Tag: DiverseBooks

MMD March: Stay With Me by Adyobami Adelbayo

MMD March: Stay With Me by Adyobami Adelbayo

I think I did believe that love had immense power to unearth all that was good in us, refine us, and reveal to us the better version of ourselves. And though I knew Akin had played me for a fool, for a while I still believed that he loved me and that the only thing left for him to do was the right thing, the good thing. I thought it was a matter of time before he would look me in the eye and apologise.

So, I waited for him to come to me.

Delinquent (Oops?)
I’m not sure I’ve been quite so delinquent on posting a book that had a sort-of-deadline built into its relevance but here we go. I read the MARCH book club selection for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club and finished timely (March 4th!) and yet haven’t felt like I’ve had a chance to really sit down and process everything that is this book.

Synopsis
Stay With Me follows Yejide, a Nigerian woman who has been unable to have a child with her husband Akin. The story follows Yejide as she takes increasingly desperate steps to have and then keep a child.

Avoiding the Spoilers
It is hard to discuss this book without spoiling the events. This was a book I experienced with no extra information besides what appeared on the flap-copy. I didn’t know what exactly Yejide and Akin were willing to try or how each of those steps would result. This will be a short review—I want to review it because it is so well done but do not want to spoil any of the little events in the middle along the way. So I apologize now for my brevity and vaguess—do not let this deter you from reading but rather take it as a sign that you should pick up the book and see for yourself why I am rating it so highly.

Loss
The most prominent and obvious theme in Stay With Me is one of loss. There is the loss of children—each loss different in its means and impact—but also the loss of relationship and self. As is common in couples who experience this kind of loss, with each step Yejide and Akin take to have a keep their children, the two are driven further apart. Steps taken to have the child that will ultimately strengthen their marriage become the wedges between them. With each loss, Yejide also loses parts of herself. A chipping away so subtle that it isn’t clear until whole sections have been sheered off that this was happening. At a apex in the plot, Yejide makes a choice to initiate the loss herself—when you have had what you love most repeatedly wrenched from you hands, at some point initiating the coming loss feels like the only way to protect yourself, to try to keep a shred of agency. I am not sure I have ever read another book that explores the myriad facets of loss and its impacts so effectively.

Structure
The book does jump around a bit in time and narrator—the bulk of the story-telling is from Yejide’s point of view, though every third or fourth chapter is Akin. The chapters are not labeled so the reader has to realize the narrator has changed—this was somewhat disconcerting at times, though it was easy enough to realize this had happened within a few sentences. It didn’t bother me and it seemed a deliberate choice made by Adebayo to deliberately disrupt the narrative and leave the reader feeling as disrupted and off-balance as Yejide and Akin. The abrupt narration change did, however, both some readers—the handful of negative reviews on Amazon mention this. The time jumps are labeled, so while they are also abrupt at times, it is clear you’ve moved forward or backwards in time.   This kind of structure almost never bothers me—I like non-standard devices and techniques and I like to see authors play with things like this. This is, however, something it keep in mind if this style is something that usually impacts your ability to connect with a book.

Characters
To me, Yejide was a likeable narrator, drawing me in. Though we have nothing in common on paper—I have never even been to Nigeria, I have never tried to have a child—her experiences and the way Adebayo has her narrator speak to the reader made me feel a connection to her. She is well fleshed out—flawed but in ways that make sense for her experiences. She makes terrible choices at times, but by the time these happened, I connected with her so deeply I understood why she made the choice and was making it along with her. Stay With Me is a fascinating character study and makes me want to read more of Adelbayo’s work.

Because Yejide is the main narrator, I had a biased view of Akin. I felt affection for him early, as he supported Yejide. But as he and Yejide few further apart, I came to pity him, to see him as weak. Here again, this speaks to the power of Adebayo’s narrator. Stay With Me manages to simultaneously present Akin in the way his wife sees him, to have her thoughts color his presentation; yet just enough of his own character shines through here and there in his chapters that you still see him as a fleshed out person. He isn’t merely a foil or a plot device for Yejide’s development. He is his own character and I enjoyed digging for his real personality under Yejide’s assumptions about his motives.

In the discussion Anne hosted with Adebayo for book club, it came up that some people found all of the characters unlikeable and they struggled to finish. I was surprised by this assessment—Yejide and Akin seemed like people to me. Real people are not always likeable. And perpetually likeable characters are boring. Adebayo introduced both Yejide and Akin so thoroughly that I understood why they were making the choices they made; I understood why they were hurt and thus why they hurt others. I didn’t find either of them irredeemable or so distasteful that I wanted to stop reading.

The other fun little note that come up during the discussion is that all Yoruba names mean some thing. For Yejide, anyone who met her would know someone died before she was born—they would assume her grandmother but in Yejide’s case it was actually her mother who died giving birth to Yejide. Akin’s name means a courageous man—an ironic touch the more you get to know him.

Highly Recommended
I feel again that I need to apologize for being so vague—I feel like I’m saying “You should read this book but I can’t tell you why! You just should!” Obvious triggers surrounding child loss notwithstanding, this is a book I highly recommend if you like character-driven books. There are also sufficient events to keep the book moving, with moments of crisis, so even those who need more heavily plot-driven books will find something here to keep them reading. The entirety of the action occurs in Nigeria and Adebayo is herself Nigerian (I believe she said she was Yoruba), making this a book for both #diversebooks and #ownvoies.

Flight Pick — Americanah and the value of listening to books by foreign writers
Anne’s flight pick to read with Stay With Me was Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah. I actually “read” (listened) to Americanah early in 2017 so I didn’t revisit it last month. I felt like listening to Americanah last year was particularly helpful—there is a cadence to the writing that was accessible to me as a white American reader that wasn’t available if I had only read the book. Indeed, having listening to Americanah I felt like I could read Stay With Me and even Freshwater better—the speech and cadence of the Nigerian English stuck with me and aided my reading. If you haven’t ever listened to an audiobook of a Nigerian writer, I recommend your first book be one you listen to—it will make the experience of that book and subsequent books richer.

