Review: An American Summer

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Review for "An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago" by Alex Kotlowitz (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you’re an educator, particularly of urban youth, then Alex Kotlowitz is your man. I was first introduced to this writer completely by chance, picking up his famous book “There Are No Children Here” at a used book store about 6 years ago. Granted I read it 30 years after its release, but it still had a profound effect on me. Unlike other books on the subject of urban life that create a ‘poverty porn’ atmosphere (you know, exploiting poor people’s condition for notoriety or increased book sales), Kotlowitz seemed to be deeply invested in the lives and futures of his subjects, giving them humanity.

In “American Summer,” Kotlowitz returns to Chicago, where we all catch glimpses of the headlines year after year about the dangerous gangs, crime, and rampant gun violence that plague this city. He chronicles an entire summer spent there in 2013 talking to men, women, and children touched by violence. Each chapter introduces us to a person who has either lost a family member to violence, committed violent acts themselves and are coming to terms with it, or witnessed the effects of violence first hand. Some people have several chapters in the book dedicated to their story, which are ongoing and run through the entire narrative.

I love this book because Kotlowitz does not pander to critics or make excuses for bad behavior. True, much of the violence is related to gangs and the young people in them, but what about the scores of those killed who aren’t? The point that remains is that people are still people, and that gang participation is often a response to external forces (racism, poverty, segregation, poor educational outlooks) that were in play long before this particular epidemic of violence even started. There is also widespread distrust of police due to years of misconduct and overpolicing and a “no snitching” street culture that holds violence firmly into place.

I also love the way Kotlowitz begins his book by stating that it does not pretend to know the answer to why gun violence in so widespread here. What it does do, however, is humanize people from both sides of the headlines and start a conversation toward healing.

I don’t give five stars lightly, and I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Review: The Water Cure

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Review for "The Water Cure" by Sophie Macintosh (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The Water Cure” is the strange tale of three sisters–Grace, Lia, and Sky–who live in isolation on a remote beach island with their mother and father. At the beginning of the novel, we are told that their father (aptly named ‘King’) has left to get supplies, but after an extended period, has not returned. We learn that the reason why the family lives in isolation is because, many years before, King took them from civilization in order to protect them from a “toxic” outside world. The source of ‘toxicity’ is never explained, and it is unclear throughout the book whether an actual environmental catastrophe has occurred or if its strictly symbolic (i.e., toxic ideas, toxic values, etc).

In time, the sisters come to believe that the world beyond their island home is ‘toxic.’ In order to cleanse themselves, their parents perform painful “therapies” and rituals in order to cure them. The “therapy” often takes on the form of physical and emotional abuse, the disturbing details of which are given in each of the sisters’ perspectives. Mother is particularly sadistic; as a result all three of the girls have serious health issues, with Lia predisposed to self-harm. We’re also informed that women visitors used to come to the island a long time ago to ‘cleanse’ themselves of toxicity and male violence, leading the reader to wonder if King is running some kinda weird cult here. Once again, the whole back story behind this is unclear.

About mid-way into the book, three strange men wash up on shore. The narrative switches to Lia’s perspective and the bulk of the action takes place over the few days that follow. I won’t give away what happens, other than to say the lack of a narrative back story make for very interesting reading. I did notice that there is a coldness and detachment to the writing here, none of the characters drew me in. I imagine that this is an outgrowth of the ambiguities of the story, of questions left unanswered. I don’t know if I liked it, but the constant wanting to know managed to hold my attention until the end.

This novel is being marketed as feminist dystopia, and I don’t know if I agree with that label. ‘Dystopian’ is a hazy label here, because it’s unclear if this book takes place in the future, the present, or the past. I don’t like ‘feminist’ to describe this either, so much of it is so rabidly anti-feminist and anti-woman that for me it was hard to reconcile the character’s actions with any kind of redeeming hope for anything resembling a future.

I do recommend this though, if you don’t mind books that are purposely ambiguous or like experimental types of writing.

Most Wanted Reads for Spring

Since I missed yesterday’s Top Ten Tuesday, I’m just going to post 10 of my most anticipated reads for this coming spring, in no particular order. Enjoy!

Fiction

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams (March 19)

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The Other Americans – Laila Lalami (March 26)

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A Woman is No Man – Etaf Rum (March 5)

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Lot – Bryan Washington (March 19)

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The Dreamers – Karen Thompson Walker (January 15)

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Nonfiction

Shout – Laurie Halse Anderson (March 12)

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The White Book – Han Kang (February 19, US Edition)

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What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker – Damon Young (March 26)

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Young Adult/YA

Internment – Samira Ahmed (March 19)

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With the Fire on High – Elizabeth Acevedo (May 7)

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Review: New Kid

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Review for "New Kid" by Jerry Craft (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a really cool middle grades graphic novel about school, race, family, and friendship.

The main character, Jordan (ironically, the name of my own son) is a 12-year-old kid who lives with his parents in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC. He loves gaming and drawing, and due to his good grades he begins to attend a wealthy prep school on financial aid, finding himself among the few students of color there. In his new school, Jordan finds that he has access to greater intellectual pursuits but at the same time he experiences an incredible amount of racism, mostly in the form of microaggressions by teachers and students alike.

