Review: Heads of the Colored People

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

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

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

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.

Review: Mexico

Review for "Mexico" by Josh Barkan (2017)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Josh Barkan’s “Mexico” is a collection of short stories from people (mostly Americans) of all walks of life living and working around modern-day Mexico City. Running throughout these selections is the theme of violence, mostly from drug dealers, gangs, cartels, and other figures involved in the narcotics trade. In “The Kidnapping,” an American becomes a victim of a violent abduction by a cartel. “The Chef and El Chapo” is about a chef who is forced to cook for the infamous criminal, and “The Sharpshooter” is about a U.S. government agent on a secret mission sent to kill, well, you guessed it…a narco criminal.

Needless to say, I didn’t like this book. In today’s political climate just the mention of the word Mexico is used to connote all things wrong with immigration, the War on Drugs, the American economy, and life in general. Do we Yankees really need more scary stories about what a crime-laden, drug filled place Mexico is? I went into this volume of stories knowing that the majority of it would be about violence, but after reading it my opinion is the same. There’s nothing new here, just a lot of non-emotional storytelling about the dregs of society and the people caught in its grip. It’s yet another narrow, limited view of a multi-faceted country with beautiful and hardworking people, the majority of which are NOT a part of the narco trade.

And there was something else that bothered me…Josh Barkan is a white, Ivy League educated world traveler. The back flap tells us he lives in Mexico City, yet I’m not impressed with this fact. Although the book is titled Mexico, it’s main characters are white people in Mexico, who speak from a self-imposed position of privileged authority. The Mexicans in this volume are mere props, one-dimensional characters from which white folks learn their life lessons about the evils of world. It’s a colonialist’s wet dream, and I hated it.

Do yourself a favor and don’t read this.

Review: Difficult Women

Review for "Difficult Women" by Roxane Gay (2017)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Lemme say this first: I love Roxane Gay. She’s a fearless writer, and has a great sense of humor on social media. I liked her collection of essays, Bad Feminist, and her novel, An Untamed State, was nothing short of sensational. When I got approved to read her latest book of short stories through NetGalley, I was absolutely thrilled.

Needless to say, this collection of stories is ummm…well, less than thrilling.

This book is hard to quantify. There are a lot of stories here (twenty-one, to be exact) and they range in length from a couple of pages to over twenty. Some of the stories use fantasy and elements of magical realism, others skip all of that and are very much rooted in reality. There are a lot of recurring themes in this book, many of which were highly disturbing to read about. For one, there is a lot of occurrences of rape in this book. A lot. Physical abuse and masochism are also prominent–scenes of not just women being arbitrarily beaten by the men in their lives, but women characters who actually want to be beaten, raped, abused, punished. It’s bizarre. And it’s in story after story here. After a while it just gets exhausting, but perhaps that was the whole point. I didn’t like it.

More prominent themes: the relationship between twins (male and female), siblings, desolate surroundings, interracial relationships, loss. There’s also a lot of sex. I repeat, a lot of sex. Just about every story has some pretty graphic sex content. Not that I care, but damn, Roxane, I didn’t think you rolled like that…lol.

I won’t go through all of the stories here but I will say that “I Will Follow You,” “Difficult Women,” and “Strange Gods” were probably my top three faves. Overall, this is three stars for me because I just found the themes and the characters far too bleak for me to connect with it. I didn’t care so much for the content as I would like to hear the conversation that will probably come up in circles who read this book. Either way, I’ll continue to read Ms. Roxane Gay, she’s definitely a talent to be reckoned with.

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

Review: Homesick for Another World

Review for "Homesick for Another World" by Ottessa Moshfegh (to be published on 17 January 2017)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ottessa Moshfegh is a writer after my own heart. This is not science fiction (although the cover is deceiving) or a happy volume of stories. Each tale here has a dark, flawed, transgressive quality to it. Her characters are all grossly unlikeable, yet they stick you like Gorilla Glue long after you’ve finished reading them. I loved her novel Eileen, and honestly I really just love Moshfegh so much period that whatever she’s got I know I’m probably going to like it. There are about a dozen stories in Homesick, some of which have already appeared in other fiction journals over the years, but it’s cool because they’re worth a second look. In “A Dark and Winding Road” a man gets more than he bargained for on a trip to a mountain cabin. In “Bettering Myself” a thirty-something teacher finds that the key to her own happiness really isn’t a key at all. In “Slumming” a woman finds solace in dysfunctional behavior and drug addiction. All of the characters here are mired in riddles and self-delusion, and I won’t give away the rest of the stories here but please take my word when I tell you that the prose here is definitely top-notch. I’ll continue to read whatever this woman writes.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Penguin Press, and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]