Review: White Bird

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Review for "White Bird" by R.J. Palacio (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“White Bird” is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about Julian’s grandmother’s experience during the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. If you are familiar with the ‘Wonder’ series, then you’ll remember Julian as the not-so-nice kid at Beecher Prep that gave the main character, Auggie, such a hard time fitting in with other students. For those that didn’t like Julian at the end of that story, this novel is his redemption, a chance for him to learn empathy from his beloved grandmother, Grandmere.

As Grandmere reflects on her past to Julian, we learn that she was once a young, middle class Jewish girl named Sara growing up during the days of Nazi-occupied France. In the beginning, she lives a sheltered existence at her home with her parents, even though public disdain and discrimination against Jews is everywhere. Eventually, the Nazis take over the region and begin to arrest Jews, killing them or rounding them up and transporting them to concentration camps. Sara hides in the home of a classmate, a kind boy with a walking disability named Julien who lives with his parents. Over the next several years, Julien and Sara form a close friendship. It is so close that after the war she names her son Julien, who in turn gives that name to the main character of this story.

I am skipping parts, of course, because I do not want to ruin this beautiful story. The pictures are a plus, exquisitely drawn in pastels and neutral colors. There are also loads of resources in the back of the book with information on the Holocaust, as well as organizations that educate and teach about this tragic historical event.

Be forewarned, however: this book is definitely a tearjerker. Go into this one with a warm blanket and lots of tissues. You’ll need them.

Five stars. Excellent book.

Review: Year of the Monkey

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Review for "Year of the Monkey" by Patti Smith (2019)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Ahh, first review for 2020. Happy New Year!

I hate to start the decade with a bad review, but you know I gotta be honest and say that nah, I didn’t like this one. I love Patti Smith and I loved her other memoir, “Just Kids,” about her and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s coming of age as artists in NYC in the 70’s and 80’s. This book, however, is different. “Year of the Monkey” really is a book about nothing much at all.

Lemme back up for a moment. It’s perfectly fine for a book to be about nothing at all. The one author off the top of my head who’s perfected this technique is Haruki Murakami–if you pick up any one of his books you’ll find pages and pages of character observations and thoughts that seemingly go nowhere, but it somehow manages to keep me reading. Smith is not Murakami, however. I wanted to like this book but it wasn’t what I imagined it would be. Here, Patti Smith recounts 2016 through a series of photographs, dreams, travels, meals in dingy diners, etc. There’s also a lot of really vague references to other writers, musicians, and history events I have no previous knowledge of which left me out in the lurch. The events of this book are more like a fever dream and it’s obvious that Smith is trying to weave together dreams and reality into a narrative but for me what was real and what wasn’t was just too confusing.

I am thankful that this book was short. Although I will read Patti Smith again, I would not read this book again.

Review: The Witches Are Coming

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Review for "The Witches Are Coming" by Lindy West (2019)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

First of all, lemme say that I like Lindy West. She’s one of the few women writers that seems to get “it”–and when I say “it,” I am talking about the interconnectedness of the systems of oppression that encapsulate gender, race, class, and body type. I thought her first book was alright, though at times her tone completely put me at a distance. Why did Shrill feel like I was reading a series of long, continuous blog posts by a bitchy teenager? There’s nothing wrong with humor with a fair dose of snark, but I found West’s constant attempts at a punchline really off-putting.

“The Witches Are Coming” is slightly better than “Shrill,” but not by much. It’s not so much the snark here (though there’s much less in this book), but the content itself. And while I did agree with what she’s saying, I just found a lot of the subject matter kinda boring. By that I mean that there were definitely some essays I liked more than others, like why Adam Sandler is so popular (his movies have never really been all that funny to me either). The Goop one is also quite hilarious because it’s so ridiculous (yoni eggs and aura baths–yay!).

