Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

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Review for "Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line" by Deepa Anappara (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

An excellent yet heartbreaking debut novel that revolves around an alarming statistic: 180 children go missing in India each day. Deepa Anappara, a reporter, wrote about the children of India for many years. Children that disappear are trafficked, forced into manual labor and sexual slavery, or worse, murdered and never found. The local police, known for corruption and taking bribes, are completely uninterested in solving these crimes or doing any kind of investigation. They presume all children have run away and absolve themselves of any kind of accountability for protecting their citizens.

At the heart of this book is 9-year-old Jai, a boy living with his parents and older sister in a one-room house in a basti in a large, unnamed Indian city. Jai is your guide into life in a modern Indian slum, where smog covers everything, letting in very little sunlight and making it hard to breathe. Schools in the basti offer sub-par education, parents often work as maids and service people for upper class citizens, and the family must pay for the dignity to use a community outhouse. Every day in the slum, people live in fear of police raids and threats to bulldoze their neighborhood. Despite the bleakness Jai is optimistic and hopeful, watching tv detective shows such as Police Patrol to learn how to solve crimes. When one of his classmates comes up missing, he and two of his friends decide to become detectives to solve the mystery. As is common in India, belief in the supernatural is all throughout this book, with characters discussing djinns (spirits that can be good or bad and can appear as humans or animals). As the friends interview parents and locals about their friend’s whereabouts and find no answers, the children begin to wonder if it is a djinn that’s snatching their friends.

There are also many issues explored in this novel, such as the widespread prejudice against Muslims by Hindus. As more and more children disappear in Jai’s basti, Muslims are accused and jailed for the crimes. Even though two Muslim children are among the kidnapped, Muslims are still blamed. There’s also the wide gap between India’s super rich and the poorest of the poor, separated in the novel by a field of garbage. Despite modernization and the legal ‘end’ of caste system discrimination, class differences and the misery of poor people in India have remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Despite the sense of hopelessness that permeates the book, it is Jai’s optimism keeps you reading until the tragic end. Although by the end Jai is forced to shade his innocence and see his world for what it really is, this is still a thoughtful coming of age story. All in all, I loved this book. The characters, the story, the setting, as well as the depiction of Indian life is exceptional.

**Note: Because this is a book with Indian characters, their language is used frequently throughout with no footnotes. There’s a glossary at the back of this book to help, though I found that after awhile I didn’t need it anymore because the unknown words could be inferred by context.

Review: Stateway’s Garden

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Review for "Stateway's Garden: Stories" by Jasmon Drain (2020)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a collection of interconnected short stories about life inside of one of Chicago’s now-demolished South Side housing projects, Stateway Gardens. Mostly set in the 1980’s, the stories follow a set of brothers, Tracy and Jacob, and their relatives as they navigate poverty, racism, drugs, and violence of their home.

Neither Tracy or Jacob’s father is around, which leaves their mother as their primary caregiver. She works long hours and rarely has time for either of her sons. Most of the stories are narrated by the younger Tracy, such as “BB Sauce,” “Middle School,” and “Stateway Condo Gentrification.” He grows up to be a highly inquistive young man amidst the ugliness around him and the eventual demise of the projects. Tracy, his older brother, chooses a slightly different path, becoming a teenage father and drug dealer. He narrates “Stephanie Worthington” and the very last story.

For me, these stories were hard to get into. The first few stories are choppy and aren’t very compelling, there’s wasn’t much to draw me into them or their characters. The same continues through much of the middle of the book, and although most of the action seems to take place toward the end, it was anti-climatic and showed very little sense of cohesion throughout. Ultimately I had to really push myself to finish this, which is a shame, given the passion and the beauty behind its subject matter.

Three stars. I expected better.

Review: Invisible Americans

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Review for "Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Poverty" by Jeff Madrick (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Throughout this book, Jeff Madrick, an economist, proposes that the solution to the very complex problem of child poverty is to give children and their families cash. While I am not going to go into why I completely disagree that we cannot simply throw a monthly cash allowance at a problem that is very much rooted in the history of racism, discrimination, and just plain bad government policy, I will critique the book itself.

Many of the arguments presented in this book are very compelling. Madrick explains why current measures of poverty are woefully out of date and inaccurate. He discusses the flawed political underpinnings of the notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, as well as an extensive attack of the idea of the “culture of poverty” which often position Black and Latinx communities as hopeless victims instead of people who desire to lift their circumstances.