Notes
Published: August 22, 2017 by Knopf
Author: Ayobami Adebayo
Date read: March 4, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Featured Photo Credit: Alexis Brown

Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater is going to be one of those books that draws a strong reaction from people—the viewpoint is non-standard, the structure unusual, and the content will be blasphemous for some. I adored it.

Synopsis
As a side note, I often write the synopsis last and usually struggle. It’s not my favorite part of this process but I assume people want at least a basic plot summary at the beginning. I have never struggled this much to summarize a book in a way that does it justice.

Freshwater is ultimately the story of Ada, beginning with her time as an embryo when she is first inhabited by the Ogbanje* spirits that will come to define her life. We follow Ada from birth through young adulthood, experiencing her life as it is described largely by the Ogbanje themselves. Her life is never easy—constantly at the whims of the spirits that embody her—and yet, perhaps because she is so full of spirits, her life has been more full than that experienced by others.

Viewpoints

I don’t even have a mouth to tell this story. I’m so tired most of the time. Besides, whatever they say will be the truest version of it, since they are the truest version of me….In many ways, you see, I am not even real. –Ada

She named me this name, Asughara, complete with that gritty slide of the throat halfway through. I hope it scrapes your mouth bloody to say it. When you name something, it comes into existence—did you know that? -Asughara

Freshwater is told in alternating viewpoints, though the viewpoints don’t share equal time, nor do they alternate in any particular order. The majority of the story is told from the viewpoint of the simmering, unnamed We—constantly in motion, constantly swirling around in Ada. She is subject to their whims in the sense that she can be querulous and divided in her attentions and wants. They are not of this world and they embody Ada such that she isn’t entirely either. The We open the book, describing Ada’s childhood in Nigeria as a middle child with a physically absent mother and an emotionally absent father. They return periodically, the Greek chorus filling in the audience, if the Greek chorus were the inner workings of a major character’s mind.

When Ada leaves Nigeria for college in the United States, she is shortly beset upon by one of the Ogbanje that becomes dominant enough to earn a name—Asughara.* Asughara is blood-thirsty and bent on destruction—others mostly, though her actions while embodying Ada will drive Ada to her limit. She is almost solely self-centered (Asughara-centered over Ada-centered) at the cost of all others, though she also protects Ada in some ways from experiencing violence, particularly sexual violence.

Very, very rarely Ada herself does speak, giving the reader the sense (mostly) of the agony of being beset upon by these gods, constantly at their mercy, constantly pulled in different directions that ultimately seem only to point to her destruction—a destruction that will free the Ogbanje back to the brothersisters.

There is one other viewpoint that is dominant enough to be named but does not, that I can recall, have any chapters directly from his viewpoint. When Asughara wanes, her opposite is St. Vincent. A male Ogbanje striking for his gentleness and yet no less fully encompassing of Ada’s self than Asughara.

Trigger Warning / Cautions
There are setting events that cause some of Ada’s Ogbanje/personalities to become dominant at different points in time. As you might expect, one of these things is a rape—while it is not described in excessive detail, its impact on Ada is and so this deserves a trigger warning. There are also a series of unhealthy relationships that at times include some elements of physical violence that may make some readers uncomfortable. This is something that I usually prefer to avoid; however, because the viewpoints describe the actions happening to Ada in a removed sense, these weren’t as triggering to me personally as they could have been—i.e. Ada doesn’t describe the violence to her body, Ashughara or the We/Ogbanje chorus do at a level removed. The removal itself indicates Ada’s own detachment from the trauma but in some ways, this device also made it easier for me to read.

While not something that deserves a trigger warning in the usual sense of the phrase, when St. Vincent embodies Ada, he doesn’t feel at home in her feminine body such that she starts wearing a binder and even has reduction surgery to be more masculine or, at least, more androgynous. I am not versed in the best ways to sensitively approach this topic. While Emezi seems to use it to show how Ada was at the mercy of the competing whims of the Ogbanje, I can also see the idea that her “trans personality” (for lack of another way to name it) is the result of some whim of the gods being an offensive way to explain why someone might not feel at home in their body—it isn’t Ada that wants to be more masculine but rather St. Vincent when he is forefront among the Ogbanje.

Writing
The writing—the word choice, cadence, and sentence structure—is loosely narrative in a sprawling, serpentine sense. This isn’t a Faulknerian stream of consciousness structure, but this is also not straight narrative. The spirits speak as they want and they rarely want to report what is directly happening. You have to read between the lines of what the Ogbanje describe they are doing to understand what this means for Ada—what this manifestation means for her body as it moves through the world. The writing felt fresh and original, never overdone for me, though it will absolutely drive away some readers. I would encourage you, dear reader, to push through several chapters before you give up on this one if it doesn’t seem immediately for you. Because the writing is so unlike most of what is readily out there for Western audiences to easily consume, it can take a few chapters to settle into the way the Ogbanje narrate but the investment is worth it. If the topics aren’t for you then that’s not something I can likely change but I propose that the writing is something you can get used to and this book is worth the investment, particularly if reading diversely is something you value.

Blasphemy
Jesus—the god of the white man—is presented as essentially another Ogbanje. He isn’t truly in the sense that he isn’t African and the Ogbanje are the Igbo spirits; however, he interacts with Ada in much the same way as the other spirits. He rarely answers Ada when she seeks his help and he is no more holy and no more a god than the others. If this is going to bother you, this isn’t a book you should start.

