Review: The Man They Wanted Me to Be

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Review for "The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and Forging Another Way for Men" by Jared Yates Sexton (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This book should be essential reading for all men, especially in today’s times.

In “The Man They Wanted Me to Be,” Jared Yates Sexton writes about his and his family’s experiences throughout a lifetime legacy of toxic masculinity. Much of the first section focuses on the personal experience of the author and the negative consequences of sexism and violence, which he witnessed through his abusive father. Jared, a sensitive child raised by a single mother in rural Indiana, eventually develops a tough emotional shell and becomes suicidal after years of abuse and bad role models due to his mother’s choices of men. He discusses the way in which the ‘ideal’ masculinity is essentially unattainable and not a real way of living but a lie. He also discusses the socialization of boys–the way in which parents and society train boys not to cry, to repress emotion, to hate all things ‘feminine’ and to express themselves through physicality and violence. The second section is about Jared’s relationship with his father and how they eventually reconcile after years of estrangement.

The third and the last section concerns itself with the ways in which toxic masculinity has given rise of the alt-right and the election of the current president. It is focused squarely on White men, who, let’s face it, need to do better. He discusses the toxic culture in this group that wraps itself in privilege and white supremacist ideas, in addition to sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic views against ‘them’ (namely minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals, and immigrants).

The only thing I wished this book would have touched on more is how sexism traps men of color as well as queer men. However, I realize that that discussion is a completely different animal. Although we’re still talking about bad masculinity, we know that there’s history, race, class, and other socioeconomic factors that change the flavor of the topic. I would like to read Sexton’s opinions on other aspects of this conversation, however.

Definitely do pick up this book. While I would not describe anything in here as particularly new or shocking, it is necessary reading to begin to undo much of the damage due to toxic masculinity.

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Review: We Speak for Ourselves

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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Review for "We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America" by D. Watkins (2019)

As with “The Cook Up” and “The Beast Side,” D. Watkins continues to share his account of growing up in an impoverished Black community in East Baltimore. The message behind his book is simple: in today’s age, poor Black people do not want or need to spoken for by White liberals or Black middle and upper class intellectuals. Watkins occupies a unique position in that he can easily maneuver among top thought leaders on CNN and the academic crowd, yet he’s hood at the core, never quite too far gone from the steps of his East Baltimore rowhouse. He writes about his days as a drug dealer with the same familiarity as the school to prison pipeline.

Here, he breaks down a lot of things that he wishes the world knew about Black culture: why poor people will always hate the cops, the reasons why education in urban areas will never be equal to the suburbs, etc. I gave this three stars because although it’s good writing and the message is clear for the audience he’s intending to reach, I found this book a bit too plain for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the intended audience–I’m pretty well versed in the issues he’s speaking of. Still, I don’t want to rate this too low because I like this book as well as the purpose behind it. I follow D. Watkins on social media and I’ll always support his efforts.

Review: Survival Math

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Review for "Survival Math" by Mitchell Jackson (2019)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a hard one to review. “Survival Math” is not a traditional linear memoir. It’s mostly autobiographical essays woven together on a variety of topics–love, relationships, racism, family, drugs, the criminal justice system–surrounding the author and the men in his life (father, cousins, and uncles) in and around Portland, Oregon. Mitchell Jackson’s mother is also a prominent figure throughout, but she’s mostly discussed as it relates to the men in her life. The book also includes “Survivor Files,” short, second person vignettes from the lives of men in his family.

I added this book with all the fervor that it was supposed to actually be good. Still, I’m conflicted on this. There’s a lengthy section in the middle when the author talks all about his life as a serial cheater, man-whore, and general asshole to women. He discusses his cruelties in a very detailed manner, in the same way one would describe the subtleties of criminal behavior or the forensics of a crime scene. I appreciated the unique approach, but I felt like he was hiding behind this voice rather than honestly confronting his past. And then there was the ‘why’ of all of this, especially when only a small part of this section dealt with any kinda contrition for his past wrongs. Was this a rationalization of that behavior or a catharsis? Even after reading all of it I’m still unsure. The finer points of his injuries to others laid bare, but never really heart felt. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a very smug humble brag going on.

There’s also quite a long section about 75% of the way in where Jackson writes about the many ‘pimps’ in his family and their experiences on the streets. I skipped this section. Pardon me for saying so, but I resolved a long time ago to never read a male’s perspective of women’s sex work. When it comes to “the game” (as they put it), men are almost always the power brokers and exploiters, no matter how you slice it. There’s also nothing glorious about physically and emotionally abusing women and taking their income, unless of course all the posturing is just another form of a humble brag, which I’ve already told you about.

It took me almost three months to read this. It’s an ok book, but overall I just don’t think it’s my cup of tea.

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

Review: The White Book

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Review for "The White Book" by Han Kang (2019)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ok, so this one’s been on my TBR list for a while. This is a short review because it’s not much meat on this one. It’s a minimalist manifesto dedicated to all things…well, white. Duh.

