 2020, and it’s a fitting start. I’m really glad I read it. Treuer’s book is based, in part, on ethnography he did in the last ten years. In addition to capturing the lives of a broad, diverse, and numerous (though not as numerous as it should be) people, he captures the stories of individuals—everyone from a cousin involved in MMA and another living off the land, collecting pinecones, leeches, and cranberry bark in addition to ricing, to Indians* at the forefront of a new movement in indigenous food and fitness. Treuer explains in his epilogue that his goal in writing this book was “to catch us not in the act of dying but, rather, in the radical act of living” (453). His call to action is for all of us to consider what kind of country we want to live in and to work in our ways to build that country.

Treuer’s writing is beautiful. I did not realize he had written fiction, as this was my first of his books, but I was not surprised to learn it after seeing his way with words in this book. Many nonfiction writers tend to dispense with pretty prose in favor of utilitarian fact-telling—the writing is a means to an end but not necessary to the journey itself—but Treuer’s writing is a meld of poetic storytelling—at times harrowing and other times funny. I appreciated his voice and thorough research.

The book is structured in seven parts:

  1. Narrating the Apocalypse: 10,000 BCE-1890. If this seems like a lot of compression, remember that Treuer’s goal is to discuss the history since Wounded Knee, and this part was necessarily compressed to allow for the space to do that.
  2. Purgatory: 1891-1934. This part covers the period of the Dawes Act, Allotment, Indian boarding schools, the institution of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
  3. Fighting Life: 1914-1945. This part covers not only Indian involvement in both World Wars but also the Meriam Report that investigated the state of Indian affairs and the government’s Indian policy.
  4. Moving on Up—Termination and Relocation: 1945-1970. This part covers the migration of Indians to urban areas, where the majority of Indians live today, and the Termination Act of 1953, which “proposed to fix the Indian problem once and for all by making Indians—legally, culturally, and economically—no longer Indians at all” (250).
  5. Becoming Indian: 1970-1990. This part discusses the reclamation of indigenous culture as part of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and also the sort of pan-Indianism that resulted when people of different nations and tribes joined forces as well as the beginning of US policy that favored Indian interests.
  6. Boom City—Tribal Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century. This part covers the rise of casinos and other capitalist ventures that have enabled some nations and tribes to become successful and even wealthy.
  7. Digital Indians: 1990-2018. This part describes the efforts of modern Indians to reclaim culture (including language and foodways) and be Indian in the modern world.

One thing I appreciated as a fellow Gen-Xer was what I would describe as a uniquely Gen-X take on history, particularly on AIM. I don’t mean Treuer is cynical because he is anything but cynical, but he is honest. I think many civil rights movement leaders tend to be lionized rather than seen as flawed people who did some very good things but who also were not perfect and even did some very wrong things. It might just be me, but I feel like that is a particularly Gen-X take on civil rights movements because we were the generation after Boomers, who thought they were idealistic and would change the world—they protested the Vietnam War, they attempted to open up America’s puritanical views on sex, they fought for rights for Black people, women, and (to a much lesser extent) Indians. But the 1980s seems to have wiped out their remaining idealism. Ronald Reagan’s ideas won the day, and they voted for that country, so they must have wanted it. So when people want to accuse Gen-Xers of being cynical, remember what we saw with our older siblings and parents who were Boomers. Treuer’s view of the leaders of AIM was much more balanced. Yes, they drew attention to Indian concerns and united people from diverse Indian backgrounds toward a common goal. They also sidelined Native women and engaged in a great deal of violence. I appreciated this nuanced point of view. Part of this Gen-X so-called cynicism is actually a core of realistic optimism I feel like some Gen-Xers have (some folks might argue with me about that), and Treuer has that realistic optimism. It is possible for us all to improve our country, but it will take active participation in shaping that future, and we have to understand why we are where we are today.

*Treuer uses this term for indigenous people in the United States, and I understand it is one of many preferred terms, hence my use of it in this review.

