Review: The Other Wes Moore

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Review for "The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates" by Wes Moore (2010)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Ack…I DNF’d this one.

The idea behind this book is indeed noteworthy, as we’ve all wondered at some time or another about the life of another individual who, by some stroke of fate, happens to have the same name as we do. In this book, the author does just that as he discovers another man with his same name and similar age, also raised in the city of Baltimore. He begins a prison correspondence with the “other” Wes Moore and sets out to explore where their paths in life diverged. The author is a former White House Fellow, a writer, and an Army veteran. The “other” Wes Moore is serving time in prison, has fathered several children, is a convicted drug felon, and had an attempted murder conviction all before the age of 18.

The premise of this book is flawed, however. Moore points to the commonality of absentee fathers and poverty between the two of them, but this is simply not true. While both Moores grew up fatherless, the author’s father died, he was not abandoned. Secondly, Moore’s mother, even though a widow, had a strong support system. The author half-heartedly acknowledges this, as well as his privilege of attending a private school during his formative years to steer him away from bad behavior and negative influences. Also, while the negative behavior that author Wes Moore speaks of (tagging buildings with graffiti, etc) is akin to a middle class teenager’s ideas of rebellion, the “other” Wes Moore’s descent into drug dealing and criminal behavior is not rebelliousness but a necessity, a way of gaining power in a single parent household as the ‘man of the house.’ Even though the “other” Wes Moore’s choice to delve into criminality was his own doing, the lack of a support system and the presence of poverty in his life cannot be understated.

I stopped reading this book about 2/3 of the way through, once the faulty premise became apparent. Perhaps I’ll pick this up in the future, but for right now, I’m good.

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Review: Girl Trouble

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Review for "Girl Trouble: An Illustrated Memoir" by Kerry Cohen (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I read Kerry Cohen’s memoir “Loose Girl” a few years ago, so I decided to see what this book was about. This is a memoir that chronicles the author’s very complex relationships with women, beginning with her older sister and continuing throughout her childhood to the present day. Each relationship is presented vignette-style, with illustrations of several of the characters included within. Some of the relationships Cohen discusses are friendships, others describe a contentious situation (i.e., the author being bullied by another girl), some girls are passing acquaintances.

I certainly understand Cohen’s reason for writing this book. It seems that she wanted to not just talk about girl relationships but to examine the many, many ways in which women can be cruel to one another. There are problems with this, however. One of the main ones here I noticed was that the author seems quick to discuss the many times in which she has been victimized by girls and women, yet minimizes her own actions in some situations in which she was equally cruel. Case in point: a period during the author’s college years in which she admits that she slept with a friend’s boyfriend. She tells us that the boyfriend was not really her friend’s boyfriend, just some guy she was seeing at the time. Either way, when the cheating was discovered, her friend stopped speaking to her. The author meets up with the friend years later after she writes about it in “Loose Girl” and tries to explain herself, yet her tone is not one of contrition (after all, she did go and write a book about it) but one of slight indignation, as if the friend just should have ‘gotten over it’ already. 

There’s other layers here of meaning I could talk about here, but it’s repetitive. After a while each “friend” and each “boy” all sounded the same and reading this became tiresome. And the illustrations, while good, didn’t really add anything to the book. Picture here, more words. Picture there, more words. Blah.

Even though I get the point, I can’t help but to feel that this is essentially the same book as “Loose Girl,” only with a slightly different focus. Many of the same incidents from that book are retold here.

No mas. Two stars.

Review: The Terrible

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Review for "The Terrible" by Yrsa Daley Ward (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a very unique memoir. It is written in prose, but large parts of it are written in verse. There’s no pattern to what the next page is going to be (a poem or prose), but that was perfectly OK. I was too wrapped up in the author’s words. Needless to say, I loved this book.

Yrsa Daley-Ward, author of bone, tells a very honest story about her life. Her and her younger brother grow up in a very strict, very religious Seven-Day Adventist household with her mother’s parents. With her father absent, her and her brother go to live with their mother later in her childhood. The relationship between her and her mother is dysfunctional as well. Eventually Ward drifts into a life of drugs, drinking, depression, and sex work. There is a lot of pain invoked in this novel, along with an exploration on inter-generational conflicts, pain not healed that is passed from parent to children.

I won’t tell you too much more about this book because I don’t want to spoil it. It is definitely worth your time to read it. Four stars.

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.

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.

Top Ten Tuesday: Kick Ass Graphic Novels

Another strange Top Ten Tuesday topic is official today, it’s “Series I’ve Given Up On.” I don’t read serial fiction much anymore, so this topic isn’t for me. There was a time, though, as a young grasshopper when I was obsessed with Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, and The Babysitter’s Club, but we won’t talk about that, will we?

