I simultaneously hated these characters and loved them beyond words. Jayne is a hot struggling mess of a person. She moves from Texas to New York City to attend fashion school bringing a collection of baggage that new scenery can’t shake off. She lives in a dump of an apartment, illegally rented and mostly disgusting. Her boyfriend is a tool who continues to use her, and her friends are inauthentic. She’s honestly just a sad sack with zero motivation to pull herself out of suffering. Her misery is raw. She’s a real character with deep self-loathing and pain that seeps out of the pages like blood from a wound. Jayne is emotionally estranged from her Korean parents and avoids her sister, June at all costs even though she also lives in New York City. She struggles to make sense of the disconnect she has with her culture, her body and the eating disorder she slowly reveals, her sibling bond or lack thereof, and the painful childhood she endured while living in Texas with immigrant parents. June reveals that she has uterine cancer, and Jayne has to come to terms with what this means for her family, her sister, and herself. June lives in a high-rise, has expensive clothes, an impressive city job, and is everything that Jayne is not. June’s cancer diagnosis not only reveals her fragility, but it also gives way to the cracks in her exacting veneer.
Although this is ultimately Jayne’s story, the sisters are each portrayed in all manner of real characterization: good, bad, and sometimes really ugly. They’re each hilarious, vulgar, self-involved, sensitive, impulsive, loving; they’re all of these things and more. I appreciate how the author, Mary H.K. Choi, doesn’t paint each sister in one single hue but rather shows each dappled in her own colors that vary by day and mood like real people are in ordinary life. This book is moody for all the right reasons, and I found it to be odd, repulsive, mesmerizing, and wonderful. It’s unique in a way that it’s not quite comparable to anything else I’ve read, and for that, I’m smitten.
The Killer's Shadow: The FBI's Hunt for a White Supremacist Serial Killer by John E. Douglas, Mark Olshaker
This was an interesting look at how criminal profiling got its start and ultimately helped track a white supremacist serial killer in the 1970s. Joseph Paul Franklin robbed banks, bombed targets, and killed people sniper-style. He targeted interracial couples, Black, Jews, and anyone he deemed the antithesis to his racist and Anti-Semitic views including Larry Flynt and President Jimmy Carter. Author, John Douglas was the profiler who hunted Franklin. He and Olshaker discuss Franklin’s background and how his hatred turned criminal. Douglas’ detailed analysis and detective work narrowed Franklin’s escape options until he was finally caught and eventually executed. It’s so amazing how profilers can make strikingly accurate predictions about serial killers by studying every detail of their lives and crimes. Douglas discusses other killers in comparison to Franklin and used all of his interviews to further hone the craft of criminal profiling. Franklin is not a name talked about much in the sensationalized crime media world. It was also disturbing to read how many Black lives were taken over the course of so many years before the FBI got really serious about stopping Franklin. It took suspicions about him targeting President Carter before Franklin became a larger priority. Douglas makes sure to point out how quickly words of hate can escalate into deeper criminal behavior and how this is playing out in today’s social media culture.
Stamped is one of the most meticulously researched books I’ve ever read. At almost 600 pages, it’s one you really need to own in print so you can underline and take notes for future reference. Ibram X. Kendi lays out the history of racist thought in America, revealing strategies that have failed to produce change and those that have perpetuated racism. He emphasizes that the self-interest of intelligent people creates policies that are racist and in turn preserves racist ideas. Racism has not and will not be eliminated or explained away through education. As long as racism continues to benefit the people who have the power to abolish it, they will never choose to eliminate it. America can only be antiracist when antiracists are in power and their policies become law.
Kendi examines this through the lens of five prominent people in history including Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. Mather founded a philosophical society and crafted racist ideas as the first assimilationist. Mather pushed the religious justification that Christianity could make blacks better slaves, and by turning to this Christian God, blacks could be uplifted toward whiteness in their souls. Jefferson loathed slavery but feared losing his way of life filled with lavish hypocrisy. His views were contradictory, both abolitionist and racist as many of his writings included his thoughts on black inferiority. Garrison was considered radical because of his beliefs for immediate emancipation, yet he still shared the racist belief that blacks were inferior. The racial science theory of polygenesis begins to push the agenda that blacks are a different species. Black features are bad or ugly, and white is better. I found Kendi’s examination of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be really interesting. He points out the racist views that this book categorized blacks as soulful and whites as the source of intellect. Although black, DuBois consumed racist ideas. He went to a white owned college with all white professors and believed that racism could be educated away. His famous book, The Souls of Black Folk enforced the racist idea of blacks having different characteristics – soulful and having a simple faith, whereas whites are portrayed as smart and strong. A new strategy develops that in order for blacks to change racist minds, they have to command white respect. When positive portrayals of blacks were used in media, racist whites often just dismissed it as extraordinary exceptions. DuBois spent his whole life urging blacks to uplift to white standards, but by the age of 65, he had turned to an almost completely antiracist viewpoint. He saw his life’s work urging moral uplift and education had changed virtually nothing when it comes to racist ideas in America. He began arguing for black empowerment instead of education and integration. Davis became active in the black power movement and is one of the most famous female antiracist academics.
