This contemporary novel reveals the voices of twelve different Native characters living in Oakland, California as each struggles to come to grips with his or her identity, history, and heritage while living in an urban community. Tommy Orange interweaves the experience of modern urban Natives with the calling of tradition as all of the characters make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. They’re all connected in one way or another and reflect the true complexity and variety of Native culture. I really could not get into this. I appreciated the overall theme of the book, but felt disoriented by the shallow characterization and lack of historical background. For example, one of the characters discusses her experience during the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, and I was completely lost. I don’t know enough about this historical event and felt adrift because it wasn’t explained. I guess I would have a better appreciation for this one if I had more historical context, and It did inspire me to do some research. There are a lot of characters, and this is a short book. I just couldn’t really connect with them, and it read more like individual short stories than a novel with the exception of the very end when things come together. I think the goal was to show all of the characters’ varied lives and experiences in a modern setting and not focus on history as much, but I still felt disconnected along the way.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
This book kept me on the edge of my seat mainly because I had no idea what was going on until the very end, but when I finished it, I felt let down. The idea behind Wilder Girls is so cool - a bunch of girls stuck Lord-of-the-Flies-style on an island plagued by the gruesome Tox. They're all living at a boarding school when girls suddenly start experiencing horrific, painful symptoms. Byatt grows a second spine. Hetty's eye seals shut. Someone sprouts gills. Reese gets a scaly hand. I mean, how twisted is that? The island is quarantined from the mainland, and the girls and two remaining adults set up a system for survival. The mainland sends food and supplies as they try to discover a cure. This is how I like my horror, grisly and terrifying.
I loved how all the elements of this meshed together into something cohesive - post-apocalyptic, survival, feminist, sapphic horror, environmental critique, and a smidge of romance and longing. If I'm ever cut off from society in a pandemic, I want the girls from this book with me as my survival squad. The whole book felt very girl power-ish but not in a corny way at all. I appreciated the unique name choices, unique but not outrageous like Moon Puzzle. Some of the names I've been seeing in YA fiction lately make me cringe. Who can take Moon Puzzle seriously? All of the main characters are assumed white.
One of Byatt's cyclic changes forces her into the infirmary, but she never returns. Hetty is determined to find her. Reese is quiet and brooding, and the sexual tension between Hetty and Reese is electrifying and gradual. The girls grapple with the physical challenges created by the Tox but also with one another and the elements outside their compound. The Tox has affected nature, and wild animals show signs of infection. My biggest issue with the book was the reveal of the nature of the Tox including the secrets surrounding it and the adults who are controlling information on the island. Answers are teased through the whole book and then dumped in your lap in a giant, messy pile with no fanfare. It's like the author decided to wrap things up by spilling all the secrets in one anticlimactic word vomit. I felt like I was holding my breath through the entire book, and then the big gulp of air I got to take at the end was stale and smelled like a paper mill at the same time. Harsh. If you've never smelled the emissions from a paper mill, consider yourself lucky. It's a putrid mix of sauerkraut and rotten eggs. I digress. My main point is that I was frustrated with the ending and the reveal, and it ultimately ruined the book for me.
I wish I had read this years ago, and it was a perfect complement to White Fragility by DeAngelo. I can honestly say that my understanding of issues surrounding race and racism have been dramatically altered in the last year as I've been on a quest to read more nonfiction. Although Michelle Alexander's book was published over ten years ago, it continues to be a trailblazer, clarifying history and explaining how our current social and racial structure is just another version of the Jim Crow caste system from the Reconstruction era.
Mass incarceration started as a result of a loophole in the 13th Amendment. This amendment abolished slavery except in cases where it's used as a punishment for a crime. Southern whites, angry about losing their slave labor and watching blacks become part of "their society" enacted Jim Crow laws to forcibly separate blacks from whites, preserving the best schools, jobs and neighborhoods for whites. Additionally, free blacks were arrested for committing petty crimes in alarmingly higher rates than whites. Misdemeanor offenses were elevated to felonies, and new laws were created to criminalize black life. Crimes included stealing a pig, walking beside a railroad, spitting, speaking too loudly to a woman, and selling goods after dark. These black, incarcerated men, women, and children were then leased out to private businesses as laborers. Convict leasing became a huge economic boost for the South, and it's no coincidence that arrest rates went up during cotton-picking season. A lower caste is created to keep black people from upward mobility.
Michelle Alexander uses her book to point out that this lower caste system is propped up on the backs of the complex systems in place in our society. Mass incarceration is based on the label of jail and not necessarily the length of prison time. One a person is labeled a felon, they are immediately barred from ever moving up in society. Institutions in place in our country lock people of color (she focuses on black men) from being able to move from this lower caste. There are so many examples of this that I could go on forever. Some of the ones that stuck out the most to me included the traffic studies in New Jersey and Maryland. While studies showed there were actually more white people traveling on the roads, 80% of the stops were of black people, and they resulted in minimal amount of drug seizures. The Reagan-era War on Drugs has been largely ineffective in curbing drug use but highly effective at subjugating more and more black people to this undercaste system despite the fact that drug offenses are committed at roughly equal rates across races. Drunk driving rates and deaths were skyrocketing at the same time as the War on Drugs, but penalties were much higher for first-time users of crack. Statistics showed that drunk drivers were more often white males while the harsher penalties were given to black males for low-level drug offenses. Felons are not allowed on juries, can not vote, can not apply for public housing assistance, and have a nearly impossible time finding jobs. Once a person is labeled a felon, they are rarely able to better themselves. Jails were being filled up with black men during the War on Drugs, and the tough-on-crime attitude of the 80s and 90s seemed to be focused mainly on crimes committed by black people.
