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.

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Review: Heart Berries

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Review for "Heart Berries: A Memoir" by Terese Mailhot (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Let me start this review off by saying the Terese Mailhot is a sensational writer. “Heart Berries” is a raw, personal account of Mailhot’s life and experiences as a First Nations woman who has witnessed abuse, poverty, addiction, as well as generations of family members who have passed through Canada’s brutal residential school system, which separated indigenous children from their families and, in many cases, subjected them to sexual and physical abuse. Mailhot talks about this and a myriad of other topics in her writing, often taking on the form of missives to former lovers.

There were definitely moments in this book where I found myself underlining passages in my Kindle, saying “yes!” But then these flashes of brilliance would signal the moment when the magic would end, because moments later the author would switch time, location, and subject without warning. I am a bit confused with the classification of this book as a memoir, because the selections together as a whole seemed terribly disjointed and didn’t tell a cohesive story. The lack of cohesion put up a barrier for me–I wanted to understand her and the writing was certainly drawing me in, but the lack of a solid story here made this something I couldn’t access.

I almost feel bad for giving this two stars, because this book has gotten glowing reviews in the mainstream press. I definitely like the way the author writes, but I just don’t think this is my kinda book.

Review: When They Call You a Terrorist

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Review for "When They Call You a Terrorist: a Black Lives Matter Memoir" by Patrisse Khan-Cullors (2018)
Review: 4 out of 5 stars

Ahhh, this is a good book. Even though it is about the life of one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, there is sooooo much more than just BLM rhetoric here. It begins with Cullors’ childhood in Los Angeles, growing up poor and constantly harassed by law enforcement. Her single mother works multiple jobs and never quite gets by, and without much adult supervision, both of her brothers eventually end up in the prison system. One of her brothers, whom she spends multiple chapters describing the plight of, was severely mentally ill and systematically abused by the prison system. It is tragic and harrowing, anyone who reads this book will come away with a detailed understanding of Cullors’ rage at law enforcement, the justice system, corrections, and pretty much every institutional system in America.

The author herself is bisexual (she describes herself as queer). She spends a lot of time discussing the fact that Black Lives Matter was founded by three queer women and is a mostly women and LGBTQ-headed movement–though the way it is conveyed in the press, you would not know this. There is also a discussion of the full agenda of the movement, which encompasses far more than just an end to police violence against people of color. In addition to the rights of Black citizens, Black Lives Matter stands for economic justice, health insurance, prison reform, educational reform, ending domestic violence, an end to the abuse of immigrants and unfair deportation, and so on.

Regrettably, much of what Cullors and the Black Lives Matter movement has worked for in the last few years has been undone in the past few months by the current president and his administration. This is lamented in the last part of the book. It’s not an ending, however, but a call to action, hope for the future.

Once again, this is a timely read and great book.

[A digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Mean

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Review for "Mean" by Myriam Gurba (2017)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This is a doozy of a book. It’s a non-linear narrative, opening with a violent account of a woman being raped and murdered in a park. Gurba then switches to a host of different topics that are seemingly unrelated to the first but yet still interesting: growing up as a mixed race Chicana, having a family member with mental illness, discovering her identity as a lesbian. Later in the book we discover that the attacker referenced in the first part is the same that would go on to sexually assault Gurba as a college student.

There’s a lot of wordplay in this book, particularly around the occurrence of rape. I don’t like it.

God is like rape. Rape is everywhere too. Rape is in the air. Rape is in the sky… p.98

Gurba writes about ‘meanness’ as a kind of armor worn by women of color out of necessity. She isn’t trying to censor herself or make the reader comfortable with her descriptions and I get it, I really do. But it’s still unsettling nonetheless.

The writing’s decent here. Three and a half stars.

Review: The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir

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Review for "The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir" by Ariel Levy (2017)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Much-hyped memoir of Ariel Levy, a NYC-based nonfiction writer who, like most of us gals, has been inundated with the feminist mantra that she can have it all–a happy marriage, a career, a family, success. By her late thirties she’s married and accomplished most of what she wants career-wise, but remains childless. Then surprisingly, she finds herself pregnant at 38. However, on a trip to Mongolia in her second trimester, she loses her baby in a devastating miscarriage. Later on when she returns home, she loses her marriage as well.

