Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.

Memphis, by Tara M. Stringfellow****

Stringfellow’s debut novel, Memphis, has drawn accolades far and near. This is a family saga that features three generations of women, a story told with warmth and subtlety. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The story commences with Miriam planning to leave her abusive husband. She gets a few things and herds her daughters, Joan and Mya, out of the house. They’re headed to live with Miriam’s sister, August, in Memphis.

The family’s story follows them across time and points of view, but always from the point of view of one of the women. About a third of the way through we find an additional point of view from a character we haven’t met yet, and since we’ve heard from Miriam and August as well as Miriam’s girls, I’m expecting Hazel to be the daughter of either Joan or Mya, granddaughter to Miriam, but that’s not the case. Hazel is Miriam and August’s mother, and the time is the 1930s, a dark time indeed for African-Americans. I like this little surprise. I also love that the narrative embraces only women, across three generations.

As with all good historical fiction, there’s a hidden history lesson here as we follow the Norths across time. On the one hand, I didn’t learn anything new, but I am a history teacher. What I appreciate is the lack of reliance on cheap pop cultural references, and also the lack of revisionism. Stringfellow writes about the past as it was, rather than as she wishes it was. The characters are resonant and believable; my favorite is August. I love the ending.

The story arc is a mighty shallow one, and I’d be hard-pressed to identify the climax. This is my only real criticism.

Because I was a bit behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the narrators, Karen Murray and Adenrele Ojo, do a superb job.

Recommended to those that love historical fiction—especially surrounding Civil Rights—and to those that enjoy stories about multiple generations of families.

Happy Release Day!

I reviewed this outstanding collection earlier, but today it is available to the public. Hill won awards for the first collection, and this is, if anything, even better.

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Breath Better Spent, by DaMaris B. Hill*****

At the start of this, her second published poetry collection, Hill mentions the lessons we have learned from Audre Lord and others. I like Lord’s poetry, too, but it’s time for Lord to move over and make some space. Hill is a powerhouse. Her recent collection about imprisoned women, A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, is phenomenal, and it’s won her awards and many accolades, but this new book, an ode to Black girlhood, is better still. Her perception, intimacy, vulnerability and fearlessness all come through in what is most likely the best poetry collection we’ll see in 2022. My thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for the invitation to read and review; it becomes available to the public January 25, 2022.

In the preface, Dr. Hill discusses her influences, as well as the way she has divided this collection into sections. She starts by discussing the murder of Breonna Taylor, right there in her home state of Kentucky, and she goes on to point to the increasing incidents of disciplinary measures against Black girls in school, along with a disturbing rise in their incarcerations. Society is failing Black girls, and we need to do better.

In reading this collection, I find I process the poems best if I only read one or two each night. As I go, I highlight the titles of my favorites. There’s not a bad one in the bunch, but I am most taken with the first, “Jarena Lee: A Platypus in A Petticoat;” “How the Tongue Holds,” which is completely horrifying, and and so well done; “What You Talking ‘Bout;” “Hotter Than July;” and one dedicated to a family member that served in the military, “Those Sunless Summer Mornings.” At the end is a series themed around missing Black girls, here and in Africa. Again, I am drawn to a segment dedicated “to my niece and her bullies.” And breaking up the intensity are occasional moments of surprising humor that make me laugh out loud.

The thing that comes through, strong and long, is Hill’s affinity for, and understanding of Black girls. I have written scathing reviews several times, one quite recently, when authors include children prominently in their books without having taken the time to learn the developmental stages of their characters. Here, it’s the opposite. Hill knows girls, and she knows them well and deeply. She mentions that some parts of this collection are “semi-autobiographical,” but her knowledge runs much, much deeper than one gets simply by having been a girl. And so, though this collection will be useful to those teaching or studying courses in Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and of course, poetry, the people that absolutely need to read this collection are teachers in training. This should be mandatory reading for anyone planning to go into education. For that matter, it would also be excellent material for teacher in-services.

