Review: Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty

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Review for “Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty” by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke (2010)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I was in high school back in 1994, and I remember the case of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer like it was yesterday. My parents used to get weekly subscriptions to TIME magazine back then and I remember staring at the young, barely preteen face in the mug shot on the cover thinking: how could this happen? How can an 11 year old child be both a murderer and a murder victim? Like the 1994 magazine cover, the child’s eyes on the front of this book stare directly at you and you can’t help but to stare back. His gaze is a direct challenge, his eyes are blank, hostile. It’s the coldest stare you’ve ever seen on an 11-year-old kid in your life.

TIME Magazine, September 19, 1994
TIME Magazine, September 19, 1994

I read that magazine article over and over again and even though I knew the facts of his brief life (abusive past, both of his parents were incarcerated, ran away from numerous foster homes, and had dozens of brushes with the law), the facts offered no comfort or clarity to my burning question of ‘why?’ In the years since, I have never forgotten the details of Yummy’s short, violent life, or his young face on the cover of a national news magazine.

Twenty years later as a middle school teacher, I had seen about a dozen ‘Yummys’ in my ten year teaching span. Not quite as violent at Robert, but the circumstances were the same–black male children living in hellish home situations, caught up in the ever-present, all consuming lure of gang life. I am also a parent myself, of an 11 year old son–ironically, the same age as the boy at the center of this novel. My interest in this case has never wavered over the years, so when I saw there was a graphic novel about Yummy’s life I jumped at the chance to read it.

This was an excellent book. It is narrated through a fictional bystander, a neighborhood child named Roger. It is illustrated in a clear, thoughtful way that allows you to fully understand through pictures the drama of that unfolded in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago back in 1994. The tragic facts of Yummy’s life are presented once again but what is unique about this story is that it accurately showed the detrimental effect of abuse and neglect on Yummy’s life. We see that even though he killed a young girl and committed several other crimes, he was still a kid and in many ways, still a victim. Through Roger’s perspective, we witness another side of Yummy. We learn that he was a child who still carried and slept with a teddy bear, loved his Granny, felt fear, and cried often. It was facts like these and several others that were presented that grabbed me emotionally in such a way that I couldn’t help but to want to reach out and hug this child and sympathize with him. The author never pushed an agenda or preached, but left you to make up your own mind about whether or not Yummy was a cold hearted killer.

This book is undoubtedly a morality tale to warn kids away from the perils of gang life. I wish I had discovered this book years earlier as a teacher and presented it to my reluctant readers, who have no choice but to live in a violent, hopeless home environment like the one in which Yummy was raised. The ending is one of hope, though we know deep down that the problem of gangs aren’t going anywhere soon. This book, however, is a great start.

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Review: The Bees

 
Review for “The Bees” by Laline Paull (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 Accept. Obey. Serve. 

Only the Queen May Breed.

These are the mottoes of the hive in Laline Paul’s “The Bees,” a world in which Flora 717, a sanitation worker and the lowest class in the hierarchy of her hive, is required to follow wholeheartedly or she faces certain death. As we witness Flora’s birth in the first few pages, we immediately know that she is special, different from the hundreds of other low level bees in her hive. Flora discovers early on that she can speak, that she produces Flow (an important nourishing substance to feed larvae) and that she possesses another exceptional secret ability that sets her apart from all of her sisters (all the bees in a hive are female). Throughout the book Flora overcomes great challenges (rain, foraging, wasps, crows) to conceal her gift from the those that threaten her existence. 

All in all, I liked this book. And I don’t even like bees. I found myself awestruck by the many things I learned about these fascinating creatures, as I never knew bees’ lives were so complex. This novel was a drastic departure from what I normally read, because I typically don’t go for stories that feature animal characters. Paull’s writing, however, worked beautifully here. Bees became less scary and “human” for me. I felt genuine happiness when Flora and her kin survived to fight another day, and (dare I say it) sadness when one of the little buggers around her died. By the end of this book I remember thinking: Wow, I am officially a bee sympathizer now… 

Comparisons to “The Handmaid’s Tale” will be inevitable here. Whether the author intended to or not, you will find all of the earmarks of a dystopian fiction novel here. The constant repetition of the “accept, obey, serve” motto is at the center of the Hive Mind. There’s thought reading, social control, as well as questions and considerations surrounding reproductive freedom to ponder. All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read that I highly recommend.

