Review: How to Love a Jamaican

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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.]

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Review: A Lucky Man

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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!

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Novellas/Short Stories

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.

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe – Another story I used to teach to my students. They used to love this!
  4. “Wild Child” by T.C. Boyle – Historical fiction account of Victor of Aveyron, the first documented “feral” child, in 1800’s France.
  5. “1922” by Stephen King – Greed and betrayal and rats. The Netflix movie was pretty close to the novella, thankfully.
  6. “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes – A little boy gets more he bargained for when he tries to snatch a woman’s purse.
  7. “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.
  8. “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.
  9. “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.
  10. “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.

xoxo, Kellan

Review: Heads of the Colored People

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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: This is How You Lose Her

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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.

Review: Things We Lost in the Fire

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Review for "Things We Lost in the Fire" by Mariana Enriquez (2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It took me a month to get through this book, which is not fitting for a collection of stories that’s less than 250 pages long. The reason for my slower-than-average read time is because “Things We Lost in the Fire” is a very, very dark collection of tales, all set in modern day Argentina. I read my NetGalley copy at first, but the mood was so unsettling that I moved to an audiobook format to finish it. Even with the audiobook, I had to prep myself (i.e., be in a kind of ‘blank’ mental state) to continue it.

Typical of Latin American fiction, there’s elements of magical realism, the supernatural, and surreality in these stories, but that doesn’t counter the macabre subject matter here. In this collection, there are ghosts, hauntings, extreme violence, torture, rape, and girls who set themselves on fire. The central characters are mostly young people and most, if not all, of the stories carry a hint of uncertainty about whether the events the characters experienced really happened or not. In “The Dirty Kid,” a young woman is obsessed with a homeless boy who may or may not have been the victim of a Satanic ritual killing. “The Intoxicated Years” is about a group of teenage girls who spend their time taking psychadelic drugs. “Adela’s House” focuses on a girl who goes into a haunted house and is never seen again. In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” a former social worker is convinced that a neighbor has chained up a young boy in his backyard, who eventually eats the main character’s cat. And the title story, “Things We Lost in the Fire” is about a woman who self-immolates before an audience.

For me, this is material that I could not just read. I had to experience it, surround myself in it, and ultimately, suffer through it. Suffering, however, is not always a bad thing, because it is through this collection of stories you realize how much Argentina’s bloody political dictatorship past left its mark on people’s lives. If you’re down explore this, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. I give this four stars because the writing is quite good with no flaws to be found.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Hogarth Press, as well as NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: Inside Madeleine

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Review for "Inside Madeleine" by Paula Bomer (2014)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Oh snap…five stars.

I did the audiobook for this and for the first time since I’ve started consuming books this way, I found myself listening intently to every. single. word. that was read: staying in my driveway with the AC running, leaving my headphones on longer in the evenings, you get the idea. This collection of stories is highly engaging, smutty, and just plain grotesque. And I loved it.

Each story deals with female characters and the complicated relationship they have with their bodies and the people around them. All of the characters are young, all of them desperate, and all (if I’m not mistaken) are from South Bend, Indiana. “Eye Socket Girls” is about an anorexic girl’s stint in a hospital, “Down the Alley,” is the tale of a teenage girl’s self-discovery and rebellion, and the novella-length title story, “Inside Madeleine,” is a tour de force about the complex relationship between a teenage girl and her body.

I loved the way that these stories seemingly hide…well, nothing. None of these characters are particularly likeable, but they weren’t supposed to be. Even the sex scenes were raunchy and vulgar, but they clearly weren’t meant to titillate the audience. All of the characters in each story came across as relatable and achingly real and I had no choice but to feel them.

Did I tell you I loved this book?

Must read.