Despite all of these “right on target” themes, I must admit that this book is very dense and not very accessible to the masses. There are lots of statistics, heavy handed explanations, and acronyms that are intended more for policymakers than the typical curious reader who may stumble onto this book. While Madrick does present a compelling case for why child poverty is a moral failing and its devastating consequences, I would have liked to see this book’s language a lot more readable for the masses.

Review: Long Bright River

Back again, folks. This spring semester has me teaching several classes and fielding the job market and I admit that for a minute (just a minute, though) I neglected this lovely site. I’ve still been reading, got lots to share. On to the review…

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Review for "Long Bright River" by Liz Moore (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is not an easy read. The current opioid crisis is front and center, particularly in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. At the center of this novel are two sisters, Mickey and Kasey, both orphaned by their young mother’s early death and the subsequent disappearance of their father. The sisters are taken in by their grandmother, Gee, a cold, unloving woman who provides for the girls’ physical needs while working several jobs but not very long on personal attention.

Mickey and Kasey are close as girls, but things change dramatically when Kasey begins using drugs in high school. The sisters drift apart: Mickey becomes a police officer and a single mother to a young son, while Kasey spirals deeper and deeper into drug addiction. When Mickey can no longer track her sister and a serial killer begins targeting young women on the streets of Kensington, she becomes desperate to find her.

This is a very layered story. There’s elements of a murder mystery, tinged with the drama of a dysfunctional family torn apart by the pain of drug addiction. The book is well written, though it took a while for the story to really get going. For the first 100 pages or so you’re stuck with Mickey’s narration of her job and the ups and downs of her life and her voice is rather cold and distant. The ending is also a bit bizarre and a little too conveniently presented for my taste as well. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it challenged absolutely none of my predictions.

This is a very timely book that will resonate with a lot of people who are currently dealing with drug addiction, or a loved one who is. I wholeheartedly recommend this one.

Review: White Bird

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Review for "White Bird" by R.J. Palacio (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“White Bird” is a beautifully drawn graphic novel about Julian’s grandmother’s experience during the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. If you are familiar with the ‘Wonder’ series, then you’ll remember Julian as the not-so-nice kid at Beecher Prep that gave the main character, Auggie, such a hard time fitting in with other students. For those that didn’t like Julian at the end of that story, this novel is his redemption, a chance for him to learn empathy from his beloved grandmother, Grandmere.

As Grandmere reflects on her past to Julian, we learn that she was once a young, middle class Jewish girl named Sara growing up during the days of Nazi-occupied France. In the beginning, she lives a sheltered existence at her home with her parents, even though public disdain and discrimination against Jews is everywhere. Eventually, the Nazis take over the region and begin to arrest Jews, killing them or rounding them up and transporting them to concentration camps. Sara hides in the home of a classmate, a kind boy with a walking disability named Julien who lives with his parents. Over the next several years, Julien and Sara form a close friendship. It is so close that after the war she names her son Julien, who in turn gives that name to the main character of this story.

I am skipping parts, of course, because I do not want to ruin this beautiful story. The pictures are a plus, exquisitely drawn in pastels and neutral colors. There are also loads of resources in the back of the book with information on the Holocaust, as well as organizations that educate and teach about this tragic historical event.

Be forewarned, however: this book is definitely a tearjerker. Go into this one with a warm blanket and lots of tissues. You’ll need them.

Five stars. Excellent book.

Review: Year of the Monkey

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Review for "Year of the Monkey" by Patti Smith (2019)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Ahh, first review for 2020. Happy New Year!

I hate to start the decade with a bad review, but you know I gotta be honest and say that nah, I didn’t like this one. I love Patti Smith and I loved her other memoir, “Just Kids,” about her and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s coming of age as artists in NYC in the 70’s and 80’s. This book, however, is different. “Year of the Monkey” really is a book about nothing much at all.

Lemme back up for a moment. It’s perfectly fine for a book to be about nothing at all. The one author off the top of my head who’s perfected this technique is Haruki Murakami–if you pick up any one of his books you’ll find pages and pages of character observations and thoughts that seemingly go nowhere, but it somehow manages to keep me reading. Smith is not Murakami, however. I wanted to like this book but it wasn’t what I imagined it would be. Here, Patti Smith recounts 2016 through a series of photographs, dreams, travels, meals in dingy diners, etc. There’s also a lot of really vague references to other writers, musicians, and history events I have no previous knowledge of which left me out in the lurch. The events of this book are more like a fever dream and it’s obvious that Smith is trying to weave together dreams and reality into a narrative but for me what was real and what wasn’t was just too confusing.