Note: I purchased this book for research for my Social Justice course and have not been compensated by anyone for this review.

five-stars

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing

Review: 1919: Poems, Eve L. Ewing1919 by Eve L. Ewing
Published by Haymarket Books ISBN: 1608465985
on June 4, 2019
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 76
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Poetic reflections on race, class, violence, segregation, and the hidden histories that shape our divided urban landscapes.

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the most intense of the riots that comprised the “Red Summer” of violence across the nation’s cities, is an event that has shaped the last century but is widely unknown. In 1919, award-winning poet Eve L. Ewing explores the story of this event—which lasted eight days and resulted in thirty-eight deaths and almost 500 injuries—through poems recounting the stories of everyday people trying to survive and thrive in the city. Ewing uses speculative and Afrofuturist lenses to recast history, and illuminates the thin line between the past and the present.

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.

five-stars

Review: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

Review: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony BourdainKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
Published by Ecco/Harper Perennial ISBN: 0060899220
on January 9, 2007
Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Cooking
Pages: 312
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

A deliciously funny, delectably shocking banquet of wild-but-true tales of life in the culinary trade from Chef Anthony Bourdain, laying out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine—now with all-new, never-before-published material.

New York Chef Tony Bourdain gives away secrets of the trade in his wickedly funny, inspiring memoir/expose. Kitchen Confidential reveals what Bourdain calls "twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine."

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.

three-half-stars

Review: White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo

Review: White Fragility, Robin DiAngeloWhite Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, Michael Eric Dyson
Published by Beacon Press ISBN: 0807047414
on June 26, 2018
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 169
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

Groundbreaking book exploring the counterproductive reactions white people have when discussing racism that serve to protect their positions and maintain racial inequality

Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what can be done to engage more constructively.

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.

five-stars

Review: Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

Review: Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. GreenwaldBlindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji, Anthony G. Greenwald
Published by Bantam ISBN: 0345528433
on August 16, 2016
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

I know my own mind. I am able to assess others in a fair and accurate way.

These self-perceptions are challenged by leading psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald as they explore the hidden biases we all carry from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes about age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, sexuality, disability status, and nationality.

"Blindspot" is the authors’ metaphor for the portion of the mind that houses hidden biases. Writing with simplicity and verve, Banaji and Greenwald question the extent to which our perceptions of social groups—without our awareness or conscious control—shape our likes and dislikes and our judgments about people’s character, abilities, and potential.

In Blindspot, the authors reveal hidden biases based on their experience with the Implicit Association Test, a method that has revolutionized the way scientists learn about the human mind and that gives us a glimpse into what lies within the metaphoric blindspot.

The title’s “good people” are those of us who strive to align our behavior with our intentions. The aim of Blindspot is to explain the science in plain enough language to help well-intentioned people achieve that alignment. By gaining awareness, we can adapt beliefs and behavior and “outsmart the machine” in our heads so we can be fairer to those around us. Venturing into this book is an invitation to understand our own minds.

Brilliant, authoritative, and utterly accessible, Blindspot is a book that will challenge and change readers for years to come.

I read this book along with other administrators and department chairs at my school. While I think it covers an interesting topic well, it’s nothing new to folks who have read The New Jim Crow or who have been engaged in learning and reading about issues of social justice. The book’s real value is in the Implicit Attitude Tests (IAT). These tests are very interesting and typically reveal that we have preferences for people who exhibit the dominant or so-called “default” attribute—white people/black people; thin people/overweight people; young people/old people; non-Muslim/Muslim; male/female. In most instances, even people who share characteristics of the non-dominant group will show implicit bias toward the dominant. For example, many would associate men more with work and women more with the home. Still. There are several tests you can take, and the results are really interesting.

