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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Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliott*****

I was invited to read and review this book by Random House and Net Galley, and immediately I accepted, because it’s right in my wheelhouse. However, I also understood that it would be a painful read, and I postponed it for months, because 2021 was already a terrible year, and I wasn’t feeling brave. So my apologies for the delay; at the same time, this book is not quite as wrenching as I expected, and the research and writing are stellar. It’s for sale now.

Dasani Coates is the firstborn child of an impoverished, disorganized African-American mother with few marketable skills.  She is named after the premium brand bottled water, because her mom thinks it’s a beautiful name. (Wait till you see what the next baby’s name will be!) They live in Brooklyn, and not long after Dasani is born, she has a sister. And another. And another, and then eventually a brother and a couple of step-siblings. None of them are the result of poor family planning; all are planned and wanted. But at the same time, they have very few resources, and the slender safety net provided by relatives doesn’t last forever; and the city fails to protect its most vulnerable denizens.

As a retired teacher that worked in high poverty schools, I have seen families similar to this one, and the children suffer the most, every stinking time. I’ve also seen children take on the role that Dasani assumes without ever planning to do so, that of the adult in the house (when there is a house,) caring for a large group of tiny people when the actual adult isn’t adulting. If you watch closely enough for long enough, it can eat you alive; as for the far-too-young surrogate parent, I have seen them cope admirably, right up until they become adults themselves, and often, it is then that they fall apart. I don’t know whether that holds true for Dasani, because we don’t see her as an adult, but I can well imagine.

Elliott, a Pulitzer winning journalist from The New York Times, follows this family closely for eight years, sometimes sleeping on the floor of their house or apartment. In her endnotes, she explains her methodology, her relationship to the family during this project, and the parameters determined by the paper, for whom she originally did this research. Dasani was the subject of a front page series on poverty in New York which ran for five days. Elliott’s documentation is impeccable, and she can write like nobody’s business.

Because I am running behind, I check out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and I want to give a shout out to Adenrele Ojo, the narrator, who is among the very best readers I’ve yet encountered. Though I continue to use my review copy at times, I like Ojo’s interpretation of the voices for each of the large number of characters so well that I find I prefer listening to reading.

As I read, I become so attached to Dasani that I skip to the end—which I almost never do—because if she is going to get dead, I need to brace myself for it. I’ll tell you right now, because for some of you, this might be a deal breaker, and I’d hate for you to miss this important biography: it’s dark, but not that dark.

I don’t find myself feeling nearly as sympathetic toward Dasani’s mother, Chanel, as the author does, but I do think Dasani’s stepfather, who is the only father she knows, gets a bad, bad break. He jumps through every single bureaucratic hoop that is thrown at him in an effort to get some help for the seven children left in his care, and every time, the city turns its back on him, right up until a social worker comes calling, finds that they don’t have the things they need, and takes his children. This made me angrier than anything else, apart from a few boneheaded, destructive things that Chanel does.

For those that care about social justice and Civil Rights issues, this book is a must read. I highly recommend it to you.  

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.

Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang*****

“Secrets. They have so much power, don’t they?”

Qian Julie Wang is born in China to a professional couple living under the shadow of governmental disfavor. Her father’s elder brother has written critically about Mao Zedong, naively signing his own name to the article, and as a result, the entire family lives under a cloud and the threat of violence, courtesy of Chinese Stalinism. When her father finds a way to relocate himself and his family to New York, it is under a tourist visa, and so they cannot legally remain in the USA, or get any sort of legitimate employment. Wang’s memoir tells of the deprivation and terror, combined with occasional lifesaving windfalls and ingenuity, of growing up as an “illegal,” and of how, against all odds, she ultimately finds success and citizenship.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the invitation to read and review, along with my apologies for being inexcusably late.

Wang comes to the USA, which in Chinese translates to “Beautiful Country,” as a small child. From the moment her feet touch American soil, her parents drill the story into her: “I was born here. I’ve lived here all my life.” Because they are in the US illegally, they must find work to do under the table, and so they are exploited by the most malevolent sweatshop owners. At first, Wang is also employed, toddling off to do piecework with her mother, but eventually she is enrolled in school, where she proves to be highly capable once she overcomes the barriers of language and culture.

More than anything, her life and that of her parents is dominated by fear and secrecy. Opportunities that would otherwise be helpful must often be bypassed because of the documentation required. Her parents’ emotional stability, their marriage, and her mother’s health are broken.

If this story seems unbearably grim—and I confess, this is why I delayed reading it, moving other, pleasanter stories to the top of my queue—it is ultimately a story of resilience and of triumph. Wang is a gifted writer, and she breaks up the horror by recounting small victories and pleasures that punctuate her youth. But the most important aspect of how the memoir is presented, is that everything is told through the lens of childhood, and so we see everything as a seven-year-old Chinese girl, a nine-year-old, etc. would see it.

Because I had fallen behind, I checked out the audio version of this memoir from Seattle Bibliocommons, and Wang does her own narration, which is my favorite way to hear a book, because there’s no danger that the reader will add emphasis or interpretation that conflicts with the author’s intentions. The climax arrived as I was wrapping Christmas gifts, which made me all the more aware of my level of privilege.

Wang tells us:

“Most of all, I put these stories to paper for this country’s forgotten children, past and present, who grow up cloaked in fear, desolation, and the belief that their very existence is wrong, their very being illegal. I have been unfathomably lucky. But I dream of a day when being recognized as human requires no luck—when it is right, not a privilege. And I dream of a day when each and every one of us will have no reason to fear stepping out of the shadows.”

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.

Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott*****

It really is.

