Tag: Atlanta

Review: Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

Review: Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard

I received a digital ARC of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

Visible Empire: Epigraphs

Atlanta has suffered her greatest tragedy and loss.
-Mayor Ivan Allen

Many people have been asking, “Well what are you going to do?” And since we know that the man is tracking us down day by day to try and find out what we are going to do, so he’ll have some excuse to put us behind his bars, we call on our God. He gets rid of one hundred twenty of them in one whop…and we hope that every day another plane falls out of the sky.
-Malcom X at the Ronald Stokes Protest in L.A.

Foundation/Synopsis
The foundation of Visible Empire is the 1962 fatal crash of an Air France jet transporting 121 of Atlanta’s art patrons—the wealthy, white, upper-crust of the city. From there, Pittard builds her tale of those left behind—the grieving remainder of the muckety-mucks, the white serving class, and the subjugated black population of the city. From here we meet Roger, grieving the loss of his mistress and parents-in-law; Lily, reeling from the double-yet-different-losses of her parents and Roger; Piedmont, an African-American youth pulled into Roger and Lily’s orbits at a time of upheaval in his own life; and Stacy, a white serving class woman who sees an opportunity and takes it.

Invisible and Visible Empires
The title Visible Empire is actually a nod to the full name of the Ku Klux Klan—the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. If the Invisible Empire of the KKK is the shadowy, hooded phantoms that move at night, the overt racism of 1962 Atlanta is the Visible Empire. It is the status quo of wealth and privilege that is ignored until tragedy literally falls from the sky. Black men and women were beaten and died every day in the South in the 1960s and no one batted an eye. Over one hundred white people from Atlanta die, and suddenly the world is watching.

Pittard makes her intentions clear in the quotes she chooses for her Epigraph, including the two quotes I started this review with. The loss is seen as monumental to the city—The New York Times runs articles on this great loss and its impact to the city. In contrast at the time, The New York Times hadn’t once run an article on the massive loss of black life in the city in the preceding years. While most of us see the KKK as extremist and wrong, far fewer examine the status quo of white privilege that sees the loss of one hundred white lives as catastrophic and the poisoning of hundreds of black lives in Flint, Michigan as old news. Visible Empire was set in 1962 but in many regards could be set today.

Characters
The story is presented through a series of alternating character vignettes. Roger is a journalist, embroiled in an affair with a younger colleague who was on the doomed flight. Lily is Roger’s wife, pregnant with her and Roger’s first child, sent reeling at the loss of her parents and her abandonment by Roger. Intersecting with their story is that of Piedmont, an eighteen year-old black youth on the precipice of identity—faced with the choice of whether he will accept the status quo, keep his head down, and stay safe or whether he will stand and fight, link arms with other black men and women in the south saying that they have had enough. Finally there is Stacy, a character whose story is only tangentially connected to the Roger-Lily-Piedmont narrative. Stacy has grown tired of her hardscrabble life, believes she deserves more, and takes an opportunity to impersonate one of the left-behind upper class Atlantians.

Roger
Roger’s character is interesting—when I sat down to describe him, I can only come up with negative descriptors—he’s the epitome of white privilege, married into money, selfish, and willing to throw away everything—and yet—of course!—because he’s white, his bad choice roosters don’t really come home to roost. I should hate him. At times I did. But damn it, Pittard make me want the best for him. There’s something about him that made me want him to stop throwing everything he had away, to stop making bad choices, and to set things right.

Lily
Much like her name, Lily is the pure white character in the book. She’s the virtuous, wronged woman, the woman in need of rescue. While she’s one of the muckety-muck class, her tragedy makes her sympathetic and her treatment of Piedmont shows the reader that she’s not really like one of them. Lily is perhaps the most trope-y of the characters, acting her part as the damsel in distress. When Roger leaves, Lily starts to learn to stand on her own. Though Piedmont quickly enters her life and she gets another man she can lean on. I’m torn on whether I think she ultimately learned to stand on her own or just switched out her men. She’s likeable and it’s clear Pittard made an effort to make her seem independent. I’m just not entirely sure it worked. Where Piedmont became a vehicle to present Lily to the reader, in many ways Lily served that role for Roger. I had no problems with Lily as I was reading and was sympathetic to her and what she was going through; yet the longer I sit with the book, I’m not sure I really got to know her.