This book was insanely long and tedious to read, but I also felt enlightened in a whole new way from slogging through this dense history. It helped me understand how the complex issue of racism has been able to keep its grip on this country and a better approach for the future. Angela Davis really sums it up best. “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
Oof. This book is absolutely crazy but not in a good way. It’s sheer nonsense; a psychological thriller that turns an about-face on itself so many times that it becomes a swirling dervish of nonsensical plot. What did I even just read? I will say that it started off exciting. I was immediately intrigued as the book picks up with a woman whose husband has two other wives. All of them are assumed white. She’s aware of the other women, and each one gets a day of the week to spend with Seth. Thursday is the wife telling the story. She agreed to the arrangement from the start and knows nothing about the other women, not even their names. This must be some kind of man. Sheesh. Eventually Thursday turns curious about the other wives after finding something in Seth’s pocket with a woman’s name on it. She tracks down one of the wives and befriends her without revealing her identity. Thursday discovers that this other wife who is also pregnant has bruises all over her arms, and she begins to question if Seth is really the man of her dreams. Now all of this sounds exciting right? Polygamy, sleuthing, abuse, jealous wife… all the makings of a good thriller. Not so fast reader! You start to realize early on that the narrator is unreliable. But as this is developed, you also start to realize that this book has every trope and the kitchen sink. It’s too much: unreliable narrator who also drinks a lot, a mental institution, domestic abuse, plot twists, blah, blah, blah. There are much better titles out there in the pysch thriller genre, but this reminds me of something you’d find in an airport that you’d only grab if there are no other choices and you’re a little desperate, cranky, and about to be late for your flight.
Colin Jost has somehow mastered the human race – handsome, hilarious, intelligent, self-deprecating, and then he writes this book filled with poignant and outrageous musings and life experiences in a way that compels me to read it multiple times. I never re-read books. Ever. But I would for this man. I’ve always found him funny and likable on SNL, especially when Leslie Jones was involved on Weekend Update, but now I find him admirable. His life story is really interesting, and he tells so many ridiculous stories that sometimes it’s hard to believe they’re even real. I laughed out loud throughout the entire book and really enjoyed the format. He moves somewhat chronologically and saves the SNL parts for the end, but I snort-laughed over the sour cream museum (name he gives to an old couple he was forced to live with while abroad in Russia), waking up in a graveyard after mistaking it for a park, and the references to his whiteness including mayonnaise yeti and milquetoast. I teared up over the section where he talks about his mom’s heroic actions and miraculous, near-death moments when the towers fell on September 11. I was also thoroughly grossed out by the numerous injuries he shares details about; the crowning glory being that time he got mysterious bites on his legs while in Central America, and they turned into festering egg nests. I appreciated the laughs and the intelligence of the whole book. I’m definitely a Jost fan now.
This verse novel left me wrecked. Safia Elhillo’s writing is so elegant and intense that I had chills the whole way through. I’m not typically into verse novels, but I wanted to pick one up in honor of National Poetry Month for April. What a standout. Run to the book store or grab your digital reader; it’s worth the rush. Nima lives in America but feels like an outsider. She struggles with identity and clings to the idea of a life she was meant to have instead of this one filled with isolation and post 9/11 harassment. She wears the same dirty sweatshirt every day, doesn’t engage with her classmates, and endures bullying and physical harassment. Naima’s mother was an immigrant from an unnamed Muslim country, and as Nima feels detached from both her mother and her American life, she begins to imagine a parallel universe ushered by her alter-ego, Yasmeen. Yasmeen’s father is alive and lives in their Arabic-speaking homeland filled with family, friends, music, and dancing. Nima is disillusioned and adrift in her present life. She’s angry and unable to accept why her mother brought her to this country. In America, she views her mother from afar with sadness and frustration, but when she travels “home” with Yasmeen, she sees her as a dancer full of life and promise. But as Yasmeen pulls back the curtain of this past life like the spirits in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Nima begins to also see the cloudy, wavering parts of the mirage. This life she thought she was meant to have is not what she had conjured up in her longings. Yasmeen reveals a darkness that helps Nima embrace her present, reconnect with her mother and family in America, and discover her identity in ways that satisfy both her love for nostalgia but also her desire to belong. Nima’s home is what she makes for herself. I can’t stop thinking about the beauty of this book. It’s both gentle and shocking at the same time. I ached for Nima and her mother as they circled their distant relationship, never quite reaching one another. Elhillo’s book provides countless avenues for thoughtful reflection and is going straight to my “new loves” shelf.
