Review: The Best We Could Do

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Review for "The Best We Could Do" by Thi Bui (2017)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

When I finished reading this on a Saturday morning at 3:20 am, I cried like a baby.

The Best We Could Do is a beautifully drawn graphic novel that completely hooked me from the first few pages. In it, the author Thi Bui begins her journey as a first time mother, seeking to understand the complex political and personal history of which she is a part. She talks to her parents, Vietnamese immigrants who came to America in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, as well as her brother and sisters to construct a story that’s engaging and unique.

This story is not linear, there are various dates and timelines before, during, after the Vietnam War jumping all over the place. It’s quite alright, the complicated nature of the story necessitates this format. The story of the author’s life begins in pre-war Vietnam, with the lives of her parents. They meet, marry, and have six children, two of which don’t survive infancy. They struggle through poverty, war, and conflict going on around them until they decide to escape by boat to a refugee camp in Malaysia. After several months they find themselves in America, living in the Midwest. The cold eventually forces them to California, where the author spends the rest of her childhood.

The story doesn’t end there, however. There are struggles with assimilation in a new country, of a family navigating the waters of what it really means to be ‘American.’ There is also the hauntings of the ghosts of the past, which Thi Bui attempts to rectify through this book.

With the current rhetoric going on right now around immigration and who or what is considered “legal,” I felt it was necessary to read this book. We hear about and see pictures of people coming to American soil by boat, by foot. Send them back home, they say. Children coming on their own, entire families crossing fences clearly marked “Keep Out.” Split them up and that’ll teach them. Yet they still come. They die coming here. Smart people will look past the fluff and the politics and attempt to understand their lives, the question of why they risk so much to come here in the first place. This book is a good place to start in explaining the complexities of human location and the desperation it can breed–and why legality is a small price to pay when your life is a living hell and your children won’t make it past their 12th birthdays. Deep questions with no answers. How can you go home when there’s literally nothing to go home to? This book will help you understand that.

For those that don’t like graphic novels, I would recommend that you give this book a try. It is so revelatory and timely that one would be surprised. Four and a half stars.

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Review: Sick: A Memoir

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Review for "Sick: A Memoir" by Porochista Khakpour (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book.

Porochista Khakpour gives us a very brave and honest memoir about her struggles with late-stage Lyme disease. The CDC estimates that 30,000 cases of Lyme disease occur every year, though the actual number is probably much higher. It is caused by bacteria spread through tick bites, and getting a diagnosis can a nightmare due to the generality of its symptoms (fever, rash, headache, shortness of breath). People who have been infected with Lyme disease can also be asymptomatic as well. Tests to determine infection can be very expensive (usually not covered under insurance) and are not definitive. If the disease is diagnosed early enough, antibiotics are given to kill the bacteria. For people in late-stage Lyme disease, however, there is no cure and antibiotics are not an option. They suffer the same painful symptoms over and over again, living their lives so as not to cause a recurrence.

Khakpour does not know when she was infected with Lyme disease and she speculates on this throughout the memoir. She recalls many times in her life when she has been in pain–emotional, physical, mental. She details interactions with doctors, who dismiss her symptoms and call it depression, a mental problem. She also talks a lot about bad boyfriends and unsupportive family members, both of which exacerbate her health issues.

At times the writing was beautiful, but at other times it felt rather guarded and elusive. Throughout the reading of this book I never felt as if the author was telling us everything, choosing instead to pick and choose what to write about. This sense was reflected in the timeline, which is presented not so much chronologically but as locations where she’s lived, with chapters are entitled “New York,” “Pennsylvania,” and so on. Unusual, but ok.

Which brings me to another point. Maybe I came into this one a bit biased. I’ve read other memoirs about people with illnesses and I’ve found them to be kind of off-putting as well. When you’re writing about being sick I’ve seen a tendency to come off as way too clinical (one that comes to mind is Susannah Calahan’s Brain on Fire) and on the other hand I’ve seen a tendency for the writer to talk about everything other than the illness. This book is more of the latter.

Three stars. Definitely recommend it though.

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: 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.