Mental Illness

We’ve wondered in the years since then what she would have been without us, if she would have still gone mad. What if we had stayed asleep? What if she had remained locked in those years when she belonged to herself?….The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin. -We

Inaccurate and/or lazy descriptions of mental illness are something I can’t abide in a book and yet…I had no problem with Freshwater. The manifestation of the Ogbanje through Ada is pretty clearly interpreted by people around Ada as the manifestation of mental illness—she dissociates into the various personalities, she can be manically hedonistic when in Asughara’s hands and is self-harming to the point of a suicide attempt.

On the one hand, the idea that mental illness is caused by the possession of evil spirits is an offensive proposition. And yet, I don’t think Emezi’s point was that Ogbanje are the source of all mental illness. Rather, while the outside word might interpret Ada’s actions as those of someone with mental illness, she isn’t one. Her actions have another cause but this doesn’t mean that all individuals with mental illness are also at the mercy of the Ogbanje. Because Emezi doesn’t present the Ogbanje as a universal experience outside of the Igbo people, I didn’t read Freshwater as really being a book about mental illness at all. Rather, mental illness was the periphery, an explanation others had for Ada but not the explanation for her at all.

Stay With Me
Shortly before I read Freshwater, I read Adebayo’s Stay With Me. Adebayo is also Nigerian (Emezi grew up in Nigeria and is Igbo, one of the larger people groups found in Nigeria). In Stay With Me one of the beliefs that the characters discuss is the idea that malevolent spirits can be born to a mother, only to die and then repeat this cycle. In order to prevent the malevolent spirit from returning—so that, in essence, a real child can be born to the mother—the body the malevolent spirit inhabited must be mutilated and the object they use as their tether to this world and this family must be found and destroyed. I don’t recall Adebayo using the word Ogbanje (I could definitely be wrong) but these are the same spirits that embody Ada in Freshwater, except the spirits in Freshwater didn’t cause Ada to die as a child. Where Stay With Me peripherally explains what the Ogbanje often cause, Freshwater explains what happens when they stay and the havoc they can wreck. If you read Freshwater and enjoy it, you may enjoy Stay With Me. If you enjoyed Stay With Me and are wiling to go a step further down the path into the beliefs espoused by some of the minor characters in Stay With Me, then check out Freshwater.

Notes
Published: February 13, 2018 by Grove Atlantic (@groveatlantic)
Author: Akwaeke Emezi (@azemezi)
Date read: March 8, 2018
Rating: 4 ¼ stars

*While the Microsoft Word symbols have a plethora of symbols/letters for other languages, the “O” in Ogbanje and the “u” in Asughara actually have a dot under them in (what I believe is) Igbo based on the Author’s dual ethnicity as Igbo and Tamil. Word, not terribly surprisingly, doesn’t have this symbol.

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

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom….

Summary
In Cora’s world, the Underground Railroad is not merely a network, but an actual railroad running from the slave states of the south to the perceived freedom of the north. Cora, an outsider even among the slaves on the plantation where she grew up and orphaned by a mother who ran north years before, has never had a good enough reason to run until a few days after our book begins. In The Underground Railroad, as Cora flees Georgia, each geographical state she passes through represents one of the states, forms, or ideas of how to address Black Americans in the 1800s. In many ways, vestiges of these “solutions” remain alive today.

Interspersed with the state chapters are vignettes of minor characters including the man who runs with Cora, the slave catcher chagrinned with having never caught Cora’s mother and obsessed with catching Cora, and even (lastly) Cora’s mother. The timeline presented is loosely linear as time bounces around a bit with Cora’s remembrances and the flashback vignettes, adding to the reader’s overall sense of being detached from time. This detachment adds to the sense that much of what is happening could be happening today.

Time & Timeliness
The Underground Railroad is, like Beartown, a book I read before I was blogging but that I wanted to revisit and write about. Other books had been published more recently and always seemed to be more urgent to write about (“urgent” being relative and, in this case, entirely self-defined and imposed). And yet, just two weeks ago there was discussion on Facebook of a University of Alabama student expelled for saying she “hates N-words” and can use that word as much as she wants. The President of the United States is talking about immigrants from shithole countries. Here we are. 2018. While slavery of African Americans is officially eradicated in the United States, the states through which Cora and her companions traveled are still alive and well in America today.

Georgia
In Georgia (where our book starts) is brutal slavery—Cora lives on the Randall plantation, owned by two brothers, each representing one of the extremes of slaveholding. James is the “kinder” slaveholder, a bit more reticent to punish, not unnecessarily harsh (ignoring, of course, that the idea of owning another person is of itself automatically unnecessary and harsh). Terrence is the opposite; the slaves are there for his amusement and his amusement includes rape and beatings. While one of these treatments is preferable to the other in the day-to-day, both are slavery. Both are predicated on ideas of supremacy and values of human life that change based on the color of ones skin. Even “benevolence” is brutal.

As expected, Whitehead does not shy away from the brutality of slavery—Cora witnesses beatings and is herself beaten and raped. These events are described (though not gratuitously—Whitehead hits the right balance here), including the one that served as the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, and sent Cora running. The only part about the Georgia chapters that were surprising to me was the cruelty she experienced at the hands of her fellow slaves before she left. My surprise at this was obviously my ignorance and failure to question other portrayals of slaves in other works—slaves who were loyal to each other, all family, all united with no dissent. Of course, enslaved African Americans were humans like any other—there were some who were selfless and others who were selfish. While they’re often portrayed as only selfless and helping of others in fiction and movies, this “magical negro” variant is unhelpful. Anything that removes ones humanity—be it degradation or overwrought elevation is harmful. Whitehead avoids this by portraying his black characters throughout as well-rounded, representative human beings, including black wrongdoers.

South Carolina
In South Carolina, Cora initially thinks she has come to someplace wonderful. She’s given a job and lessons. She is housed in a dormitory with a proper bed and shown signs of respect, including having white people nod to her and look her in the eye. After the brutality of the plantation and the overwhelming fear attendant to her flight, South Carolina originally seems like a peaceful place to be.

