This book is a collection of short stories set in Houston, Texas. About half of them are from the perspective of one character, a queer Black man who remains unnamed until the end of the book. The others are from various other perspectives, mostly men of color in and around Houston, dealing with sexuality, racism, family dynamics, and gentrification. There’s also a lot of meditation on toxic masculinity and finding one’s voice as a queer man of color.
Sadly, I did not connect with this book. It took me about two months to get through it, considering that each time I picked it up I didn’t really find the stories very memorable. This is not to speak ill of the writing, which is actually pretty good and reminded me a lot of Junot Diaz’ early work (not “Oscar Wao” but his first work, “Drown”). What killed it for me was that a lot of the stories had abrupt endings. You know what I mean: you’re reading along and building up into a solid narrative and then a paragraph appears and the story ends in a few lines. I get that that’s a stylistic choice, but it’s annoying as hell and doesn’t allow much for good storytelling. Also a problem was the ‘distance’ between the characters, a kinda ‘dead’ space in between what’s explicitly told and what’s abstract that never really allows you to connect with the people here, even if you wanted to.
This is the author’s first book, so I won’t harp on its flaws too much. Bryan Washington definitely has potential, and I look forward to his full-length novel that will be coming out this fall.
Review for "Everywhere You Don't Belong" by Gabriel Bump (2020)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
I should have loved this book, but for me it was just ok.
“Everywhere You Don’t Belong” is the story of Claude McKay Love, a Black boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago. After being abandoned parents at a young age, he is raised by his grandmother, a former Civil Rights activist, and her queer friend Paul. As people come and go throughout Claude’s life, his awkwardness is the clear focal point of all of his interactions. After a violent riot in his neighborhood, Claude takes up journalism, using the opportunity to escape Chicago and go to college in Missouri. When a family friend turn up at his college dorm, he finds that escaping his past is not so easily done.
This book is told in short vignettes rather than a traditional narrative. There’s an irreverent quality to this book that I appreciated, with some great imagery and memorable dialogue that’s (at times) quite hilarious. Unfortunately, this is a book that doesn’t have much to offer as far as a plot. The characters are compelling but not well rounded, and there’s a repetitiveness here that don’t hold up well to the short, story-by-story structure that it’s told in.
I gave this three stars. I would be interested in reading further books by Gabriel Bump, his voice definitely distinct and original.
Review for "Stateway's Garden: Stories" by Jasmon Drain (2020)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
This is a collection of interconnected short stories about life inside of one of Chicago’s now-demolished South Side housing projects, Stateway Gardens. Mostly set in the 1980’s, the stories follow a set of brothers, Tracy and Jacob, and their relatives as they navigate poverty, racism, drugs, and violence of their home.
Neither Tracy or Jacob’s father is around, which leaves their mother as their primary caregiver. She works long hours and rarely has time for either of her sons. Most of the stories are narrated by the younger Tracy, such as “BB Sauce,” “Middle School,” and “Stateway Condo Gentrification.” He grows up to be a highly inquistive young man amidst the ugliness around him and the eventual demise of the projects. Tracy, his older brother, chooses a slightly different path, becoming a teenage father and drug dealer. He narrates “Stephanie Worthington” and the very last story.
For me, these stories were hard to get into. The first few stories are choppy and aren’t very compelling, there’s wasn’t much to draw me into them or their characters. The same continues through much of the middle of the book, and although most of the action seems to take place toward the end, it was anti-climatic and showed very little sense of cohesion throughout. Ultimately I had to really push myself to finish this, which is a shame, given the passion and the beauty behind its subject matter.
Review for "Everything Inside" by Edwidge Danticat (2019)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I’ve said this and I’ll say it again: short story collections are usually hit or miss for me. Although I love the genre, I always end up liking some, none, or most of the stories therein. This collection is an exception to the “some, none, and most” rule, as every single story here is a literary achievement.
I’ve read just about everything Edwidge Danticat has written, from “Krik? Krak!” to “The Dew Breaker” to “Breathe, Eyes, Memory” and everything in between. “Everything Inside”is a wonderful collection of eight short stories, all featuring characters from the Haitian diaspora living in Miami. Her characters deal with death, love, and loss and their lives are complicated. Each story is well written and thought out, with beautiful language that leaps off the page.
Favorites here include “Dosas,” a story of romantic entanglement and betrayal featuring a husband, wife, and a female lover; “In the Old Days,” about a woman who meets her dying father for the first time, and “Without Inspection,” a harrowing tale that narrates a Haitian emigre’s final thoughts as he falls 40 stories from a building to his death.
Review for "Friday Black" by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Friday Black” is a unique short story collection with stories that range from sci-fi, dystopian, horror, and a couple of other genres that don’t really get talked about much because not enough people write in them yet. Adjei-Brenyah’s writing brims with creativity and satire, it takes raw imagination to even conceive of stories like this.