My Top 20 Favorite Short Stories

I’ve always maintained that if you really want to learn how to write fiction, you gotta start with short stories. You only have a couple of pages to grab a reader’s attention and establish the basics before your audience completely loses their patience and stops reading. It’s the first litmus test of whether or not you’re truly mastering your craft as a writer. If a particular writer has decent short stories, chances are you’ll eventually read their novel. 

My first writing experiences when I began writing at age 7 were short stories: fanciful little numbers that were inspired mostly by the 80s movies I grew up watching (“The Goonies,” “The Never Ending Story,” etc). Later on in my literature classes in school a whole new world was opened (Edgar Allan Poe, Hawthorne, etc) and they never left my heart. As a teacher I always used them in my instruction to engage students. Today I came across an article on Buzzfeed entitled “23 Short Stories You’ll Want to Read Over and Over Again” and some of my MAJOR faves got left out, so I made my own list. Enjoy!

Now some of these are already on Buzzfeed’s list, but because they’re my faves too, they’re listed again. In no particular order:

  1. “Thank You, Ma’am” – Langston Hughes
  2. “The Story of an Hour” – Kate Chopin
  3. “The Lottery” – Shirley Jackson
  4. “The Tell Tale Heart” – Edgar Allan Poe
  5. “All Summer in a Day” – Ray Bradbury
  6. “Patriotism” – Yukio Mishima
  7. “A Rose for Emily” – William Faulkner
  8. “Young Goodman Brown” – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  9. “The Necklace” – Guy de Maupaussant
  10. “The Cask of Amontillado” – Edgar Allan Poe
  11. “Sweat” – Zora Neale Hurston
  12. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” – Flannery O’Connor
  13. “Raymond’s Run” – Toni Cade Bambara
  14. “Super Frog Saves Tokyo” – Haruki Murakami
  15. “Eyes of Zapata” – Sandra Cisneros
  16. “Everyday Use” – Alice Walker
  17. “The Pit and the Pendulum” – Edgar Allan Poe 
  18. “Wild Child” – T.C. Boyle
  19. “Cora, Unashamed” – Langston Hughes
  20. “Graveyard Shift” – Stephen King

Review: Delicious Foods

   

Review for “Delicious Foods” by James Hannaham (2015)

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

[*deep breath*]

After I finished this book I lay awake staring at the ceiling for 30 minutes, thinking: if this book doesn’t win an award this year I don’t know what the hell people think good literature is.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book. I knew its main theme was the devastating effects of crack cocaine, but had no idea of what kind of ride this book would take me on. The first chapter completely jars you out of any sense of comfort with its brutality; the rest is deep, slow burn of emotion. This was not a quick read for me. It took a while to get used to the narration of “Scotty,” (a.k.a crack cocaine) but once I did I found myself reading and re-reading those chapters, just to experience the rhythm and hip-ness of the language once more, and to laugh (inappropriately, of course) at its narrative inclusion in this book. I kept waiting for Scotty’s narration to wane or sound ridiculous, but it never did. At times I had to pause and ask myself if it was really crack “talking” and not just another person in the book. Yes, it was THAT good.

I have to admit that the emotion of this book was, at times, too much for me to handle. Young Eddie is eleven years old when he discovers his mother is missing and begins to search, quite literally, through the depths of Hell to find her. My son is also eleven years old, and so many times in the book I found myself so overwhelmed with the image of my own child roaming the streets at night in my absence that I had to metaphorically take a deep breath and gather my bearings before I could continue. My feelings for Darlene and the choices she made throughout the novel alternated between full on rage and absolute pity, I was brought to tears too many times to count here. 

This book will break your heart. Very few books have the power to do this to me, I pride myself on having a heart and a stomach for just about anything. There wasn’t a single character that wasn’t real or a single word that’s wasted here. So well written, emotionally gripping. I loved every minute of this book. Highly recommended.

Review: Aquarium

Review for “Aquarium” by David Vann

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This book hits you like a punch to the gut. The words are beautiful, but man, when I finished, my head hurt.

