Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson WhiteheadThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books ISBN: 0385537077
on July 16, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 214
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men." In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

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:

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
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
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

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: ★★★★★

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: ★★★★★

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: ★★★★★

 

 

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, Katherine Howe

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, Katherine HoweThe Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe
Published by Henry Holt and Co. ISBN: 1250304865
on June 25, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy/Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe returns to the world of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane with a bewitching story of a New England history professor who must race against time to free her family from a curseConnie Goodwin is an expert on America’s fractured past with witchcraft. A young, tenure-track professor in Boston, she’s earned career success by studying the history of magic in colonial America—especially women’s home recipes and medicines—and by exposing society's threats against women fluent in those skills. But beyond her studies, Connie harbors a secret: She is the direct descendant of a woman tried as a witch in Salem, an ancestor whose abilities were far more magical than the historical record shows.

When a hint from her mother and clues from her research lead Connie to the shocking realization that her partner’s life is in danger, she must race to solve the mystery behind a hundreds’-years-long deadly curse.

Flashing back through American history to the lives of certain supernaturally gifted women, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs affectingly reveals not only the special bond that unites one particular matriarchal line, but also explores the many challenges to women’s survival across the decades—and the risks some women are forced to take to protect what they love most.

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

five-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
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
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: Born a Crime, Trevor Noah

Review: Born a Crime, Trevor NoahBorn A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Narrator: Trevor Noah
ISBN: 1473635306
on November 15, 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Format: Audio
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

The compelling, inspiring, (often comic) coming-of-age story of Trevor Noah, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.

One of the comedy world's brightest new voices, Trevor Noah is a light-footed but sharp-minded observer of the absurdities of politics, race, and identity, sharing jokes and insights drawn from the wealth of experience acquired in his relatively young life. As host of the US hit show The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, he provides viewers around the globe with their nightly dose of biting satire, but here Noah turns his focus inward, giving readers a deeply personal, heartfelt and humorous look at the world that shaped him.

Noah was born a crime, son of a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother, at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents' indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the first years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, take him away.

A collection of eighteen personal stories, Born a Crime tells the story of a mischievous young boy growing into a restless young man as he struggles to find his place in a world where he was never supposed to exist. Born a Crime is equally the story of that young man's fearless, rebellious and fervently religious mother—a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that ultimately threatens her own life.

Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Noah illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and an unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a personal portrait of an unlikely childhood in a dangerous time, as moving and unforgettable as the very best memoirs and as funny as Noah's own hilarious stand-up. Born a Crime is a must read.

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.

five-stars

Review: Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review: Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Published by Anchor ISBN: 0307455920
on March 4th 2014
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 589
Format: Audio, E-Book
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

From the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a powerful story of love, race and identity.

As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?

Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

Third time’s a charm. I have tried to finish this book twice before, and I stalled out in about the same place both times. I decided to try to finish it this time because Carol Jago is leading a book club discussion of the book on Facebook for the National Council of Teachers of English members. I knew the problem with not being able to finish the book was me. Everyone I know who has read this book loved it, and I love Adichie, too, and I knew I should love this book. For some reason, I was just getting stuck right around the first part that focuses on Obinze. For what it’s worth, I do think the Obinze sections drag a bit, and I’m not sure why because his story is interesting, especially his sojourn as an undocumented immigrant in the UK.

When I was at lunch at work a couple of weeks ago, I complained about getting stuck with this book. One of the people listening to me complain asked me if I’d tried the audiobook. I listen to audio books all the time, but I had this one Kindle, so no, I hadn’t tried the audiobook, but I decided it might be just the thing to get me past being stuck. Once I got past that part, I admit I was riveted by the book. I was puttering around the house the last week or so, listening whenever I could.

One quibble I think I have with the book is the notion that Ifemelu’s blogs take off so quickly in popularity. I suppose some people get lucky in that regard, and yes, I’ve been approached for advertising on my education blog (which I don’t feel comfortable doing), but it seemed a bit unrealistic to me that her blogs both became so popular so fast. However, in the grand scheme of the book, this issue is so minor as to be nearly nonexistent. Adichie offers a thoughtful critique of race and class America, the UK, and Nigeria, as her characters explore their identities and struggle to make it as immigrants.

I understand a movie is in the offing, and that Lupita Nyong’o has been cast as Ifemelu and David Oyelowo as Obinze. The book could certainly make a good film, though I wonder how it will capture all the complexity of the novel. I could see teaching this novel at the college level, though I think it might be a bit too long for high school students, even in AP classes. However, it would offer wonderful opportunities for discussion with a class novel study. I would recommend this book to everyone, but I think white liberals especially have something to learn from this book.

five-stars

Review: There There, Tommy Orange

Review: There There, Tommy OrangeThere There by Tommy Orange
Published by Knopf ISBN: 0525520376
on June 5, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 294
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

Fierce, angry, funny, heartbreaking—Tommy Orange’s first novel is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few of us have ever seen, and it introduces a brilliant new author at the start of a major career.