This caste system has been perpetuated by policies created under both political parties. In the version I read, Alexander has a new Foreward that discusses this book in today's politics. She discusses Obama's record-high number of immigration detentions, Trump's tweeting of a white power supporter and calling the Charlottesville white supremacists "very fine people", Reagan's ineffective War on Drugs, and Clinton's disastrous three strikes crime bill. The Supreme Court has effectively blocked black people from legally fighting against racial bias. The ruling in the McClesky vs. Kemp case requires people to present such an impossible burden of proof with regards to racial discrimination in the justice system that it virtually makes bias and discrimination constitutionally acceptable. The layered, interlocking systems in place in our society lock poor people of color into a second class status. Alexander also points out that our nation's emphasis on colorblindness creates a racial indifference that allows these systems to stay in place, to a point where today's racial caste is no different than that of the Jim Crow era. She calls for a society where we see one another, learning and caring about our differences.
When I finished reading this, I felt hopeless and sad. I can't even begin to imagine how people of color feel living with this grim reality every day. Alexander does not offer solutions in her book as she focuses mainly on research and data. I felt the need to read up on what solutions exist to combat some of the things discussed in Alexander's book. I found the Sentencing Project's Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, and they recommend the following:
*Ending the War on Drugs
*Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences
*Reducing the use of cash bail
*Fully funding indigent defense agencies
*Requiring the use of racial impact statements
*Implementing training to reduce racial bias
*Addressing collateral consequences
I highly recommend this book if you're looking for some perspective on the complex issue of race in America. As a white person, I wish this had been required reading much earlier in my life, and I will forever sing its praises.
I've always been fascinated by religion especially those sects that veer off into the fundamentalist realm. There always seems to be so much secrecy and an acceptance of hypocritical thought among believers. Followers are fervent, and it's interesting to read what makes some people stay and others leave the religious communities they're raised in.
Hasids are ultra-Orthodox Jews who dabble in mysticism and practice a strict adherence to ritual laws. Deborah Feldman, assumed white, is raised by her grandparents after her mother leaves their Satmar community in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Her father is mentally ill and the family doesn't seek treatment or help for him. Deborah struggles to understand why the Hasid community keeps such tightly locked secrets. She's not allowed to read secular books, and she spends her days hiding library check-outs under her mattress and stealing time to read. She questions Hasidic law and custom at every turn and feels like the adults in her life are always keeping things from her. She longs for freedom from the ritual structure of her community and finds her own ways to rebel in small doses until she eventually leaves the Satmar group for good.
Married women are required to cover their hair, and many Hasids shave their heads and wear wigs. Women are required to visit the mikvah, a bath for a ritual cleansing after their periods, and Deborah talks about how uncomfortable she feels being forced to participate in the custom. Marriage is arranged by a matchmaker, and elaborate gift-giving customs are part of the engagement. Deborah is married at age 17 and completely unprepared for life with a man. Both she and her husband experience sexual dysfunction and can't initially consummate the marriage. She's horrified when her new husband's family tries to intervene and longs for privacy and a marriage that's forged out of mutual love and desire.
There's a lot of controversy surrounding Deborah's version of events in her memoir. I wish she had explained Hasidic customs more in-depth as I felt lost trying to understand many of her brief recollections. Part of this may be because she didn't understand them herself when she actually wrote her story. As a reader with zero knowledge of this faith community, I was longing for more detail and background on the reasons for some of the practices. In my own personal view, religion should stand up to questioning. People who are truly curious thinkers will most likely never be satisfied with answers of "just believe" and "because this is how it is." I also find it appalling when religious groups ostracize and shun family members who choose another path. I can't get behind any system that treats people this way. I was also disgusted by how women are subjugated in Deborah's Hasidic community. Of course, this is only one perspective, and I can't assume this is reflective of all practicing Hasids, but I was alarmed by the repressive elements of her life story and can empathize with her choice to speak out.
I found this to be slow and klunky at first, but strange and engrossing as I got further along. The book got me interested in learning more about these enigmatic Hasidic communities and to follow up with learning about other followers' experiences.
Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner
Be prepared for this book to tear your guts out and leave them in a sloppy pile on the floor. It will make you feel like complete garbage for ever complaining about anything in your life. Catherine Gildiner is a white therapist who tells about her work with five patients suffering from traumatic life experiences. She tells their stories with tenderness and obvious fondness. Each patient overcomes the debilitating elements of his or her own emotional turmoil, finding ways to create success and exemplifying the qualities of true emotional superheroes.
Gildiner starts with a white woman named Laura, forced into parenting her younger siblings after her father left them abandoned in a remote winter cabin. Next up is Peter, a painfully shy son of Chinese immigrants, who was left alone in a room above the family's restaurant for so long that he suffered severe developmental gaps that created intimacy issues in his adult life. Although all of the stories were heart-wrenching, Danny's struck a particular nerve with me. Danny, of the First Nations, lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and was referred to Dr. Gildiner by his boss when he was unable to show emotion or feel pain after the loss. After learning more about Cree indigenous cultural norms, Dr. Gildiner helps Danny discuss his painful childhood when he was torn away from his native family and sent to a Canadian residential school designed to eliminate his identity. He was horrifically abused and spent the rest of his adult life blocking out all emotion. Alana, white and of high intelligence, was sexually abused by her father, and Madeline, also white and from a wealthy family, suffers from OCD and shares how her mother would psychologically torture her in various ways, greeting her each morning with "Good Morning, Monster."
While Gidiner shares lessons from each person's story, she also discusses the mistakes she makes and how these cases helped shape her professional growth. She's quick to point out her own flaws and ways in which she could have done things differently, and this reflective quality makes me like her even more. While not for the faint of heart, this book will give you the space to consider your own emotional resiliency in comparison, and lord knows we can all use some hopeful models to look up to these days.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.