November Reading Round-Up

I haven’t had much time to do reviews lately, so I’m going to gather up a few short reviews for books I’ve read since finishing the last book I reviewed, Sourdough Culture. I re-read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as I was teaching both books this month. I tried something I have never done before I listened to both books as I took my daily walks at 1.3x speed. I found I was able to keep up and get through the readings more quickly. I’m not sure it would work with books I’ve never read before, but it was a great timesaver for re-reading books I needed to read for work.

I also re-read Frankenstein along with Michael Ian Black’s podcast Obscure. It was interesting, as Michael pointed out some of the book’s flaws, and I have to admit I hadn’t noticed these storytelling issues in the past, largely, I believe, as a result of English teacher conditioning. I’d be the first to admit not all classics are great, but it was interesting to read this book along with someone who didn’t like it.

November Reading Round-UpThe 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson, Nikkolas Smith
Published by Kokila ISBN: 0593307356
on November 16, 2021
Genres: Childrens
Pages: 48
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

The 1619 Project’s lyrical picture book in verse chronicles the consequences of slavery and the history of Black resistance in the United States, thoughtfully rendered by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and Newbery honor-winning author Renée Watson. A young student receives a family tree assignment in school, but she can only trace back three generations. Grandma gathers the whole family, and the student learns that 400 years ago, in 1619, their ancestors were stolen and brought to America by white slave traders. But before that, they had a home, a land, a language. She learns how the people said to be born on the water survived.

This book was outstanding. I often purchase children’s books for classroom use even though I teach high school because if you can explain a topic to a child, pretty much anyone can understand it. Over the last five years or so, in particular, children’s publishing has made a much greater effort to incorporate books about children of color by authors of color. They still have a way to go, but it’s important for all children to see themselves in books, and it’s also important for all children to learn about people who are different from them. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop developed the term “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” to explain this concept. The sliding glass doors are an invitation to enter, to go inside. I was able to attend a keynote at a recent English teacher’s conference in which the author Nikole Hannah-Jones and illustrator Nikkolas Smith discussed the making of this book, and it was fascinating to hear about the way Smith developed the artwork, which is gorgeous. What I love most about this book is the counternarrative it offers to a colonist’s perspective that an indigenous culture had no culture. Naturally, this is never true, but it’s a lie that is often told to justify treating people as less than human. This would be a great gift for any child’s library, and it should also be in every school and classroom library.

November Reading Round-UpGrace: Based on the Jeff Buckley Story by Tiffanie DeBartolo, Pascal Dizin
Published by First Second ISBN: 159643287X
on April 28, 2019
Genres: Biography
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
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three-stars

A moving graphic biography for music lovers, Grace: The Jeff Buckley Story is painstakingly researched and created in collaboration with Jeff Buckley's estate.

California, 1991. All his life, people have told Jeff Buckley how much he looks like his father, the famous ’60s folksinger he barely knew. But Jeff believes he has gifts of his own: a rare, octave-spanning voice and a songwriting genius that has only started to show itself. After he falls in love with a mysterious girl in New York, he sets out to make a name for himself outside his father’s shadow. What follows are six turbulent years of music, heartbreak, hope, and daring—culminating in a tragedy that’s still reverberating in the music world today. Written by Tiffanie DeBartolo and with art by Pascal Dizin and Lisa Reist, this graphic novel biography uses archival material provided by Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, to reveal the young songwriter in the process of becoming a legend.

This book was good. Let me start by saying that I’m a huge fan of Jeff Buckley’s, and I have been for a long time. I recently went to see a touring production of Hadestown with my husband, and once my husband pointed out that Orpheus was giving off Jeff Buckley vibes, I couldn’t unsee it. I listened to the off-Broadway production and discovered that Damon Daunno pretty much sounds just like Jeff Buckley.

And he even resembles him a bit. Broadway performer Reeve Carney has been tapped to play Jeff Buckley in a film production based on the artist’s life. I remembered I had this graphic biography on my wishlist, so I went ahead and purchased it. I felt that at times, the story was not treated with seriousness, but this feeling has more to do with the art than the writing. I really didn’t care for the art; the cover led me to believe I’d be seeing something different inside the book, and while some of the art was fantastic, most of it was too cartoony. The story sort of peters out after Buckley records Grace, and I would have liked to have seen more of his story. The book seems to imply that Buckley committed suicide, which is a rumor that has been given no credit by anyone who knew him.

November Reading Round-UpWe Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell, Frané Lessac
Published by Charlesbridge Publishing ISBN: 1623541921
on April 20, 2021
Genres: Childrens
Pages: 40
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

Twelve Native American kids present historical and contemporary laws, policies, struggles, and victories in Native life, each with a powerful refrain: We are still here! Too often, Native American history is treated as a finished chapter instead of relevant and ongoing. This companion book to the award-winning We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga offers readers everything they never learned in school about Native American people's past, present, and future. Precise, lyrical writing presents topics including: forced assimilation (such as boarding schools), land allotment and Native tribal reorganization, termination (the US government not recognizing tribes as nations), Native urban relocation (from reservations), self-determination (tribal self-empowerment), Native civil rights, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), religious freedom, economic development (including casino development), Native language revival efforts, cultural persistence, and nationhood.