And yet shortly after Cora settles into her new life in South Carolina, little flags start to raise themselves. She is given a thorough and invasive physical exam including a rough gynecological exam. A seemingly crazy woman is dragged away yelling that these (“respectful”) white people are taking her babies. Shortly after, Cora finds her job reassigned, removed from being a nanny (reminiscent of the care of white children by African Americans that continued for more than one hundred years after the official end of slavery) and instead made part of a living history museum. Yet as Cora “reenacts” the highly sanitized version of slavery presented at the “history” museum for white children, she begins to see that South Carolina may not be the haven it seemed. History is still being told by the ones in power and the ones in power are all white. Even when life is better here, there is still an inviolable power dynamic that is not changed by the occasional handshake—there are simply different strings that still serve to tie blacks firmly down into their places.

Almost too late, Cora discovers what is really behind the courtesies and medical examinations in South Carolina and barely makes it out, catching a maintenance cart to a station that should be closed in North Carolina.

North Carolina
North Carolina is a new hell—the whites have solved the “black problem” by eliminating all blacks and those who attempted to help them. There are weekly hangings of any that have been rooted out, with the bodies left on the ironically, grotesquely named “Freedom Trail.” (“Freedom” being defined by the whites as being free altogether of African Americans.) In some ways similar to South Carolina, the “solution” is North Carolina is presented as the logical, thought-out conclusion to the “problem.”

Here Cora is forced to impose upon a couple that finds her but doesn’t want her. Martin feels obligated to fulfill his father’s legacy and take her in where Ethel resents the danger Cora has forced upon her family. Cora is forced into what is essentially an attic crawl space. Here Whitehead’s descriptions made me feel as if the walls and ceilings were closing in on me, in a space that feels more and more like it could become Cora’s coffin. From Cora’s perch in hiding, she has one view—the view of the square where the weekly hangings are. Because life in a coffin isn’t bad enough, she must constantly be reminded of what is outside the coffin. When the family is betrayed, Cora is again on the move.

Tennessee
Cora next finds herself in Tennessee. It is nearly impossible to write much further about the events in Tennessee without providing significant spoilers, so there is less here that I can say. A handful of characters appear in Tennessee serving as allegories of larger issues and ideas in the history of the treatment of African Americans in this country. In Tennessee we first meet a black child who has so internalized the racism that he has voluntarily taken up with slave catchers and helps them to catch other African Americans. We also meet a group of black freemen with significantly different ideas about the use of violence in the struggle for black freedom, ideas reminiscent of the debates between adherents of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophies and those embraced by Malcolm X.

Indiana
Cora next finds herself on Valentine farm, a haven in the north for freemen and women. While whites are not banned, few of them find their way there—and these are typically whites that were involved with the stops on the Underground Railroad and so must seek refuge themselves. But even here, the haven cannot be a paradise. The farm has grown large enough that they are attracting attention and hatred from the white farmers whose lands bound the farm. There are discussions about whether to close their doors to any further fugitives. Whether they should be concerned with maintaining only their own freedom or whether they owe a duty to those still running to be the haven they will need in the weeks and months to come.

“We can’t save everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing’s going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers.
“Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without a yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick—yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary….
“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are….”

Ultimately, the whites cannot let this haven be untouched. No place of Black freedom and prosperity, even now, can thrive without jealousy and a white, entitled sense of the reversal of the order of things.

Recommended
The Underground Railroad was timely when it was published more than a year ago and remains so today. Neo-nazis are not new; however, it seems that in the last two years they have been emboldened into no longer feeling they have to hide. They’ve lost the sense that as a society we will reject them—largely because we haven’t. There is always work I can and should be doing, as a possessor of almost all of the privileges—white, cis-gendered, and able-bodied. I find books like The Underground Railroad to be helpful in making me think through my privilege in different ways, to connect what happened back then with what is still very much happening now. While the book does have some brutal depictions of slavery, it is never gratuitous and so is a book I recommend (particularly for white readers) without hesitation.

Notes
Published: August 2 2016 by Doubleday (@doubledaybooks)
Author: Colson Whitehead (@thecolsonwhitehead)
Date read: September 16, 2017
Rating: 4 ¾ stars

DBC January Theme: Foster Care & Adoption

DBC January Theme: Foster Care & Adoption

This month’s focus for the Diverse Books Club* was foster care and adoption. While foster care and adoption can be beautiful things, there can also be heartbreak and difficulty for all involved—birth parents, children, and adoptive parents. Too often, the hard reality of adoption isn’t discussed or portrayed when we speak of these things. Adoptive parents are saviors, the children are lucky to get out, and the fairy tale ends with the judge’s gavel pronouncing the creation of a forever family. But adoption is not a fairy tale for most. It is, quite often, simply a necessary evil.

As an attorney, I have seen parents with disabilities who needed temporary help lose their children entirely to the machine that is the child welfare system. I’ve also seen children who needed help far sooner, but even once the State intervened stood little chance of getting what they needed. The failures are typically not for lack of care on the part of the people involved, but rather a function of a behemoth grown too large to manage with perpetually underfunded staff and resources. The end result is that while individual caseworkers, attorneys, and judges may very well care, the system doesn’t. And it is the system that swallows parents and children whole.

