Review: A Lucky Man

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Review for "A Lucky Man" by Jamel Brinkley (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is one of the most profound short story collections I’ve read over the past few years. I say that with no hesitation, because let’s face it–most short story offerings these days ain’t that good, unevenly written at best. Very rarely are ALL of the stories in a collection readable and relatable pieces of literature. “A Lucky Man” is one of the few exceptions.

In this volume are nine stories, all featuring Black men and boys in the Bronx who are dealing with life and its societal pressures. There is a focus on masculinity here, specifically Black masculinity–how Black men view the women in their lives, their families, and how they justify their behavior toward them. There are definitely depictions of unhealthy relationships here, but it’s not just sexism on display. The nuances of what it means to be a Black man are explored here in a variety of different settings: in some cases, the choice to reject traditional “male” behavior has disastrous consequences, but in others, the character finds peace.

The powerful story “J’ouvert 1996” was my favorite in this collection, which tells the story of a young boy’s coming of age during an all-night street festival. “Everything the Mouth Eats” is the tale of two brothers’ healing of the past during a capoeira festival. “A Family” is about one man’s quest to come to terms with his actions, many years after a terrible act. “A Lucky Man” is an interesting exploration of public spaces and male desire.

Overall, this is a beautiful collection of tales. It is hard to believe that this is Jamel Brinkley’s first book, he writes with a talent that is rare and unique. I look forward to any future writing projects he has. Definitely recommend!

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Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Novellas/Short Stories

Ok, ok…before I begin Top Ten Tuesday, the weekly meme by That Artsy Reader Girl, I have to confess to you guys that I’m a bit biased, as my choices for favorite short stories are a bit old-fashioned. Even though I read short stories and novellas all the time, I just don’t think anything comes really close to classics. Also keep in mind that I used to be a middle school teacher, so naturally a lot of classic stories pop up in kid’s textbooks. When you’ve read something umpteen times over the years, you can quote it with your eyes closed. Naturally you grow to like it too.

  1. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson – A small town’s terrifying ritual gone amok. I used to teach this story to my 7th grade students and pass out a small slip of folded paper with an ‘X’ on it to illustrate the plot.
  2. “Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima – Japanese writer’s story about a man and his wife committing seppuku (ritual suicide) in response to a military defeat. Strangely beautiful and mad deep.
  3. “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe – Another story I used to teach to my students. They used to love this!
  4. “Wild Child” by T.C. Boyle – Historical fiction account of Victor of Aveyron, the first documented “feral” child, in 1800’s France.
  5. “1922” by Stephen King – Greed and betrayal and rats. The Netflix movie was pretty close to the novella, thankfully.
  6. “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes – A little boy gets more he bargained for when he tries to snatch a woman’s purse.
  7. “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant – Another one in my 7th grade curriculum about fakery and the power of an authentic life. There’s a twist at the end that always gets me, every time.
  8. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Magical realism to tell a satirical tale about ignorance vs. power of freedom, or flight.
  9. “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin – Story about a woman who loses her husband, then gains him back, and then dies–all within an hour. Powerful feminist message here too.
  10. “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury – Science fiction story about a class of students on Venus, where it rains constantly and the sun comes out for only one hour every seven years. My 6th graders used to like this one–lots.

xoxo, Kellan

Review: There There

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Review for "There There" by Tommy Orange (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Here’s a fact about me: whenever I see a book by a Native American author other than Sherman Alexie winning loads of critical praise, I’m going to read it. Tommy Orange’s There There is one such book–much praise, reviews in major publications. I reserved it months back and finally jumped on it when my copy came up on reserve at the library. I read this in about 4 sittings over a 4 day period.

There There is a unique narrative in that it explores a group that has never really been given a voice–urban Native Americans. In this novel, the characters come from various tribes and live in and around the city of Oakland, California. Orange writes about their search for identity and explores the ‘old’ problems that surround this community (alcoholism, domestic violence), as well as modern ones (cultural appropriation, loss of traditions, etc). The author uses an ensemble approach, telling the interconnected stories of various attendees headed to a local powwow.

