Review: Calling My Name

34541786

Review for "Calling My Name" by Liara Tamani (2017)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I loved this YA book. The cover’s cute and the writing is quite gorgeous.

“Calling My Name” is the beautiful story of a young Black girl named Taja, growing up in a middle class, Southern Baptist family in Texas. The story begins with Taja as a young girl and follows her through her senior year of high school through a world of ‘firsts’–social awkwardness, wearing a bra, friendship drama, sibling and family relationships, her first kiss, losing her virginity. Each chapter is named and presented vignette style, with quotes from various Black women authors (Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Zora Neale Hurston) interpolated throughout the text as themes for what follows. I also loved the lovely ambiguities here: we’re never told explicitly how old Taja is, though the passage of time as the novel progresses is evident. Also nebulous is the exact time frame in which Taja’s childhood takes place, surrounding references to pop culture and relics such as acid-wash jeans allude to the late 80’s through the mid-90’s. I loved, however, that time really didn’t seem to matter here: Taja’s life could be today, 20 years ago, or even as far back as 40 years ago. I’ve always maintained that the best books do not have to explicitly state everything they’re made of, and this book knows that and much, much more.

Religion, specifically the Black Southern Baptist tradition, plays a prominent role in this book. Taja’s parents are ultra conservative and tightly control her behavior, not wanting her to fall into “sin” or become “used goods” before marriage. Taja’s identity as a Christian influences much of her thoughts and actions, leading to several conflicts as a teenager until she eventually finds her own voice as an individual, shortly before leaving for college.

Reading this book was emotional for me. It is the first book that so closely mirrored my own experiences as a Black girl in the 80’s and 90’s, growing up in very much the same middle class, conservative Southern Baptist family dynamic. The stereotypical ‘problems’ that we typically associate with the narratives of people of color (you know, incidents of racism, poverty, substance abuse, economic struggle) were largely absent here, which I have to admit that I appreciated for a change. This is not a story about any of those kinds of traumas–it’s a story about soul-searching, Black girl style. Throughout the reading of this book I wanted so much to simply applaud because finally, someone got it RIGHT.

It goes without saying that I completely and totally recommend that you read this book.

Advertisements

Review: Freshwater

35412372

Review for "Freshwater" by Akwaeke Emezi (to be published on 13 February 2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Wow.

I have no better way to start this review, so I’ll say it again: Wow.

Reading a novel like “Freshwater” was a completely new experience for me. To step into its pages was to venture into a beautifully strange, dark world, the realm of something amazing: ancient gods, beauty, life, death. “Freshwater” is also the world of a young woman’s troubled mind.

Ada, whose life is the focus of the story, is just one of the characters here. She is conjured through her father’s prayers and born into a middle-class Nigerian family with “one foot on the other side.” Early on, you come to realize that the ‘side’ is the spiritual realm and the ‘foot’ that the author is referring to is a pathway through which primordial gods freely enter and inhabit Ada’s physical body. Much of the story is narrated by these gods, who are birthed and rebirthed several times and call themselves “we” throughout the novel. Also present in Ada’s body are two distinct spirits: Asughara and Saint Vincent, the former being the more powerful of the two. As Ada grows older, Asughara begins to control more of her actions and her voice fades into the background. Very little of the book is narrated by Ada, she lives instead through a smaller, fractured self.

The spirits that inhabit Ada’s body desire to pass back over to the other side–the only limitation being that they are attached to Ada’s physical self. As the book progresses, Asughara, Saint Vincent, and the “we” become protectors to Ada, taking over when the current situation and/or the people in her life are too much for her to handle. They also push her to dangerous extremes. I loved the way in which this book completely detaches you from what you think you know about mental illness and cleverly uses spirituality to frame the narrative instead. Through Ada’s ‘spirits’ multiple themes are explored: racism, addiction, self-mutilation, gender nonconformity, and religion, among others.

There is a brutalness in this writing that comes through in the multi-layered narration the author has chosen for this book. In the end, this is a book about coming into one’s own voice, despite what that voice says and how many lives it has lead in the past.

This is not light reading, folks. Come to this novel prepared to underline passages, expand your mind, and think outside of the box. When I arrived at the end of this book, I realized that there was nothing I had previously read that I could rightfully compare this to. “Freshwater” stands on its own as a creative work that is uniquely beautiful. It fights labels and categories, it truly stands in a genre by itself.

Five stars.

[Note: An advance electronic copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Grove Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Beasts of No Nation

413177

Review for “Beasts of No Nation” by Uzodinma Iweala (2006)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a story that hits you like a grenade. I watched the movie on Netflix and was blown away by the actors’ performances, I cried so much watching it that I knew that I HAD to have this book. It’s short (less than 150 pages) but it took me over a week to read it. The events that are described within it are, in no uncertain terms, some of the most horrific experiences I’ve ever read about. The events are achingly close to the movie adaptation, but the book’s descriptions of the violence was a lot more brutal. The narration was somewhat hard to understand at first because the main character speaks a special kind of “broken” English that took some getting used to. By the third page, however, the character began to make perfect sense, with a cadence that made his words abundantly clear.

This is not a book for the weak-hearted. There were times during the week when I was reading this when I had to put it down, back away, get some air (literally), and come back to it later. It is heartbreaking, tragic, and terrifyingly real. It is the story of Agu, a child in an unnamed African country that is currently in the grips of a civil war. We are never told exactly how old he is, though some clues point to the fact that he is not yet a teenager–perhaps 12, or maybe 13. His mother and sister are taken away to safety in the beginning, he never sees them again. He watches his father murdered shortly thereafter. He hides in the wilderness until he is recruited (well, take that back: forced) to join a rebel army and fight against the insurgency. At first he is quite disgusted by the violence he witnesses, but after a while, he describes taking part in the rapes, murders, and act of burning villages with the same nonchalance as any other enjoyable childhood activity he takes part in.

Agu is morally conflicted: throughout the novel he constantly tells himself (and you, the reader) that he is a good boy, with some degree of moral sense against the acts he takes part in. He tries over and over again to convince his conscience that the violent acts that he is forced to commit are good and proper. You get angry with Agu (a lot, actually) throughout the story, but you remember that he is just a child, a pawn used by evil men. We hate that he does bad things, but what choice does he have? It is clearly a kill or be killed situation. The end does bring some promise of a future for Agu, but you still fear for him as you wonder what kind of effect these experiences will have on his adult life.

So, with that said, why am I rating this five stars? Well, because this is a story that NEEDS to be told. As Americans we complain about bad traffic and too much goat cheese in our salads, yet hardly half a world away children are forced to become a part of brutal acts that are beyond our wildest imaginations. It has become way too easy to turn on the news and hear about ‘those people,’ to donate money and shake our heads in pity and rest assured in our first world lives that these types of atrocities will never happen to us. We view childhood as a time of innocence, but in the wrong hands, we forget that it is actually pretty easy to turn a child into an efficient killing machine.

So, needless to say, I recommend this book. Agu is a special character that stays with you for a long time. Hopefully he will spur you to change your outlook on the world, or at least to learn count your blessings.