Several of Hill’s poems are contextual, dealing with the current political climate, and it’s now, with voting rights in question, cop violence rampant, and racism becoming increasingly overt, that we need books like this to counter the reactionary elements. It’s brave and powerful writing, and if you don’t order a copy, you risk missing out. Highly recommended.

Three Girls From Bronzeville, by Dawn Turner****

Dawn Turner is an award-winning journalist who grew up in Bronzeville, the historic home of the Black Community in the south end of Chicago. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Edelweiss for the invitation to read and review; I also extend my apology for missing the date of publication. This well written memoir is for sale now.

Turner looks back at her life through the lens of sisterhood. The two other girls mentioned in the title are her younger sister, Kim, and her best friend, Debra, whom she meets in elementary school. She takes us through the benchmarks of her life in a narrative that is both intimate and conversational, but that also features a keen depth of analysis, as she examines their experiences with regard to race, gender, social class, and of course, a few random, intangible but significant aspects of their experiences.

I enjoyed this book. There’s some terrific humor—for example, as a child, Dawn ascertains that a trip to the hospital is the equivalent of a death sentence, and when she needs a tonsillectomy, she gives away her most prized possessions, explaining that she is “going home to be with the Lord.”

And…about that. The humor is terrific, but the Lord dominates this story in a way that makes me uncomfortable, with passages that go far beyond the brief and the pithy. It’s her story, and she should tell it the way she chooses, but the almost constant religious references make this more of a Christian memoir than one for general audiences. It has a lot of nice moments and is told by a skillful scribe, but at the same time, I’m not sure I’d read another memoir of hers, should she choose to write it, because I find these frequent references tiresome. I have to wonder if the story would be any less authentic if this aspect were included with a gentler hand.

There are lots of meaty issues, thought provoking and common to the experience of a great many people. At one point, for example, she gives a speech at school, and although it is exhilarating and more than successful, Debra passes her a note asking why she sounds white when she speaks to an audience. Later, as an adult, Dawn and her husband confront other choices. Is it better to get a house in a low crime area that is mostly Caucasian, or should one stay in the Black community, even if there are fewer opportunities for their child there? Then the same issue arises regarding school choice. There are many other thought-provoking situations, but I’ll leave you to find these on your own.

This is a powerful memoir written by an accomplished wordsmith. For those that can read it with Jesus riding shotgun, this book is recommended.

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead*****

Ray Carney has a foot in both worlds, and he isn’t given to thinking too deeply about that. As the son of a badass criminal, he considers that he has turned out quite respectably; yet, when Cousin Freddie occasionally brings a consignment piece of jewelry to his store, he doesn’t ask many questions about its history. Thus begins a slow, steady slide, from being a mostly-straight retailer, to a mostly-crooked fence. But oh, what a glorious story it makes!

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

The first time I read Colson Whitehead was when The Underground Railroad was published five years ago. It was unquestionably a work of genius, but it was also a fair amount of work to read. Then The Nickel Boys came out, and when I finally found a copy, it was well written yet so harsh, and at a difficult time for me personally, that I thanked my lucky stars that it wasn’t a review copy, and I gave myself permission to abandon it. So thus far, my admiration for this author has been tempered by the awareness that I would need to roll up my sleeves, or to brace myself, or both.

Harlem Shuffle contains none of that. It’s told in linear fashion, beginning in the late 1950s and ending in the late 1960s. The writing is first rate, as one might anticipate, but it’s also an unmitigated pleasure to read.

Our protagonist, Carney, has married up. His beautiful wife Elizabeth comes from a family with lighter skin, higher social position, and a good deal more money. Elizabeth loves him, but she has expectations. As his young family grows to include a son and daughter, the pressure increases. But let’s not kid ourselves; this isn’t just about Carney supporting his family:

“If he got a thrill out of transforming these ill-gotten goods into legit merchandise, a zap-charge in his blood like he’d plugged into a socket, he was in control of it and not the other way around. Dizzying and powerful as it was. Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw…The thing inside him that gave a yell or tug or shout now and again was not the same thing his father had. The sickness drawing every moment into its service…Carney had a bent to his personality, how could he not, growing up with a father like that. You had to know your limits as a man and master them…His intent was bent but he was mostly straight, deep down.”

