Tag: Alabama

Review: The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson


“You and me, we have to get on the same page now,” I told her.
“I’ve been on your page since the day that you were born, sugar,” Wattie said, but then she added tartly, “Though all this week I wondered if you might be illiterate.”

Thirty-eight and pregnant from a one-night stand with a black Batman at a ComicCon, graphic novel illustrator and author Leia Birch Briggs finds herself the eye around which a maelstrom of family chaos rages. Before she can break her news to her family, her sister Rachel’s family life implodes, leaving Leia caring for her teenage niece, even as she has to travel to Birchville, Alabama to care for her ailing grandmother. Shortly after her arrival in Birchville, all holy hell breaks loose around Leia’s beloved grandmother Birchie and her devoted friend Wattie, an African-American woman Birchie’s known and cherished as her best friend almost her entire life. As Leia struggles to keep everything together in her new-found caretaker role, she begins to discover things about herself, her characters, and her family that will profoundly change how she moves forward in her own life.

Don’t judge a book by its flap-copy
If you asked me before I read The Almost Sisters if I had any interest in reading a book about a woman who writes comic books and gets knocked up from a one-night stand at a ComicCon, I would resoundingly have answered, “no.” I don’t read comics, I don’t religiously follow The Avengers movies, and I’m not sure I can correctly sift Marvel characters from DC outside of the major characters in each.

But I am so very glad I picked up this book. I love this book for its believably flawed central character Leia, for the dignity Joshilyn Jackson gave the aging Birchie, and the gentleness she showed with Wattie, Birchie’s closest friend and an African American woman living in a small town in Alabama. If you love women, if you cheer for books that highlight and champion women and their relationships, this is a book for you. The comic stuff is the background around which the main story is built and is still delightful even if you’re a comic outsider—you do not need any existing background knowledge to love this story. (Ok, it might help if you know who Batman and Wonder Woman are, but that’s it.)

Relationships among women
During the recent author chat with the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club, Jackson mentioned that she was inspired with this book to flip the biblical story of Rachel and Leah around—what if Leah/Leia is the interesting sister and the focal point of the story of Rachel, Leah, and Jacob? As Jackson said, “What if you were the one who didn’t get picked, but you’re valuable and good at what you do?—this is what Leia/Leah would look like.”

Though in almost every possible way, I’ve since left that culture, I did grow up heavily immersed in a Southern Baptist church. I had never, in thirty-something years of churching, stopped to think about Leah. The narrative is always about Rachel as the pretty, desirable one; but Jackson is right. Leah is resourceful, successful, and does everything she should do for that time and yet, the focus is Rachel. Though I didn’t see this theme as clearly as I did before the chat with Jackson, I appreciated her eye for the forgotten sister. For giving the woman who is usually left out of the story her own voice and book. Of course, the biblical starting point was just that—a starting point. Unless I am misremembering significant portions of Genesis, Leah never slept with an African American dressed as Batman at a ComicCon and got knocked up out of wedlock so…the analogy is loose and not triggering if you’re in a place where the Bible is not a safe book for you—it’s reqlly quite easy to miss or ignore outside of the characters’ names. Additionally, if you’re completely unfamiliar with this particular biblical story, The Almost Sisters still holds up. You do not need to know the story of Rachel and Leah in the slightest to love this story.

Jackson starts with the relationship between Rachel and Leah and expands from there, exploring the multitude of sister-like relationships between women from the formal step-sister bond between Rachel and Leia to the best friend/companion relationship between white Birchie and black Wattie. Though difficult to describe without giving spoilers away (and I won’t!), Leia’s comic characters Violet and Violence are also intertwined in a way that brings another fun dimension to the idea of female identity relative to another woman. The relationships here are so rich, I feel like this is a book that will hold up to multiple readings, with new little discoveries with each reading.

Gems and Easter Eggs
I loved that though this wasn’t a hoity-toity book—the Library of Congress information in the front of the book tells me this is a “Domestic fiction” and “Contemporary Women’s Fiction” book—pardon me while I pause for an eye-roll at whomever named those categories—but the writing still sparkled. Rather than describing Birchie as simply “having dementia,” Jackson describes her as “deep in the badlands of the brain.” Leia describes sleeping with Ambien-zonked Rachel as “sleeping with a bag of upset cats.” She describes Rachel’s brand of love and help as “so relentless[ ] that I wished I had a safe word.”

