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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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.

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.

Review: Sick: A Memoir

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Review for "Sick: A Memoir" by Porochista Khakpour (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book.

Porochista Khakpour gives us a very brave and honest memoir about her struggles with late-stage Lyme disease. The CDC estimates that 30,000 cases of Lyme disease occur every year, though the actual number is probably much higher. It is caused by bacteria spread through tick bites, and getting a diagnosis can a nightmare due to the generality of its symptoms (fever, rash, headache, shortness of breath). People who have been infected with Lyme disease can also be asymptomatic as well. Tests to determine infection can be very expensive (usually not covered under insurance) and are not definitive. If the disease is diagnosed early enough, antibiotics are given to kill the bacteria. For people in late-stage Lyme disease, however, there is no cure and antibiotics are not an option. They suffer the same painful symptoms over and over again, living their lives so as not to cause a recurrence.

Khakpour does not know when she was infected with Lyme disease and she speculates on this throughout the memoir. She recalls many times in her life when she has been in pain–emotional, physical, mental. She details interactions with doctors, who dismiss her symptoms and call it depression, a mental problem. She also talks a lot about bad boyfriends and unsupportive family members, both of which exacerbate her health issues.

At times the writing was beautiful, but at other times it felt rather guarded and elusive. Throughout the reading of this book I never felt as if the author was telling us everything, choosing instead to pick and choose what to write about. This sense was reflected in the timeline, which is presented not so much chronologically but as locations where she’s lived, with chapters are entitled “New York,” “Pennsylvania,” and so on. Unusual, but ok.

Which brings me to another point. Maybe I came into this one a bit biased. I’ve read other memoirs about people with illnesses and I’ve found them to be kind of off-putting as well. When you’re writing about being sick I’ve seen a tendency to come off as way too clinical (one that comes to mind is Susannah Calahan’s Brain on Fire) and on the other hand I’ve seen a tendency for the writer to talk about everything other than the illness. This book is more of the latter.

Three stars. Definitely recommend it though.

Review: Stamped from the Beginning

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Review for "Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America" by Ibram X. Kendi (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is all about racism, specifically, how racist ideas about people of African descent led to the institution of slavery and became a unique history, woven into the fabric of American life.

This book is nearly 600 pages. I listened to it on audio. Unless you have time to really go through it and make notes and annotations, I recommend that you keep this on audio. I will probably go back through and read this when I have more time, just because of how excessively detailed the information is. That’s a good thing, though.

Anyway, Dr. Kendi makes his argument fairly plain–that racism is more than simple “ignorance.” If racism were as simple as people behaving “ignorantly,” Kendi asserts, it would not have persisted for thousands of years, nor would it be the institutional scourge that continues today. Racism is actually a very complex system of ideas, drawn from a number of highly complex sources. Kendi uses five guides into his argument who we’ve all probably heard about in our American history classes in school–Puritan minister Cotton Mather, founding father Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, author W.E.B. Dubois, and the Black feminist radical, Angela Davis. He separates these figures into three camps to trace the development of anti-Black, racist ideas: segregationists, people who believe that Black people are to blame for their own inferiority, assimilationists, people who believe that both Blacks and racial discrimination have equal part in beliefs surrounding Black inferiority, and anti-racists, people who reject both of these ideas. Kendi spends a great deal of time with each one of these arguments, and all five of these historical figures who play some part in either building or dismantling racist ideology.

All in all, I found Stamped from the Beginning to be a very complex and nuanced book. It’s also exhaustively researched. Even though I knew that Cotton Mather and Thomas Jefferson were not all that my high school history teacher were telling me they were, this book breaks down their racist ideas in a way that I’ve never quite seen before. This is a book that begs to be read by all people, especially in today’s times. I will definitely also say that I have learned much from this book, I highly recommend it.