Review: A Good Kind of Trouble

38251243

“A Good Kind of Trouble” is about a young Black girl named Shayla navigating through typical middle school struggles: boys, school dances, friendships, teachers. Her older sister is an activist and involved with a local chapter of Black Lives Matter but Shayla steers clear, not wanting to risk getting in what she perceives as ‘trouble.’ However, when the police shoot an unarmed Black man near her neighborhood, Shayla decides to take a stand for what she believes and takes on more ‘trouble’ than she bargained for.

I liked this book. I would call it the younger sister of “The Hate U Give” with a similar theme and main characters, but aimed at younger readers. The major difference in the two is that this book expressly mentions Black Lives Matter by name, while THUG doesn’t (THUG’s connection to BLM is assumed, however). Therefore, the explicit naming of Black Lives Matter here is notable. The police violence stayed mostly in the background of the novel as an ongoing trial, and while it’s not the primary plot it’s pretty clear that this is the reason why Shayla speaks out. I would have liked a more direct connection to this plot point, but perhaps indirectly is the best way to expose this topic to younger readers without making this book TOO heavy.

I also appreciated how this book respected struggles that are distinct to youth of color, i.e., the pressure to conform to racialized norms. Shayla’s best friends in the book are Asian and Latinx, however, it’s only in the 7th grade that she begins to receive pushback from Black peers about “acting White.” I enjoy the way the book grapples with the idea of being Black beyond stereotypes and encourages kids of color to be themselves.

Great book about a complex and nuanced topic without being preachy or sad.

Advertisements

Review: An American Summer

41021713
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.

Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

37956892

Review for "What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape" by Sohaila Abdulali (2018)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I can’t say that I “liked” this book because it deals with a topic that isn’t very likable: rape. However, I will say that this is an important book that I would encourage everyone to read. The author, Sohaila Abdulali (also a rape survivor), takes this topic and engages it head on. She covers women’s stories from all around the globe and explores the various cultural contexts of rape. As a person who rejects First/Third Worldism, I found the global perspective here notable, a breath of fresh air. This book is also current, which I liked. The #MeToo movement is discussed, as well as latest political campaign, which gave rise to the public dialogue that has been swirling about rape, toxic masculinity, and the rights of women.

I don’t know, though…if you’re pretty well versed in this topic I can’t agree that reading this will give you any new insights. Although the readability of this book is wonderful, I felt like the chapters were too brief and the topics skipped around too much. Within a 5 page span you get collected personal narratives to political opinions to the author’s input, which never really lingered long enough to offer a lot of in-depth analysis.

Definitely do read this, though. I’d give this a firm 3.5 stars.

Review: Detroit: An Autopsy

3 inches of snow here today in Charlotte, North Carolina. Any kind of snow accumulation of over an inch is fairly rare here, so naturally the city shuts down. Major roads are ok but side streets are impassable, schools close, and necessities like grocery stores aren’t open. I’m huddled under a blanket on the couch with hot tea, because cold weather is a great time to read.

15811520
Review for "Detroit: An Autopsy" by Charlie LeDuff (2013)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Today’s review takes me to a cold weather place: Detroit.

I liked this book. It’s written by a native of the city who comes back home after spending years away as a reporter and finds it gone completely to hell.

The scenes of this book are what make it interesting. There’s a homeless man the writer finds frozen solid inside an abandoned house. There’s the city’s woefully underfunded fire department, who spends most of its time putting out the work of arsonists because it’s cheaper to start a fire than it is to go to a movie. There’s a porn-style tv political ad with a corrupt lady politician at the center. There’s the author’s brother, who, after being laid off from a well-paying car manufacturing job, is doomed to put together useless parts for a low wage. And, because this is Detroit, there’s all manner of political corruption. Failing schools, corruption, racism, corruption. It’s depressing as hell. But such a good read.

Charlie LeDuff positions Detroit as a microcosm of America, when consumerism, debt, aging infrastructure, and just plain bad policy decisions go wrong. He’s sympathetic toward his city but he pulls no punches as he calls out politicians, local leaders, family members, and even himself on his own bullshit. His premise? Want to know what’s wrong with Detroit? Look in the mirror.

I wholly recommend this book.

Review: The Line Becomes a River

34818440

Review for "The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border" by Francisco Cantu (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In keeping with #NonfictionNovember, I really liked this book. I am glad that I did not read the many negative reviews of this before picking it up, much of which is not about the content but full of personal rancor towards the author, a former Border Patrol officer. Did these reviewers even read the book? Apparently not.

What the author does do is present a pretty fair and balanced view of U.S. and Mexican lives on both sides of the border. The first section covers his early days on patrol, catching people who activate sensors in the desert. There are many stories here–desperate immigrants wishing for a better life who are deserted by their coyotes (smugglers), people who live on the border whose properties are continually trashed and broken into by immigrants, those who aid cartels through drug smuggling. Both criminals and non-criminals are almost always rounded up and deported. There are also some pretty shocking accounts of Border Patrol agents being cruel and just plain racist (destroying immigrant water sources, calling them “wets”). In addition to this, the author describes countless dead bodies, those not fortunate enough to make it out of a scorching desert hell. The middle section of the book deals with Cantu’s moral conflicts and eventual disillusionment with the work after he is assigned to a desk job. The desk job involves profiling cartels, their victims almost always killed through unimaginable violence. Border Patrol officers have a particularly high turnover rate, which, for a morally conflicted person such as Cantu, is wholly understandable.