I was grateful, therefore, to see that there are mainstream, accessible books that tackle some of these issues and that DBC selected this as a theme to explore.

forever, or a long, long time
The first DBC book I read this month, and my favorite of the two, was forever, or a long, long time—a middle grade book written by Caela Carter. This book was a pleasant surprise to me since I rarely really get into middle grade books. I’m not a teacher and don’t have children, so I don’t have a reason to ever pick them up outside of a book club selection and they’re usual hit or miss for me. I went ahead and got this one but assumed I might be quitting after a chapter or so. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Summary // Foster Care Damage
Forever is told from the point of view of fourth grader Flora who, along with her younger brother Julian has been adopted into what is supposed to be their forever home.   You quickly come to realize that due to some neglect faced by these two children before landing where they are, Flora struggles with processing language—she understands but has trouble putting her thoughts into words and speaking. Julian hoards food, even though he now receives plenty at the table everyday. For children who have been through at least four placements and “entered care” very young, these disabilities and issues are not terribly surprising. Language delays can be common in children who were neglected or otherwise not engaged at a young age. Similarly, hoarding is a common aftereffect of serious neglect where access to food was limited. Long after the neglect has ended, the psychological remains of this neglect stays—rooting this out and filling in the hole left can take far longer. Nor is it surprising that Flora self-sabotages in school, torn between wanting to do well and please her mom and teacher and not wanting to have to transition away from the teacher and classroom she knows and loves.

Though Flora’s and Julian’s new mom and dad do everything they can and show remarkable patience, the adoption is still hard. Adoption did not make Flora speak overnight or keep her from self-sabotaging. It doesn’t keep Julian from hiding moldy chicken nuggets tucked in the folds of his khakis in his closet. Nor does having a mom and dad keep the children from wondering about their first mom and dad, or where they came from. Since no one seems to be able to tell them, Flora and Julian have created a heartbreaking little game, where they come up with theories of where they came from—they formed on the bottom of the sea, they stepped fully grown from a television, etc.

Adding to the mix is the blended family—Dad had a family before and so adoption comes with a half-sister. Though the adults don’t use the “half” or designate the status/worth of their children by differentiating between those acquired by birth and adoption, you can bet the children do themselves. There is a pervading cloud of otherness that hangs over Flora and Julian, despite the efforts of their parents, teachers, and therapist. No one (except maybe dad’s ex-wife) is to blame and everyone is trying their best.

The final piece of the chaos is the loss of Flora and Julian’s files. No one—not Mom, not the agency—knows where the files are. And so, the family embarks on a quest to find where Flora and Julian came from, tracing back one placement by one placement. On this journey, hard truths come out about where Flora and Julian were placed, what motives some of the placements had, failures of the system that resulted in Flora and Julian losing a loving home that was ready and available for them many years before they stopped bouncing around the system. And they find the home where Flora and Julian were taken right after their emergency removal—the home that left me with the solid feeling that they may have been in trouble before, but the home they were thrust into was far worse.

Along the way are all the people—the loving foster home that Flora and Julian lost. The foster-farm parent who takes in large numbers of kids and gives them the bare minimum. The parent who was more concerned about herself than keeping Flora and Julian together. The caseworker who tried her best but still probably failed. And the forever mom, the forever dad, and the forever siblings. All of these people are real people in the system that makes the foster-adoption process the flawed, hot mess with sometimes happy endings that it is.

Recommended
Having written all of this out, Forever admittedly sounds like a bummer of a book. And yet, it was hopeful. It was hard but, as is age appropriate, it ends well for Flora and Julian. They have their forever family. Forever presents an accurate portrayal of what foster care and adoption can look like for one family in an accessible and age appropriate way. There is nothing graphic or scary; however, this is a book that will spark conversation about the fact that not every family is safe. Not every child is well taken care of. And that kid in class who seems kind of weird and doesn’t look like their family—may be one of the best people to get to know. Because not every family looks alike and that’s more than okay.

Forever is a beautiful book that I’m glad I read and will be recommending for friends with kids. Even those who aren’t involved in foster care or adoption should pick up this book for their children and begin exploring these topics so that when Flora and Julian shows up next to them in class, they have a head start on being kind.

Notes
Published: March 7, 2017 by HarperCollins (harpercollinsus)
Author: Caela Carter
Read: January 5, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Secret Daughter
Admittedly, I was a little less jazzed about Secret Daughter. I think we’ve pretty well established that I’m a book-snob and my tastes, with some exceptions, veer more LitFic than WomansFic. I don’t love the mass market paperback but give me the snobby book nominated for the Man Booker and talked about on NPR. I want to read and re-read a paragraph just to appreciate the cadence of the words. Secret Daughter is definitely more in the WomansFic class.

Summary
Secret Daughter follows two families beginning with the birth of their daughter in 1984 through 2009. Kavita is Usha/Asha’s birth mother, forced by circumstance to give her daughter up in order to literally save her life. Somer and Krishnan are Asha’s mixed-race parents in the States who adopt her as a very young child. As the book moves through time, you read about Kavita’s life—how she wonders about Asha, how her life slowly improves (at least on the surface) with her husband and her son she was allowed to keep, born about a year after Asha. You struggle with Somer over her infertility, her adoption of Asha, her sacrifice of much of her ambition in order to fit into her new role as Mom. And, when Asha grows old enough, you follow Asha as she wonders who she is and where she come from. Layered over this is the mixed-culture marriage of Somer and Krishnan. Krishnan was, with relatively little complaint from him, forced to assimilate to American culture when he came over many years ago for medical school. Somer, during short visits to India chafes against having to assimilate, even temporarily—leaving her with mostly negative feelings about the country of her child’s birth, even independent of any fears she has about Asha’s birth parents.

Verdict // Importance of books like these
I don’t have any major things I can point to about why I didn’t love this book—I think the problem is that I also don’t have anything I can point to that I loved. There were no paragraphs that I re-read to appreciate the writing, though I also never rolled my eyes at anything overwrought. (Secret Daughter is still head and shoulders above Lilac Girls.) I’d give it 3 ½ stars because it is an above-average book. It just isn’t the kind of book I gravitate to and I don’t want to rush to get back to it when I had to put it down.