I adore a book that defies the (unfairly low in this case) expectations of its genre. Beautiful writing doesn’t have to be dripping poetry and limited to literary fiction. Truly fantastic writing draws you in without making you feel like an outsider. It introduces you to new words, new ways of seeing, and new metaphors. In the ways she writes about these little mundanities of life, Jackson’s writing brings The Almost Sisters to life. I cannot remember a time I so thoroughly enjoyed reading a “Women’s Fiction” book.

I should add here, when speaking of the little gems scattered across Jackson’s writing, that there are also apparently numerous hidden “easter eggs” for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dr. Who. The references to those fandoms certainly fit with the context of ComicCon and who Leia is. While I picked up none of them (not being a card-carrying member of either of those groups), apparently they are there and readers who see them are loving them. As someone who didn’t pick up on them, I appreciated that they were so subtle that I wasn’t left feeling like I was missing something—there was nothing that hit me over the head with the inside reference and made me feel like an outsider. If you didn’t get it, you didn’t even see it and it didn’t detract from the story.

The Second South
I don’t normally go out of my way to describe characters by their race, yet its important for The Almost Sisters that both Leia’s Batman and Wattie are African-American. Layered with the story about the friendships of women is the darker, secondary theme of there being a Second South. The Second South is why the pastor reflexively tries to take Birchie’s hand out of Wattie’s arm, why people see Wattie as the help. Why Leia slowly starts to realize that her child, currently protected by the whiteness of her skin, will face entirely different challenges once out in the world as a mixed-race black boy. I do not want to detract from Jackson’s story by hammering the details here; however, I deeply appreciated that the reality of the racist Second South was a significant theme and was very much acknowledged.

As you may know from earlier reviews on this site for Dreamland Burning and Killers of the Flower Moon, I am often wary of white authors writing black characters or telling stories with moral lessons about racism. It can absolutely be done well but the dangers of it being done poorly (and then everyone patting themselves on the back, thinking their job well done) are high. Again, my perspective is similar if not the same as Jackson’s—I speak from a place of cis, white, able privilege—but I thought Jackson handled the racial overtones at play in The Almost Sisters well. She writes without making any apologies for the Second South. You can tell she loves the South as her own but her brand of love means you don’t sit there and let the cancer grow without calling it out and trying to excise it.

Reading Environment
When I read I try to think of where the reader would ideally be reading a given book. Some books lend themselves to the beach. Some to a cozy armchair with a cup of tea. Some are perfect for my favorite corner table at my local Starbucks. When I try to think of that same thing with The Almost Sisters, I come up with no single option. At the risk of sounding like Sam I Am, this is a book that can be read anywhere (in a box…with a fox…while eating lox….).

The Almost Sisters strikes a unique balance—the writing fizzes like a glass of happy champagne—yet Jackson is making serious points that ring true about racism in the South. The book is simultaneously airy and heavy. The writing makes it a book for the beach, the themes a book to spark discussion in many a book club.

Published July 11, 2017 by William Morrow (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Joshilyn Jackson (@joshilyn_jackson)
Date read: August 3, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhai Lai


Oh, my daughter/ at times you have to fight,/ but preferably/ not with your fists

Beginning with the Vietnamese New Year (Têt), Inside Out and Back Again follows the life of Hà, ten year-old girl living with her mother and three brothers in the last days of Saigon, fleeing the city the day it fell. She lives on a ship, in a refugee camp, and then, finally, in Alabama, sponsored by a good-hearted man. She must navigate English and schoolyard politics. Told in free verse poetry, Inside Out and Back Again is simultaneously a story of many of the tiny cruelties and tiny joys that make up the life of a child and a beautiful story of resilience.

The Fall of Vietnam, as told by a Child
It is not difficult to see why Inside Out and Back Again won both Newberry Honors and the National Book Award when it was published. The poems balance the mundanity of daily life when you are ten with three older brothers—watching and waiting for her papaya to grow, juxtaposed with the chaos of the last days of Vietnam from the perspective of a child whose only understanding of the crisis are her mother’s brows twist[ing] like laundry being wrung dry. Her brother clings to a chick he hatched as Saigon fell, even when the process of fleeing causes its death. Hà mistakes her family’s sponsor—a tall Alabaman—with a cowboy, holding out hope he’ll take her on the horse he ultimately doesn’t have.

