Review: Dominicana

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Review for "Dominicana" by Angie Cruz (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Dominicana” is the story of a teenage girl named Ana, growing up with her parents and siblings in a rural part of the Dominican Republic in the mid-1960’s. Trujillo’s reign of terror has ended, yet economic stability has not yet returned to the country. She is proposed to at the age of eleven by Juan, an older man more than twice her age. At 15, her parents finally consent to the marriage–not because their daughter is in love with Juan, but to give him permission to someday build on their land, and give themselves better prospects of gaining an American visa through Ana’s sponsorship.

For Ana, the “American Dream” comes at a hard price. She hates the cold weather of NYC and misses home and has trouble adjusting to her new life. Her mother constantly asks her to send money that she doesn’t have back home. Juan hits her, often leaves her in their tiny apartment alone, and doesn’t let her go out to talk to anyone. Juan is also having an affair with another woman, who regularly calls and harasses Ana. Life is drudgery until Juan leaves the US to return to the DR on business, leaving her under the watchful eye of his brother, Cesar. With Cesar, Ana begins to experience something like a fulfilled life–taking English classes, going to the beach, making her own money, and dancing at local ballrooms. She falls in love with Cesar, and eventually must decide her fate.

I found this book to be very well written and intensely readable. Ana is 15 and stays that way, and her viewpoints and her actions accurately match her characterization. However, there is a strong anti-Black sentiment among some characters in this book. Ana’s husband, now living beside Blacks, Jews, and other minorities in the US, speaks of Black Americans throughout the novel as “trouble” and “lazy.” Although I have no doubt that his prejudice is an accurate portrayal of the attitude of some Dominicans, it’s jarring and off-putting. Another complaint is the end, which I didn’t care for at all.

The biggest theme in this novel is the same with most immigrant novels, and that is one of the pursuit of the American Dream. What does it mean? How will Ana achieve it? Ana is ever-industrious and thoughtful, when one plan fails she does not hesitate to simply create another. It’s the classic “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” American tale.

Four stars. Definitely worth reading.

Review: Everything Inside

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Review for "Everything Inside" by Edwidge Danticat (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’ve said this and I’ll say it again: short story collections are usually hit or miss for me. Although I love the genre, I always end up liking some, none, or most of the stories therein. This collection is an exception to the “some, none, and most” rule, as every single story here is a literary achievement.

I’ve read just about everything Edwidge Danticat has written, from “Krik? Krak!” to “The Dew Breaker” to “Breathe, Eyes, Memory” and everything in between. “Everything Inside”is a wonderful collection of eight short stories, all featuring characters from the Haitian diaspora living in Miami. Her characters deal with death, love, and loss and their lives are complicated. Each story is well written and thought out, with beautiful language that leaps off the page.

Favorites here include “Dosas,” a story of romantic entanglement and betrayal featuring a husband, wife, and a female lover; “In the Old Days,” about a woman who meets her dying father for the first time, and “Without Inspection,” a harrowing tale that narrates a Haitian emigre’s final thoughts as he falls 40 stories from a building to his death.

Five stars. Hands up, way way up.

Review: The Nickel Boys

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Review for "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I meant to write this review a lot sooner, when I first finished this book this summer. It’s quite excellent, so here goes…

“The Nickel Boys” is a historical fiction, based on the all-too-real Dozier School for Boys, a hellish reform school for adolescent males that ran from the early 20th century until 2011 in a rural part of the Florida Panhandle. In the early days, black and white boys were separated upon entry, with the black boys performing more physically grueling tasks. Housing and food were minimal, and any resistance to authority was met with brutal physical punishment from the guards and caretakers. Due to harsh treatment, several boys died and were unceremoniously buried on and around the school’s campus over the years. After its closure, due to the high number of unmarked graves, an anthropology team from the University of South Florida began the task of digging them up with the goal of identifying them in 2012. According to the latest report, over 100 burials have been documented, many of them unnamed and undocumented.

Colson Whitehead takes this history and brings us the story of Elwood Curtis, a do-gooder boy being raised by his single grandmother in Tallahassee in the early 1960’s. Elwood believes in the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, choosing pacifism in the face of Jim Crow racism. After being falsely accused of stealing a bicycle, he is sent to the Nickel Academy. Once there, he meets another student by the name of Turner. While paired for tasks outside campus and in the local town, Elwood and Turner form a deep friendship, with Turner’s realist outlook as the perfect complement to Elwood’s idealism. Together, they navigate the torturous contours everyday life of the Nickel Academy.

True to history, there are brutal scenes in this book, but I felt they were necessary and not gratuitous. Colson Whitehead shows us just what we need to know and moves on, this book makes it point perfectly in less than 250 pages. Not one single word was wasted here, and five stars aren’t enough to review it. This book is a victory, a straight slam dunk.

If you haven’t already, definitely read this book. If you’re at all like me, you will be unable to put it down.

Review: Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly

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Review for "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly" by Jim DeRogatis (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ok so I read this. It isn’t a happy read, nor is it something that I would recommend by shouting to all while standing at the corner of two streets during rush hour. However, this book is necessary reading, particularly if you know anything about Robert Kelly, a.k.a R. Kelly, the notorious R&B star with a string of music hits from the 90’s and early 2000’s who has been in the news and in court for sexually abusing women, mostly his young Black female fans.