While I didn’t love the book, after sitting with it for several days, I do think books like Secret Daughter fill an important role, much the way I think some Jodi Picoult books do. There are many readers who will not pick up a serious work on domestic violence or the recent unmasking of the rampant white supremacy around us and yet, these women will pick up Picture Perfect and Small Great Things. It is important that weighty topics not be limited to serious works but that mass-market fiction sold for $11 in Target also introduces these ideas.

Along these likes Secret Daughter raises points that are not highly talked about with international child adoption. Adoptive mom Somer feels she’s lost herself to give her daughter Asha a beautiful life in America—having, like many mothers, sacrificed her own dreams and ambitions for the sake of her child. For her part, Asha, though adopted as a very child, still wonders about her birth country and her birth family. Though Asha has everything she could want in America and two loving parents, there is still the very real urge to find where she came from and why her parents had to give her up.

Here to is where Secret Daughter raises important points, particularly about international adoption. Many if not most “orphans” in places like India, Haiti, and Ethiopia are not orphans. They are children of poverty whose families gave them up because it was the surest way to ensure they would have access to food and shelter. Or some other circumstances intervened to prevent their birth family from caring for them, but this doesn’t mean they are unloved, unwanted, or even actually orphaned. Even medical advances like the ultrasound and things like abortion access come into play in Secret Daughter as it’s a poorly kept secret that these things are used by some in countries like India for sex-selective abortion. The result in places like India and China is an imbalance where men outnumber women significantly by the time a generation reaches childbearing age.

Thematically, Secret Daughter isn’t a beachy read and yet, it kind of reads like one. The writing is straightforward, the characters easy to identify with. The plot has enough action to keep it moving at a decent clip. It’s not a book I plan to keep and I probably won’t recommend widely, though it is something I’d recommend to my mother since she camps pretty solidly in the Women’s Fiction section in her typical reading tastes. If you lean more Women’s Fic than LitFic this is a book you’d enjoy and I do think it a worthwhile use of your time.

If you do pick up Secret Daughter, make sure to read the author’s note about her inspiration to write the book and the real life facts behind Asha’s story.

Notes
Published: April 5, 2011 by William Morrow books (paperback) (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda (@shilpi_gowda)
Read: January 11, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars

*New Members are always welcome in our community for Diverse Books Club!  We’re a publicly viewable group on Goodreads, but if you have any trouble finding us, leave me a comment with your Goodreads name and I can invite you directly.

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward


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Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book.  All opinions are my own.

“There’s things you think you know that you don’t.”
“Like what?”…
“Home ain’t always about a place. The house I grew up in is gone. Ain’t nothing but a field and some woods, but even if the house was still there, it ain’t about that.” Richie rubs his knuckles together. “I don’t know.”…
“Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart. Same time. Where my family lived…it’s a wall. It’s a hard floor, wood. Then concrete. No opening. No heartbeat. No air.”
“So what?” I whisper….
“This my way to find that.”
“Find what?”
“A song. The place is the song and I’m going to be part of the song.”

Synopsis
Thirteen year-old Jojo wants nothing more today than to be with Pop—for Pop to see him as a man and for his mother Leonie to leave him at home where Mam has only a few days left.  Instead, he’s being dragged north with his three year-old sister to retrieve his father from the state penitentiary, with a stop along the way for his mother and her friend to retrieve the drug that pulls her farther and farther from her family. When they finally reach their destination and return home, Jojo’s father Michael isn’t the only thing the family brings back from Parchman. On the way back, Jojo begins to see the form of a boy named Richie who served time in Parchman with Pop many years ago and whose story only Pop knows the end of.

Pacing and word choice
As the book opens, Jojo is at home with his Pop, Mam, and little sister Kayla—the pacing slow, but not quite languid, the stuff of long conversations. When his mother Leonie insists the children come on the trip across the state to pick up their father in Parchman, the language stretches—the words paving the way for the long drive. There is, in fact, very little in the way of action through the entire 3/4 of the book. Instead the long stretches of road serve as the backdrop for character studies of Jojo and Leonie. As the mother and child return home, the writing becomes almost frenetic—the language shorter and choppier as the action takes over, the river of words becoming foaming rapids, pulling the reader frantically to the conclusion. This pacing adds to the atmosphere of the climax scene, leaving the reader as breathless and wrung out as Leonie and Jojo themselves. It’s not surprising to hear that Ward is a professor of creative writing as her spot-on pacing in this book is masterful.

The word choice in Sing, Unburied, Sing is also perfect for the book. The grammar—dropping articles, “sleep” for “asleep,” making plural words singular—transports the reader immediately to somewhere in the rural South without making the book difficult to read or having to rely on gimmicky written Southern accents. The descriptions place the reader in the deltas of Mississippi with the sun blazing its curtain call as it drops below the horizon. It’s descriptive without being flowery, so while there were times I went back to re-read a paragraph just for the word choice, this is not a book that will annoy or trip up readers who care less about these things.

Character study
Sing, Unburied, Sing is character-driven rather than plot-driven. The book opens with Jojo, imitating his Pop, trying to show he can be a man, even as the killing of a goat turns his stomach. Over the following days, Jojo will become a man in the blink of an eye—a blink that Leonie misses.

Alternating with Jojo’s chapters are those of Leonie’s. Jojo’s perception of his mother is limited—as the child of a drug addict, he has been let down or left out so often it is hard for him to see any good left in his mother. Her chapters serve to humanize her, to bring the reader to empathize with her, to hope with her when she tries, to feel her disappointment when she fails. It is a testament to Ward’s writing that she can make the reader love even this flawed woman, dying by her own choices, particularly given that in interviews she expresses her own distaste for Leonie as a mother.

Less prominent initially as he is left behind on the journey, Pop is a character the reader comes to love. He is the solid, the constant, the care left in Jojo’s life. He is the reason that when Jojo becomes a man, he will become like Pop rather than his own father Michael. And yet, as the reader discovers, even this quiet, solid man is deeply flawed, haunted by choices and a mercy he chose to administer many years before.

