Review: Passage

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Review for "Passage" by Khary Lazarre-White (2017)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“Passage” is a short novel set in NYC in the winter of 1993. Warrior, the main character, is a highly intelligent young Black man who personifies the rage and pain of his everyday existence. He hates cops (cleverly called “blue soldiers”), school has little usefulness to him. It is not hard to imagine why, as this story lays bare much of the reasons for Warrior’s nihilism. He is also fighting the demons from the past and present that threaten to take his soul, literal and figurative battles that come up in this text time and time again.

It is interesting that 1993 is the date given for this novel; it is about a year after the world saw the rage of the Los Angeles riots. Even though it is set in Black America’s collective past, this story definitely could have been the present, or even the future. Despite talk of a post-racial society where things are said to be “equal” and every person can still achieve their dreams, it is quite clear that racism still exists, that the legacies of slavery still exist. The title “Passage” alludes to multiple themes: the Middle Passage, the dehumanizing journey that Africans were forced to take by ship to the New World to be sold as slaves, Black men’s rites of passage invoked as means of everyday survival. Even the cover art calls your attention–it’s of a young Black man in profile, a hoodie covering half of his face. Echoes of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin are still very much alive in this novel.

In the end, I still gave this book three stars. It wasn’t because this book was bad, but because, in theory, I liked the idea of it more than its actual living form. There’s a hazy mix of mysticism, magic, and spiritualism here that, in my opinion, should not have been so hazy. Reading this took massive amounts of effort, mostly due to frequent interpolations of various plot points. Clearer storytelling would have helped immensely.

I definitely recommend this book, however.

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Review: Heads of the Colored People

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Review for "Heads of the Colored People" by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Short story collections are always hit or miss. You end up either liking some or none of the stories at all. The stories are either too long or too short, the plots are too much of the same or too loosely put together with little overall theme. “Heads of the Colored People” was an exception, I liked every last story in this volume.

Nafissa Thompson-Spires hits the ball out of the park with this one. All of these stories are of Black people living on the fringe of what’s considered “normal” behavior. In this volume, there are Black men who cosplay, Black women who do AMSR (yes–even I had to look it up), Black men and women with anxiety issues, Black women at war with their bodies, Black men professors who passively aggressively war with coworkers, Black millenials obsessed with social media attention. Some of the stories were connected, with several selections detailing the ongoing saga between two Black girl frenemies, Fatima and Christinia. Some of the stories were funny, some of them were quite cringe-inducing, but it was alright because it’s clear that they were meant to be that way. Clearly, Thompson is a writer who is not afraid to write with honesty and just go there.

In the end, I believe this book is effective because it achieves exactly what the title suggests. The author gets deep into what’s in the “heads” of Black people, which, we find out, are a multitude of pressures–the pressure of being the only Black person in their environments, the pressure of being a representation of what non-Black people think of when they conceptualize typical Black “behavior,” the pressure of being Black in American society. Questions like: how does one cope with being angry–without being perceived as the stereotypical “angry” Black man/woman? characterize this book, and I’ll be thinking about the answers for a long time after I read it.

I loved reading this from start to finish. I will definitely watch for future efforts by this writer.

Top Ten Tuesday: Fiction Pet Peeves

Oh, fiddlesticks…the wtf topics keep occurring over at Top Ten Tuesday, so I’m making my own today. Since I did nonfiction last week, I’ll delve into fiction today. Here goes:

Top Ten Pet Peeves in Fiction

  1. The “woman of stone.” I love kick-ass women characters, but sometimes, in the pursuit of the ultimate bad-ass gal, the author will create a woman character so devoid of emotion that she is, in many ways, psychologically a man. Just the trophe the writer seeks to avoid by making the character a woman. I think it is ok to make women characters that do kick ass and take the time to do other things, like pause and cry, for instance. Nothing wrong with that.
  2. Atypical boys = homosexuality. I love quirk, but all too often quirk (lack of sports interest, nerdiness, awkwardness around girls, etc) in male characters is imagined as a gay character. I don’t have a problem with gay characters, but I do have an issue with the perception that there is only one way to be a straight boy, and anything beyond an interest in sports and chasing girls means he must be gay. I find this a lot in YA. Ugh…stop it.
  3. Contrived diversity/tokenism. Of course in the whitest of all White settings, the main character manages to have two chatty, Black girl best friends. Like, of course. For example, in the novel Moxie, we’re talking a very small Texas town that’s nearly 98% White. How, then, does the main character happen to find the only Latina, Black, and lesbian girls in town and befriend them in the name of feminism? Beats me. This is why tokenism sucks–it appears to be ‘diverse’ on the surface, but there’s no yielding of the dominant narrative and absolutely no knowledge of a different perspective is gained. The “color” here was for the purpose of symbolism only.
  4. Rape/torture porn. I’ve written about this a lot here, so I won’t go into super detail because you already know how I feel about this, but it goes like this: we don’t need any more excessively detailed descriptions of rape, torture, violence, sexual abuse, etc. on paper. We know what these horrors are and what they do psychologically and physically to a victim. If a writer does choose to explore those subjects in a book, I feel like it should be political/critical in nature or to emphasize the development or growth of a character. Simply writing about a woman getting raped over and over does not challenge the abuser or the act, it just assents to the notion that women should be somewhere suffering for the sake of good storytelling. Not cool.
  5. Love at first sight. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I’m tired of YA characters finding their soulmate on the first day of school as their lab partner in bio class. They have no chemistry, but he’s “hot” and after dating only once, they’re hopelessly and endlessly in love. Bitchhhhhh….please.
  6. Change through abuse. This is kinda related to torture porn, but in a different direction. Here, the love interest from bio class is an abusive jerk whose function is to change or “soften” the strongly-willed (usually female) main character. It’s a sad and very old, sexist trope–that “change” must occur through domination, the breaking of someone’s will. Also not cool.
  7. Forgiveness, always. I love the idea of forgiveness as much as the next gal, but sometimes the person hurting you is just so plain nasty that I don’t think forgiveness is possible. And that’s ok, Dr. Phil, because not everybody deserves to be forgiven. I’ve found this kinda kumbaya, “let’s-hug-it-out-at-the-end” b.s. in a lot of books where family dysfunction is at the forefront and it sucks, because let’s face it, sometimes family members will do more fucked up things to you than a stranger. It’s ok to say no to abuse and mistreatment, even by family members.
  8. Books where the writer describes the main character’s appearance. Yep, this is still happening. I always maintain that a good book need not describe the character’s looks–if the writer is doing their job right, details on their appearance never need to be explicitly shared. You can still have a fleshed out character without going into detail about how he’s a Harry Styles clone, ma’am. LOL.
  9. Very slow action. Like, reeeaaalll slow. Like, we’re on page 50 and the main character is just now leaving the house. Molasses in the plot, snails in the dialogue. First I’ll flip ahead, then it’s a quick DNF, next.
  10. Side characters with no real purpose. We all know this: books with a evil side character whose only purpose for existing seems to be to foil the main character’s intentions. Why are they so bitchy? Well, this is never explained. I understand that the novel isn’t from their perspective, and that’s fine, but if you’re going to make a side character psychopathic in their badness, a little insight is warranted, yanno?

Ok, back to studying…

Review: This is How You Lose Her

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Review for "This is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz (2012)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I downloaded and read this back in 2012 when it first came out, due to my overwhelming support and respect for Junot Diaz as a writer at that time. I gave it 5 stars because I thought that the writing was fresh and engaging, but the sexism of the male characters bothered me immensely. Man, I thought at the time, he really hates women. I even remember hitting up Google to see if Diaz was married or had a girlfriend, because I could not imagine the jerk he probably was at home. I didn’t speak on it further though. I did not write a review either. I just moved on.

