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.

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.

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.

Review: The Closest I’ve Come

Skipping Top Ten Tuesday (again)….hehe.

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Review for "The Closest I've Come" by Fred Aceves (2017)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This book is a giant YES. I loved everything about this book.

Marcos Rivas is a 15-year-old Latino growing up in the Maesta neighborhood of Tampa, Florida–a community riddled with crime, drugs, and few economic opportunities. His mother is present but emotionally absent from his life, either drunk on her days off or working long hours away from their apartment. For the past year, she has allowed her racist, alcoholic boyfriend Brian to live with them, who physically and verbally terrorizes Marcos on a daily basis. For all intents and purposes, his mother is aware of the abuse but does nothing to stop it. Because most of the money in the household is spent on booze, Marcos seeks out meager job opportunities to earn enough cash to be presentable for school and to his friends.

At school, Marcos spends his time hanging with friends and playing pranks on teachers. He is failing all of his classes and doesn’t see the point in doing better or thinking about his future. He has a crush on a girl named Amy and quietly begins to pursue her romantically after they are both selected to participate in a mentoring program called Future Success. Little by little, as he begins to turn his life around, he begins to realize that by getting his life together, he can be better than the circumstances that his life situation brings.

This story is told in the first person POV and had an excellent sense of the main character’s voice all throughout. There was never a time when I didn’t understand Marcos, I definitely felt his feelings and saw his world view through his eyes. Marcos’ story was compelling and powerful, and even though the ending didn’t resolve his many issues, I was ok with it. Poverty and familial dysfunction aren’t easily solvable, and in many cases, cannot be physically escaped. What is important is that Marcos develops a sense of hope, a new way of being in a world that does not intend for his success.

This is my (3rd or 4th?) foray this past month into YA books with Black and/or Latino male characters, by Black and Latinx writers. I can’t stress to you how important that I feel that diverse YA books are, particularly those that are written in the language and the contexts that minority kids are culturally familiar with. “The Closest I’ve Come” is definitely one of the books that’s re-imagining a diverse new world of literature.

4.5 stars. Loved this!

Review: Brave

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Review for "Brave" by Rose McGowan (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Oh dear, three stars here. And that’s being generous.

I’ve always been a fan of Rose McGowan–I loved her in the films “Scream,” “Jawbreaker,” the tv show “Charmed,” and when I saw that she had written a book I decided to take a peep. Overall, it’s not a horrible book, it’s just one that espouses an obnoxious brand of feminism that I find problematic. I’ll get to this later though.

Rose gives a lot of details into her early life. She grew up in a commune with the Children of God, a religious cult that would be later known for its physical and sexual abuse of women and children. She manages to escape with her father and move to America, where she moves around often. She eventually reunites with her mother, whose boyfriends were abusive to Rose. She later auditions for an extra in a movie and her career as a Hollywood actress begins.

About midway through the book, McGowan details a meeting with a well-known movie industry executive who sexually abuses her. She never names the exec but we know she’s obviously talking about Harvey Weinstein. She also talks about her relationship with Marilyn Manson, whom she started dating because, in her words, he was a really “sweet” guy. Fair enough, I thought. I never fell for his contrived, shock-rock bs either.

Anyway, toward the last quarter of the book, McGowan spends a great deal of time dishing on her relationship with another famous film director known as “RR” (obviously Robert Rodriguez). She characterizes him as an emotionally abusive man who allowed her to be seriously injured on a movie set, among other bad things. After this she lectures us on and on about cults, groupthink, the virtues of #RoseArmy (her social media followers who can’t get enough of her), why men continue to abuse women, etc. When she started to plug some EDM music album she’d created, I stopped reading. Zzzz.

Which brings me back to Rose’s “feminist” problem. I place “feminist” in quotes because before this book came out, Rose has been noted on the record multiple times with negative statements about trans women, commenting that “they don’t live in this world as women.” This is false. It’s also terribly ignorant. Trans women are raped, discriminated against, murdered, abused, and beaten quite often–exactly because they do live as women. Fortunately, Rose does not get to decide who is and isn’t a woman. It’s also exactly why I, as a feminist myself, can’t embrace her exclusionary brand of “feminism,” which seems to privilege being straight and cisgendered above all else.

So I’m giving this three stars. I like to think I’m a person who can separate the person from the book, but both of these had issues. Meh…