This book starts at the beginning, with R Kelly’s childhood, his high school years, and his subsequent appearance on the R&B scene as the front man of the group The Public Announcement. It details his marriage to a 15-year-old singer Aaliyah (he was 27 at the time) and how it was downplayed by pretty much everyone (the record company, her family, his reps, etc). The book continues with interviews from many of R Kelly’s victims detailing his physical and sexual abuse, his continued fame, and yes, the infamous video. There is also detailed analysis of his first trial in 2001 over the contents of that videotape, in which Kelly filmed himself raping an underaged girl. Last, there’s details of what has been labeled as his “sex cult,” a group of young women who currently live and travel with him and he supposedly refuses to let contact their families. After over 20 years and 200 pages, you notice a pattern: many blinded eyes, an abundance of willful ignorance, and epic fails at every level. It’s sickening.

I found this book to be well written and researched. Jim DeRogatis, a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, has been following R. Kelly’s case as it has unfolded for the last 20 years. He was the one who received the infamous tape at his news desk. He was also the one who first interviewed several of R Kelly’s victims, years before anyone took any of the abuse allegations seriously. Information on the case was up-to-date, timely, and relevant, with the latest information on R Kelly’s case as of spring 2019.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, especially R Kelly’s fans. Despite the OVERWHELMING evidence of his guilt, I imagine that even 100 books on this subject could not convince them otherwise. But to those who believe his victims and want to see justice for them, this book is all you need

Review: No Visible Bruises

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Review for "No Visible Bruises: What We Don't Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us" by Rachel Louise Snyder

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There’s not many books that do a decent job of discussing a very complex social issue. This book does an excellent job of not only breaking down the many facets of domestic violence, but providing ways that society could be doing a better job to combat it.

The statistics on domestic violence are staggering. I won’t repeat them here, other than to say that domestic violence (i.e., intimate partner violence, intimate terrorism, etc) truly touches every race, class, income level, gender, sexual orientation, and age group. It also impacts other social issues–homelessness, income inequality, mass incarceration, substance abuse, immigration, mental health. Snyder talks about how domestic violence is often linked to many of the mass shootings in today’s news. What do the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and the Orlando nightclub attack have in common? Both began first in the homes of the offenders as domestic violence.

“No Visible Bruises” also talks about how many of the responses that society has for domestic violence are woefully inadequate. People still look upon the victims of domestic violence and blame them for their victimization, asking why they didn’t leave first. Police are no better, looking for ‘visible’ bruises when they respond to a DM call, when many forms of violence may or may not leave physical marks. Battered women’s shelters do offer a temporary solution to the problem, but often leave a woman and her children homeless in the long run, which may ultimately lead them back to an abuser.

There is also a lengthy chapter in this book dedicated to a program that attempts to change men’s abusive behavior. One of the hallmarks of domestic violence apologists is that abusers cannot be reformed. Snyder shows that with the right therapy and support, they can. And they do.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Please read it to gain insight into a very complex problem.

Review: The Dreamers

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Review for "The Dreamers" by Karen Thompson Walker (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

In the small fictional college town of Santa Lora, California, a virus spreads among the students on campus. The victims fall into a deep, coma-like sleep from which it appears that they will never wake. They are alive, but dreaming.

“The Dreamers” is told through an omniscient narrator and follows several people throughout the town, each grappling with the epidemic. There is Mei and Matthew, two quarantined freshman who breach the barrier and fall for one another, Anna and Ben, a married couple with a new baby, and Libby and Sara, two young sisters coping with life after their doomsday prepper dad falls ill. As with any medical based mystery, as the virus spreads, fear among the residents increases and the town becomes more and more isolated by quarantine as more people fall asleep. What is it? What is going on?

An interesting thing about this novel is that there is no background info given on the source of the virus or how it is spread; you as a reader are just as clueless about what’s going on as the town’s residents. I didn’t necessarily mind the lack of a solid back story here, though I admit that this was the only thing that kept me reading. Other than this, I wanted more from this book. Characters are too brief, events are fleeting, emotions aren’t explored as deeply as they could have been. There’s echoes of Jose Saramago’s “Blindness” here, but this doesn’t come close.

I liked reading this and I definitely like Karen Thompson Walker, but her first novel, “Age of Miracles” much much better.

Review: The Love Prison Made and Unmade

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Review for "The Love Prison Made and Unmade" by Ebony Roberts (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Curiosity drove me to this book, particularly after reading the author’s former partner, Shaka Senghor’s book “Writing My Wrongs.” From Senghor, we learn the story of a troubled young Black man growing up in inner city Detroit in the 1980’s, eventually becoming a drug dealer to earn a living. At barely 19 years old, he turns to violence and ends up on the criminal end of a murder case. For his crime, Senghor earns himself a lengthy prison sentence. While on the inside, he begins to correspond with a brilliant young scholar by the name of Ebony. They fall in love through letters and visits, and continue their relationship for several years after Senghor is released.

“The Love that Prison Made” is Ebony’s side of the story, beginning from her childhood. After witnessing domestic abuse in her childhood, she tells her narrative of meeting Senghor behind bars and falling in love with him. The narrative continues after he is released, when all doesn’t go as planned and the couple is confronted with cold realities and real problems.

I really liked this. There is a lot of focus on the couple’s courtship through letters, which makes up most of this book. Although Senghor is not released until about 75% in, you immediately know early on that this pair is not going to make it. Although she is careful not to generalize about the fate of all prison relationships, I appreciate Ms. Roberts’ choice to be transparent about why her prison romance failed. All too often we hear about the ‘happily ever after’ and the happy couple life of inmates and persons on the outside. What about the people who do the same and it doesn’t work out perfectly? Hmm.

This story is also important from a social justice perspective. Due to the mass incarceration rates of Black people, the question becomes one of how to interact with these men and women. Large numbers of the prison population will eventually get out one day, and not only will they need employment and support, they will seek emotional attachments as well. What is to be expected? What is inevitable? These are questions to consider.

Four solid stars.