Weirdly, the test revealed I have a preference for black people over white people. I have no idea how to explain this because my results should have demonstrated a preference for white people, especially since I am among that group. Even African Americans who take the test often demonstrate a preference for white people. I was sure I had done the test wrong or “gamed” it somehow. I took it three times. Each time, the result was the same, no matter whether I used paper/pencil, an iPad, or a computer. I just took it again for the fourth time. Same result. Always a moderate or slight preference for African Americans over European Americans. I don’t know what’s up with the result. I’m not disappointed or upset about it, but I am surprised because I expected the IAT to reveal a different result. I have a lot of questions about how malleable the brain is. We are hardwired to categorize and to stereotype because it helped keep us safe when we were developing as a species. Strange “others” were often dangerous. I have done a great deal of work on trying to root out racism. I am not perfect, but I have put in a lot of effort to be better. Has the work I have done in this area changed my brain? I was not raised to be non-racist. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true. I had to work very hard to root out explicit bias, so I really expected more of an implicit bias to remain. And in some of the tests, my results revealed an automatic preference for a dominant group. I could stand to lose a few pounds for sure, and my test revealed I have a preference for thin people over overweight people. I demonstrated an automatic preference for non-Muslims over Muslims. The key, as the authors note in the book, is not to beat yourself up because you have automatic preferences you didn’t realize you had—instead, realize you have them and actively work against them. Even the authors admit they have automatic preferences for the “dominant” group when they take the test.

I take issue with the authors’ assertion in Appendix 2:

Explicit bias is infrequent; implicit bias is pervasive. Appendix 1 presented the evidence that early twenty-first century Americans display low levels of explicit (overt) race prejudice in survey studies. This is a well-documented and striking reduction from the overt expressions of prejudice that were commonplace in studies done fifty to seventy-five years previously. (208)

Okay, I know the authors are at Harvard, in the so-called “People’s Republic of Cambridge,” but really? They think explicit bias is infrequent? They must not be on Facebook or Twitter. True, the tiki torches came out in Charlottesville after this book was published, but Donald Trump was campaigning on his hateful rhetoric when the paperback came out. I don’t know where the authors are looking, but I see overt racial prejudice everywhere. I agree implicit bias is pervasive.

Our discussion of the book this morning was rich and interesting. I suppose the main reason this book didn’t earn more stars from me was the fact that much of the information revealed wasn’t new to me, and perhaps that is why the book felt repetitive. This book might be best for people who are just beginning to explore issues of social justice, or for people who haven’t explored it at all.

three-half-stars

Review: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Review: Homegoing, Yaa GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Vintage ISBN: 1101971061
on April 7, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 305
Format: Paperback
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Ghana, eighteenth century: two half-sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

Homegoing took my breath away. At times, I had to put it down for a little bit just to think about what I had read, and other times, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in about three giant gulps over a couple of days. While Gyasi’s prose isn’t flashy, the story she tells pierced me right through the heart. I think it’s changed my life. Ernest Hemingway said once, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” That’s how I feel after reading this book. That it’s truer than if the stories it told really happened and that those stories now belong to me in some way. I can’t find it now, but I swear I’ve read a quote by some famous smart person that said something along the lines of this: every once in a while, you encounter a book, and it becomes such an important book to you and leaves such an impression, that you can mark your life before you read it and after.

The book is drawing inevitable comparisons to Roots, and for good reason. One criticism I’ve read of Gyasi’s writing in several reviews is that many of the experiences of the African-American branch of the book’s family seem sort of “shoehorned” into African-American history. In a sense, I can see it, but to me, it never felt inauthentic. I mean, it wasn’t like Forrest Gump. In a way, I saw some of these passages as connections to African-American literature, such as James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” or the American legend of John Henry. Isabel Wilkerson criticized Gyasi for perpetuating a stereotype:

And there is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

I totally understand Wilkerson’s pain at encountering this stereotype. Yet, the incident as described in the book smacks of something that really happened to Gyasi. One has the feeling that as a Ghanaian immigrant, she did feel different and was treated differently. I certainly don’t mean to discount Wilkerson’s criticism. When I read the scene, I felt the same way as Wilkerson, and yet, I also sensed it was possible an uncomfortable true story was fictionalized for Gyasi’s character.

