Review: Heart Berries


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: The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips


Review for "The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York's Bloods and Crips" by Kevin Deutsch (2014)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Good Lord this book sucks…where do I start?

“The Triangle” is a reporter’s ‘first hand’ account of a year in the lives of Crips and Bloods gang members in the community of Hempstead, Long Island, NY. Both gangs, long associated with the urban center of NYC, have now moved out into the suburbs. Priced out of their former boroughs through gentrification, the suburbs of Long Island and its surrounding towns are now the setting of murders and gang warfare, as well as open air drug markets run by both gangs.

Much of this book takes place during a gang war between the two sets. It’s not a pretty picture. There are accounts of beatings, rapes, and murders on both sides, reported with the same mind-numbing, casual tone as one would describe a routine activity such as making a sandwich. The Crips strike the Bloods by gunning down one of their high ranking members, Bloods then retaliate by kidnapping and raping a Crip female associate. The circle repeats itself over and over as each gang goes back and forth, back and forth. By page 75, I was completely annoyed with this.

Which brings me to the major problem here: the tone of this book. There’s nothing here. For narrative-style nonfiction to be effective, there has to be emotion conveyed, somehow. Yeah it’s a true story, but it’s still a story–the people in it have to live outside the page. Otherwise, reading about them is just boring, pointless facts. This book is just boring pointless facts.There’s no emotional investment in this story by the author or by me in reading it. Here, the main players sling drugs, smoke weed, terrorize their community, then die in a hail of bullets. An awful lot. At no point did I feel any emotion over this, just irritated at the voyeuristic nature of the violence.

Another problem: much of the action of this book takes place through dialogue. In a note at the end, the author mentions that only about 40-50% of the events were witnessed by him first hand. This means that the majority of this book’s events were constructed or inferred by the author, or solely based on the verbal accounts of the subjects (even the author admits that gang members have a tendency to lie or embellish details to bolster their reputation on the street). How much, then, of this story is really true? A quick Google search of the author’s name turns up several accusations of suspicious journalism practices for work he did on a later book. For all we know, this book could be mostly fiction too, passed off as nonfiction with the use of fake/nonexistent sources.

I don’t recommend this book at all. If you really want in-depth, emotionally gripping stories of gang related violence and the urban drug culture beyond just play-by-play tales of violence, I would check out the work of David Simon. He’s written “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” “The Corner,” and, of course HBO’s show “The Wire.” Much better writing too. Check those out. Not this.

Review: The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story


Review for "The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story" by Douglas Preston (2017)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

If you like pulpy, Indiana Jones-ish kind of stories, then this book will probably appeal to you.

“The Lost City of the Monkey God” is about a 2015 expedition of researchers to the Mosquitia region of the Honduran rainforest, a remote, inhospitable jungle landscape where the legendary La Cuidad Blanca (or “White City”) was known to exist. The author participated first hand in the expedition, writing and documenting the story of the team.

The first third of the book is all about previous expeditions to the area and why the White City has remained undiscovered for so long. This section is not very interesting and reads like a textbook. I can understand why it’s included here, but I skimmed through most of this. It gets more interesting in the middle portion, which is about the expedition itself, including finding the White City and the team’s handling of the numerous dangers of the region (poisonous snakes, mosquitoes, dangerous drug cartels, etc). The last section of the book is about leishmaniasis, a face-eating parasitic disease that Preston and several of the members of the team contracted while in the jungle. It’s really gross, but I guess it makes great fodder for those who believe that curses follow ancient things and the people who disturb them. Oooh.

Since this expedition has been made public, there’s been extensive debate among scientists and archaeologists over whether or not the discovery made by this team is actually the legendary White City or not. First, the very existence of a “White City” is a myth–and one that’s been debunked by scientists. Second, there are many locations already marked on maps of the region as having archaeological ruins. How do we know that this is one is the fabled White City? Third, there were no actual archaeologists on the team making this ‘discovery,’ though it is mentioned that they “worked with” them. Well ok. Fourth, most of the team’s claims of finding the White City go back to images they discovered on LiDAR (a remote sensor that surveys the land with lasers). While no one is debating that there is indeed Something in the area resembling ancient architecture–is this Something really a new discovery? Is it really the legendary “White City”? For all we know, this could be a known (and previously) excavated site.

Preston does address some of these arguments here, but I don’t think his critique goes deep enough. He makes it plain that this is his story and he’s sticking to it. Given the shouts of foul from the scientific community, however, you have to ask what this book’s real knowledge contribution is. Even after reading this, I’m not sure. Whatever it’s trying to tell me, I’m not convinced either.

There’s some really cool venom-spitting snake stories in here though. Three stars.

Review: When They Call You a Terrorist

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

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

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

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.]