Unfortunately though, this is a book loaded with problems. For one, there are about a dozen different perspectives in this book. Even though the same characters are visited over and over again leading up to the powwow, I felt there were far too many perspectives, too many voices here to keep up with. I kept having to look back at other sections to remember who was talking, and at about 50% into the book I gave up trying to connect all of the dots. You never really get to know any of these people before their 8-10 pages is over and it’s on again to another person. I would have much rather the author focused on less people and fully fleshed out his characters more.

Also, I didn’t feel the writing was anything to write home about. The dialogue was bland, the descriptions too stripped back. A lot of telling, as my creative writing teachers would say, and not enough showing. In many places, a person’s entire life was contained within less than 5 paragraphs. It seemed too rushed, like a false start. In other places the writing was mad awkward, like the two times we’re told that a character has his head “on a swivel.” (*eyeroll*)

The ending is anti-climatic and the book simply just…ends. It’s weird. We’re never told what happens to any of the characters. I just turned a page near the end, and that was it.

Strangely, the prologue to this book was quite beautiful. It’s a thoughtful meditation about the attempted genocide of indigenous people, told historically and figuratively through the motif of the infamous Indian-head test tv pattern. I was kinda disappointed when this part was over, ’cause I could have read this for another 50 pages. It’s never OK when the prologue is better than the story, but I’ll digress here.

As much as I didn’t really care for this book, I won’t go lower than 4 stars. There is a story here, somewhere in the rubble of all of this. I respect what Tommy Orange is attempting to do by giving us an alternate perspective of Native American life that’s outside of the images of dusty reservations and old stereotypes. I just don’t think this was executed well. This is his first book, however, so the structural issues are forgivable.

I definitely recommend this book, perhaps you’ll like it more than I did.

Top Ten Tuesday: Best Reads of 2018 (so far!)

Alright, alright…we’re halfway through 2018. I set my yearly reading goal at 140 books back in January, right now I’m at 86. Here are the best books I’ve read this year so far, in no particular order:

  1. Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson – Beautiful autobiographical novel written in verse about the coming of age of a Black girl in the 1960’s and 70’s.
  2. Calling My Name, Liara Tamani – Set in the 90’s, this is a beautiful fiction book about the coming of age of a Black girl growing up in Texas.
  3. Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi – This book is a bit of a shape-shifter. To say it’s about identity or mental health is to deny its true power, so I’ll say it’s about certain subjects that are so thought-provoking it defies explanation. Let that sit for a minute.
  4. Sometimes I Lie, Alice Feeney – Pleasantly surprised by this one. Suspenseful, engaging, and full of drama. Loved this!
  5. Where the Dead Sit Talking, Brandon Hobson – “Quiet” kinda book that packs a helluva punch about the dysfunctional life of an adopted Native American teen in 1980’s Oklahoma.
  6. Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires – First collection of short stories this year that I actually liked. This is definitely one to read.
  7. Monday’s Not Coming, Tiffany D. Jackson – Another recent read that manages to be hopeful, frightening, and inspiring all rolled into one. Great book.
  8. Convenient Store Woman, Sayaka Murata – I was recently blown away by this one. This writer is definitely one to watch!
  9. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? – Kathleen Collins – Kathleen Collins was a Black playwright, filmmaker, and writer who died of cancer in 1988. Several years ago, her daughter gathered many of her still-unpublished writings and issued them in this volume. The stories in this book are definitely revelatory and quite profound–the reason you haven’t seen a review for this on here is because I still just don’t have words for it yet. I read this back in March and it is extremely good. Definitely check it out!
  10. The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui – Another recent read that completely blew me away with its beautiful drawings and message.

Review: The Terrible

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Review for "The Terrible" by Yrsa Daley Ward (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a very unique memoir. It is written in prose, but large parts of it are written in verse. There’s no pattern to what the next page is going to be (a poem or prose), but that was perfectly OK. I was too wrapped up in the author’s words. Needless to say, I loved this book.

Yrsa Daley-Ward, author of bone, tells a very honest story about her life. Her and her younger brother grow up in a very strict, very religious Seven-Day Adventist household with her mother’s parents. With her father absent, her and her brother go to live with their mother later in her childhood. The relationship between her and her mother is dysfunctional as well. Eventually Ward drifts into a life of drugs, drinking, depression, and sex work. There is a lot of pain invoked in this novel, along with an exploration on inter-generational conflicts, pain not healed that is passed from parent to children.