Each of the stories are set in plain, everyday environments–however, Adjei-Brenyah takes this and twists this and his characters into something else entirely. Comparisons to the anthology sci-fi series “Black Mirror” are accurate and appropriate here. In the collection’s best story, “The Finkelstein 5,” a young Black man named Emmanuel prepares for a job interview against the backdrop of a controversial court verdict in which a White man has been found not guilty of using a chainsaw to decapitate five Black children outside of a library. The verdict sparks protests by ‘Namers,’ Black people who commit violent acts against Whites in revenge for the killings. Emmanuel’s response to his friend’s participation in the Namers is a decision that will ultimately change the course of his life.
Another standout story, “Zimmer Land” (a clever play on the name of George Zimmerman, the murderer of young Trayvon Martin) features a theme park where participants can role play scenarios in which they are attacked and kill a Black perpetrator. “Lark Street” is about a man haunted by the aborted fetuses of his girlfriend. A trio of stories–“Friday Black,” “In Retail,” and “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing” are set within a mall and take place around the daily monotony of retail work. Stampedes at the mall during Black Friday regularly occur and kill large numbers of people, yet the business of buying and selling goes on unabated.
I gave this collection 4 stars because all of the stories aren’t perfect, and the sheer grandiosity of most of them seemed better suited for a novel. I would love to see “The Finkelstein 5” expanded into a novel, it’s just that great. Not a bad problem to have though. I definitely look forward to reading more from this writer.
Review for "How to Love a Jamaican" by Alexia Arthurs (2018)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“How to Love a Jamaican” is an engaging collection of eleven short stories from debut author Alexia Arthurs. These are not your “typical” immigrant stories, however. Arthurs is not afraid to delve deeply into the lives of her characters and discuss complex issues of sex, class, and race both in Jamaica and within the lives of Jamaicans living in America.
All of these stories are about Jamaicans and cover a wide variety of their lives–male and female, straight and gay, old, young, and middle aged, on the island and in America. The characters are not linked, but this is definitely a cohesive collection of stories. In “Mash Up Love,” a set of identical male twins vie for the attention of their mother and loved ones. “The Ghost of Jia Yi” is about a young college student’s adjustment to America and her realization that she is an outsider. “Light Skinned Girls and Some Kelly Rowlands” is about the class conflicts within a friendship between two college girls, one Jamaican born, the other U.S. born with Jamaican born parents. “Bad Behavior” is about a free-spirited teenage girl sent to the island for disobeying her parents, with the hope that her stern Jamaican grandmother will ‘straighten’ out her wayward behavior. I also liked “Shirley from a Small Place,” about a Jamaican American pop star who finds international success and deals with the pitfalls of fame.
It’s hard to choose a favorite story here, I really liked every single selection. Even though the stories share similar themes, there were no repeats and not a single word was wasted.
4.5 stars. I will definitely read the next thing that Alexia Arthurs writes.
[NOTE: An electronic copy of this book was provided by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]
Review for "A Lucky Man" by Jamel Brinkley (2018)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This is one of the most profound short story collections I’ve read over the past few years. I say that with no hesitation, because let’s face it–most short story offerings these days ain’t that good, unevenly written at best. Very rarely are ALL of the stories in a collection readable and relatable pieces of literature. “A Lucky Man” is one of the few exceptions.
In this volume are nine stories, all featuring Black men and boys in the Bronx who are dealing with life and its societal pressures. There is a focus on masculinity here, specifically Black masculinity–how Black men view the women in their lives, their families, and how they justify their behavior toward them. There are definitely depictions of unhealthy relationships here, but it’s not just sexism on display. The nuances of what it means to be a Black man are explored here in a variety of different settings: in some cases, the choice to reject traditional “male” behavior has disastrous consequences, but in others, the character finds peace.
The powerful story “J’ouvert 1996” was my favorite in this collection, which tells the story of a young boy’s coming of age during an all-night street festival. “Everything the Mouth Eats” is the tale of two brothers’ healing of the past during a capoeira festival. “A Family” is about one man’s quest to come to terms with his actions, many years after a terrible act. “A Lucky Man” is an interesting exploration of public spaces and male desire.
Overall, this is a beautiful collection of tales. It is hard to believe that this is Jamel Brinkley’s first book, he writes with a talent that is rare and unique. I look forward to any future writing projects he has. Definitely recommend!
Ok, ok…before I begin Top Ten Tuesday, the weekly meme by That Artsy Reader Girl, I have to confess to you guys that I’m a bit biased, as my choices for favorite short stories are a bit old-fashioned. Even though I read short stories and novellas all the time, I just don’t think anything comes really close to classics. Also keep in mind that I used to be a middle school teacher, so naturally a lot of classic stories pop up in kid’s textbooks. When you’ve read something umpteen times over the years, you can quote it with your eyes closed. Naturally you grow to like it too.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson – A small town’s terrifying ritual gone amok. I used to teach this story to my 7th grade students and pass out a small slip of folded paper with an ‘X’ on it to illustrate the plot.
