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: 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.

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…