But the boring ones were just not my style–at all. I skipped over the ones about the Fyre Festival (there’s been 2 documentaries on this already and we don’t care anymore), Joan Rivers (never been into her style of humor; don’t care), and Ted Bundy (there’s a Netflix series on this; who cares?). I also found myself skipping a few others because they weren’t very interesting. Overall, this book was very uneven and just ok for me.

3.5 stars. Blah.

Review: Dignity

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Review for "Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America" by Chris Arnade (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Several years ago, physicist and Wall Street trader Chris Arnade decides to leave his cushy life and visit the working class neighborhood of Hunts Point, deep in the NYC borough of the Bronx. He builds up a relationship with the residents there, listening to their stories and taking pictures of them living, working, doing and selling drugs, and engaging in sex work. Arnade eventually develops a relationship with the people of Hunts Point, and after documenting their stories, decided that he wanted to know more about similar communities across America and the people living in them, areas with no jobs and mostly forgotten by public policies.

“Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” is one man’s journey into poor, working class life in America. He visits large cities and smaller towns: Bakersfield, California; Portsmouth, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cairo, Illinois; Gary, Indiana. Arnade shares what he learns in photographs and in themed essays about topics such as racism, drugs, religion, coping.

On one hand I admire the author’s attempt at honest investigation, as well as his decision as a member of America’s “front row” to try to understand “back row” poor people. But on the other hand I’m not so sure about this book or its approach. For one, he seems to lack the knowledge to help him fully understand what he sees. While I appreciate that the author never judges or condemns the people he writes about (many of which use drugs, engage in sex work, and other criminal behaviors), this book worked best when he let the photos talk and he didn’t try to explain or analyze their lives.

This necessary ‘silence,’ of course, doesn’t happen here. All over this book are the author’s explanations and suggested reasonings for why and what he’s encountering in the lives of the people he meets. He offers no sociological or psychological support for his analyses or larger discussion into the the failure of ‘trickle-down’ economics, there’s no study or graphs to support any of his viewpoints. And while I’m not criticizing him for injecting his bias into a book such as this, I am criticizing the lack of evidence to back it up.

This isn’t a bad book, however. I definitely encourage people to read it, if for nothing else then to remind those in the “front row” of those who live completely parallel lives.

Review: Girls Like Us

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Review for "Girls Like Us" by Randi Pink (2019)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This YA story follows four girls dealing with pregnancy in the summer of 1972, right on the eve of the historic Roe vs. Wade decision which resulted in the decriminalization of abortion in America. To understand this story, it’s very important to take in the social climate of the time, which gave unmarried women very few choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Having a child out of wedlock was not socially acceptable, those who could afford to could hide out in an unwed mother’s home until the birth and then place their child up for a closed adoption. The other option was to visit a person who performed abortions using questionable and often unsafe methods. Many women died in these botched, ‘back alley’ abortion procedures from blood loss, poisoning, infection from unsterile instruments, etc. It’s a sad, horrific history that, in 2019, certain people in political power would like to see women return to. I’ll step off of my soapbox for now, however.

“Girls Like Us” first introduces us to sisters Ola and Izella, the older of which, Ola, is expecting. Their mother, Evangelist, is a religious zealot and they make a pact to not tell her about the pregnancy. Ola and Izella visits a neighbor, a conjure woman who offers a quick home remedy to get rid of the baby. Meanwhile down the street, another young girl, Missippi, is pregnant from a rape by an older relative. When her father discovers what has happened to her, he sends Missippi up north to a woman who runs a home for young unwed pregnant women. In the home for pregnant women, Missippi meets a White young woman named Susan, the free-spirited daughter of a politician. Although their lives are different, they are in many ways the same. Their stories intersect with those of Izella and Ola, later on, in a dramatic way.

Overall, I liked this story, but I wasn’t engaged with any of the characters. I understand what the author was trying to do by universalizing the stories of women pre-Roe vs. Wade, but I think the writing was rushed here and a bit bland. Also, the ending was just kinda…there. I definitely get the connection to modern day stories, but felt this could have been written better.

I give this a 3.5. I’m very interested in what this author does next.

