Top Ten Tuesday: The Best of 2018

Even though 2018 isn’t officially over, I wanted to take the time to do a quick round up of all of the five star reads I’ve come across this year. Most of these have been previously reviewed here (as shown with a link), and if they haven’t, the review will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.

BTW, there are more than 10 here. In no particular order, they are:

  1. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment – Shane Bauer
  2. The Circuit – Francisco Jimenez
  3. We the Animals – Justin Torres
  4. In My Father’s House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family – Fox Butterfield
  5. What Girls Are Made Of – Elana K. Arnold
  6. Any Man – Amber Tamblyn
  7. The End of Eddy – Edouard Louis
  8. A Lucky Man – Jamel Brinkley
  9. My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
  10. Heavy: An American Memoir – Kiese Laymon
  11. Brother – David Chariandy
  12. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? – Kathleen Collins
  13. Illegal – Eoin Colfer
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Review: The End of Eddy

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Review for "The End of Eddy" by Edouard Louis (2017 in US, 2014 in France)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book’s got trigger warnings up the wazoo: rape, bullying, assault, child abuse, animal abuse, homophobia, racism

A short and unrelenting autobiographical account of the author’s coming of age in a small town in northern France. Originally published in French, Eddy was only 21 when he wrote this book.

Much of this was hard for me to read. Eddy grows up poor and gay in a large family, a target of obvious scorn by his parents, his siblings, his classmates, and the people of his town. The depiction of French society here is a sharp contrast with what many of us Americans picture when we think of the region, with its artistic sensibilities and beautiful scenery. In Eddy’s town of Hallencourt, jobs are scarce, children drop out of school, and women have their babies young. Alcoholism is everywhere, violence is routine and part of a typical day’s events. Growing up, Eddy is assaulted daily, spat upon, and called derogatory names because his mannerisms, speech, and behavior does not fit the expectation of what is “manly.” He submits to these beatings because brutality is all he knows. His sexual initiation, which is not entirely consensual, is the hallmark of this book, because it’s after this event that he decides to take on the persona of ‘tough guy.’ He fails miserably, however. Eddy comes to accept his own homosexuality and eventually gets accepted into a theater program in a nearby city, pursues a degree, and eventually changes his name to Edouard Louis.

As much as I didn’t like reading this due to its graphic descriptions of such horrible things, I have to give it five stars. Something in me broke while reading this. It’s terrifying because of its urgency–you know that this kind of terrorism is happening to someone else as you read this. Even though this book takes place in France in the 90’s, it could be present day in your city or really anywhere in the world where people still practice the routines of toxic masculinity and violence.

Five stars, mates.

Review: American Prison

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Review for "American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment" by Shane Bauer (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I could not put this book down. Five stars.

In 2015, Shane Bauer, a reporter with Mother Jones, went undercover for four months at a privately owned (“for profit”) prison in rural Louisiana called Winn Correctional. Managed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), he is hired to work as a prison guard for $9 an hour. He carries a pen that doubles as an audio recorder, a small notebook, a coffee thermos with a small camera in it, and documents his daily dealings with staff and inmates at his new job. What he finds at Winn is pretty much a nightmare: a dangerously understaffed facility, guards that openly brag about beating inmates, daily stabbings, reports of rapes, other examples of gross negligence and mismanagement. There are no education classes, no regular rec time, or any kind of ‘set’ schedule for the prisoners, each day’s activities are determined by how many staff decide to show up for work. There is one psychiatrist and one social worker for the entire prison. There is only one doctor and medical treatment is substandard.

At Winn, Bauer finds that every attempt is made to save CCA money. Because there is a profit motive in keeping inmates at the facility, he observes an inmate repeatedly complaining of chest pain but is refused hospital treatment and given ibuprofen. He later dies. Another inmate violently kills himself after consistent threats to do so. Corners are cut and log books are falsified. Another prisoner manages to escape and no one misses him for hours, due the fact that it costs CCA too much to staff the guard tower.

In between the chapters of undercover reporting is powerful research Bauer writes on the history of America’s for-profit prison system. Locking people up for revenue, convict leasing, and state-enforced prison labor is nothing new and has always resulted in the abuse and torture of inmates, particularly men, women, and children of color. By creating laws across the American South that criminalized minor misdeeds (drinking, vagrancy, truancy), many Black men were forced to work in prison labor camps. When one died from routine overwork, beating, or disease, the system simply got another. It has always been a system that cheapens human lives, therefore it is no surprise that CCA’s stock shares are up and they are profiting under the current president and his hateful policies towards immigrants. Corporations like CCA are beginning to turn away from contracts with jails and prisons and turn its attention to building detention centers, most of which now house Mexican and Central American immigrants.

I could say so much more about this book but it would be too much to type here. I do, however, wholeheartedly encourage you to read this, even if you read nothing else this fall.

Review: What Girls Are Made Of

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Review for "What Girls Are Made Of" by Elana K. Arnold (2017)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Oooooh…this book is messed up. I don’t mean ‘messed up’ in a bad way–I mean messed up as a frightfully good term that will hopefully compel you to read this.

The book begins when the main character, Nina, is fourteen and her mother tells her that she “could stop loving her at any time” and that there is no such thing as unconditional love. This revelation puzzles Nina and becomes the theme for the rest of the book, as she tries to make sense of what love is and the role it plays in her life. The novel examines three of Nina’s love relationships in particular: her mother, whom she takes a trip to Rome with and they sort-of bond over imagery of women saints and torture, Seth, a boy who Nina becomes completely enmeshed with who clearly does not love her, and her community service assignment at a high kill animal shelter. As a result of a terrible act that ended things for good between her and Seth, Nina must do community service at the shelter, where she witnesses dogs that are injured, abandoned, and put to death.

Interspersed throughout the text are very dark, Margaret Atwood-like stories that Nina writes as assignments for her literature class. These vignettes are very interesting and feature tales of virginal sacrifices, women martyrs, the roles of women in society, and the like.

As I said before, this book is messed up. It is YA, but it’s Grown-Ass Woman YA. There’s all kinds of graphic details about sex, medically-induced abortion (very detailed), gynecological pelvic exams, birth control, orgasms (also very detailed), and masturbation. I loved this book because it goes to the edge and hides nothing. It is a messy book about a messy time in a girl’s life–and it’s not afraid to be confused, terrified, and completely broken. It is also a complete departure from what has now become a YA lit cliche; the gutsy, whip smart, kick-ass-and-take-names kinda girl. The main character presented here, Nina, is not strong and does not kick ass. And for once, I think that’s totally alright. I gave this book five stars because I really really dug that.

I loved this book. Definitely read if you’re into darker, more realistic YA books that hit on real issues.

Review: Calling My Name

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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.

Review: Freshwater

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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

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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.