Finally, there is death. Death literally lurks in Sing, Unburied, Sing, appearing as Leonie’s murdered brother Given who appears to her only when she is high; as Richie, a boy inmate when Pop was in Parchman himself; as a bird with scales; as Mam wasting as cancer snacks on what’s left of her.

Black death
In many ways, it is not merely death that lurks in the corner of each page, but specifically Black death. There are many ways throughout U.S. history that white people have not typically had to die—we have not been lynched, we have not been cut into tiny pieces while still alive, pulled from our beds to face false accusations, had our medical needs neglected until it is too late when our cancer is finally found. It is not just death, but Black deaths that creep silently closer in Sing, Unburied, Sing until they are the forefront, as heavy in the trees as grackles on a line. Like the cancer invading Mam’s body, you know death is lurking, you see it in the pages but you do not realize the magnitude. While you were looking at one particular manifestation, the others were coming up silently.

While many of the manifestations of death in the book are quite obvious—Mam’s cancer having nearly eaten through her, gone-too-soon Given, the ghost-bird-child Richie—Leonie’s character in many ways is a walking death. Leonie, child of Mam and Pop and mother-too-soon of Jojo and Kayla, was introduced to drugs by her longtime boyfriend Michael. She struggles, she fights, but by the time the reader meets her, her universe of available choices is hamstrung by her drug addiction. I am not suggesting that Leonie bears no responsibility for her own choices, but there is poignancy is seeing Leonie’s life becoming walking death after having been introduced to drugs by her white boyfriend. That it is black lives who are often disproportionately impacted by white choices.

What is Mercy?
With the rising specter of death comes the question of mercy. What does it mean to be merciful in the face of death? What is the difference between getting to choose the mercy of death versus having it thrust upon you? When mercy comes, does it comes differently for lives well lived versus those barely started?

And what of the mercy-bringer? If you were being merciful, is there still guilt? And how much? Are you more guilty if you weren’t asked to be merciful and less if you were? Does that actually matter?

None of these questions were answered, leaving an unsettled aftertaste when the reader finishes. Of a meal that filled, that mostly satisfied, but of a flavor you’re trying to grasp even as it fades.

In Sum
Sing, Unburied, Sing is not a book that sits lightly or that passes as you turn the page of your next book. Ward raises questions that remain unanswered, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions of death and mercy, life and guilt. For readers who prefer more plot-driven books, Sing, Unburied, Sing may not be the best book. This is also not a book for someone who dislikes ambiguity.

For readers of literary fiction who love a character study, who are looking to read more from authors of color, who are willing to be unsettled and still love a book, I highly recommend Sing, Unburied, Sing. I know I’ll be pushing Salvage the Bones up my reading list after having read this offering of Ward’s.

Notes
Published: September 5, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster) Preorder available on Amazon
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Date read: August 29, 2017
Rating: 4 ¼ Stars

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas


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I open my mouth to respond. A sob comes out. Daddy is moved aside and Mama wraps her arms around me. She rubs my back and speaks in hushed tones that tell lies. “It’s alright, baby. It’s alright.”

Synopsis
The Hate U Give explores the aftermath to a girl, a family, and a community after one of their own—a black teenage boy named Khalil—is brutally murdered by a white cop. The novel follows sixteen-year old Starr, a witness and passenger in the car the night of the murder, as she struggles to find her voice and what it means for her to be a black teenager living in 2017.

Not For Me
I hesitated in writing this review—The Hate U Give isn’t about me and it isn’t for me. Even if I hated this book (which I absolutely don’t), it wouldn’t really be my place to say that anymore than it’s my place to critique “Lemonade.”

They. Weren’t. Made. For. Me.

In fact, I decided early on that if I were going to give this book any less than five stars, that I would simply refrain from rating it at all. Turns out, that wasn’t a problem.

The Hate U Give sucked me in quickly with a fast-paced narrative and a likeable main character who was easy to identify with, even as a white person who did not grow up in anything like Starr’s neighborhood. Starr is studious, funny, and athletic—she has universal appeal and it is easy for most readers to see something of themselves in her. I didn’t identify whatsoever with her love of basketball, but her studiousness and teenage worries over friends hit home for me.

There are, however, many things in the book that will likely make a white audience uncomfortable—the foremost example to me being Starr’s father’s lauding of the Nation of Islam. It is to Thomas’s credit that she wrote a book that can be so universally read; but at the end of the day this is a book for black readers. It should make you squirm a little if you’re white. That squirming can be good for you—why does this make you uncomfortable? Is the reason you’re uncomfortable about you or is what’s happening here actually wrong? (Spoiler alert: the answer is probably the former).

I do think this is a book everyone should read so (obviously, since you’re here) I went ahead with my planned review, with the recognition that there is probably a lot that went over my head and that I didn’t understand that would resonate with a black audience. It felt like the lesser of two evils to review the book and hopefully bring it more attention than to refrain. (Feel free to disagree with me in the comments.)

Title
The title “The Hate U Give” comes from a Tupac reference to “Thug Life”—The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone. The hate, the vitriol, even the malignant neglect the vast majority of white society gives to African Americans starting when they are very young ultimately comes back to effect everyone. It isn’t just the black community that is hurt by Khalil’s death in this book. Through Starr and her siblings, the effects of the murder reach into their predominantly white school. Parts of the city literally burn as riots break out.

To be sure—my point here is not “treat black people nicer so that you can have nicer things yourself, dear white person.” However, it is shockingly easy for white America to look at the problems coming from predominantly black and poor neighborhoods and blame the people that live there without ever thinking about white America’s systemic racist policies and decisions that resulted in the ghettoization of black Americans. White people are not innocent of the problems that created black ghettos; therefore, white people are not innocent of the resulting poverty and crime.