Gyasi is at her most brilliant in describing the relationships between parents and children. It’s maddening and frustrating that the reader knows the stories of the ancestors unknown especially to the African-American family, but also to the African family as well, and in their case, because of choices made by the characters. So much loss. It’s difficult to comprehend. Some studies suggest that trauma leaves an intergenerational impact. And when you have a situation in which trauma is re-inflicted, for generation after generation, recovery seems almost hopeless. But empathy—telling our stories, and especially listening to the stories of others—is one path forward.

I had a feeling about the way the story might end up, and it was gratifying and redemptive. While parts of this book are difficult and grueling—Gyasi does not flinch from the realism of the characters’ experiences, and she forces us to look, too—there is also much joy and love, and it’s hard not to feel hopeful after reading the end. This is one I think I’ll be recommending to everybody.

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn WardSing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published by Scribner ISBN: 1501126075
on May 8, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

I think everyone has been recommending this book to me. It’s been on my TBR list for a while. Sing, Unburied, Sing is drawing comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which Ward acknowledges she was “thinking about” when she wrote, in addition to Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Odyssey, though she didn’t re-read any of these books as part of her process. Rather, she turned to histories of Mississippi, particularly of Parchman Farm, now known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Jojo and his mother Leonie narrate most of the book. Jojo is easy to empathize with: he’s known such suffering, and he will know more, but he also is capable of great love. It would be easy to reject Leonie entirely, given her abusive parenting and drug addiction, but Ward doesn’t let the reader off the hook so easily. She shows us Leonie’s pain and humanity, too, and even if we can’t forgive her, like we know Jojo will also not be able to do, we can’t dismiss her entirely, either.

The imagery at the end of this book will stay with me for a long time. When Jesmyn Ward places herself as part of a “long line” and says she feels “like all of those writers—from William Faulkner, to Richard Wright, to Eudora Welty, to Margaret Walker,” insisting that these writers have “affected [her] writing,” one can hardly argue (interview excerpts in paperback edition). She evokes the same Mississippi, from the Delta to the clay to the ghosts. Ward centers those stories in our present day, but her novel is also tethered to the past and explores the ways in which we are our histories, our present, and our future all wrapped in one.

In trying to put language to my thoughts, I found myself reading Tracy K. Smith’s review in The New York Times, and she captures my thoughts so well:

Maybe that’s the miracle here: that ordinary people whose lives have become so easy to classify into categories like rural poor, drug-dependent, products of the criminal justice system, possess the weight and the value of the mythic—and not only after death; that 13-year-olds like Jojo might be worthy of our rapt attention while their lives are just beginning.

That’s the magic of this book. Characters that many readers might be tempted to dismiss as unworthy of our attention become mythically important. At the same time, the characters are very real. I feel like I have known them, especially as I lived in the South and have Southern roots. Faulkner famously said once that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Nowhere else does that claim feel truer to me than in the South, even though the area of the country where I live now has more “history,” if one measures in the number of years since it’s been colonized. There is a passage from the viewpoint of Richie, the ghost of a boy who died at Parchman Farm, that captures the way history seems to hang onto the land in the South and also captures something of the lyricism of Ward’s writing:

I didn’t understand time, either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me into it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?

I was trapped, as trapped as I’d been in the room of the pines where I woke up… Parchman had imprisoned me again. I wandered the new prison night after night. It was a place bound by cinder blocks and cement… I spent so many turns of the earth at the new Parchman… I despaired, burrowed into the dirt, slept, and rose to witness the newborn Parchman. I watched chained men clear the land and lay the first logs for the first barracks for gunmen and trusty shooters. I thought I was in a bad dream. I thought that if I burrowed and slept and woke again, I would be back in the new Parchman, but instead, when I slept and woke, I was in the Delta before the prison, and Native men were ranging over that rich earth, hunting and taking breaks to play stickball and smoke. Bewildered, I burrowed and slept and woke to the new Parchman again, to men who wore their hair long and braided to the scalps, who sat for hours in small windowless rooms, staring at big black boxes that streamed dreams. Their faces in the blue light were stiff as corpses. I burrowed and slept and woke many times before I realized this was the nature of time. (186-187)

If you hover over the Mississippi State Penitentiary, previously known as Parchman Farm, in Google Maps, you can’t help but notice how blighted the landscape looks. I am especially struck by the roundness of the landscape. It definitely looks like it holds history.