Review: Quiet Until the Thaw

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Review for "Quiet Until the Thaw" by Alexandra Fuller (2017)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I went into this book fully aware of the controversy around it, a story about a pair of Oglala boys on a Lakota reservation written by White British woman raised in colonial Africa. I was curious about this novel because I wanted to answer a very important question for myself: does a writer have to be a member of a race or culture in order successfully write about its traumas?  I already answered this question somewhat in my last review with Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a historically based novel about the plight of 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014. Although O’Brien is a White Irish woman, I felt that her knowledge of the sensitivities of her subjects were appropriate, given the long, racist history of African colonialism. However, I wanted to take my consideration of this question a step further. It’s apparent that White writers can write about the traumas of people of color, but when does it become exploitative? When has the line of cultural appropriation been crossed? I had this debate with students in my children’s lit class, and I think there are important arguments to be made on both sides.

Hence, I read this book. In the back, the author, Alexandra Fuller, mentions a visit that she made to the Pine Ridge reservation in 2011 to commemorate the murder of Crazy Horse. Being on the reservation, she writes, was like an “unexpected homecoming.”

Well alrighty then…

Anyway, “Quiet Until the Thaw” is the story of two Lakota boys growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the 1960’s and follows them over the course of the next 30 years of their lives. Orphaned at birth and raised by the town midwife, Rick Overlooking Horse speaks few words. As a young man he is sent to the Vietnam War, where he suffers a devastating injury from a friendly fire napalm bomb. He comes home and builds a teepee on empty land and resigns himself to a quiet life as a farmer. You Choose Watson, the other boy, becomes a rageful man, leaving home to dabble in drugs and odd jobs before returning to the reservation, rising to the level of tribal chief elder. Once in power, he uses his political position to pilfer funds and terrorize the residents, leading to a terrifying standoff with the U.S. government. You Choose is sent to prison, yet his rage continues into another generation.

This book is not a conventional novel, it’s more of a series of vignettes. The chapters are short and language is spare. While most of the book focuses on the characters, other parts cover the struggles of an oppressed people through incidences like the 1492 conquest, Disneyland, and so on. Although this inclusion is thoughtful, I think that Alexandra Fuller is misguided here. There’s tons of annoying Indigenous/Native American stereotypes in the book, such as the “noble” savage, the smoking Indian, the lazy Indian, the drunk Indian. They all go to boarding schools, bear children afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, live in “tar paper lean-tos,” and, when in a group, are referred to namelessly with empty titles as “Extended Relations.” Worst yet, the Native people in this book put up racial degradation, such as being called “Red Nigger” and “Diesel Engine” by White characters. It’s also peppered with Lakota words, which I wonder are even translatable given the context in which Fuller is using them.

I hate to dismiss this book but I’m afraid I have to here. The abject poverty and hopelessness of the people is written about reverently, as if it is unconnected to 500 years of racist genocide that preceded it. And speaking of genocide, the author treats this as a romantic notion, much in the same fashion as ridiculous movies as Dances with Wolves or some other outdated Western novel.

Does Alexandra Fuller have any idea about the inner lives of Native/Indigenous people? I get that she lived “on the rez” for three months, but there’s quite a few very good Native American writers out there that have exclusive rights to this narrative and I would rather hear it from them directly. As a White woman born and raised in a colonized and oppressed country as a member of a privileged class due to her Whiteness, I don’t feel that Fuller has any right to this story.

Cultural appropriation, theft, stealing, or whatever the hell you want to call it is here to the umpteenth degree.

It’s official!

Totally non-book related, y’all…

Last week I graduated from my doctoral program. My Ph.D. is in Curriculum and Instruction, with a concentration in reading and literacy. My dissertation focused on Black girls and critical texts and ways to bridge cultural experiences with instruction to benefit Black girls. Overall, it took my 4.5 years to finish my program, with a year and a half spent writing my dissertation.

I would very much like to stay in higher ed, teaching and researching on the college level. I told you I’d share some pics from my graduation, so here’s a few: