Review: My Life as a Rat

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Review for "My Life as a Rat" by Joyce Carol Oates (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I’ve read numerous Joyce Carol Oates books over the years (The Sacrifice, Evil Eye, Lovely, Dark, Deep, Black Water, you get the picture). She’s ridiculously prolific, there’s about 60 novels to her credit and that’s not even counting her short fiction and other writings. Like any other writer, she definitely has her hits and misses, so every now and then I’ll take a Joyce Carol Oates book off the shelf and see what she’s writing about now. My Life as a Rat is her latest fiction novel.

This novel is the story of Violet, a 12-year-old girl living in upstate New York in the mid-90’s in a working class Irish American family with four brothers and two sisters. Although the children are physically cared for, expressions of emotion and love are minimal and her father rules over everyone with an iron fist. The boys in the family are clearly valued over the girls, with the oldest two sons Jerome and Lionel getting themselves into occasional trouble around town (one occasion being the rape of a mentally handicapped local girl). As always, Violet’s parents always get their boys out of trouble by hiring lawyers and protecting them from consequences or any severe punishment.

Eventually, Violet’s brothers graduate from rape to an actual murder. A popular Black student is riding his bicycle home one night and, because he appears ‘suspicious’ (there’s echoes of the Trayvon Martin case here) Jerome and Lionel run him off the road and beat him to death with a baseball bat. Violet sees the bloody bat and puts the two together, and, after an agonizing choice, tells administrators at her school what happened. She is instantly banished by her family for being a ‘rat’–placed into the custody of an aunt and told that she is not welcome to come home. Her brothers are jailed for their role in the crime.

Overall, this is a very difficult book to read. The novel goes into detail with how family violence and banishment shapes Violet over the course of her life, eventually leading to her being raped and sexually abused by a series of men during her teenage years. The book changes points of view and narrators and shifts from 1st, 2nd, and 3rd POVs. Violet’s thoughts wander often, as if she has had a split in her state of being. You really get the full impact of the tragedy and more.

This book is not badly written, but I think it was a little over the top. There is a such thing as TOO MUCH happening to a character, and this is one of those examples. There’s a lot of descriptions of sexual abuse that I think could have been left out–I got the point over 150 pages ago. The end hints at some kind of hope for the future, but not really. I kept reading because I did care about the main character, but by the end of the book I felt tired and demoralized, much like Violet.

I give this book three stars. Trigger warnings abound for rape, sexual abuse, and violence.

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Review: The Man They Wanted Me to Be

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Review for "The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and Forging Another Way for Men" by Jared Yates Sexton (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This book should be essential reading for all men, especially in today’s times.

In “The Man They Wanted Me to Be,” Jared Yates Sexton writes about his and his family’s experiences throughout a lifetime legacy of toxic masculinity. Much of the first section focuses on the personal experience of the author and the negative consequences of sexism and violence, which he witnessed through his abusive father. Jared, a sensitive child raised by a single mother in rural Indiana, eventually develops a tough emotional shell and becomes suicidal after years of abuse and bad role models due to his mother’s choices of men. He discusses the way in which the ‘ideal’ masculinity is essentially unattainable and not a real way of living but a lie. He also discusses the socialization of boys–the way in which parents and society train boys not to cry, to repress emotion, to hate all things ‘feminine’ and to express themselves through physicality and violence. The second section is about Jared’s relationship with his father and how they eventually reconcile after years of estrangement.

The third and the last section concerns itself with the ways in which toxic masculinity has given rise of the alt-right and the election of the current president. It is focused squarely on White men, who, let’s face it, need to do better. He discusses the toxic culture in this group that wraps itself in privilege and white supremacist ideas, in addition to sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic views against ‘them’ (namely minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals, and immigrants).

The only thing I wished this book would have touched on more is how sexism traps men of color as well as queer men. However, I realize that that discussion is a completely different animal. Although we’re still talking about bad masculinity, we know that there’s history, race, class, and other socioeconomic factors that change the flavor of the topic. I would like to read Sexton’s opinions on other aspects of this conversation, however.

Definitely do pick up this book. While I would not describe anything in here as particularly new or shocking, it is necessary reading to begin to undo much of the damage due to toxic masculinity.

Review: Rabbits for Food

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Review for "Rabbits for Food" by Binnie Kirshenbaum (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Man oh man I loved this book!

“Rabbits for Food” is all about a 40-ish married woman named Bunny (her real name), a NYC writer who ends up in a mental hospital after a breakdown on New Years Eve 2008 when she stabs herself with a fork in full view of onlookers. Flashbacks throughout the book reveal Bunny’s past: her emotionally absent parents, her upbringing as an unlovable middle child, meds for depression, the death of her best friend, her bland marriage to a college professor. Once in the mental hospital, Bunny makes friends with a quirky set of patients. Although Bunny is quite unlikeable, her observations of life and the people around her are quite hilarious, all throughout the book Bunny’s biting sarcasm keeps you turning the pages.

Even though this book deals with mental health issues which are always quite serious, I’d describe this novel as a black comedy. There are definite echoes of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” and Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted.” Either way, I recommend this book with my entire heart.

Review: The Affairs of the Falcons

Pardon my absence, I’ve been ill for a few weeks. Part of this is neglecting my diet and habits toward self care, the other part of that is a genetic component to my life that I need to be more cognizant of. If you’ve never had large kidney stones I hope that you never get them (or have to have surgery to remove them), and that you take loving care of your kidneys and your health in general.

The good news? I did a lot of reading while I was at home recovering.

Ok. On to my review…

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Review for "The Affairs of the Falcons" by Melissa Rivero (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book was so-so. I liked the premise of it, the execution, however, not so much.

“The Affairs of the Falcons” is the story of Anita Falcon, an undocumented immigrant from Peru. She lives with her husband’s cousin’s family in Queens in a cramped apartment. Anita is married to Lucho, has two young children, and works as a seamstress in a factory. Her husband drives a cab, but when the story begins, we learn that he has lost this job due to his undocumented status.

As you can imagine, money is very tight in this family. Most of this book revolves around the subject of money–getting it, losing it, and borrowing it from others to pay back the loan sharks who smuggled the family into America. Due to her status as undocumented there is no access to banks, and Falcons are always limited in terms of what kinds of jobs they can get. Housing is also an issue, internal conflicts in the home push the Falcons’ welcome with Lucho’s family to the limit. Also depicted here are the ways in which class and race play into the lives of a Latinx family (Anita is rural and indigenous, Lucho is lighter skinned, well educated, and from Lima). Lucho’s family remind Anita often of her despised, lower status among them.

Despite the external pressures, Anita is not a weak character, though she does makes questionable choices throughout the book. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, my reason for the 3 stars is because I found the book to be less than compelling. There are tons of books out there on the immigrant experience, and I don’t really feel this book will stand out much within that group. There is not much that happens here that we haven’t read before, especially if you are familiar with this sub-genre of books.

I definitely recommend reading this book though. I’d also be open to reading more from this author in the future.

Review: The Usual Suspects

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Review for "The Usual Suspects" by Maurice Broaddus (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Thelonius Caldwell is very much like many of the boys I taught in my ten years as a middle school teacher: bright, mischievous, and labeled as “special ed.” Despite his label he is very keen in his perceptions of people and aware of the reality that he is being ‘warehoused’ (i.e., placed in a self contained classroom with similar students and given sleep-inducing lessons until he either drops out or is removed via expulsion). Because the school and his teachers have low expectations of him, Thelonius and his friend Nehemiah pass the time by playing pranks on the staff, causing chaos between students, and just plain acting silly.

One day, a gun is found in a park near their school. Because Thelonius and Nehemiah have a reputation for bad behavior, the principal rounds them up and blames them for the incident. Knowing that he did nothing wrong, Thelonius begins to search for the culprit, careful not to break the code of the streets by being a ‘snitch.’ This story traces the route along his journey for answers, playing homage to the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.” There’s even a Keyser Soze kinda figure, which is pretty brilliant for a kid’s book.

I definitely recommend this novel. Sure, it’s readable children’s book fare but there’s a sad subtext here: the reality that far too many poor children of color are placed in “special ed” classes and, once there, nobody supports or listens to them. Research shows that these are the kids who are most likely to drop out of school entirely and end up in the criminal justice system, or just to have poor outcomes in life in general. It’s a very real depiction of their lives.

4 stars.

Review: We Speak for Ourselves

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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Review for "We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America" by D. Watkins (2019)

As with “The Cook Up” and “The Beast Side,” D. Watkins continues to share his account of growing up in an impoverished Black community in East Baltimore. The message behind his book is simple: in today’s age, poor Black people do not want or need to spoken for by White liberals or Black middle and upper class intellectuals. Watkins occupies a unique position in that he can easily maneuver among top thought leaders on CNN and the academic crowd, yet he’s hood at the core, never quite too far gone from the steps of his East Baltimore rowhouse. He writes about his days as a drug dealer with the same familiarity as the school to prison pipeline.

Here, he breaks down a lot of things that he wishes the world knew about Black culture: why poor people will always hate the cops, the reasons why education in urban areas will never be equal to the suburbs, etc. I gave this three stars because although it’s good writing and the message is clear for the audience he’s intending to reach, I found this book a bit too plain for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the intended audience–I’m pretty well versed in the issues he’s speaking of. Still, I don’t want to rate this too low because I like this book as well as the purpose behind it. I follow D. Watkins on social media and I’ll always support his efforts.

Review: With the Fire on High

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Review for "With the Fire on High" by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

After reading and immensely liking “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo, I knew I had to read this. Although I liked this one as well, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as her first.

Emoni Santiago is a high school senior and mother to Emma, her 2 year old daughter. She is also an aspiring chef, integrating her own unique twists on traditional home cooked Puerto Rican recipes. In addition to her parental and school responsibilities, Emoni works hard at a burger restaurant, has a supportive best friend, and a kind grandmother who helps to raise her daughter. This novel is mostly the story of Emoni’s senior year of high school, in which she begins to nurture her love of cooking by taking a culinary arts elective at school. The class requires a trip to Spain, and Emoni, a single mom of modest means, is faced with the burden of raising money to go. In addition to this, there is some minor drama with Emma’s father, as well as unresolved issues in her relationship with her father.

Although I liked this book and its short chapters make it intensely readable, the main problem here is that I felt it lacked a conflict. Yes, Emoni does struggle, but she eventually gets what she wants. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, she’s a great character who I empathized with and desperately wanted to win. Buuuuttt…it just made for a kinda blah narrator. The romance is reluctant and felt forced, there was never a point in the book where I didn’t know that things would improve. It’s perfectly put together and predictable.

Still, I won’t go less than 4 stars here. I love Elizabeth Acevedo, and I think her writing about Afro-Latina character is super-important, particularly with all of the discussion in lit circles these days about diverse books. I also think that her choice to feature a urban teenage mother of color that is not a caricature or a stereotype was a very brave one that should be commended. The cover art is cool too (is that Alicia Keys??) Woooooww…