Mississippi State Penitentiary
Mississippi State Penitentiary via Google Maps

Here’s a classic song about Parchman Farm, one of my favorite old Delta blues songs, by Bukka White.

five-stars

Review: The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Review: The New Jim Crow, Michelle AlexanderThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Cornel West
Published by The New Press ISBN: 1595586431
on January 5, 2010
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 312
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

"Jarvious Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."

As the United States celebrates the nation's "triumph over race" with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status—much like their grandparents before them.

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us--to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

Every once in a while, you read a book, and you think to yourself, this book is one that everyone, no I mean it, everyone should read. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow helped me understand race relations in a way no other book I’ve ever read has ever been able to do. In clear, lucid, and at times even poetic prose, Alexander lays out her argument that our War on Drugs has led to a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately punishes black and brown men—in essence, our prison system functions like Jim Crow segregation.

As I read this book, which was published in the middle of Barack Obama’s first term, I kept wondering how Alexander would respond to the unrest that has followed the election of Donald Trump. Does she see a nation picking off the scab and dealing with its racial inequality in response to a morally bankrupt government? Or is is it even worse than Alexander thought? It’s hard to tell when you’re living in the middle of it. In some respects, I see more white people who are willing to take on the role of activist. But white people also voted for Trump in large numbers.

The racial caste system that is mass incarceration will be difficult to dismantle, and I admit to a feeling of defeat as I closed the book. But we can’t give in to despair, no matter how bleak changing the landscape of race relations in America looks right now.

This book changed my mind about a couple of things by making me think about them from a new angle. One: the legalization of marijuana. A couple of years ago, Massachusetts had a ballot referendum on whether or not to legalize marijuana. It’s already decriminalized, as in, it’s legal to have a small amount of marijuana. I confess I voted against legalizing the sale of pot for one reason: I really didn’t think it was at all a good idea for people to use cannabis. I still don’t, really. I am not sure I subscribe to the notion that it’s harmless. However, I am swayed by Alexander’s argument that using cannabis is probably less harmful, especially to others, than drinking and driving. Should cannabis users take to the roads, I’m not sure what the results would be, but I’d prefer it if being sober remains a requirement for keeping your license to drive. I also think some people, not all, do start using other drugs after trying cannabis. Same with alcohol. Not everyone, of course. I have never tried cannabis myself, and I don’t have plans to do so, so I recognize in some ways, I am not really affected by the issue. However, what I now understand is that we have disproportionately thrown the book at African Americans for using the drug (or at least being caught with it) at the same rates as white people, who generally get the slap on the wrist. If decriminalizing marijuana or even making it completely legal and selling it in smoke shops, as Massachusetts is beginning to do, will prevent black and brown people from being incarcerated for minor drug offenses, I’m all for it. Now.

Another issue Alexander raised that gave me pause is the unhelpfulness of colorblindness. I would never say “I don’t see color,” but I am guilty of trying to pretend like race matters less than it does. I am learning. I wasn’t able to see it. I also wasn’t listening to people, and in part, I wasn’t putting myself in the path of the people to whom I needed to listen. I really thought we’d fixed a lot of problems with Obama’s election, and the depressing election of Donald Trump helped me understand we definitely had not. Alexander’s book explains why colorblindness is harmful.

This book has been out for a while, so you’ve probably already read it. However, if you haven’t, you really should. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

five-stars