There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Here is a voice we have never heard—a voice full of poetry and rage, exploding onto the page with stunning urgency and force. Tommy Orange writes of the urban Native American, the Native American in the city, in a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide. An unforgettable debut, destined to become required reading in schools and universities across the country.

This book is a stunner. I checked into it after hearing so many teacher friends talking about it on Twitter, and I’m so glad I did. I plan to incorporate it into my curriculum for a new Social Justice in Literature and History course I will be proposing.

Not only is the language masterful, but Tommy Orange created memorable characters, connected in some ways to other characters. All their paths will converge at the Big Oakland Powwow. I haven’t quite read anything like it from a Native American writer, in part because Orange focuses on the “urban Indian.” I learned quite a few things I didn’t know from this book as well. For example, I had no idea Native Americans “occupied” Alcatraz in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The book raises many issues worthy of discussion, from the treatment of Native Americans in the United States, to spousal abuse, to child neglect, to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, to the importance of storytelling, to recapturing lost culture, to OCD. Yet, it never feels like a novel stacking as many issues as society confronts as it can all at once. It just feels like it’s telling it like it is.

By the end, I was invested in the characters and hoped they might each find some closure. It’s a beautiful, poignant novel, and if I hadn’t read Homegoing this year, it would run away with the title of the best book of the year for me. As it is, it’s a tough call. I might have to have two favorites.

I am calling it a wrap on the Monthly Motif Challenge for 2018 and electing to classify this as a repeat of the “Diversify Your Reading” theme from January. I never did a Vacation Read in July. Perhaps I’ll try to squeeze that last book in during my winter break.

five-stars

November Reading Update

It’s been a long time since I last posted. I started grad school, which hasn’t allowed much time for independent reading or for writing. I am trying to find a balance because reading is really important to me.

I am taking a breather to post some quick reviews of some things I’ve read since my last post.

Remarkably, given how little reading I’ve been able to do over the last two months, I’m just two books behind in achieving my goal of reading 50 books this year. I might still pull out meeting this goal.

The last book I reviewed was Blind Spot in August. Since then, I’ve read four more books.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is an interesting exploration of the effects of incarceration. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when they travel to his hometown to visit his parents. They make the fateful decision to stay in a hotel for some additional privacy. Roy helps a fellow hotel guest with the ice machine, and later, she accuses him of raping her. Celestial knows Roy can’t have done it because he was with her at the time, but he is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones explores the effects of Roy’s imprisonment to both Celestial and Roy as well as their marriage and the broader repercussions of mass incarceration in the African-American community.

Rating: ★★★★½

 

My husband and I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology as read by Gaiman himself. I always recommend Neil Gaiman’s audio books because he is an excellent reader.

Gaiman draws inspiration for this collection from a variety of sources in Norse mythology. His stories retain the humor of the myths, but they feel re-invigorated in his hands. This collection is a must-read for anyone who enjoys mythology, or Neil Gaiman, or good stories in general.

Loki, in particular, is a nuanced, complex, and interesting character. Tom Hiddleston would be proud.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the RIP Challenge (more on that later in the post). This novel is the story of Mary Catherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her sister Constance, the town recluses who live in a large empty house with their Uncle Julian, who is compiling his memoirs about the poisoning murders of the rest of the Blackwood family some years earlier.

Eh. I finished it. It was okay; not great, not horrible. I understand a lot of people find the character Merricat Blackwood interesting. I guess I am not among their number. I guessed what was supposed to be a big surprise ending pretty early on; I’m not bragging because I’m usually terrible at guessing the surprise ending in thrillers. I also didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House, which a lot of people love. I think I’m just not into Shirley Jackson. I do love “The Lottery.”

Rating: ★★★☆☆

 

José Olivarez’s poetry collection Citizen Illegal was a hit with my students. I bought it on the recommendation of some teacher friends on Twitter. The collection explores Latinx identities, including the tension of being a first-generation American of Mexican parents who came to America as undocumented immigrants. He explores issues of language, culture, race, gender, class, and immigration with a fresh, engaging voice. Many of the poems stand out, particularly the series called “Mexican Heaven.” The opening poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)” might be my favorite.

I participated in a Twitter chat about the book with some of the teacher friends who recommended the book, and the poet himself chimed in. I love reading living poets!

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

I didn’t make it through the RIP Challenge. RIP the RIP Challenge, I guess! Grad school interrupted my flow. I still have time to complete the other challenges that run until the end of December, but some of them are not looking likely at the moment.

I’m going to try to carve out more time to read and reflect on my reading here. I can tell a difference when I don’t sit down and write about a book right after finishing it. I had to look up the names of the characters in An American Marriage because I had read it so long ago. Unsatisfactory!

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
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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.