Freddie comes to Carney with a plan: he and his confederates intend to rob the Hotel Theresa, which is the pride of Harlem, the place to stay for Negro patrons of breeding and taste. It was almost sacrilege; and yet, it would also be a fantastic take. Would Ray Carney put out some feelers to find out who could move the sorts of valuable baubles that might be found in the hotel safe? Ray tells him of course not. No no no no no. A thousand times no! And then, he commences doing exactly that.

There are several aspects of this tale that make it exceptional. Whitehead resists the amateurish urge to fall back on pop culture of the period, instead imparting the culture and the pressures of the time more subtly. Racism against Negroes (the acceptable term of the time) by Caucasians; racism by light-skinned Negroes against darker ones, such as Carney; cop violence against all of them; the difficulty faced by Harlem merchants that want to carry first-class products but must first persuade snooty Caucasian company representatives; protection rackets endemic to Harlem, run by Negro criminals as well as cops, so that envelopes had to be passed to multiple representatives every month; and a plethora of other obstacles, stewed into the plot seamlessly, never resembling a manifesto. There’s Whitehead’s matchless ability to craft his characters, introducing each with a sketch so resonant that I had to reread them before moving on; highlight them; then go back and read them a third time after I’d finished the book. My favorite secondary character is Pepper, an older thug so terrifying that even the cops wince when they’re near him. And then there are brief shifts in point of view, and again, my favorite of these is Pepper’s.

Carney isn’t a brilliant decision maker, but he is an underdog, and he’s a survivor as well, and both of these things make me cheer him on. I haven’t had so much fun in a long damn time. When events escalate, Carney finds himself rolling a corpse into a fine carpet, and I can only hope that he chose a relatively cheap rug, because otherwise, what a waste! Those that love the genre mustn’t miss this book, filled with everything anyone could ever want in a noir-style crime novel. Do it, do it, do it!

Bird Uncaged, by Marlon Peterson****

I’ve never felt so ambivalent about a Civil Rights memoir. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Public Affairs. It’s for sale now.

At the outset, Peterson describes his early years as the son of Trinidadian immigrants living in Brooklyn. His family belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so that is an angle I haven’t encountered before. He describes his brilliance as a student, and the glowing future that has been predicted for him, scholarships, fine schools, and a ticket to the top. It doesn’t happen that way, though. He is involved in a robbery that becomes a homicide, and he wants us to know none of it was his fault.

What?

This is what concerns me throughout most of the book. He describes the limitations on young Black men in America, the limitations of poverty; the racist assumptions; and the “toxic masculinity.” He is sexually assaulted as a youngster, and he considers that an element in his decision-making, the trauma of his past informing the crimes he commits later. He talks about this at length, but I’ll tell you what he doesn’t talk about much. He doesn’t talk much about the near-rape in which his was the pivotal role. He asks a “chick” out, and he and his friends are planning to “run a train” on her. But she is alarmed when she realizes that there are other men in the bedroom where they’re making out, and she gets away fast. He doesn’t recall her name, and he wants us to know he wasn’t that interested in her, anyway. She wasn’t “the pretty one,” she was the friend of the pretty one. And I keep wondering why he includes this if he feels so badly about what he and his homies nearly did to her. He pleads ignorance; he was a virgin. He just wanted to lose his virginity. He had believed she would welcome a roomful of men lining up to use her.

Uh huh.