Thanhha Lai pulls the reader in, managing to present what is happening to Hà and Saigon in a way that is accessible to elementary and middle grade readers while still being remarkably moving to adult readers. I don’t have either an elementary or middle grade reader in my house, yet I’m looking for my own copy of this book. By writing in free- verse as well, the poetry is accessible, even though it’s…you know…poetry.

Novels in verse
I didn’t realize I enjoyed novels in verse until reading Inside Out and Back Again and Brown Girl Dreaming. I read Brown Girl Dreaming first and enjoyed it but Inside Out and Back Again pushed me over the top on this particular form. I loved this book, with its spare words—in merely thirty words on a page, Lai told me more about Hà and her life than a “regular” novel with one hundred words on a page and twice as many chapters. I haven’t yet dabbled with finding an adult book in verse yet, but Brown Girl Dreaming and Inside Out and Back Again have made me feel like it could be accessible and enjoyable.

My favorites in the collection were the first—the day of Têt—as well as the poems about learning English once she moves to Alabama. Interspersed in the short poems are lines like “Whoever invented/ English/ must have loved/ snakes” and “Would be simpler/ if English/ and life/ were logical.” (English is my first language and I still feel this one!) Lai writes phonetically as Hà learns English (“MiSSS SScott” is her teacher), a little addition that draws the reader fully into Hà’s world, full of this new, strange language.

History Class Failures
This book showed me I know embarrassingly little about the Vietnam War. We almost never reached it in history class in high school or only spent a day on it, moving on to Reagan and the entirety of the ‘80s the next day. I’ve never learned more because military history was never my thing and the bulk of what is out there always seemed to me to be military history. Shamefully, I had never stopped to think what this war must have been like for the people of Vietnam—that the history of this conflict was far more than its impact on the American military and the discontent at home. Inside Out and Back Again showed me that not only do I need to know more about this part of world history but also that I want to know more.

Reading with Kids
With that caveat that I don’t have kids and so don’t actually know what I’m talking about here…I also think this book could be a wonderful tool to talk about being different, bullying, and friendship with kids.   Hà doesn’t speak English and so seems to be slow to many of her classmates. She wears a nightgown to school one day, not realizing it is a nightgown and not a dress. This book could open a conversation with kids as to why people do things that sometimes seem strange to others. She eventually gains two friends who are also outsiders, though in a different way than Hà. She suffers under the cruelties of a bully (“the pink boy”) until eventually vanquishing him, leaving the reader cheering all the more for her.

I can see this being an excellent book to read in short bits (the poems are between one and three pages) and then talk about—what do you think Hà’s life was like? Why do you think the pink boy was so mean? What should you do if you see someone like Hà? Even though I could have read this quickly, I found the book lent itself to being read slowly, to being savored. I find that when I read poetry quickly, I don’t glean as much from it as when I limit my intake and take time to really sit with what I’ve read rather than consuming large quantities at once.

Given today’s climate, the influx of global refugees, and the growth of minority populations, this book could spark great conversations about what it means to be a neighbor, to be welcoming. The approach to the Vietnam war is also age-appropriate. With the exception of the fact that her father is missing, there is little else about the war that is directly mentioned, just the fact that it makes her move and leave as Saigon falls. There will likely be some background explanation necessary for a child reader, but even my vague, elementary understanding of the war was enough for me to understand (and to explain if necessary) what was happening to Hà as the story progressed.
Adult Readers
I step back/hating pity/ having learned/ from Mother that/ the pity giver/ feels better,/ never the pity receiver

For an adult reader, the book raises interesting questions about who we see as other and what we consider charity—how helpful or not it is and for whose benefit we are really acting. In hindsight, there are many things I’ve done or given that made me feel “better” disproportionate to their likely worth (…the orphans in Nicaragua probably really didn’t need all those T-shirts of mine in college). Having the narrator here be a child makes these lessons feel less condemning while still impactful. The same lessons that make this a wonderful book for children—why someone from another country might do something strange and why someone might appear to be slower when they don’t know English—apply equally for adults.

Living in Texas where there is a constant influx of immigrants—just this weekend, coyotes left dozens in a hot truck in San Antonio, including children, resulting in several deaths—this book feels all the more timely. The conflicts are different, the reasons people come here are different, but how we treat people—with kindness, respect, and dignity for their humanity—should never change.

Published January 2, 2013 by HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: Thanhha Lai
Date read: July 6, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars