Review for “Deacon King Kong” by James McBride (2020)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This story literally begins with a bang: in 1969 in a housing project in South Brooklyn, a somewhat senile, hooch-drinking deacon nicknamed Sportcoat wanders into the local courtyard and shoots the neighborhood drug dealer with an old pistol point-blank, in front of dozens of people. After establishing this shocking act of violence, James McBride explores how Sportcoat’s action came to be, as well as the lives and the dynamic of an entire community of Black and brown people under the rule of a local mobster, a lonely crime boss with a mysterious past.
There’s a wide assortment of characters here and you might even lose track: there’s Sportcoat’s friend, an affable man named Hot Sausage, Sportcoat’s dead wife, Hettie, with whom he regularly communicates, salsa musicians, capers involving missing church Christmas money, mountains of delicious cheese, even a cadre of red Colombian jungle ants. It’s a lot for a book to handle, and about halfway in my weariness in keeping up with everything began to kick in with me skipping over pages at a time. McBride is a great writer, however, so I was compelled to stay until the end. “Deacon King Kong” isn’t the best book of the year, but it’s definitely an interesting read.
To get into the any more specifics of this book would ruin it, so I’ll leave this review with a solid four stars.
Review for “Love Warrior” by Glennon Doyle Melton (2016)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
I went into this not knowing anything about the author, her blog, or any of her previous writings. I had no idea of its connection to Oprah’s Book Club either, as that info was not in the e-book edition I read. Honestly, I just picked this up because I like reading memoirs. Lo and behold, within about 15 pages, I deeply regretted my decision.
This is the first book in a long time where my dislike for the author became a 10 out of 10 immediately and it remained that way for the entirety of the novel. In the first 20 pages of the book, Glennon Doyle Melton describes how her then-high school boyfriend was accused of rape by another classmate. She then writes:
I ask him about the rape and he laughs and tells me the accusation isn’t true. I do not break up with him. My friends and I handle this by agreeing publicly that the girl who accused Joe of rape was drunk, stupid, jealous, and lying.
It gets worse. A few sentences later:
A few weeks later I run into the victim in the locker room of my mother’s gym. As we pass each other, I hold my head high. She lowers hers and looks away. I feel an electric sense of defiance and victory.
Are you serious? Ms. Melton, you are an absolute BITCH. Yeah, I said it.
Although Ms. Melton does ‘change’ her life, it’s only after 240 pages of crappy writing and self indulgent whining. Sure, she discusses challenges that women face: body image issues, infidelity, and mommy fatigue, but it’s exhausting, tedious, and very very boring. She berates her husband for being a porn addict but fails to see until much much later that she is not a nice person either, her addictions in this case happen to be food and drama. She also talks quite a bit about the ‘scandal’ her marital separation caused in her church and in her community, with people everywhere giving her unsolicited advice. Umm…well didn’t you tell them all about it in your Christian mommy blog, Ms. Messy Boots? If you don’t want to hear other people’s opinions about your business, then a good suggestion is to keep that business to yourself.
Also: I felt bad for her kids, particularly in several passages in which she’s very blunt in her feelings about their father. I understand that being cheated on sucks, but creating a living record of you bad-mouthing their dad during a rough patch in your marriage for millions to read about for all posterity can’t be a healthy way to deal with your anger.
I can imagine that there are legions of women out there who are living in similar situations, trapped in their middle class homes with their bad ass kids in a sexless marriage and reading these words from a “Christian mom blogger” (umm, her words) is comforting to them. I can also imagine a roomful of these aforementioned women in a room together somewhere, having paid for one day what I spent on my entire grad school tuition to hear Ms. Melton tell them more about her “love warrior” journey. But we all have a sob story, and anyone can sit down and write theirs and get it published. This is one such case. For me this book is nothing special, as there’s no sense of objectivity between the author and the words on the page. This book is a hot ass mess, a phone call from a long winded friend who calls you nightly at 2 am and all you want is for her to stfu so you can go back to sleep. Ugh.
Review for “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City” (2020)
Rating: 3 out 5 stars
This book follows seven citizens of Baltimore in the five days of rioting following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015. There are a wide variety of perspectives here: the activist sister of a victim of police violence, a white female public defender, the owner of the Baltimore Orioles, a young Black male protester, the husband of the local district attorney, the owner of a popular skating rink, a Black police lieutenant, etc.
Although I understand the inclusion and the purpose of the multiple perspectives; it’s not executed very well here. The chapters are short and there’s never enough plot build-up to form any kind of cohesive narrative. The tone of this book is emotionless and flat, there’s no nuance that separates one voice from the other besides the label of each speaker at the beginning of each section. Wes Moore does give some background in the opening pages on the ways in which racism, poor public policies, and bad policing ultimately led to the chaos that erupted in Baltimore, but he relies on too much blank space to tell this story. There’s little sense of the atmosphere of anger that started the protests in the first place.
All in all, I feel like this could have been a news article. The author takes the subject of a complex city with very complex problems and paints it with too broad of a brush. Better books on Baltimore include “The Corner” and “Homicide: A Year of Killing on the Streets” by David Simon.
Review for “Pizza Girl” by Jean Kyong Frazier (2020)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The unnamed narrator of this novel is 18 years old and unexpectedly pregnant, living with her boyfriend and mother and working at a local pizza parlor. Very early on its apparent that although her mom and boyfriend are overjoyed about the new baby, she is not. The narrator is depressed and extremely unhappy, drinking in her spare time and consumed with memories of her now-deceased alcoholic father. It is at the pizza parlor where she meets Jenny, a mother who calls in with an unusual order. For the rest of the novel, Jenny becomes the singular obsession of the narrator, occupying her thoughts, motivations, and desires.
Although this book falls along the lines of a dark comedy, it’s a tough read. While the narrator’s observations of life and the people around her are funny, she makes some very poor choices here, some of which I found irredeemable. I mean, let’s face it, no matter how many ha-ha’s there are, watching to the narrator getting wasted while pregnant is simply awful. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is some kind of cautionary tale here, with the tragic life of the narrator at the center. Sadly, it’s a fascinating train wreck that you can’t look away from.
And another thing…the narrator is Korean American, a fact that’s alluded to several times in the book. However, there’s very little commentary on how her racial identity fits in with the text. This is interesting, because there’s mention of how her Korean mother was attracted to the “Americanness” of her father (who, in this case, turned out to be an abusive drunk). The “Americanness” of Jenny (blonde, white, slender and traditionally ‘beautiful’) also plays a role in the narrator’s fixation on her. While I’m not saying that every book with non-White characters has to have specific racial commentary, I am wondering why more wasn’t said about it here. It certainly would have added some depth to the story, nahmean?
Review for “The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border”by Rosayra Cruz and Julie Collazo
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Although the plot of this story centers around the life of a woman named Rosayra Cruz, this is essentially a book divided in half with two distinct voices. The first section focuses on why and how Rosy left Guatemala for asylum in the U.S. In addition to surrounding the grinding poverty of the region, Rosy’s husband was violently murdered in 2008. She also discusses numerous gang extortion attempts on her business and her own brush with death with a stranger’s bullet. Rosy subsequently takes her youngest son (she has 4 children in all) and leaves for the U.S. She works for a while in States, but later returns to Guatemala for her oldest son, who at barely 12 years old is being threatened by local gangs. It is on her way back from the second trip when she is detained by Customs and Border Patrol in Arizona and both of her sons taken away from her as a part of Trump’s ‘zero tolerance’ family separation policy.
The second section of this book details activist Julie Collazo’s effort to create the non-profit group Immigrant Families Together. Her group begins to raise bail funds for detained migrant women, one of whom is Rosy. After Rosy is released from custody, the kindness that surrounds her through the efforts of activists, teachers, and the community is nothing less than inspiring.
I won’t spoil the book by telling you how it ends, but I definitely recommend this over many of the migration stories coming out right now that have questionable points of view (*ahem* “American Dirt” *ahem*).
Definitely put this on your TBR list. Four solid stars.
Review for “We Are Not From Here” by Jenny Torres Sanchez (2020)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
At the beginning of this novel, 15-year-old Pulga (“Flea”), Pequena (“Tiny”), and Chico (“Boy”), three teenagers from Puerto Barrio, Guatemala, are living their normal lives. Pulga and Chico are brothers by choice, Pequena and Pulga are cousins. Life is hard in their barrio and trouble lurks around every corner, especially after Pulga and Chico witness the murder of a store owner by a local narco, the same criminal who raped and seeks to force Pequena into marriage. In response, the three teens sneak away from their families and leave for a better life in the United States.
After crossing a river and arriving at the Mexican border, the first obstacle the trio must conquer is La Bestia, a series of trains that run northward through Mexico. Migrants often ride on top of the trains, which are highly dangerous and claim many lives and severed limbs. The teens also face hunger, illness, corrupt police, the grueling heat of the desert, and criminals. Although most of this novel is bleak they do find kindness, which gets them to the next phase and beyond.
The story switches between the narration of Pulga, the practical, de facto leader of the group, and Pequena, prone to dreams and flights of fancy to escape reality. This book is brutally honest and terrifying, considering the ages of the protagonists who are experiencing these horrors first hand. The fear and the desperation in this book is real, and I felt every single moment of it.
This book tugs at your heart strings. It’s the best I’ve read this year so far. Although it is YA, the audience is anyone who wants to know about the people whose lives we’ve devalued by separating their families and imprisoning them at our borders. It also gives a clear picture for the those who ask why they come, even if it means death.
Review for “Clap When You Land” by Elizabeth Acevedo (2020)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
This is a beautifully multi-layered novel written in verse. Much like her other two novels (“The Poet X” and “With the Fire on High”), Elizabeth Acevedo manages to hit the ball out of the park again. She’s incapable of writing bad books, she has a gift and it is plainly evident in her writing.