Piedmont
Pittard is a white author and I’m a white reader so my ability to analyze the characterization of Piedmont, the only black main character, is limited. With that said, of all the characters, Piedmont seemed the most well-rounded to me and was my favorite character. Where Roger’s wrestling with who he is as a man reeks of privilege and self-pity, Piedmont’s exploration of what it means to be a black man coming of age in 1962 Atlanta seemed real and drew me in. The choices he makes are understandable, though often unwise (so, fairly typical of an eighteen year-old). And yet, as a reader you still root for him. When he stands on his own or interacts with Roger, he is at his strongest. When he interacts with Lily, he faded a bit for me—partially as a consequence of Pittard using his interactions with Lily to provide opportunities for growth for her. I want the best for him and though I recognize he is simply a fictional character, there’s a part of me that hopes wherever he is, he turned out ok.

Stacy
Distinct from the Lily-Roger-Piedmont story line is that of Stacy/Anastasia. I have to admit that I hated her character, though this seems intentional on the part of Pittard. Stacy has a sympathetic enough backstory to give her a likeable dimension, though the choices she makes reveal fairly quickly that her brother’s accusation of her narcissism is accurate. Just when I was at the point of thoroughly hating her, there’s an unexpected twist in her story. She goes from being the con artist to the mark. This created a conundrum for me—I didn’t like her as a character, I felt sorry for her victim; but then these roles shifted. Stacy’s entire storyline, while intersecting with Lily-Roger-Piedmont enough that it didn’t feel entirely disparate, stood alone. It raised questions of who we consider victims and who we consider perpetrators. It introduced a “poor white” element to the story that was otherwise missing within the exploration of rich Atlanta’s relationship with its black population.

My major issue with Stacy’s storyline is the treatment of the two LGBTQ characters who appear in Stacy’s chapters. We are given enough background to see how they came to be the way they are (which isn’t to say how they came to be gay, but how they came to be the kind of people who make the kind of choices they make). Neither is portrayed particularly kindly and both are villains in their own rights—this negative portrayal felt stereotypical to me. An LGBTQ character can absolutely be a villain in your book; however, if you’re going to have negative gay characters, it feels like you should damn well include at least one virtuous one. To Pittard’s credit, everyone in this book is behaving badly except Piedmont and arguably Lily so it’s not like the only evil characters are gay; yet this treatment still felt unbalanced.

Recommended
Ultimately, I do think the point Visible Empire attempts to make is an important one.   The book is well-written and it moves at a good pace—my dislike of Stacy made her chapters feel long at times, though this had more to do with my feelings for the character than it did with missteps in Pittard’s writing. Pittard is obviously skilled at making you feel strongly about her characters—I rooted for Roger while being exasperated with him and thinking he did not deserve my affection. I felt sorry for Stacy at the same time I would never want to actually meet her in real life. Visible Empire isn’t going to make my top ten list for the year but if you are interested in historical fiction and/or books that explore racial themes that still apply, I do think it is worth your time. It is one I would recommend for someone looking for a book that reads a bit lighter in writing style but packs a message and for book clubs, since I think this book will draw a diversity of opinions.

Notes
Published: June 5, 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (@hmhbooks)
Author: Hannah Pittard (@hannahpittard)
Date read: May 22, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Review: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

All around Roy were shards of a broken life, not merely a broken heart. Yet who could deny that I was the only one who could mend him, if he could be healed at all? Women’s work is never easy, never clean.

Synopsis
On the night Roy and Celestial decide to try for a baby, Roy is arrested and wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Roy and Celestial find themselves looking at a twelve-year sentence only eighteen months into their marriage. As Roy lives behind bars, life—and his marriage—moves on without him. When Roy finds himself suddenly released early, he sets off home to find out what, if anything, remains of his and Celestial’s marriage.

