Review: A Lucky Man

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Review for "A Lucky Man" by Jamel Brinkley (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is one of the most profound short story collections I’ve read over the past few years. I say that with no hesitation, because let’s face it–most short story offerings these days ain’t that good, unevenly written at best. Very rarely are ALL of the stories in a collection readable and relatable pieces of literature. “A Lucky Man” is one of the few exceptions.

In this volume are nine stories, all featuring Black men and boys in the Bronx who are dealing with life and its societal pressures. There is a focus on masculinity here, specifically Black masculinity–how Black men view the women in their lives, their families, and how they justify their behavior toward them. There are definitely depictions of unhealthy relationships here, but it’s not just sexism on display. The nuances of what it means to be a Black man are explored here in a variety of different settings: in some cases, the choice to reject traditional “male” behavior has disastrous consequences, but in others, the character finds peace.

The powerful story “J’ouvert 1996” was my favorite in this collection, which tells the story of a young boy’s coming of age during an all-night street festival. “Everything the Mouth Eats” is the tale of two brothers’ healing of the past during a capoeira festival. “A Family” is about one man’s quest to come to terms with his actions, many years after a terrible act. “A Lucky Man” is an interesting exploration of public spaces and male desire.

Overall, this is a beautiful collection of tales. It is hard to believe that this is Jamel Brinkley’s first book, he writes with a talent that is rare and unique. I look forward to any future writing projects he has. Definitely recommend!

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Review: The Terrible

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Review for "The Terrible" by Yrsa Daley Ward (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a very unique memoir. It is written in prose, but large parts of it are written in verse. There’s no pattern to what the next page is going to be (a poem or prose), but that was perfectly OK. I was too wrapped up in the author’s words. Needless to say, I loved this book.

Yrsa Daley-Ward, author of bone, tells a very honest story about her life. Her and her younger brother grow up in a very strict, very religious Seven-Day Adventist household with her mother’s parents. With her father absent, her and her brother go to live with their mother later in her childhood. The relationship between her and her mother is dysfunctional as well. Eventually Ward drifts into a life of drugs, drinking, depression, and sex work. There is a lot of pain invoked in this novel, along with an exploration on inter-generational conflicts, pain not healed that is passed from parent to children.

I won’t tell you too much more about this book because I don’t want to spoil it. It is definitely worth your time to read it. Four stars.

Review: Stamped from the Beginning

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Review for "Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America" by Ibram X. Kendi (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is all about racism, specifically, how racist ideas about people of African descent led to the institution of slavery and became a unique history, woven into the fabric of American life.

This book is nearly 600 pages. I listened to it on audio. Unless you have time to really go through it and make notes and annotations, I recommend that you keep this on audio. I will probably go back through and read this when I have more time, just because of how excessively detailed the information is. That’s a good thing, though.

Anyway, Dr. Kendi makes his argument fairly plain–that racism is more than simple “ignorance.” If racism were as simple as people behaving “ignorantly,” Kendi asserts, it would not have persisted for thousands of years, nor would it be the institutional scourge that continues today. Racism is actually a very complex system of ideas, drawn from a number of highly complex sources. Kendi uses five guides into his argument who we’ve all probably heard about in our American history classes in school–Puritan minister Cotton Mather, founding father Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, author W.E.B. Dubois, and the Black feminist radical, Angela Davis. He separates these figures into three camps to trace the development of anti-Black, racist ideas: segregationists, people who believe that Black people are to blame for their own inferiority, assimilationists, people who believe that both Blacks and racial discrimination have equal part in beliefs surrounding Black inferiority, and anti-racists, people who reject both of these ideas. Kendi spends a great deal of time with each one of these arguments, and all five of these historical figures who play some part in either building or dismantling racist ideology.

All in all, I found Stamped from the Beginning to be a very complex and nuanced book. It’s also exhaustively researched. Even though I knew that Cotton Mather and Thomas Jefferson were not all that my high school history teacher were telling me they were, this book breaks down their racist ideas in a way that I’ve never quite seen before. This is a book that begs to be read by all people, especially in today’s times. I will definitely also say that I have learned much from this book, I highly recommend it.

Review: Monday’s Not Coming

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Review for "Monday's Not Coming" by Tiffany D. Jackson (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I’ll admit it: Monday’s Not Coming has been one of my most anticipated reads this year. I read this in a few days and I’m definitely giving this a solid 4 stars.