In this book, author Han Kang makes of a list of things that are white (fog, snow, smoke, etc) and writes short, meditative-style vignettes about each of them. It’s a concept kinda book with a minimalist style with writing that’s definitely good but I couldn’t help but feel as if I was ‘missing’ something that wasn’t there, perhaps something between the lines.

Maybe one has to be in the right kind of mood “get” this book or something. Either way, this volume wasn’t for me. I won’t stop reading Han Kang though.

Read this if you’re into experimental writing.

Review: An American Summer

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Review for "An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago" by Alex Kotlowitz (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you’re an educator, particularly of urban youth, then Alex Kotlowitz is your man. I was first introduced to this writer completely by chance, picking up his famous book “There Are No Children Here” at a used book store about 6 years ago. Granted I read it 30 years after its release, but it still had a profound effect on me. Unlike other books on the subject of urban life that create a ‘poverty porn’ atmosphere (you know, exploiting poor people’s condition for notoriety or increased book sales), Kotlowitz seemed to be deeply invested in the lives and futures of his subjects, giving them humanity.

In “American Summer,” Kotlowitz returns to Chicago, where we all catch glimpses of the headlines year after year about the dangerous gangs, crime, and rampant gun violence that plague this city. He chronicles an entire summer spent there in 2013 talking to men, women, and children touched by violence. Each chapter introduces us to a person who has either lost a family member to violence, committed violent acts themselves and are coming to terms with it, or witnessed the effects of violence first hand. Some people have several chapters in the book dedicated to their story, which are ongoing and run through the entire narrative.

I love this book because Kotlowitz does not pander to critics or make excuses for bad behavior. True, much of the violence is related to gangs and the young people in them, but what about the scores of those killed who aren’t? The point that remains is that people are still people, and that gang participation is often a response to external forces (racism, poverty, segregation, poor educational outlooks) that were in play long before this particular epidemic of violence even started. There is also widespread distrust of police due to years of misconduct and overpolicing and a “no snitching” street culture that holds violence firmly into place.

I also love the way Kotlowitz begins his book by stating that it does not pretend to know the answer to why gun violence in so widespread here. What it does do, however, is humanize people from both sides of the headlines and start a conversation toward healing.

I don’t give five stars lightly, and I can’t recommend this book enough.

Most Wanted Reads for Spring

Since I missed yesterday’s Top Ten Tuesday, I’m just going to post 10 of my most anticipated reads for this coming spring, in no particular order. Enjoy!

Fiction

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams (March 19)

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The Other Americans – Laila Lalami (March 26)

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A Woman is No Man – Etaf Rum (March 5)

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Lot – Bryan Washington (March 19)

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The Dreamers – Karen Thompson Walker (January 15)

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Nonfiction

Shout – Laurie Halse Anderson (March 12)

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The White Book – Han Kang (February 19, US Edition)

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What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker – Damon Young (March 26)

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Young Adult/YA

Internment – Samira Ahmed (March 19)

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With the Fire on High – Elizabeth Acevedo (May 7)

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Review: A Few Red Drops

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Review for "A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919" by Claire Hartfield (2018)
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I’ve been meaning to read more YA nonfiction, hence my interest in this book.

Overall, I’m disappointed in this book. First, the storytelling here is a jumbled mess. Although I understand that the 1919 Chicago race riot involved many factors (the Great Migration of blacks from the south to northern cities, racism and segregation in those northern cities, immigration to the U.S. by Irish and eastern Europeans, tensions in labor unions, etc) the author does not seem to take her audience’s interest into account here. The riot is briefly touched on in the beginning, and the next 10-15 chapters are dedicated to the aforementioned subject matter (labor unions, the Chicago meatpacking industry, the Great Migration, etc). She doesn’t really explain how or why these chapters are critical to understanding the riot and the topics seem to jump here and there and all over the place. I can imagine that a typical middle grade reader will lose interest in this book quickly, particularly because the connection between subjects is not made apparent in the beginning.

Second, the quotes used here are not thoughtful or insightful to the text. There are quotes by writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson (a New England transcendentalist) and Carl Sandburg, but only one by Langston Hughes. Excuse me….but where is the W.E.B. Dubois? Or even Ida B. Wells-Barnett? If we are talking about a riot that left a disproportionate number of Black people among the dead, wouldn’t one want to include the words of the leading Black scholars of the day? It is interesting that the author spends much time discussing Wells-Barnett and her role as a journalist within the Black community of Chicago, yet doesn’t include one quote from her in the whole text. Did she even read her at all? Anybody vaguely familiar with history knows that Ida B. Wells Barnett wrote MUCH about the Chicago race riot. Why are none of her specific quotes here?

The writing isn’t very engaging either. Much of the last 40% of the book is sources, which is fine if its nonfiction, but there wasn’t much in the first 60% of the book that was particularly memorable.

Two stars. Zzzzz.