Characters
Jones did an excellent job introducing Roy and fleshing out his character. Of the three viewpoints in An American Marriage (Roy, Celestial, and their friend Andre), he was the only character I felt I really knew. Even the viewpoints of the other characters seemed mostly to serve to introduce Roy to the reader. When Andre visits Roy’s father to pick Roy up from prison, I didn’t learn anything in particular about Andre; rather, I saw Roy through his father’s eyes. Saw the sacrifices that allowed Roy Jr. to leave his small town, to try to become the man he wanted to be. I met Roy through the dialect of the people where he grew up in Louisiana, through Celestial and her family that adopts him in Atlanta.

I don’t feel the same about Celestial, though my sense that I don’t now her comes as a contrast to Roy since I felt he was so deeply introduced. Her chapters seemed to try to give an introduction to who Celestial was, particularly when interacting with her father and Roy’s and Andre’s chapters gave an outside view of her…but I was left feeling like I didn’t know Celestial nearly as well as I knew Roy, and I wanted to. The book doesn’t read as if it is about one main character, but rather that the Marriage and its participants are the focus. And yet, I was left hanging with Celestial—unconnected to her as a character, not engaged with her and the choices she was making. In some ways, it seemed Celestial didn’t truly know herself and her actions reflected this. However, if the point was that Celestial didn’t’ know herself, this made it awfully difficult to introduce her to a reader and to make a reader care for her. It was ultimately a lopsided marriage and while the writing may have been making this point, it didn’t feel like a deliberate choice not to round out Celestial. In some ways, I even felt like I knew Andre better than I knew Celestial and he was the most peripheral of the three characters.

Themes
Two related themes in An American Marriage struck me in particular and made this book both a good and a hard read. The first, admittedly obvious point, is that being an African American (particularly an African American man) in this country (particularly but not exclusively in the South) has inherent danger. No matter how far you have climbed, how upright and moral you are, the color of you skin alone places you in suspicion. When circumstances are right (or wrong), the color of your skin alone can land you in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. It’s easy to think that Roy’s story in An American Marriage is just a story, based around a plotline that is far-fetched. And yet, the wrongful convictions of four African-American and one Hispanic youth in the Central Park Jogger case and the wrongful conviction of African-American football player Brian Banks belie the idea that wrongful convictions of people of color still happen.

The second was a question about how far from your roots you can ever really grow. On the one hand, Celestial’s father was a chemistry teacher who discovered a synthetic substance that made the family millions when the patent was sold. He’s a black man who was able to raise himself up from what seemed to be lower-middle to middle-middle class in Atlanta to richy-rich, though he still chose to live on the black side of town. His choice to remain on the black side of town, having bought a mansion from a white family who was too nervous to continue to live there (it being a black neighborhood), raises questions about how far success can take a black family. They could have lived anywhere. But would they have been safe? You can see the Davenport choice to stay in the neighborhood as staying where they are comfortable. You can also see it as an example of staying safe—choosing to limit their success so that the family is successful in ways that stay palatable (re: largely unseen) to white Atlanta. Similarly, when Celestial gains a following making dolls as art, she’s Ebony famous. Her store is in an area where it is accessible to Black Atlantians with money but not in the Black part of town where whites would feel uncomfortable shopping.

Where the Davenports have had their success constrained by white senses of propriety, Roy’s life has the greatest constraints. Roy grew up poor in Louisiana. He went to Morehouse, got a job with upward mobility, and scrapped and hustled. He was on the come-up. Until he was Black at the wrong place in the wrong time and his Morehouse degree and cufflinks didn’t matter one whit to a mostly white jury in Louisiana.