This was another classroom library purchase, and I think it explains very succinctly what issues indigenous people have experienced with settler colonialism in the USA. I was not surprised to learn one of the sources for the information was David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. I learned much of the information covered in this children’s book from Treuer’s book. However, as I said before, if you can explain it to a child, you can explain it to anyone. One of the reviewers on Goodreads complained this would not make a great read-aloud for children, and I would say I agree with that assessment. It’s more of an information text for people of all ages who want to learn about the issues the book discusses.

November Reading Round-UpChange Sings: a Children's Anthem by Amanda Gorman, Loren Long
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers ISBN: 0593203224
on September 21, 2021
Genres: Childrens
Pages: 32
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

A lyrical picture book debut from Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and illustrator Loren Long. “I can hear change humming/ In its loudest, proudest song. / I don’t fear change coming, / And so I sing along.” In this stirring, much-anticipated picture book by inaugural Youth Poet Laureate and activist Amanda Gorman, anything is possible when our voices join together. As a young girl leads a cast of characters on a musical journey, they learn that they have the power to make changes—big or small—in the world, in their communities, and in most importantly, in themselves.

In contrast to the previous book, this book was made for read-alouds, and it’s no wonder, as Amanda Gorman is a brilliant young poet. This book’s catchy language will appeal to people of all ages, as well. I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of gifts for children, especially. I’m not sure if it has a place in my classroom library, as it doesn’t focus on a single issue, though the artwork makes it clear the book is about community organization. I think that’s what would make the book appealing to children, however. It’s a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book.

Update 12/2: I have removed the name of one of the illustrators of Grace by request. I retrieve all metadata on books from Goodreads.

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
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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: The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad was one of the most discussed books of 2016, so if you haven’t read it, chances are you know something about it. In any case, it is the story of runaway slave Cora who is making her way north from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad, which in Colson’s novel is not a metaphorical name for the network sympathizers, abolitionists, former slaves, and others who helped escaping slaves on their way to freedom but an actual technological marvel—a railroad, under the ground. The book has been compared to Gulliver’s Travels, which earns a mention in the reading of Cora’s friend and fellow escapee, Caesar. At each station or stop in Cora’s journey, she is confronted with a different sort of evil that Americans have perpetrated against their fellow Americans, from bringing them to America in chains, to lynching, to terrorism, to more subtle means of subjugation and deception, such as medical experimentation.

My book club selected this to read, and I knew our meeting was coming up, but I wasn’t sure when until one of my friends reminded me. It’s this coming week! I wasn’t sure I could finish the book in time for our meeting, but I decided I had best pick it up and read at least some of it, especially because I was one of the members who suggested we read it.

I actually couldn’t put it down, and I read it in two big gulps over yesterday and today. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Whitehead plays with documented historical fact, entwining it with speculative fiction, imagining an antebellum America where South Carolina had skyscrapers and an actual railroad leading slaves north ran underground. These fantastic aspects of the novel allow Whitehead to explore the broader history of the African-American experience through the eyes of a single character. The only other way I think he could have done it would have been a sort of immense Roots-like multigenerational epic rather than this tight narrative that allows us into the life of one character. It also allows Whitehead to show the scope of the atrocity of slavery and racism in all its depth and breadth. It’s hard to put down—I wanted to see Cora to safety in the North so badly, that I sat and read for two days! I can’t give the ending away, but I will admit I needed more satisfaction after following Cora on her odyssey all that way. And as much as anything else, the ending has to be that way because it is the truth about the African-American experience.

This novel hit me like Beloved. I credit Beloved with finally helping me get it, as a white woman. After reading Beloved, I felt like for the first time, I had a small understanding of what the lingering and devastating effects of slavery on our country. Of course I can’t ever really understand what I haven’t experienced, but through books like Beloved and The Underground Railroad, I can gain empathy I didn’t have before I read them. This book is Beloved for the next generation. It’s a critical book for our times, just as Between the World and Me is critical. In fact, I recommend they be read back-to-back if you haven’t read either book yet. It’s a wonderful book, and it might be the best one I read all year. It’s certainly in the top five.

Ron Charles (as usual) has a great review in the WaPo. Michiko Kakutani liked it, too, and she is tough. Definitely read both reviews, which capture the power of this novel better than I have been able to do here. As Kakutani so astutely notes in her review, quoting Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In the case of this book, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book ostensibly about slavery that also so accurately describes our own moment in history.

Rating: ★★★★★

Set in the antebellum South as Cora travels from Georgia to Indiana and that vague fantasyland known as “North,” though with some elements of speculative fiction, this book works for the Historical Fiction Challenge.