I like this book, but I’m dying for the cover. Finally, a cover highlighting the female protagonist to look as I imagine her; she’s straight-up dazzling. I enjoyed this YA read, but wasn’t blown away. Enchanted Jones is an aspiring singer, swimmer student athlete, and feeling like an outsider after her close family moves to the suburbs. She’s the only black girl in her school, and she’s trying to figure out exactly where she fits in. Cue Korey Fields, a famous adult R&B artist, who spots her at a talent audition and grooms her R. Kelly-style. Enchanted yearns to be a professional singer but is also at a tender age when teens are just trying to figure out who they are. She notices Korey’s controlling behavior but writes it off because he’s an adult, and she believes in him. Korey gaslights her and manipulates her family into trusting him. Tiffany D. Jackson does a good job showing the subtle ways that Enchanted’s abuser creeps into all parts of her life, taking advantage of her drive to be a singer and alienating her from her loved ones and friends. The book starts off with a shocking scene where Enchanted wakes up to blood everywhere and a body. The murder mystery element gets convoluted in the end and is ultimately where I lost interest in the book. I also found the plot was too carbon copy replica of the R. Kelly scandal. I wanted Enchanted’s story to be more of her own instead of what felt like a re-telling. With that said, it’s a book that will surely resonate with many young adults.
Whoa. Now this is a mystery and suspense thriller with a shut-the-front-door twist. A whole lot happened in this book, and it somehow worked. Often when authors try to cram 50 pounds of mystery/thriller into a 15 pound book, it bursts, but somehow, Lisa Jewell made this crazy plot completely plausible. Daughter, Ellie, goes missing at the age of 15. Mom, Laurel, gets divorced and fast-forward ten years when she meets new guy, Floyd. Floyd’s daughter Poppy is a bit odd but reminds Laurel of Ellie in multiple ways. Laurel is completely enamored with Floyd but she begins to sense something is off. Just when she thought she would be able to put her daughter’s memory to rest and move forward with her life, secrets about Ellie’s disappearance begin unraveling. Laurel’s tightly wound life spirals, and the answers about what happened to Ellie Mack are shocking. This was an easy read and not too cerebral which is great when you just want to be entertained. All characters are assumed white.
Stick with me on this. You know that part of The Labyrinth movie where Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) tries to lure Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) with visions of this swirling, lavish ballroom after making her eat the poisoned fruit, and there are all of these opulently dressed people with grotesque masks undulating in and out of the screen? This book makes me think of that scene – magic, mystery, deception, darkness, masquerade. I loved it all but also felt strange about it at the same time.
In all of its black and white striped glory, the Le Cirque de Reves appears mysteriously - no fanfare, no announcement, no flurry of activity setting up tents. It’s just there one day, open in the evenings only, and after a period of time, it’s not anymore. Two magicians, Celia and Marco, have been groomed from a very young age under the tutelage of cruel instructors more interested in mind games and power than their innocent students. They are pitted against one another in a battle of magical wits and ability. Their competition plays out in ways that impact the other circus performers as well as the patrons who are so desperately entranced in the circus’ lure. But the magic instructors and the circus designers couldn’t possibly have planned for how the magnetism of the place takes on a life of its own, birthing both a love story and a tragedy behind and beyond the canvas flaps. The writing is lyrical and mystical, and the characters are dreamlike. The Night Circus is an alluring blend of the best in literature and magic.
Bryan Stevenson puts human faces on the data-driven bodies of research exposing the injustices in our American criminal justice system. Stevenson's heartfelt book revolves alternating chapters around the death sentence of Walter McMillian, a black man in Alabama wrongly convicted of killing a white woman. In between chapters relating Walter's heart-wrenching story, Stevenson tells of the creation of the Equal Justice Initiative and their fight to challenge death penalty cases, unfair juvenile imprisonment, racism in the justice system, and injustice related to poverty and mental health. Stevenson repeatedly drives home the assertion that "The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned." Not only does he reveal a lot about racism, but he also shares deeply moving stories about inequity for the condemned simply because they can not afford good attorneys and bail. “We must reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent." Our justice system often blocks poor and mentally ill people from getting fair representation in legal matters. The stories he shares are incredibly powerful and sad but also reveal his expertise at channeling emotion through words.
I also recommend The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was another innocent death row inmate freed by the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative. Hinton is mentioned briefly in Stevenson's book. He's remarkably resilient and a profound optimist. His story completely changed my views on the death penalty and left me with a whole new understanding of what our prison systems do to inmates, both innocent and guilty.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.