I’ve decided to explore some graphic novels today. Whether you call it a graphic novel or a comic book, I find the medium to be highly underrated. There is always a visual element to storytelling, and some authors/illustrators are doing it quite well. The following graphic novels I’ve either read or have been on my radar for a while:

Top Eleven Kick-Ass Graphic Novels

  1. Maus, Art Speigelman. Maus is probably one of the best graphic novels ever produced, nearly 25 years after its first publication. It’s the story of the author’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust, told through very brilliantly drawn cartoons. Even though the Jews are represented as mice (the Nazis are cats), you still cannot help but to be deeply moved by it. When I was a classroom teacher I used to read this with my 7th graders and they loved this book.
  2. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi. Another classic graphic novel all about a very precocious girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970’s and 1980’s. She’s feisty and definitely not your typical “little” girl narrator.
  3. Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman and David Polonsky. A story of a soldier’s repressed memories during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The soldier follows up with various people who were in the conflict, trying to fill in the holes in his memory. The story is never completely there, but this is still a fascinating book.
  4. Deogratias, Jean Phillippe Stassen. A graphic novel about the Rwandan genocide. I didn’t like this book so much, there’s a lot of switching back and forth through time and I found the narration too confusing to follow. I do, however, recommend that you read it if you’re into graphic novels and form your own opinion on it.
  5. Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloeckner. I wrote a review for this book and you’ll find it here. Fashioned as a diary, this is a graphic novel about a 15-year-old girl growing up in the 70’s who begins having really creepy sex with her mom’s 30-something-year-old boyfriend. This relationship is not presented as grooming or pedophilia, but one in which the main character actively and happily takes part in. It’s disturbing, but it’s a book that provokes a level of thought that I didn’t think was possible.
  6. Rent Girl, Michelle Tea. Kinda funny but not-so-funny graphic novel about a lesbian’s adventures as a sex worker for mostly male clients. Totally raw and terrifying.
  7. Zahra’s Paradise, Amir. This one I haven’t read yet, though it’s on my radar. It’s about a protester’s death during fraudulent elections in Iran in 2009. The death was captured on social media, and this book is a fictionalization of this story.
  8. Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, G.Neri. I also wrote a review for this book and you’ll find it here. Graphic novel that revisits the true story of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, an 11-year-old child who died in Chicago in 1994. A member of a gang, he racked up 23 felonies and 5 misdemeanors before carrying out a violent hit, which mistakenly ended the life of a 14-year-old girl. Several days later, Robert was murdered by members of his own gang who feared he was an informant. It’s a meditation on inner city gangs and violence without sounding preachy. Gorgeous drawings too.
  9. Nat Turner, Kyle Baker. This one’s on my radar. It’s all about the 1831 Virginia rebellion led by Nat Turner, a slave who, upon hearing a voice from heaven that instructed him to do violence, rose up with a group and killed 55 slave holders before being captured and hanged. Even though don’t like the fact that it takes much of its info from William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner (a bogus, historically inaccurate account), this one’s still worth a read.
  10. The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui. This one’s on my radar and currently in my possession. With all the news lately on refugees and immigration, I think it is completely fitting to read this graphic novel about a family’s escape from the war in Vietnam and their subsequent life in America. I’ll have the review when I finish it.
  11. That’s right. I have 11. Anyway, the last book is Black Hole by Charles Burns. I currently have possession of this book and will be reading it over the next few weeks. It’s all about those awkward years you spend as a teenager. It’s good and thick and a really dark read, but I’m liking it so far.

Ok, that’s it. Read more graphic novels, ya’ll. 

xoxo, Kellan

Review: Stamped from the Beginning

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Review for "Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America" by Ibram X. Kendi (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is all about racism, specifically, how racist ideas about people of African descent led to the institution of slavery and became a unique history, woven into the fabric of American life.

This book is nearly 600 pages. I listened to it on audio. Unless you have time to really go through it and make notes and annotations, I recommend that you keep this on audio. I will probably go back through and read this when I have more time, just because of how excessively detailed the information is. That’s a good thing, though.

Anyway, Dr. Kendi makes his argument fairly plain–that racism is more than simple “ignorance.” If racism were as simple as people behaving “ignorantly,” Kendi asserts, it would not have persisted for thousands of years, nor would it be the institutional scourge that continues today. Racism is actually a very complex system of ideas, drawn from a number of highly complex sources. Kendi uses five guides into his argument who we’ve all probably heard about in our American history classes in school–Puritan minister Cotton Mather, founding father Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, author W.E.B. Dubois, and the Black feminist radical, Angela Davis. He separates these figures into three camps to trace the development of anti-Black, racist ideas: segregationists, people who believe that Black people are to blame for their own inferiority, assimilationists, people who believe that both Blacks and racial discrimination have equal part in beliefs surrounding Black inferiority, and anti-racists, people who reject both of these ideas. Kendi spends a great deal of time with each one of these arguments, and all five of these historical figures who play some part in either building or dismantling racist ideology.

All in all, I found Stamped from the Beginning to be a very complex and nuanced book. It’s also exhaustively researched. Even though I knew that Cotton Mather and Thomas Jefferson were not all that my high school history teacher were telling me they were, this book breaks down their racist ideas in a way that I’ve never quite seen before. This is a book that begs to be read by all people, especially in today’s times. I will definitely also say that I have learned much from this book, I highly recommend it.