The story begins when Claudia, the main character, returns from a summer vacation to discover that her best friend Monday Charles has not show up for their first day of eighth grade. No one seems concerned. Claudia’s parents caution her not to worry, but she knows better. After several weeks pass, Claudia begins to ask around about her friend. The school says she hasn’t registered. Monday’s mom says that she’s with her father, Monday’s sister says she’s with an aunt. The police also dismiss her concerns, labeling Monday as a probable runaway. Despite the setbacks, Claudia is more and more determined to find her best friend as the novel progresses.

I loved the setting of this book, as well as Claudia’s character. Claudia resides in Washington, D.C., a city with predominantly Black residents. There are thoughtful explorations here of gentrification, the educational system, the child welfare system, as well as class tensions in Black communities. Go go music, the National Mall, and the Anacostia neighborhood are all very prominent “characters” here as well. I loved it all. Also memorable is Claudia herself, a very complex character. Monday is her only friend, but she represents way more than just a friend–she’s Claudia’s other half. Once Monday’s disappearance takes hold, Claudia’s dyslexia becomes more visible to those around her. She is compelled to take remedial tutoring, which she hates. Claudia also enjoys dance, but lacks the confidence to stand out.

The execution of this novel has some problems, though. This is definitely one of those “down the rabbit hole” kinda books, where nothing’s a given and you’re gonna go through some hoops before you get to the Big Reveal at the end. The hoops here are four timelines that run parallel throughout the book, labeled “Before” (events before Monday’s disappearance), “After” (events after we discover what happens to Monday), “Before the Before,” and “2 Years Before the Before.” It’s confusing. I understand Jackson’s use of ambiguity here, but all of the various timelines and events made this a muddled mess. There is a twist at the end, but by this time I was so lost in the mire of the timeline that I have to admit that the only reason I didn’t skip pages was because I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to Monday.

To tell you more about this book takes it dangerously into spoiler territory. It definitely shines for its fearlessness. It is one of the first YA books that I’ve read in which Black girl friendships are problematized and presented with the realness that they deserve. It is also one of the first YA books that speaks directly to the phenomenon of “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” the term first used by PBS News anchor Gwen Ifill to describe society’s tendency to treat the disappearances of young, affluent White women as media events with constant, around the clock national coverage, despite the fact that men, along with women and children of color, comprise the majority of missing persons cases. For Monday’s disappearance, no one joins a search party. Her picture is not in the newspaper. She’s not even on the nightly news.

4 stars. If you read nothing else in 2018, please read this. You don’t want to miss it.

Review: Barracoon

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Review for "Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Barracoon is the field work of legendary writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. It is the story of the last known survivor of the African slave trade, Cudjo Lewis, in his very own words. In 1927, Hurston traveled to visit Cudjo to his home in Alabama, and over several weeks interviewed him directly, transcribing his account of how he was taken captive at the age of 19 in an area now known as the country of Benin and transported illegally to America in 1860. She completed a book containing Cudjo’s story in 1931. However, her book never found a publisher and remained locked away in her archives at Howard University for over 80 years.

The reasons why Barracoon was never published are quite obvious. For one, Hurston insisted that Cudjo’s voice be heard and he be allowed to speak in his own dialect. Second, it implicates Africans as profiteers within the nexus of the slave trade, a fact that many historians have long denied. Originally named Oluale Kossola, Cudjo was captured by a rival tribe and was sold into slavery, a common practice on the continent for hundreds of years. He spent three weeks in a stockade (called a barracoon) and was subsequently shipped to America on a ship named Clotilda. Once in America, Kossola is renamed Cudjo and lives as a slave for five years until he is freed by Union soldiers in 1865. He eventually marries and has six children, all of whom die before his own death in 1935.

If you are unfamiliar with rural Black Southern dialect, you will have a helluva time with this book. Hurston was right to insist on not changing Cudjo’s words, and as you read this book you will understand why. I am fairly familiar with the cadence and the speech patterns of Black dialect, yet I still found it helpful throughout this book to read Cudjo’s words aloud, his speech ‘as is’ is critical to the understanding of his story, along with Hurston’s prose. Also telling were the many times in the book where Cudjo refused to speak, preferring instead to sit on his porch and eat a peach or share a watermelon with Hurston in silence instead of talk about the horrific experiences he’d gone through.

I loved this book. I feel it is definitely a story that demands to be told, especially when there’s an open bigot in the White House and one ignorant public figure in particular who is dumb enough to actually open his mouth to suggest that “slavery was a choice.” This book seems timely and well-intentioned, in the climate of so much rhetoric that seeks to undermine the horrors of slavery and its present-day implications.

Highly recommended–don’t miss this one.

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.

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.