I am thankful that this book was short. Although I will read Patti Smith again, I would not read this book again.

Review: The Witches Are Coming

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Review for "The Witches Are Coming" by Lindy West (2019)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

First of all, lemme say that I like Lindy West. She’s one of the few women writers that seems to get “it”–and when I say “it,” I am talking about the interconnectedness of the systems of oppression that encapsulate gender, race, class, and body type. I thought her first book was alright, though at times her tone completely put me at a distance. Why did Shrill feel like I was reading a series of long, continuous blog posts by a bitchy teenager? There’s nothing wrong with humor with a fair dose of snark, but I found West’s constant attempts at a punchline really off-putting.

“The Witches Are Coming” is slightly better than “Shrill,” but not by much. It’s not so much the snark here (though there’s much less in this book), but the content itself. And while I did agree with what she’s saying, I just found a lot of the subject matter kinda boring. By that I mean that there were definitely some essays I liked more than others, like why Adam Sandler is so popular (his movies have never really been all that funny to me either). The Goop one is also quite hilarious because it’s so ridiculous (yoni eggs and aura baths–yay!).

But the boring ones were just not my style–at all. I skipped over the ones about the Fyre Festival (there’s been 2 documentaries on this already and we don’t care anymore), Joan Rivers (never been into her style of humor; don’t care), and Ted Bundy (there’s a Netflix series on this; who cares?). I also found myself skipping a few others because they weren’t very interesting. Overall, this book was very uneven and just ok for me.

3.5 stars. Blah.

Review: Dignity

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Review for "Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America" by Chris Arnade (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Several years ago, physicist and Wall Street trader Chris Arnade decides to leave his cushy life and visit the working class neighborhood of Hunts Point, deep in the NYC borough of the Bronx. He builds up a relationship with the residents there, listening to their stories and taking pictures of them living, working, doing and selling drugs, and engaging in sex work. Arnade eventually develops a relationship with the people of Hunts Point, and after documenting their stories, decided that he wanted to know more about similar communities across America and the people living in them, areas with no jobs and mostly forgotten by public policies.

“Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” is one man’s journey into poor, working class life in America. He visits large cities and smaller towns: Bakersfield, California; Portsmouth, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cairo, Illinois; Gary, Indiana. Arnade shares what he learns in photographs and in themed essays about topics such as racism, drugs, religion, coping.

On one hand I admire the author’s attempt at honest investigation, as well as his decision as a member of America’s “front row” to try to understand “back row” poor people. But on the other hand I’m not so sure about this book or its approach. For one, he seems to lack the knowledge to help him fully understand what he sees. While I appreciate that the author never judges or condemns the people he writes about (many of which use drugs, engage in sex work, and other criminal behaviors), this book worked best when he let the photos talk and he didn’t try to explain or analyze their lives.

This necessary ‘silence,’ of course, doesn’t happen here. All over this book are the author’s explanations and suggested reasonings for why and what he’s encountering in the lives of the people he meets. He offers no sociological or psychological support for his analyses or larger discussion into the the failure of ‘trickle-down’ economics, there’s no study or graphs to support any of his viewpoints. And while I’m not criticizing him for injecting his bias into a book such as this, I am criticizing the lack of evidence to back it up.

This isn’t a bad book, however. I definitely encourage people to read it, if for nothing else then to remind those in the “front row” of those who live completely parallel lives.

Review: Girls Like Us

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Review for "Girls Like Us" by Randi Pink (2019)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

This YA story follows four girls dealing with pregnancy in the summer of 1972, right on the eve of the historic Roe vs. Wade decision which resulted in the decriminalization of abortion in America. To understand this story, it’s very important to take in the social climate of the time, which gave unmarried women very few choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Having a child out of wedlock was not socially acceptable, those who could afford to could hide out in an unwed mother’s home until the birth and then place their child up for a closed adoption. The other option was to visit a person who performed abortions using questionable and often unsafe methods. Many women died in these botched, ‘back alley’ abortion procedures from blood loss, poisoning, infection from unsterile instruments, etc. It’s a sad, horrific history that, in 2019, certain people in political power would like to see women return to. I’ll step off of my soapbox for now, however.