I won’t tell you too much more about this book because I don’t want to spoil it. It is definitely worth your time to read it. Four stars.

Review: Convenience Store Woman

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Review for "Convenience Store Woman" by Sayaka Murata (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wow, I loved this book! Deceptively simple story, yet subversive to the core.

As a child, Keiko Furukura recalls that she was always an odd person, attracting disgust for her behavior. She doesn’t understand these reactions (in her mind, her behavior is logical), but knows that to be a ‘normal’ person, she must change. This change is achieved when, as an 18-year-old student, she is “reborn” as a convenience store worker. Keiko finds that the routine and the monotony of the job is perfectly suited for her. She takes enthusiastic pride in her work: always on time, working extra shifts, keeping her body in perfect shape for store work, just as the store manual instructs her to do. Keiko’s love for her job goes beyond obsession–it is literally her religion, her only desire.

18 years later, Keiko is 36 and still working at her beloved convenient store. She has learned to appear ‘normal’ to friends and family by observing store colleagues and imitating their speech styles and dress. She finds it harder to field the concerns of friends and her sister, who don’t understand why, at her age, she has still not married or gotten a ‘proper’ job. Eventually Keiko does decide to go for ‘normal’ in her love life, and the results are not what she intended.

This is a short novel (about 163 pages), but it packs a helluva punch. There’s a lot being said here about Japanese society and its crushing conformity, social pressures, as well as the peculiarities of what’s considered ‘normal’ behavior. There’s also the self-confessed ‘strangeness’ of Keiko, whose behavior throughout the novel had all of the hallmarks of someone on the autism spectrum (in my opinion), though this is never named. It’s also a love story, not with a person but with the order and routines of retail work. Keiko takes to this lulling sense of sameness like a fish to water. Of course it makes sense that Keiko, who has no other desire but to be ‘normal,’ doesn’t want to do anything else but stock pork dumplings and set store displays five days a week. Of course.

Ya’ll have to read this book. I will go so far as to say that it’s probably one of the best reads I’ve read so far this summer. 4.5 stars.

Review: The Best We Could Do

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Review for "The Best We Could Do" by Thi Bui (2017)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

When I finished reading this on a Saturday morning at 3:20 am, I cried like a baby.

The Best We Could Do is a beautifully drawn graphic novel that completely hooked me from the first few pages. In it, the author Thi Bui begins her journey as a first time mother, seeking to understand the complex political and personal history of which she is a part. She talks to her parents, Vietnamese immigrants who came to America in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, as well as her brother and sisters to construct a story that’s engaging and unique.

This story is not linear, there are various dates and timelines before, during, after the Vietnam War jumping all over the place. It’s quite alright, the complicated nature of the story necessitates this format. The story of the author’s life begins in pre-war Vietnam, with the lives of her parents. They meet, marry, and have six children, two of which don’t survive infancy. They struggle through poverty, war, and conflict going on around them until they decide to escape by boat to a refugee camp in Malaysia. After several months they find themselves in America, living in the Midwest. The cold eventually forces them to California, where the author spends the rest of her childhood.

The story doesn’t end there, however. There are struggles with assimilation in a new country, of a family navigating the waters of what it really means to be ‘American.’ There is also the hauntings of the ghosts of the past, which Thi Bui attempts to rectify through this book.

With the current rhetoric going on right now around immigration and who or what is considered “legal,” I felt it was necessary to read this book. We hear about and see pictures of people coming to American soil by boat, by foot. Send them back home, they say. Children coming on their own, entire families crossing fences clearly marked “Keep Out.” Split them up and that’ll teach them. Yet they still come. They die coming here. Smart people will look past the fluff and the politics and attempt to understand their lives, the question of why they risk so much to come here in the first place. This book is a good place to start in explaining the complexities of human location and the desperation it can breed–and why legality is a small price to pay when your life is a living hell and your children won’t make it past their 12th birthdays. Deep questions with no answers. How can you go home when there’s literally nothing to go home to? This book will help you understand that.

For those that don’t like graphic novels, I would recommend that you give this book a try. It is so revelatory and timely that one would be surprised. Four and a half stars.