The last section of the book is the most poignant, in my opinion. After his departure from the Border Patrol, Cantu befriends a Mexican man from Oaxaca named Jose. Although he is undocumented, he is a hardworking man with a wife and three sons. Returning from a trip to visit his mother in Oaxaca, he is caught by Border Patrol attempting to cross back into the U.S. Cantu assists the family by showing up to his trial, getting him a lawyer, taking his sons to visit him in detention. I won’t tell you Jose’s fate, other than to say that the last part of this book is not the author’s but the voice of Jose himself.

Nowhere in this book does Cantu position himself in favor of U.S. Border Patrol policies. While participating in their enforcement as an officer, he is a part of the institutional violence against immigrants, which he acknowledges. The story of Jose is a good balancing act for the critics to show that immigration presents an ever present challenge with no easy solutions. People on both sides of the border ultimately suffer.

I recommend that you don’t read the negative reviews and read this book for yourself.

Four stars.

Review: Dear America

36544614

Review for "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen" by Jose Antonio Vargas (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a great book. It is about life as an immigrant, but it is not about politics. Through his connection to journalism, Vargas wrote an op-ed in 2011 outing himself as undocumented. He also wrote a Time magazine cover story on the subject in 2012.

“Dear America” is mostly a story about the author, Jose Antonio Vargas, whose mother hastily put him on a plane from the Philippines to join his grandparents in America at 12 years old. He grows up in California and does not realize until he attempts to apply for a driver’s license that the paperwork provided by his grandfather was fake. He confides in several trusted colleagues and administrators, who eventually get him to college and into several prestigious journalism gigs, despite his undocumented status.

Vargas explores how the “path” to citizenship does not exist for him and many, many other people. He cannot simply apply for legal citizenship, because he came here illegally and risks deportation. Leaving the U.S. and returning to the Philippines effectively bans him from coming back for 10 years, and even then, approval for U.S. citizenship is not guaranteed. He could attempt to pull off a sham marriage (i.e., marrying a U.S. citizen for a green card), but Vargas refuses to do this because he is gay. As a result, he discusses a sense of constant homelessness even though he considers America his country. Many aspects of American life are continually out of reach for him because he is undocumented. Though he pays taxes through his job, in many states, he cannot drive or legally work. He cannot travel overseas and has been effectively cut off from his extended family. He also faces constant fear of detainment and deportation, which he goes through later on in the book.

Overall, this is a short book that puts a human face on the argument around illegal immigration, which is far more complex than building walls and talk about caravans. What does it mean to be an American? If it is simply a matter of being born on U.S. soil, then I, as a ‘natural’ resident, did not “do” anything to earn my status. Why do we as citizens feel the need to make people like the author do the same? Lots of complex arguments here, many of which have no quick answers.

Definitely recommend this book.

Review: In My Father’s House

I’m back, guys. I’ve been busy. Dissertation, fellowship applications, conferences. Le sigh.

But anyway, let’s celebrate. It’s November, lovelies! The days are short, there’s a crisp in the air. I’m going to try something a little different here,  in observance of #NonfictionNovember I am going to attempt to review only nonfiction books this month. I’ve got quite a healthy backlog, so here goes…

38395060

Review for "In My Father's House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family" by Fox Butterfield (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This well-written nonfiction book begins with a very interesting statistic: that ‘5 percent of American families account for half of all crime, and 10 percent of families account for two thirds.’ This point is driven throughout the entire book with Mr. Butterfield’s multi-generational documentation of the Bogles, an impoverished White family who moved from the Reconstruction South to Texas in the early 1900’s. The story begins with the marriage of Louis Bogle and Elvie, two young people with a propensity for cons and swindles who become hard drinkers and carnival workers. They eventually have seven children, all of whom end up in prisons or reformatories for various crimes–drinking, stealing, fighting, and beating their wives.

The narrative then shifts to one of the sons of the original Bogle family, the youngest and most particularly troublesome son, nicknamed Rooster. Enabled by his mother, Rooster terrorizes his own family through physical and sexual abuse. He “marries” two women and keeps them in the same house, occasionally beating them and having several children by both. He does not allow his children to socialize outside of the family and takes them on his various criminal schemes, encouraging them to steal and even going by the state prison and telling them that they will end up there one day. Eventually all of Rooster’s children do go to either jail, prison, or state reformatories, only this time for more serious crimes–drugs, burglary, theft, rape, and murder.

Butterfield is still not finished, continuing to trace the stories of cousins, uncles, aunts, and other Bogle family members. He goes into the next generation of Rooster’s grandchildren and describes their history of meth use, burglaries, child endangerment, and more crimes. In the back of the book is an exhaustive list of over 60 Bogle family members, all of whom have either spent time in a prison or jail for various crimes.

This book does end on a bright note, with the story of one of Rooster’s grandchildren, Ashley. With strong social ties through her mother (not a Bogle), community support, and education, she graduates from college and pursues a career in the medical field. She is the first Bogle family member to graduate from college in 150 years.

This is a good book but it is somewhat depressing, as it forces you to consider how much the role of family and upbringing is overlooked in the modern theories of crime. Butterfield is careful with this argument, however. He acknowledges over and over that leaning too heavily on the link between family upbringing and crime reinforces racism, with Blacks and people of color typically being demonized and incarcerated as if they are the sole perpetrators of crime. I think this is why he chooses a White family to illustrate his point in this particular book (though his previous book I’ve reviewed, “All God’s Children,” deals with crime in a Black family).

This is an excellent read if you are interested in the criminal justice system, theories of crime/criminology, and the “nature vs. nurture” argument. It’s also cool if you just like narrative nonfiction too.

Five stars.