I’m going to try to do this review without giving away TOO much of the book, so pardon me…

Caitlin is a twelve year old Seattle girl living with her single mother, a dockworker. Her mother can’t afford child care, so Caitlin spends each afternoon after school at the local aquarium. She meets an old man there and they become friends, bonding over their love of fish. It is later revealed that Caitlin and the old man share a connection that opens a deep wound in Caitlin’s mother’s psyche. She finds herself living in fear of her mother’s rage, as well as losing everything she loves in the process.

I will say this as well: a large part of this book was extremely disturbing to read. Caitlin is emotionally and physically battered in a way that, after pages upon of descriptions of this, I just wanted to scream “STOP! PLEASE! NO MORE!” I understood her mother’s rage, but felt it was a bit over the top, so much so that any connection of sympathy toward her mother at the end was impossible. Perhaps this was exactly the point though, how easy it is for one to take their cruelty out on another, especially upon those who are far more vulnerable.

I imagine this isn’t the book for everyone. While I enjoyed the color pictures and the descriptions of fish (I’m an aquarium keeper too) I don’t think I would want to read another page of this had it been any longer than it was.

Say hello to 29chapters.com!

How long has it been? A month? Maybe two?

As far as changes, I’ve recently purchased a nifty domain for this site, 29chapters.com. I had originally meant to do that from the inception but for some reason the action kept getting put on the bottom of my To Do list. Why 29chapters? Well, I was born on November 29th. And since this site is about books, why not? Phases in our lives are chapters, and books are a large part of my life. Brilliant!

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you already, but I’ll be starting on my doctorate full time this fall. I’ll be studying Curriculum and Instruction with a specific concentration in Literacy. My coursework will take at least 2 years, my dissertation will take another year beyond that. This program suits a person like me, who spent nine years as an English teacher in a middle school and now seeks to start a career in academia. The details took a while to pin down, but I can proudly say that I’ll be beginning my coursework in August. I’m excited, but I’m not sure how much time I’ll have left over after a busy day of class for pleasure reading. 

Fortunately, I have tons of book reviews I’ve already written in my Evernote account. If a cut and paste is necessary to get me through the dark days of no 29chapters.com for weeks at a time, I’ll do just that. 

Otherwise, I’m still here. The spring days are hor here, and I can’t wait to share my summer reading with you. I have a few reviews I’ll be posting over the next couple days. Stay posted!

Love, K

Review: An Untamed State



Review for “An Untamed State” by Roxane Gay

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book really touched me. After finishing it I lay awake for several hours, just thinking about the raw reality of it over and over.. Very few books have the power to do that to me, and Roxane Gay is a sensational writer that captures your emotions with her first novel.

It goes without mentioning that this was not an easy read. It’s one of those books that you read for a while, take a breather, and, if you can stomach it, you dive in and take another plunge. I read this book in about four sittings, partly to get the suspense over with and partly to just end it–the terror, the waiting, the feeling like you are stuck in a cage and can’t breathe. You are fully there with Mirielle as she is kidnapped by armed men in on a visit to her native Port-au-Prince and held captive for thirteen days. What takes place over those thirteen days are some of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever read. Mirielle is beaten, raped repeatedly, and tortured by her kidnappers after her wealthy father refuses to pay her ransom in some of the most cruelest ways imaginable. The disturbing content of this book could have easily allowed the author to venture down the “torture porn” route–lots of unnecessary, graphic details of violence, rape, and/or abuse that does nothing to develop character but only serves to shock an audience–but thankfully, Ms. Gay doesn’t go there. She does describe what happens to Mirielle in vivid detail at first but after that, manages to hint at specific incidents. I want to thank her for this, because without some kind of restraint on the part of the author I don’t think I would have been able to finish this book. 

Interspersed throughout Mirielle’s harrowing ordeal are flashbacks of Mirielle’s life with her family, her husband, and her career. At times the flashbacks were a wee bit long and unfocused, but, all in all, completely necessary for the story. Mirielle is a complex character, and the second half of the book deals with her life after the kidnapping. The writing here is a lot sharper, which I liked. Mirielle’s struggle to regain some semblance of normalcy is realistic and honest, and Gay doesn’t flinch from the jagged terrain of her recovery. Eventually one person is able to reach Mirielle, and it’s not who you expect. All in all, it added a very nice twist.

Roxane Gay dedicates his novel “to all women” and this dedication is fittingly appropriate, as this book lays bare the plight of women and their struggles. Not a pretty read, but a necessary one. Loved this!