After allegations of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse came out about Junot Diaz last week, I decided to take another look at this book. I read it in a few days and I have to say that I am even more troubled by the male characters’ sexism than I was the first time I read it. On a scale of 1-10, Yunior’s sexism is somewhere in the Outer Limits. He cheats and cheats and treats women like shit and feels only a vague sense of remorse about it. Even though the book is about relationships, in story after story, Diaz’s women characters are always empty and never fully fleshed out. Their bodies exist for the male characters to use and abuse them time and time again. When women characters are somewhat fully realized (“Otravida/Otravez,” the ubiquitous presence of Yunior’s mother) they are always saintly, sad, and long suffering through the perils of their men’s choices.

So what is this, other than your run-of-the-mill, heteronormative misogyny? It does not surprise me that Junot Diaz has been called out as a jerk in his offline world, because in reading this I never felt that normal kind of separation between the person and the art. These stories are too real, and it is quite apparent that Yunior’s experiences are clearly Diaz’s. Diaz addresses some of this criticism in an article from The Atlantic, in which he states that he wrote this particular book to address sexism that pervades our culture. I get that, sir. But simply calling out sexism and portraying it in all of its nasty glory does not challenge it. There is nothing in this book about male hetero privilege that we don’t already know or haven’t seen before.

I’ve changed my rating to 5 stars to 3 stars now. I don’t mind writers writing about sexism, but I need more complexity before I read something else by Junot Diaz.

Review: Ghost Boys

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Review for "Ghost Boys" by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“All children, except one, grow up.”
-Peter Pan

Jerome is a likeable 12 year old boy living in Chicago with his parents, grandmother, and sister. He is bullied at school, so a friend gives him a toy gun to brandish for protection. During a visit to a local park to play with the gun, Jerome is shot and killed by a police officer, who felt as if Jerome was a “threat” to his life.

Once dead, Jerome remains in the world of the living, watching his parents grieve and visiting places he used to go. No one sees him, until he encounters the young daughter of the police officer who killed him. They strike up an unlikely friendship. Ghost boys, we learn, are young Black boys killed by racially motivated violence. Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin all make appearances in this book. We’re told that there are hundreds of ghost boys, walking around in the world of the living, making sure we don’t forget them.

This is a sad, heartbreaking book. I will admit that I went into the reading of this book angry on the subject matter. I won’t say I liked it either, because it deals with an all-to-real horror that I, as the mother of a 14-year-old Black boy, hope to never, ever encounter. Yet mothers are still dealing with the pain of their children shot dead by police with no consequences, legal or otherwise. Ghost boys continue.

This is geared toward middle grades readers. I’d definitely use it with that age group to discuss issues of empathy and racism.

Top Ten Tuesday: Nonfiction Reads

Hmm…I haven’t really been feelin any of the last 3-4 Top Ten Tuesday topics lately.Ā  Book with my favorite color in the title? Poo. Books we’d “slay a lion” to get early? Nah…I like lions.

Anyway, I’ve decided to make up my own Top Ten Tuesday based a genre that I go to quite frequently: non-fiction. So here’s my Top Ten Favorite Non-Fiction Reads from the past 5 years or so. Enjoy!