The idea of this—that skin color alone can make you vulnerable, can cost you years of your life and health—is so abhorrent that we would rather pretend it isn’t possible than deal with the idea that this happens to people. And, as Roy’s and Celestial’s marriage shows, even if you’ve been freed, even if you’ve been set “right,” there is no getting back what that wrongful conviction took. Roy and Celestial can’t get those five years back—there were life events Roy missed in prison that he doesn’t get the chance to re-experience. The marriage suffers, with Roy in prison three times longer than they were married to start with. One of the wrongful convictions I mentioned earlier was of football player Brian Banks—before his false accusation, he was a rising football star. By the time he made it out of prison several years later and was exonerated, it was over five years later. He was signed to an NFL team but never made it off the practice squad.

While the reader is left with the question of what Roy might have been, there are real Roys—there are Brians, there are the Central Park Five—walking around, unable to get those five, six, ten years inside back.

And indeed, the life inside changes Roy, as it must inevitably change anyone who spends any amount of time there.   My job affords me access to see prisoners in jail in their pods, so I have seen jail life closer up than most people have outside of watching Orange is the New Black. It is not any place I would want to spend any amount of time. And yet, I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea what five years in actual prison must be like. Roy leaves with physical scars (as does Celestial, a remnant of police treatment during Roy’s arrest) as well as psychological ones—the result of becoming responsible for something inside that he didn’t understand until it was too late.

In this way, the damage done to Roy and Celestial’s marriage feels almost inevitable. Marriage changes you, but in theory its changing both of you in ways that mean you can grow and change together. Roy’s incarceration changes Roy and Celestial in ways that seem impossible to mend.

Writing
An American Marriage is, overall, strongly written with alternating first-person viewpoints from the three characters, along with sections of letters between characters. Because the characters are mostly speaking to each other or to other African Americans, there is no need to code-switch in their speech so Jones doesn’t have them speaking white. At the same time, the language is clear enough for a white audience to read without feeling terribly out of the loop. It’s a fine line but (as far I can tell as a white woman) it’s a line Jones walks well to stay realistic for her Black audience but not alienating of a non-Black audience.

Recommended
I picked An American Marriage for my BOTM pick for February a few days before Oprah announced it as her Book Club selection. I can see why she chose it—it is a powerful book that can have mass appeal. With that, I know people for whom that Oprah sticker would be a turn-off. Even for those highbrow folks, An American Marriage is worth a read. The writing is strong, even poignant at times, with relevant and important themes, and a character that stays with you even after you close the book. I finished several days ago and I still find myself hoping Roy—with all of his flaws and sometimes cocksure personality—found happiness after the book ended.

Notes
Published: February 6, 2018 by Algonquin Books (@algonquinbooks)
Author: Tayari Jones (@tayari)
Date read: February 25, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Mini Reviews: Dear Martin & I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter


Joanna Kosinska

Over the last few weeks, two of the books I read seemed worthy of discussion here but I struggled independently and for different reasons over both in what to write about them for a full post.   I don’t know that I will do this often but today is going to be a mini review of both. (And, it turns out, they share a book birthday! #serenedipity).

First up is Dear Martin by Nic Stone.

Synopsis
Justyce McAllister is a top student at one of the best prep schools in Atlanta. He also happens to be one of the only black students in the almost-entirely-white school. In the first chapters of the book, Justyce is aggressively detained by a white police officer over a misunderstanding—an encounter that leaves Justyce shaken. He begins to write letters to Martin Luther King to process through what it would mean to live by Dr. King’s nonviolent principles in a world that still seems hell-bent on forcing subjugation or violent confrontation on African Americans. A second encounter leaves Justyce grieving and grappling with the media spotlight.

The Hate U Give parallels
In many ways, Dear Martin, is strikingly like The Hate U Give—this is, in fact, one of the reasons I wasn’t sure I could do a full post justice. Many of the social justice issues I raised and linked to in that post apply equally. Justyce, like Starr, is one of the only black students at an all-white private school, has a white love interest, experiences micro-aggressions on a daily basis, and becomes a witness to an officer-involved shooting. Despite all of these commonalities, Dear Martin still feels fresh, relevant, and far from repetitive.