There are also a good number of solid aspects to this memoir, most of them having to do with the dehumanizing American prison system. There’s not a lot that I haven’t seen before, but obviously, the system hasn’t been significantly altered as a result of the other memoirs that have seen publication, and so there’s a further need for stories like his. He speaks of how, while doing his time, after a visit from his mother, he kisses her on the cheek, and the guards swarm him to check the inside of his mouth before his mama is out the door. I’m guessing that after that farewell, the woman is out the door in a matter of seconds. What would it hurt to hold him there for 30 seconds, let the parent get out of the room, and then check him? It’s little things like this that increase the alienation felt by those that are incarcerated. Other countries don’t do it this way, and you have to wonder why the U.S. has to be so ugly about it. He leads a program and conducts protests while he’s inside, and is successful in making small changes. Other men learn from his work and are improved by it, and that’s something to be proud of.

But back to the robbery. He keeps reminding us that he was only nineteen years old, and I cannot, for the life of me, think why he considers this a mitigating circumstance. Ask a youth psychiatrist or counselor when men are at their most dangerous, and they will tell you that the teenage years are the worst, hands-down, because young men haven’t developed impulse control. And Peterson himself points out, later in the book, that when ex-cons get out of prison after spending a long time inside, they don’t go straight because they’re rehabilitated; they go straight because they’re older, and have outgrown that nonsense. It’s inconsistencies such as this one that weaken the narrative.

Toward the end, he pulls it together and claims responsibility, and he does so eloquently. But it makes me wonder why he didn’t go back and rewrite the earlier passages. Because there are a lot of red flags back there, things that those of us that have worked with at-risk youth know to listen and look for. For example, there are a lot of passive references to his crimes, things that “happened” rather than things that he did, or things that went differently than he expected; there’s an awful lot about his trauma, the environment, and allll the “toxic masculinity,” but thefts, robberies, and the homicide for which he was the lookout man but “didn’t even have a gun,” are given relatively little ink.

I’m carrying on quite a bit about this, but I have seen glowing reviews, and he’s gotten awards for this book, and nobody is talking about the red flags, and so I feel it’s important to mention them. The fact that the book ends with much more accountability is what’s kicked my rating up to four stars.

Read this book, but do it critically. There are lessons here that are intentional, and others that aren’t.

Buses Are a Comin’, by Charles Person and Richard Rooker*****

I’ve read my share of Civil Rights memoirs, and this is one of the best. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Charles Person grew up in an all-Black Atlanta neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. At the story’s outset, he describes how sleeping arrangements were juggled inside their two-room apartment, with four family members sleeping in the front room, and three, himself among them, back in the kitchen. Since everyone in the neighborhood had roughly the same economic standing, it didn’t occur to Person that his family might be considered poor. He was at the top of his class academically, college-bound. His family were faithful church goers, and his father worked two-plus jobs to provide the bare necessities, but they never went hungry. It was only later, when his neighborhood was featured on a news program addressing “Urban blight,” that he learned that the place he loved and called home was part of a “tenement.” The overall tone of his home life is set at the beginning, when he describes an incident from childhood. He and another child stole peaches off of a neighbor’s tree, and his mother marches them to the door, makes them confess—which meant looking the owner in the eye and using the word “stole,” rather than a softer euphemism—and pay for the fruit they ate. Thus we know there’s a definite moral compass here.

It isn’t until he’s grown that Person learns about racism. He gets his first job at a bowling alley, and he learns what parts of that place and the surrounding businesses he is allowed to access, and which are for whites only. Later, he insists on sending his test scores and application to a Georgia university, knowing his marks are excellent, but is notified by mail that the school will not admit Negro (the accepted term at the time) students. As the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina draw headlines, Person becomes part of a local student effort to end segregation at the lunch counters in their area. Person is thrown in jail, and when he is released a short time later, he is experienced, primed, and ready for more.

The story of Person’s life, and of the Freedom Rides, which make up most of the memoir, is riveting. It’s told in first person, in a you-are-there kind of narrative that drew me in. I listened to part of this story using the audio book that I borrowed from Seattle Bibliocommons, but although the reader generally does a serviceable job with the text, I recommend the print version. I winced when the reader mispronounced “mimeograph”; there are no mimes in there, honey. But mostly, there are a lot of freedom songs interspersing the story, as the riders sing in jail, sing in the bus, sing, sing, and sing some more, and I don’t know about you, but it sets my teeth on edge when in the audio version the lyrics are simply read, with or without rhythm. Many of these are well-known songs, and if I see the words on the page, I will hear the music in my head. Listening to someone recite the words in a bloodless, wooden recitation is just sad.