It is hard to ignore the larger societal issues at play when Thomas gives you the back story of why Khalil may have been selling drugs before his murder and why another character named DeVonte joined a gang. It’s not so easy as their making bad decisions or being bad people. Thomas doesn’t completely exculpate them, but by putting specific, likeable faces on issues like drug dealing and gang-banging, she invites her reader to question their biases to see that good people can make bad decisions for good reasons. And that these same people are far more than what a single bad decision defines them as.

Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland.
Through the experiences of Starr, Thomas puts a face on those left behind when black people are murdered by those who are sworn to serve and protect. To be sure—each of the more than one thousand African Americans killed by cops each year has a story, a name, and people who love them. Unfortunately, with talking heads screaming at each other in the media, the story the reader gets here with Khalil is not one we get to see for the vast majority of those murdered, at least not without a lot of effort to dig and cut through the crap. We don’t see Michael Brown’s struggle to provide for his family, even though he isn’t yet a man himself. We don’t see the agony the witnesses in the Eric Garner case went through to decide whether to testify or not—and the danger of any decision to “snitch” that might result. We don’t see the impact, months later, on the family of Sandra Bland. Not like this. Not in this detail.

Through fictional Khalil, Thomas brings home every name that crossed the headlines over the last few years and reminds us that each black boy and each black woman was, at the end of the day, human and loved. That it is a tragedy when any life is taken at the hands of the police.

Time Capsule Book
Because of its timeliness it is easy to see why some critics are referring to The Hate U Give as a new classic and a book with staying power. I’m not sure I agree it is a classic, largely because there are many references to things like Tumblr that are quickly going to become dated. To me, the book read like a “Time Capsule” book. By that, I mean The Hate U Give is a snapshot in time of 2017 where this real, pervasive injustice is happening far too often in modern society. This book will stand through time as representative of where we are as a country and a people now. I could certainly be wrong (and would not be disappointed if I am!); it is just difficult for me with the speed at which technology changes to see many modern books as “classics” if the technology and references in them are going to become dated and lost in a few years. I loved the Jessica Darling books as a teen myself, but they don’t hold the same appeal to the YA audience today because so many of the little situations that arise wouldn’t happen nearly the same way today with the advances in technology we’ve made since the ‘90s. Because of this, I see The Hate U Give as less likely to be studied the way we study Jane Austen now in 2217, though it absolutely deserves attention and should (and, I hope, will) stand the test of time as a powerful snapshot of society in 2017.

Things Black People Deal With But Shouldn’t Have To 101
Though this book certainly wasn’t written with a white audience in mind, Thomas is masterful at explaining things like code-switching to the audience—

I should be used to my two worlds colliding, but I never know which Starr I should be. I can use some slang, but not too much slang. Some attitude but not too much attitude, so I’m not a sassy black girl. I have to watch what I say and how I say it. But I can’t sound “white.” Shit is exhausting.

—without sounding heavy-handed to those who already know what things like code-switching are. If I did not have mixed-race friends who consciously moderate their accent based on their audience, I don’t know that I would know what code-switching is, and I certainly didn’t know what it was when I was in high school.

As a black student at a predominantly white school, Starr has to be aware of how she comes across—because black children are seen as more culpable and less innocent than white ones, because she is one of a handful of black kids in her school and therefore her actions will be imputed to all black people (but only her negative actions, of course), because she doesn’t want to affirm stereotypes. Starr thinks more about her state of being on a daily basis than most white folks likely do in a month.

This short explanation plus the extended examples of code-switching in The Hate U Give are but one example of Thomas making the book accessible to readers of all ages so that maybe those who aren’t familiar with these ideas can begin to see all of the little ways people of color experience life differently, through no fault of their own. (Thomas also expertly explores the harm of microaggressions through one of Starr’s friendships).

While we (white folks) should be doing more hard work to root out our biases and discover our blind spots, I do think books like The Hate U Give can be a good non-threatening way to begin to recognize issues like microaggressions. Regardless of whether you are beginning because you are actually a young adult for whom this book was written or whether, like me, you grew up sheltered in a predominantly white town, it is often less threatening to be confronted with something you are wrong in through narrative fiction. This doesn’t mean you get to stay in your safe fictional world forever; however, it is better to begin with something like The Hate U Give than to never begin. Reading books like The Hate U Give teaches readers empathy and I defy you to read this book and not feel for Starr, Khalil’s family, and their community, regardless of where you stand on Black Lives Matter.

Fangirling hard for Bahni Turpin
I listened to The Hate U Give on audio. I would be remiss if I did not rave about the excellent choice of narrator for Thomas’s work. Even before listening to this book, I had an audiobook voice crush on Bahni Turpin, the narrator here. I would listen to her read food ingredient labels. She also read A Piece of Cake, a memoir I read earlier in the year by Cupcake Brown, a woman who grew up in the foster system and was a heavy drug user for years before getting clean and becoming an attorney. Admittedly going from the voice of drugged-out, screaming Cupcake to having that voice also be Starr threw me a little for a loop. I had to remind myself for the first few minutes that Starr was a good girl in this story. (Case in point for my undying love of Bahni Turpin—the fact that Bahni is one of the readers is what pushed me to use my most recent audiobook credit on Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.) Bahni is genius as Starr and makes the audiobook for The Hate U Give a real standout. She is breathtaking in her voice acting as teenage Starr and moved me to tears several times.

Summary
If this weren’t already abundantly clear, I think this is a book everyone should read. Because of some language and violence, the book skews a little older YA than most of its genre-mates but still has a strong appeal and well-developed narrative for adult readers.

Notes
Author: Angie Thomas (@angiethomas)
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@balzerandbray) (imprint of HarperCollins @harpercollinsus)
Audiobook narrator: Bahni Turpin (@prospertunia)
Date Published: February 28, 2017
Date Read: July 9, 2017
Rating: 5 stars

Review: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhhai Lai


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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.

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