Dear Martin goes places The Hate U Give doesn’t—Justyce himself is detained by the police, he becomes hopeless enough that he’s drawn to a gang, he’s maligned in the media as a thug—this being the justification for an officer shooting at Justyce and his friend. Where the major characters in The Hate U Give were all either living in the poor areas Starr lives or, at best, a middle class neighborhood, Justyce finds himself surrounded by a world of money. With this change and the events that throw Justyce unwittingly into the spotlight, Stone is able to explore more fully the ideas of black “respectability” and the idea that, at the end of the day, when it comes to many encounters with white authority/law enforcement, a rich black teenager is just another black man and is just as likely to be killed by police.

Recommendation
I highly recommend Dear Martin for anyone who read and enjoyed The Hate U Give. I also recommend it for readers who were intimidated by THUGDear Martin is about half the length and I flew through it in a day. If you’re still not sure what the deal is with Black Lives Matter—why its necessary—or what micro-aggressions look like, Dear Martin is an easy place to start. Justyce and the supporting characters in the book are believable and mostly likeable (except the ones who aren’t supposed to be). The book is tightly written with both YA and adult appeal.

Notes
Published: October 17, 2017 by Crown (@crownpublishing)
Author: Nic Stone (@getnicced)
Date read: December 15, 2017

Next is I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, a National Book Award Finalist for YA Fiction.

Synopsis
First generation Mexican-American teenager Julia (not Jewel-ia) needs to get out of her parents’ house where the combined weight of her parents’ expectations and the perfection of her older sister is slowly crushing her to death in her roach-infested apartment. Until Julia’s sister dies and Julia begins to discover things about her sister that she just can’t let go. The deeper she digs, the harder life gets, the more Julia spirals until it seems there’s no way out. Was her sister’s death her fault? Can Julia ever feel free?

Hot-button Themes
Through Julia’s story, Sanchez is able to introduce scenarios that get at why many immigrants risk everything to leave their homes to come to the US, the dangers inherent in trusting coyotes to lead you across the border, the pressures many immigrant families place on their children, the extreme poverty many immigrants live in (particularly those without status who are then more vulnerable to exploitation), and the stigma of mental illness—both generally and within specific communities. Sanchez handles each of these with aplomb and gentleness, particularly the last.

Why Not a Full Review?
I’ve mentioned a few times that certain books—again, THUG—aren’t written for me. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy them but that at the end of the day I’m not the audience the reader had in mind when she wrote a book. I can learn from these books but I’ll never be able to fully identify with the main characters.   I still chose to review books like THUG in hopes that my blog might lead someone to pick them up who wouldn’t have previously, while acknowledging that my review would not be able to do full justice to the lived experience of those who look like and live like the characters. There are things I will never truly understand, as a woman with all of the privileges except the gender one.

My inability to fully review a book like this was never more true than with I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. The book has short conversations and ideas expressed in Spanish that went almost entirely over my head. There were also some significant cultural themes that I knew enough to recognize there was something happening that I didn’t fully understand. My reading of this book was likely only the top of the iceberg.

Representation Matters
With that said, I believe down to my bones that representation matters. That we need books like I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Dear Martin, THUG, and American Street—books that are written by people of color about people of color and the unique struggles they continue to face in this country. Everyone deserves to see themselves in the pages of a book and there are not enough opportunities for non-white teenagers to see themselves in books of this caliber. For white audiences, these characters embody the grey of the black-and-white news stories on “illegal immigrants”* and yet another African American slain by cops for chewing his gum the wrong way in the “wrong” neighborhood (re: the nice one). I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter should be read by first generation Latinx teenagers who can’t remember the last time they saw someone who looked and talked like them in a book. It should also be read by the white woman who doesn’t have close friends without status, because even she should have exposure to these themes.

Notes
Published: October 17, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf / @knopfteen)
Author: Erika L. Sanchez (@erikalsanchez)
Date read: December 6, 2017

*Do not get me started on how it is impossible for a human being to be illegal.