For anyone that misses the connection, Person draws the connection between the Freedom Rides and the struggle of the present:

“It is sixty years later, and politicians do the same today when the devalue and disrespect important African-American societal concerns by turning Black Lives Matter into All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter. No one argues against that, but changing the issue from “Black” to “All” steals the legitimacy of a vital concern that needs political attention and a political solution. The intentional and insidious shifting on an issue through language is a calculated move. It was by [Georgia Governor] Vandiver in 1960, and it is today. It avoids and insults at the same time.”

There is no better time to learn the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1900s, and apply them to the struggle against racist cop brutality in the present. If this subject makes you sit up a little straighter, you need this book. Of course, it’s also great reading for anyone that likes a good memoir, but even so, read it actively. There’s so much more work to be done.

Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour****

Darren leads a moderately successful life, in charge of a local Starbucks, and happy at home with his longtime girlfriend and his mama. But all of them know that he can do more with his talents, and so when a recruiter from Sumwun comes for Darren, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. But you know what they say; be careful what you wish for.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

When Darren changes jobs, he moves out of his familiar surroundings, comfortably populated with people of color, many of whom he has known all his life, to a corporation where he is the only Black man. He is demeaned and subjected to almost every possible stereotype and racist trope, but he perseveres, because this is a sales job, and the timid and weak stand no chance at all. He knows that the longer he stays there, the stronger he’ll get, and as far as that goes, it’s true. When a disaster befalls the company, it’s Darren that pulls it out of the water. And then again. And again. And yet, the crap thrown by others keeps hitting him.

The magic of good satire is the recognition it draws, the moans and the nods and the headshakes. The author tells us in his introduction that the book is written for Black people, and it doesn’t take long to see why Caucasian people may not relate as well. Even those of us living in mixed families can only glimpse the edges of what Black people put up with; even so, I do find myself groaning and chuckling as the story progresses.

This is a strong work of fiction and an impressive debut, and I recommend it to everyone that knows that Black Lives Matter, and especially to those that only suspect it’s true. I look forward to seeing what  Askaripour writes next.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett***-****

This book wasn’t on my radar until it hit the best seller lists. The premise is a provocative one, and so I hopped online and ordered a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. It held my attention all the way through, but when it concluded, I felt a little cheated.

The chief protagonists are two girls, twins, raised in a tiny (fictional) town deep in the American South. The whole town is Black, and everyone—everyone—is light skinned. Sisters Stella and Desiree become restless as they come of age, and they conspire to run away to the big city. They pack a few things, gather what money they can, and head for New Orleans. The time is the mid-1900s. They arrive, find a place to stay, and get jobs. One day Desiree comes home from work, but Stella doesn’t. She’s gone. Enough of her things are missing to suggest that she hasn’t met with foul play, yet Desiree is her twin, and she is undone by Stella’s unexpected departure. Not even a note!

Stella is in the North; Stella is passing for Caucasian. But to do so, she has to cut all family ties. Her new husband has no idea.

The story progresses, and Desiree does the opposite, marrying a man who is very dark. Their daughter is what might be called blue-black. Now neither twin can comfortably return to Mallard, with one too Black, and one not Black at all, as far as anyone can tell.

The story progresses through various life changes, and eventually the focus is on the twins’ daughters, one each. Of course, the reader must wonder whether the sisters will ever be reunited, and if so, what will happen then.

When the book is over, I feel as if I am leaving the table before I’m full. There were so many opportunities here, and the author squandered all of them. The protagonists never develop to the point where I bond with any of them, and I cannot tell what the author’s purpose is here.

This book is for sale, but don’t break the bank to get it. Read it free or cheap, or give it a miss.