The graphics and the art in this book are top-notch. Interspersed within the book are Jordan’s own sketches of his impressions of literature, art, and pop culture–which are quite humorous, to say the least. One of the most profound scenes towards the end is when Jordan eventually sees through many of his own prejudices and stands up for a fellow classmate.

Definitely buy this book. I’d recommend to adults and kids alike.

Review: A Few Red Drops

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Review for "A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919" by Claire Hartfield (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I’ve been meaning to read more YA nonfiction, hence my interest in this book.

Overall, I’m disappointed in this book. First, the storytelling here is a jumbled mess. Although I understand that the 1919 Chicago race riot involved many factors (the Great Migration of blacks from the south to northern cities, racism and segregation in those northern cities, immigration to the U.S. by Irish and eastern Europeans, tensions in labor unions, etc) the author does not seem to take her audience’s interest into account here. The riot is briefly touched on in the beginning, and the next 10-15 chapters are dedicated to the aforementioned subject matter (labor unions, the Chicago meatpacking industry, the Great Migration, etc). She doesn’t really explain how or why these chapters are critical to understanding the riot and the topics seem to jump here and there and all over the place. I can imagine that a typical middle grade reader will lose interest in this book quickly, particularly because the connection between subjects is not made apparent in the beginning.

Second, the quotes used here are not thoughtful or insightful to the text. There are quotes by writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson (a New England transcendentalist) and Carl Sandburg, but only one by Langston Hughes. Excuse me….but where is the W.E.B. Dubois? Or even Ida B. Wells-Barnett? If we are talking about a riot that left a disproportionate number of Black people among the dead, wouldn’t one want to include the words of the leading Black scholars of the day? It is interesting that the author spends much time discussing Wells-Barnett and her role as a journalist within the Black community of Chicago, yet doesn’t include one quote from her in the whole text. Did she even read her at all? Anybody vaguely familiar with history knows that Ida B. Wells Barnett wrote MUCH about the Chicago race riot. Why are none of her specific quotes here?

The writing isn’t very engaging either. Much of the last 40% of the book is sources, which is fine if its nonfiction, but there wasn’t much in the first 60% of the book that was particularly memorable.

Two stars. Zzzzz.

Review: Looker

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Review for "Looker" by Laura Sims (2019)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the blurb on the inside of this book, we’re told that it’s a thriller, but I think this story is far more complex than that. It is definitely a story of obsession, a character study of a gradual undoing, a woman’s loss of her grip on reality.

“Looker” is the story of an unnamed woman narrator whose life is, quite frankly, in shambles. Her husband has left her after many rounds of IVF have been unsuccessful in producing a child. Her job as a lecturer at a local college is unfulfilling. All that she really has is the cat that her husband has left behind and her obsession with a famous actress that lives in an expensive brownstone on her block. The actress lives with her husband and her three young children. The narrator watches the actress obsessively–her daily comings and goings, her life, her movies. She begins to feel as if her and the actress could actually be friends, if only they could just talk to each other. As events at the narrator’s job spiral out of control and divorce proceedings begin against her, the narrator views a potential interaction at an upcoming neighborhood block party as the catalyst that will kick off her and the actress’s friendship. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.

This novel is less than 200 pages and a quick read. The escalation of the narrator’s obsession is clear, and the suspense paced rightly so. The ending was a bit abrupt, but this definitely kept my attention. 4.5 stars.

[Note: there is a scene of animal cruelty in this book, a particularly disturbing act involving a cat. If you’re upset by this, I’d skip this part. I wouldn’t avoid the book though.]

Review: Blood Barrios

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Review for "Blood Barrios: Dispatches from the World's Deadliest Streets" by Alberto Arce (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book will tell you about all the bad things that happen in Honduras. Within its pages are the author’s dispatches from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, where he writes about narco traffic, police and government corruption, kidnappings, murder, torture, rampant gang violence, and extortion. Murder cases are rarely closed, because they’re hardly ever opened. Murder of criminals and ordinary people alike occur with such regularity in Honduras as to be unremarkable, with the police merely collecting the bodies afterward while journalists like the author write or snap pictures. Fear keeps people immobilized. No one talks and no one investigates.

Although this book is interesting to read and I finished it rather quickly, I realized that its sensationalism was what kept me plowing through it at breakneck speed. While people in Central America live these realities day in and day out, Americans like myself merely rubber-neck at their tragedy and keep it moving. I feel guilty in admitting that, however, it is this kind of apathy that this book represents. The author loves to talk about violence in Honduras, yet there is very little in-depth analysis about how American meddling in the politics of this country over the last 40 years has directly and indirectly caused much of the misery there today. The prime example of this is the U.S.’s ill-advised policy of the deporting of MS-13 gang members from American soil, only for them to return home, reorient themselves, and grow even stronger and more violent, only this time in the absence of any kind of functioning law enforcement in Honduras.

So I don’t know…3 stars here, I think. Read this if you want something sensationalized, without a lot of heart for real investigative journalism.