“Girls Like Us” first introduces us to sisters Ola and Izella, the older of which, Ola, is expecting. Their mother, Evangelist, is a religious zealot and they make a pact to not tell her about the pregnancy. Ola and Izella visits a neighbor, a conjure woman who offers a quick home remedy to get rid of the baby. Meanwhile down the street, another young girl, Missippi, is pregnant from a rape by an older relative. When her father discovers what has happened to her, he sends Missippi up north to a woman who runs a home for young unwed pregnant women. In the home for pregnant women, Missippi meets a White young woman named Susan, the free-spirited daughter of a politician. Although their lives are different, they are in many ways the same. Their stories intersect with those of Izella and Ola, later on, in a dramatic way.

Overall, I liked this story, but I wasn’t engaged with any of the characters. I understand what the author was trying to do by universalizing the stories of women pre-Roe vs. Wade, but I think the writing was rushed here and a bit bland. Also, the ending was just kinda…there. I definitely get the connection to modern day stories, but felt this could have been written better.

I give this a 3.5. I’m very interested in what this author does next.

Review: Quiet Until the Thaw

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Review for "Quiet Until the Thaw" by Alexandra Fuller (2017)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I went into this book fully aware of the controversy around it, a story about a pair of Oglala boys on a Lakota reservation written by White British woman raised in colonial Africa. I was curious about this novel because I wanted to answer a very important question for myself: does a writer have to be a member of a race or culture in order successfully write about its traumas?  I already answered this question somewhat in my last review with Edna O’Brien’s Girl, a historically based novel about the plight of 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2014. Although O’Brien is a White Irish woman, I felt that her knowledge of the sensitivities of her subjects were appropriate, given the long, racist history of African colonialism. However, I wanted to take my consideration of this question a step further. It’s apparent that White writers can write about the traumas of people of color, but when does it become exploitative? When has the line of cultural appropriation been crossed? I had this debate with students in my children’s lit class, and I think there are important arguments to be made on both sides.

Hence, I read this book. In the back, the author, Alexandra Fuller, mentions a visit that she made to the Pine Ridge reservation in 2011 to commemorate the murder of Crazy Horse. Being on the reservation, she writes, was like an “unexpected homecoming.”

Well alrighty then…

Anyway, “Quiet Until the Thaw” is the story of two Lakota boys growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the 1960’s and follows them over the course of the next 30 years of their lives. Orphaned at birth and raised by the town midwife, Rick Overlooking Horse speaks few words. As a young man he is sent to the Vietnam War, where he suffers a devastating injury from a friendly fire napalm bomb. He comes home and builds a teepee on empty land and resigns himself to a quiet life as a farmer. You Choose Watson, the other boy, becomes a rageful man, leaving home to dabble in drugs and odd jobs before returning to the reservation, rising to the level of tribal chief elder. Once in power, he uses his political position to pilfer funds and terrorize the residents, leading to a terrifying standoff with the U.S. government. You Choose is sent to prison, yet his rage continues into another generation.

This book is not a conventional novel, it’s more of a series of vignettes. The chapters are short and language is spare. While most of the book focuses on the characters, other parts cover the struggles of an oppressed people through incidences like the 1492 conquest, Disneyland, and so on. Although this inclusion is thoughtful, I think that Alexandra Fuller is misguided here. There’s tons of annoying Indigenous/Native American stereotypes in the book, such as the “noble” savage, the smoking Indian, the lazy Indian, the drunk Indian. They all go to boarding schools, bear children afflicted with fetal alcohol syndrome, live in “tar paper lean-tos,” and, when in a group, are referred to namelessly with empty titles as “Extended Relations.” Worst yet, the Native people in this book put up racial degradation, such as being called “Red Nigger” and “Diesel Engine” by White characters. It’s also peppered with Lakota words, which I wonder are even translatable given the context in which Fuller is using them.

I hate to dismiss this book but I’m afraid I have to here. The abject poverty and hopelessness of the people is written about reverently, as if it is unconnected to 500 years of racist genocide that preceded it. And speaking of genocide, the author treats this as a romantic notion, much in the same fashion as ridiculous movies as Dances with Wolves or some other outdated Western novel.

Does Alexandra Fuller have any idea about the inner lives of Native/Indigenous people? I get that she lived “on the rez” for three months, but there’s quite a few very good Native American writers out there that have exclusive rights to this narrative and I would rather hear it from them directly. As a White woman born and raised in a colonized and oppressed country as a member of a privileged class due to her Whiteness, I don’t feel that Fuller has any right to this story.

Cultural appropriation, theft, stealing, or whatever the hell you want to call it is here to the umpteenth degree.