“Clap When You Land” is a dual, alternating narrative told by two sisters who, at the beginning of the novel, do not yet know that they share a father in the same man. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic and longs to go to Columbia University in NYC, where her father lives and works for most of the year. Yahaira lives in Manhattan and hasn’t spoken to her dad since she found out that he has another wife in the DR. Their lives are vastly different: Yahaira has a girlfriend and loves to play chess, Camino is a talented swimmer and works with her aunt, a local healer. Both girls’ lives collide when their father dies in an airplane crash on his way from NYC to the island. Slowly, the two girls discover one another’s existence and carefully begin to form a bond.
Once again, this is a wonderfully complex book that explores toxic masculinity, socioeconomics, family bonds, and coming to terms with family secrets. I highly recommend reading this, you won’t want to miss it!
Review for “My Vanishing Country” by Bakari Sellers (2020)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Part memoir, part cultural critique, and part political analysis, “My Vanishing Country” is the story of Bakari Sellers, who became the youngest member of the South Carolina Legislature when he was elected to that role in 2006. Sellers, a lawyer and CNN analyst, grew up in the small rural town of Denmark, South Carolina. He writes with vivid imagery of fishing in local ponds, riding his bike on dirt roads, and, well…just being a country boy. This part of the book connected with me the most as a Southern girl myself and recalling my own memories of summers spent on my grandparents’ farm in Tennessee.
Despite growing up in a racially segregated rural setting, Sellers’ family history is rich with civil rights history. Both of his parents were activists; with prominent members of the movement such as Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, and Stokely Carmichael counted among their friends. After graduating from Morehouse, Sellers went into politics and won a seat in the SC Legislature. After an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor, he returned to practicing law and became a political commentator and analyst on CNN. His public role on CNN became more prominent after the shooting deaths of 9 Black churchgoers by a white supremacist in his home state of South Carolina in 2015.
There are a lot of reviews comparing this book to J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” but honestly I don’t think that Vance’s book holds a candle to this one. Sellers gives a more balanced critique of Black life, highlighting the joy and the pain of growing up in a Black rural setting. There are also chapters that give analysis the 2016 presidential race, Black mental health, and other nuanced topics that Vance misses in his discussion of the white rural working class.
It has long been my goal of mine to read more books by LGBTQ authors of color, so this book (along with its beautiful cover) jumped out at me immediately. This YA-focused book centers the experiences of George Johnson, a 30-something journalist and queer Black activist. It begins with his middle class upbringing in New Jersey and ends with his observations of life at a historically Black college in Virginia, highlighting the joys and pain of queer existence across many topics–homophobia, sexual abuse, violence, gender policing, denial, and finally, coming out.
I loved this book. It wasn’t until the end that I truly realized how rarely the queer Black experience has been written about, and done so with such honesty. This title opens doors because it calls not just those who are outside of gender norms, but allies as well to a path of self healing and understanding.
In a small Mexican village, a local witch has recently been discovered dead, floating in an irrigation canal under “a mass of black snakes.” What follows this disturbing scene are seven chapters, each one paragraph long, from the point of view of a character who is either connected to the murder or directly involved in it. The chapters also give backstory: allegedly a long time ago the witch killed her husband and cursed his sons, she performed abortions and herbal cures, the witch was not a woman but really was a man, she hosted sex orgies at her place, and she possessed a horde of treasure deep within her home. The storytelling here is lurid and unreliable, the language is foul. This book does not attempt to sort out the truth, because whether or not the character’s stories about the witch are true or false is not the point. The bottom line is that the woman at the center of this story serves as the village’s scapegoat, someone upon whom shame, secrets, and sins dwell.
As was previously stated, each chapter is a paragraph. Sentences go on forever, there’s no stops or quotations to be found. The characters narratives often digress, get back on track, then digress again. The language is vulgar, and yes, there’s some really obscene acts here (see above trigger warning). Normally I hate this kind of storytelling but considering the content, I think it was pulled off quite well here. It definitely moved the narrative at a fast pace and to give the sense that the true intent of the nasty stuff is not so much to shock you, but for you to understand the rage and hopelessness that’s at the center of this book. Rape, extreme violence, copulating with animals–there’s really no topic that’s off limits or taboo. But instead of preaching against these things, the author demonstrates the detrimental effects of what homophobia, misogyny, poverty, and police corruption do to a small community. The focus here is clearly brutality toward women and gay people, and this story’s proximity to the truth is what makes this book such a difficult read.
Do I recommend this? Yes and no. This is certainly not the book for everyone. For those who are into experimental novels and don’t believe in censorship, read on. For those who are triggered by foul language and extreme violence, I would avoid this one. I gave this book four stars, however, because it takes a lot of balls to even write something as messy and thought provoking as this.