Review: The Love Prison Made and Unmade

42079232. sy475

Review for "The Love Prison Made and Unmade" by Ebony Roberts (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Curiosity drove me to this book, particularly after reading the author’s former partner, Shaka Senghor’s book “Writing My Wrongs.” From Senghor, we learn the story of a troubled young Black man growing up in inner city Detroit in the 1980’s, eventually becoming a drug dealer to earn a living. At barely 19 years old, he turns to violence and ends up on the criminal end of a murder case. For his crime, Senghor earns himself a lengthy prison sentence. While on the inside, he begins to correspond with a brilliant young scholar by the name of Ebony. They fall in love through letters and visits, and continue their relationship for several years after Senghor is released.

“The Love that Prison Made” is Ebony’s side of the story, beginning from her childhood. After witnessing domestic abuse in her childhood, she tells her narrative of meeting Senghor behind bars and falling in love with him. The narrative continues after he is released, when all doesn’t go as planned and the couple is confronted with cold realities and real problems.

I really liked this. There is a lot of focus on the couple’s courtship through letters, which makes up most of this book. Although Senghor is not released until about 75% in, you immediately know early on that this pair is not going to make it. Although she is careful not to generalize about the fate of all prison relationships, I appreciate Ms. Roberts’ choice to be transparent about why her prison romance failed. All too often we hear about the ‘happily ever after’ and the happy couple life of inmates and persons on the outside. What about the people who do the same and it doesn’t work out perfectly? Hmm.

This story is also important from a social justice perspective. Due to the mass incarceration rates of Black people, the question becomes one of how to interact with these men and women. Large numbers of the prison population will eventually get out one day, and not only will they need employment and support, they will seek emotional attachments as well. What is to be expected? What is inevitable? These are questions to consider.

Four solid stars.

Review: The Man They Wanted Me to Be

41148857. sy475

Review for "The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and Forging Another Way for Men" by Jared Yates Sexton (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This book should be essential reading for all men, especially in today’s times.

In “The Man They Wanted Me to Be,” Jared Yates Sexton writes about his and his family’s experiences throughout a lifetime legacy of toxic masculinity. Much of the first section focuses on the personal experience of the author and the negative consequences of sexism and violence, which he witnessed through his abusive father. Jared, a sensitive child raised by a single mother in rural Indiana, eventually develops a tough emotional shell and becomes suicidal after years of abuse and bad role models due to his mother’s choices of men. He discusses the way in which the ‘ideal’ masculinity is essentially unattainable and not a real way of living but a lie. He also discusses the socialization of boys–the way in which parents and society train boys not to cry, to repress emotion, to hate all things ‘feminine’ and to express themselves through physicality and violence. The second section is about Jared’s relationship with his father and how they eventually reconcile after years of estrangement.

The third and the last section concerns itself with the ways in which toxic masculinity has given rise of the alt-right and the election of the current president. It is focused squarely on White men, who, let’s face it, need to do better. He discusses the toxic culture in this group that wraps itself in privilege and white supremacist ideas, in addition to sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic views against ‘them’ (namely minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals, and immigrants).

The only thing I wished this book would have touched on more is how sexism traps men of color as well as queer men. However, I realize that that discussion is a completely different animal. Although we’re still talking about bad masculinity, we know that there’s history, race, class, and other socioeconomic factors that change the flavor of the topic. I would like to read Sexton’s opinions on other aspects of this conversation, however.

Definitely do pick up this book. While I would not describe anything in here as particularly new or shocking, it is necessary reading to begin to undo much of the damage due to toxic masculinity.

Review: We Speak for Ourselves

41224082

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Review for "We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America" by D. Watkins (2019)

As with “The Cook Up” and “The Beast Side,” D. Watkins continues to share his account of growing up in an impoverished Black community in East Baltimore. The message behind his book is simple: in today’s age, poor Black people do not want or need to spoken for by White liberals or Black middle and upper class intellectuals. Watkins occupies a unique position in that he can easily maneuver among top thought leaders on CNN and the academic crowd, yet he’s hood at the core, never quite too far gone from the steps of his East Baltimore rowhouse. He writes about his days as a drug dealer with the same familiarity as the school to prison pipeline.

Here, he breaks down a lot of things that he wishes the world knew about Black culture: why poor people will always hate the cops, the reasons why education in urban areas will never be equal to the suburbs, etc. I gave this three stars because although it’s good writing and the message is clear for the audience he’s intending to reach, I found this book a bit too plain for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the intended audience–I’m pretty well versed in the issues he’s speaking of. Still, I don’t want to rate this too low because I like this book as well as the purpose behind it. I follow D. Watkins on social media and I’ll always support his efforts.

Review: Heroine

40536342

Review for "Heroine" by Mindy McGiniss (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book will crush your soul. I definitely recommend a trigger warning if you’re not in a good place emotionally or mentally. This book does contain scenes of drug use, particularly opioids.

Mickey Catalan is a star catcher on her high school softball team. After a devastating car accident leaves her with a hip injury, she is prescribed the painkiller Oxycontin. Not only do the pills take away the pain, they make her feel good. She begins to take them more and more often, until her supply dries up. She then finds an illegal source who sells her Oxy, and along with a group of friends who also use and offer her friendship and acceptance. As pressure for Mickey to stay in top athletic form continues, her dependence on Oxy spirals out of control. Her supply dries up and she eventually turns to shooting heroin.

Before I started this book, I was afraid it would fall into the all-too-common trap of romanticizing drug use. While the highs of opioids are described here, it’s equally balanced with scenes of the gut-wrenching lows of withdrawal. Mickey’s POV is first person, so we follow her as she spirals more and more into addiction. It’s really well written, there’s a devastating energy here that hits really hard and doesn’t stop until the end.

I only give this book 4 stars because it’s so raw I would never read it again.

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.

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.