This book is a standout in more ways than one. First the obvious: look at that cover! Then again, how many novels have a nameless protagonist all the way through the book? Get into it deeper, and the distinctions become more complex. The buzz around it is wholly justified. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our author is on an odyssey that takes the form of a book tour, and it lands him, in the end, back where he grew up. He doesn’t tour alone; apart from the various organizers he meets in various locations, he is accompanied by a small Black child he refers to as “The Kid.” Alternately, we also see the story of a young Black boy, a very Black boy, nicknamed “Soot,” who grows up in the American South.

As I read, I am always on the back foot, understanding most of what it being said, yet developing questions as I go. Our author says (often) that he has a condition, and that this is probably why he can see The Kid when others cannot. My notes ask whether his condition is dissociative, and is The Kid just part of himself? Or is The Kid Soot? Are Soot and The Kid both part of the author? Every time I come up with a plausible theory, something else happens to undercut it. Yet one other thing becomes clearer all the way through: to be born an African-American boy in the United States is to be perpetually on the back foot; perpetually having to guess how best to proceed; to perpetually guess at one’s welcome or lack of same, at the quality of one’s relationships with Caucasians, to perpetually guard one’s own safety. And to be very Black—“Nigga, I bet when you get out of the car your daddy’s oil light come on”—is to invite not only the suspicion and hostility of Caucasians, but to draw the enmity of lighter Black people, too.

The synopsis of this story that initially drew me billed it as humor, and in places, it is not only funny, but laugh-out-loud funny. But the further we get in, the darker it becomes.

There are a number of sardonic references to the publishing world; editors, agents, and other promoters have told the author that while it’s fine to write about Black characters, He must not write about being Black:

“The last thing people really want to hear about is being Black. Being Black’s a curse—no offense—and nobody wants to feel cursed when they read something they just finished paying $24.95 for…The future of this country is all about patriotic, unity-inducing language. Post-Racial. Trans-Jim Crow. Epi-Traumatic. Alt-Reparational. Omni-Restitutional. Jingoistic Body-Positive. Sociocultural-Transcendental. Indigenous-Ripostic. Treat of Fort Laramie-Perpendicular. Meta-Exculpatory. Pan-Political. Uber-Intermutual. MOK-Adjacent. Demi-Arcadian Bucolic. Write about love. Love and Disney endings…”

Later, an interviewer asks if the past doesn’t still matter, and the author says, “It does. Not just three-fifths of it, but all of it.”

So, my friend, you can see why this book should be called a love story. Race? Oh, no no no. Fear? Injustice? Police brutality? Of course not. After all, this is a hell of a book!

Highly recommended; one of the year’s finest.

Pianos and Flowers, by Alexander McCall Smith**

Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me.

The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)

This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language.

I am so done with that.

This thing is for sale if you really want it.

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!

Lightning Strike, by William Kent Krueger*****

Lightning Strike is the prequel to William Kent Krueger’s successful, long-running mystery series based on a Minnesota sheriff, Cork O’Connor. This is my introduction to the series; my introduction to this author came in 2019, when I read and reviewed This Tender Land.  I read this free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. It will be available to the public Tuesday, August 24, 2021.

In the prequel, Cork is twelve, and he’s on a camping expedition with his friend Jorge when they come across a body hanging off the maple tree at Lightning Strike. What’s worse, it’s someone they know; the corpse is that of Big John Manydeeds, the uncle of a close friend. Cork’s father, Liam, is the sheriff, and although he’s been told to let the adults investigate this horrific event, Cork keeps coming up with useful bits of information.

Seems he has a knack.

One of the most admirable aspects of Krueger’s writing is the way he folds his setting, characters, and plot seamlessly to create an atmospheric stew that’s impossible to look away from. The story takes place in the far northern reaches of Minnesota in (fictitious) Tamarack County, near Iron Lake and the iron range, as well as the Ojibwe (Chippewa) Indian Reservation, and the tension and conflict between tribal members, which include Cork’s mother and grandmother, toward Caucasians, which include Liam, are a central feature of this mystery. Tribal members insist that Big John would never have taken his own life, and even had he done so, he would never done it at this sacred location. At first they aren’t taken seriously, but as events unfold, it becomes increasingly clear that they are right. This was no suicide.

The key suspect in Big John’s murder proves to be the town’s wealthiest citizen, a tightfisted, overtly racist, elderly Scotsman that owns practically everything. He’s a suspect too soon to be the actual killer, I figure, and I think I can see where the story is headed, but without giving anything away, I have to tell you, Krueger introduces all sorts of twists and turns I don’t see coming, and they aren’t far-fetched ones, either.

There is dark foreshadowing all over the place, and the tension and outrage that exists between the tribe and law enforcement—well, the sheriff, really—grow to ominous proportions. Liam insists on examining facts and hard evidence; the Ojibwe are eager to include portents and messages from the great beyond. They want that nasty rich guy arrested now, if not sooner, and when Liam tells them that it doesn’t work that way because circumstantial evidence isn’t enough, that hearsay can’t win a conviction, they scoff and point out that when the suspect is Ojibwe, those things are always more than adequate. And again, they have a point. A local business owner who is Ojibwe tells him, “Sheriff, you better believe every Shinnob on the rez is watching you right now. Every step you take.”

While Liam is busy with his work, nobody is paying much attention to the boys; Cork, Jorge, and their friend Billy Downwind, who is related to Big John, poke around some more, and what they unearth is both shocking and dangerous.

Lightning Strike owned me until it was done, and though I rarely do this, I’m headed to the Seattle Bibliocommons to find the next book, which is technically the first in the series, because for this series and this writer, once cannot possibly be enough. Highly recommended!

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.