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.

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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…

Review: Survival Math

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Review for "Survival Math" by Mitchell Jackson (2019)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a hard one to review. “Survival Math” is not a traditional linear memoir. It’s mostly autobiographical essays woven together on a variety of topics–love, relationships, racism, family, drugs, the criminal justice system–surrounding the author and the men in his life (father, cousins, and uncles) in and around Portland, Oregon. Mitchell Jackson’s mother is also a prominent figure throughout, but she’s mostly discussed as it relates to the men in her life. The book also includes “Survivor Files,” short, second person vignettes from the lives of men in his family.

I added this book with all the fervor that it was supposed to actually be good. Still, I’m conflicted on this. There’s a lengthy section in the middle when the author talks all about his life as a serial cheater, man-whore, and general asshole to women. He discusses his cruelties in a very detailed manner, in the same way one would describe the subtleties of criminal behavior or the forensics of a crime scene. I appreciated the unique approach, but I felt like he was hiding behind this voice rather than honestly confronting his past. And then there was the ‘why’ of all of this, especially when only a small part of this section dealt with any kinda contrition for his past wrongs. Was this a rationalization of that behavior or a catharsis? Even after reading all of it I’m still unsure. The finer points of his injuries to others laid bare, but never really heart felt. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a very smug humble brag going on.

There’s also quite a long section about 75% of the way in where Jackson writes about the many ‘pimps’ in his family and their experiences on the streets. I skipped this section. Pardon me for saying so, but I resolved a long time ago to never read a male’s perspective of women’s sex work. When it comes to “the game” (as they put it), men are almost always the power brokers and exploiters, no matter how you slice it. There’s also nothing glorious about physically and emotionally abusing women and taking their income, unless of course all the posturing is just another form of a humble brag, which I’ve already told you about.

It took me almost three months to read this. It’s an ok book, but overall I just don’t think it’s my cup of tea.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Scribner, and Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: A Good Kind of Trouble

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“A Good Kind of Trouble” is about a young Black girl named Shayla navigating through typical middle school struggles: boys, school dances, friendships, teachers. Her older sister is an activist and involved with a local chapter of Black Lives Matter but Shayla steers clear, not wanting to risk getting in what she perceives as ‘trouble.’ However, when the police shoot an unarmed Black man near her neighborhood, Shayla decides to take a stand for what she believes and takes on more ‘trouble’ than she bargained for.

I liked this book. I would call it the younger sister of “The Hate U Give” with a similar theme and main characters, but aimed at younger readers. The major difference in the two is that this book expressly mentions Black Lives Matter by name, while THUG doesn’t (THUG’s connection to BLM is assumed, however). Therefore, the explicit naming of Black Lives Matter here is notable. The police violence stayed mostly in the background of the novel as an ongoing trial, and while it’s not the primary plot it’s pretty clear that this is the reason why Shayla speaks out. I would have liked a more direct connection to this plot point, but perhaps indirectly is the best way to expose this topic to younger readers without making this book TOO heavy.

I also appreciated how this book respected struggles that are distinct to youth of color, i.e., the pressure to conform to racialized norms. Shayla’s best friends in the book are Asian and Latinx, however, it’s only in the 7th grade that she begins to receive pushback from Black peers about “acting White.” I enjoy the way the book grapples with the idea of being Black beyond stereotypes and encourages kids of color to be themselves.

Great book about a complex and nuanced topic without being preachy or sad.

Review: Imani All Mine

Reviewing an oldie but goodie today. Enjoy!

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Review for "Imani All Mine" by Connie Porter (2000)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Let me start off by saying that this book had me in tears. Big, watery, and unapologetic. Whew…

“Imani All Mine” is the story of 15-year-old Tasha, a teenager living with her single mother in upstate New York. At the beginning of the novel, she has already given birth to a daughter whom she names Imani, based on “some African language” that means ‘faith.’ Tasha loves her daughter dearly and speaks about her daughter as any new mother would, yet her worldview remains very much that of a 15-year-old girl. Tasha’s dialect and the language throughout the novel is nonstandard English (words like ‘nam’ for “them”) and very much consistent with that perspective. We later learn through flashbacks that her daughter’s existence is the result of a violent rape at the hands of a stranger. Ashamed, Tasha tells no one of her assault and hides her pregnancy from everyone, including her mother.

Despite this, as well as the obstacles of poverty, an impoverished neighborhood, and her physically and emotionally abusive mother, Tasha makes strides and manages to go to school and be a good mother to her daughter. Much of the book is simply Tasha’s observations of the life of a typical teenager–boys, family members, people in the neighborhood, people at school. Tasha defies common stereotypes of teenage single mothers of color by having a strong will and vision for her future.

I loved reading this book. There was never a moment when I didn’t understand Tasha and her love for her child, her struggle, and her motives. I definitely recommend this.

A word of caution: this isn’t YA. Although the language makes it super-accessible, I would only give this book to teens if they were super mature. This is definitely an adult read with a child protagonist.