The writing here is good but I admit that my review is tainted because I didn’t care too much for Ms. Levy. For the insightful feminist that she claims to be, she came off as superficial and just plain selfish in the last half of the book. She readily admits that she cheated during her marriage, yet she’s awfully cold and unforgiving toward her wife, who she discovers was lying to conceal her alcoholism. She also writes with disdain toward people with money, but reminds us several times that her ‘baby daddy’ (her words, btw) is a wealthy man who takes care of her. And Levy’s final meditation behind the whole “you can have it all” premise of the book? We don’t always get what we want, and we’re all going to die someday.

*slaps forehead*

Isn’t this something you learn as a child?

Levy is damn near 40 years old when she finally figures out that the Universe is no respecter of persons and she cannot die with all the toys that she wants. I am certainly sorry for the loss of her baby, but her sense of entitlement to a illusory world of privilege is one that I simply could not relate to.

I had not heard of the author before this book. Honestly, I don’t think I would be upset if I did not hear from her again after this. The story was all over the place and as I said before, the writing was good but there are better memoirs out there. Read at your own risk.

Review: Eat the Apple

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Review for "Eat the Apple" by Matt Young (to be published on 27 February 2018)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“It’s important to understand bullets don’t stop just because they hit something.”

Matt Young enlists in the Marines in the early 00’s and eventually lives through three deployments to Iraq. It’s a very dark war story with all of the typical ‘no atheists in foxholes’ kind of nihilism, but this is definitely not your typical memoir. There are medical diagnosis charts, screenplay scripts, second person narration, drawings, letters, and other formats that made this book darkly funny, and at times, extremely serious.

I don’t know, though. Even though I liked this memoir, the variety of formats presented weren’t enough to keep me from skimming through multiple sections that held little interest to me. Perhaps because I am not well-schooled in the ways of combat, deployment, the Marines, or any branch of the Armed Services, for that matter.

I give this book 3.5 stars for originality.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: A Beautiful, Terrible Thing

Behold! A negative review. I’m sorry.

For those who read me often, you’ll know that you don’t see bad reviews often on 29chapters. But yes…occasionally I do encounter a book that for whatever reason, did not offer me a pleasurable nor informative reading experience.

Perhaps you will read it and completely disagree. In the meantime…

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Review for "A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal" by Jen Waite (2017)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

After reading the description, I took the last word in the title, betrayal, and expected something mind-bending and completely unbelievable to compel me to read all 258 pages of this work. This book was neither of those things. Sure, Ms. Waite’s husband is guilty of being a cheating and lying jerk, but how is this different from thousands of other women and men whose lives are ruined by a partner’s infidelity? I also understand that she was deeply hurt by his actions (as I would be), but what is so remarkable here? Why is this a memoir? Who published this drivel?

Most of the first half of this book is made up of adolescent-ish, ‘dear diary’ prose, with “Before” and “After” scenes documenting the beginning, middle, and end of her marriage to Marco, an Argentinian bar tender, serial liar and cheater. Somewhere in all of this she discovers her husband is having an affair and we’re forced to watch as she goes back and forth with omg why omg why omg why this happened. We watch as she scours her husband and his mistress’ social media, phone records, an Uber account. It’s exhausting. It’s obsessive. It’s creepy. And after pages and pages of this, we also don’t care.

I also take issue with her use of ‘psychopathic’ to describe her husband’s behavior. Yes, he cheated on her and lied to her–but does this really make him a psychopath? What medical expertise does the author have to make such a diagnosis? Of course, we’ve all called at least one person we know ‘crazy,’ but the author spends a great deal of time in this book, with no medical expertise at all, utilizing Google searches, internet message boards, and a Wikipedia page to self-diagnose her husband’s mental condition and actions. Well alrighty then.

I don’t recommend this–no way, no how. Sorry.