“Patriotism” by Yukio Mishima – Japanese writer’s story about a man and his wife committing seppuku (ritual suicide) in response to a military defeat. Strangely beautiful and mad deep.
“The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe – Another story I used to teach to my students. They used to love this!
“Wild Child” by T.C. Boyle – Historical fiction account of Victor of Aveyron, the first documented “feral” child, in 1800’s France.
“1922” by Stephen King – Greed and betrayal and rats. The Netflix movie was pretty close to the novella, thankfully.
“Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes – A little boy gets more he bargained for when he tries to snatch a woman’s purse.
“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant – Another one in my 7th grade curriculum about fakery and the power of an authentic life. There’s a twist at the end that always gets me, every time.
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Magical realism to tell a satirical tale about ignorance vs. power of freedom, or flight.
“The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin – Story about a woman who loses her husband, then gains him back, and then dies–all within an hour. Powerful feminist message here too.
“All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury – Science fiction story about a class of students on Venus, where it rains constantly and the sun comes out for only one hour every seven years. My 6th graders used to like this one–lots.
Review for "Heads of the Colored People" by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Short story collections are always hit or miss. You end up either liking some or none of the stories at all. The stories are either too long or too short, the plots are too much of the same or too loosely put together with little overall theme. “Heads of the Colored People” was an exception, I liked every last story in this volume.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires hits the ball out of the park with this one. All of these stories are of Black people living on the fringe of what’s considered “normal” behavior. In this volume, there are Black men who cosplay, Black women who do AMSR (yes–even I had to look it up), Black men and women with anxiety issues, Black women at war with their bodies, Black men professors who passively aggressively war with coworkers, Black millenials obsessed with social media attention. Some of the stories were connected, with several selections detailing the ongoing saga between two Black girl frenemies, Fatima and Christinia. Some of the stories were funny, some of them were quite cringe-inducing, but it was alright because it’s clear that they were meant to be that way. Clearly, Thompson is a writer who is not afraid to write with honesty and just go there.
In the end, I believe this book is effective because it achieves exactly what the title suggests. The author gets deep into what’s in the “heads” of Black people, which, we find out, are a multitude of pressures–the pressure of being the only Black person in their environments, the pressure of being a representation of what non-Black people think of when they conceptualize typical Black “behavior,” the pressure of being Black in American society. Questions like: how does one cope with being angry–without being perceived as the stereotypical “angry” Black man/woman? characterize this book, and I’ll be thinking about the answers for a long time after I read it.
I loved reading this from start to finish. I will definitely watch for future efforts by this writer.
Review for "This is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz (2012)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
I downloaded and read this back in 2012 when it first came out, due to my overwhelming support and respect for Junot Diaz as a writer at that time. I gave it 5 stars because I thought that the writing was fresh and engaging, but the sexism of the male characters bothered me immensely. Man, I thought at the time, he really hates women. I even remember hitting up Google to see if Diaz was married or had a girlfriend, because I could not imagine the jerk he probably was at home. I didn’t speak on it further though. I did not write a review either. I just moved on.
After allegations of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse came out about Junot Diaz last week, I decided to take another look at this book. I read it in a few days and I have to say that I am even more troubled by the male characters’ sexism than I was the first time I read it. On a scale of 1-10, Yunior’s sexism is somewhere in the Outer Limits. He cheats and cheats and treats women like shit and feels only a vague sense of remorse about it. Even though the book is about relationships, in story after story, Diaz’s women characters are always empty and never fully fleshed out. Their bodies exist for the male characters to use and abuse them time and time again. When women characters are somewhat fully realized (“Otravida/Otravez,” the ubiquitous presence of Yunior’s mother) they are always saintly, sad, and long suffering through the perils of their men’s choices.
So what is this, other than your run-of-the-mill, heteronormative misogyny? It does not surprise me that Junot Diaz has been called out as a jerk in his offline world, because in reading this I never felt that normal kind of separation between the person and the art. These stories are too real, and it is quite apparent that Yunior’s experiences are clearly Diaz’s. Diaz addresses some of this criticism in an article from The Atlantic, in which he states that he wrote this particular book to address sexism that pervades our culture. I get that, sir. But simply calling out sexism and portraying it in all of its nasty glory does not challenge it. There is nothing in this book about male hetero privilege that we don’t already know or haven’t seen before.
I’ve changed my rating to 5 stars to 3 stars now. I don’t mind writers writing about sexism, but I need more complexity before I read something else by Junot Diaz.