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.]

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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.

Review: Blood Barrios

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Review for "Blood Barrios: Dispatches from the World's Deadliest Streets" by Alberto Arce (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book will tell you about all the bad things that happen in Honduras. Within its pages are the author’s dispatches from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, where he writes about narco traffic, police and government corruption, kidnappings, murder, torture, rampant gang violence, and extortion. Murder cases are rarely closed, because they’re hardly ever opened. Murder of criminals and ordinary people alike occur with such regularity in Honduras as to be unremarkable, with the police merely collecting the bodies afterward while journalists like the author write or snap pictures. Fear keeps people immobilized. No one talks and no one investigates.

Although this book is interesting to read and I finished it rather quickly, I realized that its sensationalism was what kept me plowing through it at breakneck speed. While people in Central America live these realities day in and day out, Americans like myself merely rubber-neck at their tragedy and keep it moving. I feel guilty in admitting that, however, it is this kind of apathy that this book represents. The author loves to talk about violence in Honduras, yet there is very little in-depth analysis about how American meddling in the politics of this country over the last 40 years has directly and indirectly caused much of the misery there today. The prime example of this is the U.S.’s ill-advised policy of the deporting of MS-13 gang members from American soil, only for them to return home, reorient themselves, and grow even stronger and more violent, only this time in the absence of any kind of functioning law enforcement in Honduras.

So I don’t know…3 stars here, I think. Read this if you want something sensationalized, without a lot of heart for real investigative journalism.

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Podcasts

Another boring designated Top Ten Tuesday topic has ensued this week, so today I’ll talk about my favorite podcasts. Why podcasts? Because they’re interesting. There’s a myriad of great apps out there to search, save, and listen to them depending on whether you’re an iPhone or Android user. I use the Stitcher app and I get an updated stream of my favorite podcasts in my car, sitting at my desk at work, or at home over my Bluetooth speaker. I find podcasts to be a very powerful storytelling medium in the same intellectual space as the books I read.

Before reading this, please note that I tend to be partial to news-heavy content and true crime. So yes, here goes…

My Top Ten Favorite Podcasts

This American Life – Oldest, longest running, and pretty much the gold standard of podcasts, hosted by Ira Glass. A new episode comes out every Sunday, and they’re always chock full of just plain interesting stuff.

Reveal – Another highly engaging podcast that fuses high-quality investigative reporting with great content. A lot of great topics are covered here: immigration, racial discrimination, advances in technology, education, etc.

Monster – A must, especially if you’re into true crime shit like I am. This season is about the Zodiac killer, last season was about the Atlanta child murders. Killer synth music too.

Cults – A great podcasts all about, well, cults. Christian cults, occult cults, Satanic cults, Buddhist cults, cults that kill, secret cults…you get the picture. It’s great.

Ear Hustle – Very cool podcast that’s actually written, researched, produced, and hosted by inmates at San Quentin maximum security prison in California. Lots of criminal justice issues discussed here, along with the daily goings on of people behind bars. It’s not always depressing, it’s actually very informative and funny.

Crimetown – Another great anthology-style podcast all about crime and corruption in a particular American city. Last season, the featured city was Providence, Rhode Island, this season is Detroit, Michigan. Very detailed investigative reporting.

Serial – Another gold standard, with hype surrounding it that’s completely deserved. Each season is different, though I must say that this past season was probably the best. In this season, the host takes an in-depth look at the criminal justice system in Cleveland, Ohio.

Generation Why – Weekly podcast with two hosts (Aaron & Justin) that break down and discuss theories and details surrounding selected topics. Not just true crime, they take on murder cases, disappearances, conspiracies, supernatural stuff, controversies, and good, fun mysteries.

Lore – Another gold standard, bi-monthly podcast that breaks down mysteries, the supernatural, nightmares, and just plain dark stuff. I compare listening to Lore with the feeling you used to get with the book “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” with the creepy pictures back in grade school.

The Trail Went Cold – Very cool, DIY-ish produced podcast that discusses missing persons and cold cases. A lot of the topics the host covers were previously discussed on NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries, so there’s heavy nostalgic value here, especially if you were a fan of that show. The host is Canadian (I think), so hearing him say words like “house” (sounds to my American ear like “host”) is funny. Anyway, I love this show…

That’s it for now, though there’s a bunch more. Maybe I’ll do another favorite podcasts, part 2 soon. Until then…

xoxo, K