Top Ten Nonfiction Reads

  1. Buck: A Memoir, M.K. Asante. This a very solid memoir about a young Black man’s upbringing in a middle class Philadelphia household in the 80s and 90s. His father is the very famous Molefi Asante, a scholar known for bringing Afrocentrism to the forefront of academia. Despite his well-known father, M.K. struggles with a lot of issues that don’t get talked about much, because most books written about Black life are not from a middle class perspective. Very solid, readable book.
  2. A Bestiary, Lily Hoang. This book kinda defies genre. If I could describe it, I’d give it the title of “nonfiction fiction memoir.” It’s a gathering of facts, personal stories, biographical insights, observations. Normally I hate this kinda of crazy quilt, pastiche effect (check this review) but I LOVED this book. Everything fit together perfectly.
  3. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris. This book’s a part of the dissertation research I’m working on, but it’s still an enjoyable and very fact-based read. As a Black female, I think it is lamentable that I am still more likely, simply based on my race, to be incarcerated, expelled from school, or drop out of school altogether. Black girls are also 6 times more likely to be suspended from school than White girls, even though they exhibit the same behaviors. Great read.
  4. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer. This book is an eye-opener to the world of the working poor. It is not excuse making (see this review) nor is it poverty-shaming, it is just the day to day realities for people who work 40-60 hours a week and, due to the fact that we haven’t raised the minimum wage in fucking years, barely have enough to buy toilet paper. A very readable, informative book.
  5. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond. The author of this book traveled to Milwaukee and spend time with people on all sides of the low-rent housing market for year: investors, the landlords, the people who call these places home and get put out time and time again, the judges whose sole job it is to evict people, often to the streets with no other recourse. Normally I don’t care about who wins a Pulitzer Prize, but this book deserved it–hands down.
  6. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you haven’t read any of Coates’ articles on race relations in The Atlantic then you definitely should be. He is pretty much the writer right now when it comes to critical race issues and the public conversations going on around them. I was going to write a review of this book here when I read it a while back but I realized that it was so good, I literally had nothing to say. A mic-dropper.
  7. They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan, Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, & Judy Bernstein. When I included a quote from this book on this website, one of the authors (Judy Bernstein) sent me an email and offered me a copy of this book. Of course I said yes, because this book touched my heart. It’s the story of three boys, all very young (10-13 years old) and left orphaned by their families due to the civil war in Sudan. They escape the country, but cross rivers, hostile territories, deserts, endure dangerous predators, starvation. It’s a harrowing book.
  8. A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story, Linda Sue Park. Another book about one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, only with a YA centered focus and contrasted with a modern story from 2008. Salva is a boy who escaped the Sudanese Civil War in 1985, Nya is a girl who walks miles to fetch water. Their stories intersect beautifully. Loved this book!
  9. There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, Alex Kotlowitz. This story takes place in the 1980’s in the Henry Horner Homes, one of Chicago’s most notoriously violent, drug and gang infested housing projects. The story centers around Pharoah and his brother Lafeyette, living with their mother and literally dodging bullets on their way to school. Even though they’ve since torn down the Horner projects, this is still a relevant read, especially if you want to understand why Chicago leads the country in gun-related violence. There is a kinda humanizing effect here to inner-city lives that I haven’t found elsewhere in nonfiction.
  10. Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America, Jonathan Kozol. I don’t think you can call yourself an educator if you’ve never read Kozol–he’s quite a prolific writer and his books are widely taught in teacher education courses. This book is a kind of follow-up to other books that he has written over the years about children in poverty. Some of the stories end on a positive note, some are tragic. It’s still a great book, however, by a great author.

Whew, my hand’s tired. I get fired up when writing about nonfiction, that’s all. See ya’ll later this week.

xoxo,

Kellan

Review: The Poet X

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Review for "The Poet X" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a beautiful book.

Xiomara Batista is a Dominican teenager growing up in present-day Harlem, NYC. She writes poems in her notebook to express her honest thoughts, mostly on her best friend, her twin brother, her father, and her ultra-religious, overbearing mother. Outside of her brother and her best friend Xiomara does not have much of a social life, she is forced to attend church services and confirmation classes by her mother. Her life changes, however, when she falls in love with a boy from her school and is encouraged to pursue her poetry by one of her teachers.

A lot of the trophes in this book are a bit cliche: first love, parental misunderstanding, the questioning of religion, discovering one’s voice through poetry. Oddly though, while reading this I never really considered these things as ‘done before,’ I just found myself getting lost in the book and letting Xiomara’s words shine through. I loved the poetry here, I loved Xiomara.

I normally don’t care too much for novels in verse, I find most poetic narrative styles kind of stuffy and trite. Not so with this book, I could have read this for another 100 pages. Very well done, highly recommend.