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.  

Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward*****

WheretheLineBleedsWard is a force to be reckoned with, a literary power house whose books everyone should read. I read the third book in this trilogy, the National Book Award winning Sing, Unburied, Sing last summer, and then I knew I had to read everything else she had ever written. When I saw that this title, the first in the same trilogy, was being released again and that review copies were available, it seemed like Christmas. Many thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. This book was released again last week and is now for sale.

Twins Christophe and Joshua are graduating from high school, exuberant and full of plans for the future. The sole source of tension, a longstanding one that is integral to their deepest senses of self, is whether their mother, Cille, will put in an appearance. She lives in Atlanta, but she might come home to see them walk. Then again, she might not. They assure each other that really, only Ma-mee matters. Ma-mee is their grandmother, but she is the one that raised them since they were tiny; in fact, their grandmother really wanted them, and their mother really didn’t.

When their graduation present arrives—a used but still nice car for the two of them to share—they snicker to one another and say this means Cille isn’t coming. She’s done with them for sure now, bought her way out of a personal appearance. But Joshua still hopes; Joshua still longs for her.

Their father, Samuel, lives locally, and it is at him their anger is unequivocally directed. Known as the Sandman, he is beneath the contempt of even the most humble local citizens, a meth addict with a mouth full of rotting teeth that will do anything, no matter how humiliating or unprincipled, for even the smallest sum of drug money. Samuel has never pitched in a dime to help Ma-mee raise them, but now that they are adults—at least officially—he has come sniffing around.  The twins’ rage toward him is measureless.

The thing that makes this story so visceral, so moving, and so deeply absorbing is the character development and the complexity of the relationships between and among the twins and the two women. Cille’s insensitivity makes me punch my pillow a couple of times. Can she not see how little food they have, despite their proud claim to be fine, just fine?  Every gesture, every word is weighted with meaning. No statement, no financial transaction, no arrival or departure is without weight. The blues festival Cille has planned to attend as part of her vacation—to which the twins are of course not invited—and the money carelessly dropped on a rental car could go so much farther to help her elderly mother, who is legally blind now, but instead she leaves Ma-mee to her eighteen year old sons to care for. They both assume they will be able to get jobs once they have high school diplomas; they have no police record, and they’re not too proud to apply at fast food outlets and other retail locations.

The best jobs to be had are on the docks, but not everyone can get one. Their cousin observes, “Everybody and they mama want a job at the pier and the shipyard. Everybody want a job down there can’t get one.”

And so  “reality [rolled] over them like an opaque fog…” Joshua, the lighter of the twins, is hired, but Christophe can’t get a job there or anywhere else.  And so a new division is born, and a new source of tension develops. Joshua feels guilty, apologetic, and yet as time goes on, as he sweats for long hours in the Mississippi summer sun carrying chicken guts and who knows what else, his brother absents himself and comes home high; he sleeps into the day, and sometimes shows up late to pick Joshua up from work.  He’s given in to his cousin’s invitation to deal drugs, and that puts everyone at risk.

Over and again, I can see that the twins are still children. Young men don’t grow up quickly anymore. They are children emotionally and developmentally until their mid-twenties, and yet this burden is Joshua and Christopher’s to carry; the choices they make are not the choices of criminals or saints, but the choices of children. Yet they carry the burdens of men, and they are aware this is because of the defection of their mother.

Ward’s more recent work is even better written than this one, and yet it’s harsher, too; I had to put it down from time to time, because it was getting dark out there. This story in contrast is one I could read for hours on end, and I did. There’s violence aplenty as well as tragedy, but this is a reality I can look at without flinching, and that’s worth a great deal too.


Highly recommended to those that love outstanding literary fiction, African-American fiction, Southern fiction, and family stories.

A Street Cat Named Bob, and How He Saved My Life, by James Bowen *****

AstreetcatnamedbobHow does a young man from a middle income family end up sleeping on the streets in a cardboard box, addicted to heroin?

Answer: it happens all the time. It’s closer than you think.

James Bowen does a really fine job relating, in this lovely little memoir, how it happened to him, and the role Bob, a street cat who adopted him, had in pulling him off of Methodone and toward recovery and a life in mainstream Britain.

Here’s the disclosure: I won this book through the giveaways. I say this on the fifth day of my new blog with a kind of nostalgia, since this was the first book I got free in exchange for a review; it’s been just over a year since then. The review to follow is the one I originally wrote for him back then.

James Bowen’s memoir smacked me upside the head by showing me a bias I did not know I had. First, I assumed this might be poorly written, and successful in England for the content and novelty of its subject matter rather than any attendant writing skill. When I saw the elegantly simple text, the well-crafted pacing, the deftness with which the writer weaves his life’s narrative in and out of the tale about himself and his cat, I started to look for a co-author or an “as told to”. In short, I did not really believe that someone who had (as he put it) “fallen between the cracks” of society would have the skill to write this book.

Slap my Marxist mouth! I am appalled by the social Darwinist that was lurking in the shadows of my own character, and I thank Bowen for casting that particular demon out by the dumpster, where it belongs.

Bowen has a few really brilliantly descriptive passages here, but he is not a master wordsmith. What works is the continuity of the story without any pauses for maudlin self pity. What amazes and strikes deeply, at least for me, is the way he continues for an astonishingly long period of time to assume that the cat will not want to stay with him. He has taken it in, but assumes that the streets will do better for this critter than he ever could. Time and again, he offers the cat the opportunity to run away and reject him, even after he has spent nearly all of his hard-earned money gained as a street musician on veterinary care, food, and wow, even a microchip (which my own little beagle does not have). Bob has the character to stick around, though, and eventually, in a truly marvelous moment, when a well-to-do woman offers Bowen a thousand pounds for his cat, he in turn asks her the price of her youngest child.

Sometimes people who have seen life’s dark underside commit terrible crimes and take a passive voice in discussing them later. They didn’t do something, but rather, it happened. A recent headline in my home city blared that a killer had apologized for his crimes, but when I read the article, the “apology” turned out to be, “I am so very sorry for the things that happened.” Though Bowen is surely no killer, I was watching for it. I’ve worked with youngsters who have been in and around the juvenile “justice” system here in the States. They get good at distancing themselves from their own wrongdoing, seeing it as tragic but inevitable, and adults do it too. But Bowen does not do that and does not go there. Anything he did, was something he did. If it was wrong, he owns that too. It gives his writing integrity that those who feel terribly sorry for themselves cannot impart.

So here it is. This book is terrific, and you should buy it and read it. When I entered the giveaway, I signed an agreement that this review could be used for marketing purposes by the author and his agents. I wasn’t required to write it, though, and if you’ve read my other reviews, you know I never pull punches. This one was well earned, by the way the man pulled himself out of the abyss, for himself and for his kitty, and for the way he tells the story.

Good job, Bowen.

The War on Drugs: A Failed Experiment, by Paula Mallea ****

This is a dry read, but the content makes it worthwhile. Mallea has some important things to say, and it’s time to sit up and take notice.

Awhile back, Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow. It was (and is) a wake-up call for Americans who have not been paying attention to the fact that drugs are now the pretext for incarcerating an unprecedented proportion of young Black men in the USA. They emerge, Alexander points out, stripped of their citizenship rights, to vote, to hold office, and in some cases if they are convicted a third time, they are packed away for life. Those who go back into the work force have a harder time finding a job and often settle for low-paying, menial jobs. Those whose pride cries out against it head right back into underground ways of making a buck, and the cycle continues.

I don’t generally cite so extensively from another author when reviewing a book, but Mallea grabs the baton where Alexander has stopped, and she takes it across the finish line. Alexander has shown us the problem, and Mallea has a great solution. Let’s stop endlessly pursuing drug users and abusers. Let the madness cease.

Mallea points out that African-Americans use crack less frequently than Caucasians, but they are incarcerated for this offense far oftener than white people. I did not see statistics regarding other countries and their under-served minorities, in the cases were these exist, but Mallea is primarily making a case for what the USA should do, and she maintains her focus, avoids side issues. When she mentions policy and practice in other nations, it is to show that the War on Drugs has affected other nations adversely, and that there is an international trend, with some exceptions, toward decriminalization or even legalization of what are now illegal drugs. If the US were to make changes, we’d have plenty of company.

The war on drugs is a failure if the object truly is to stop people from using illegal drugs. Mallea’s documentation is nearly as lengthy as her narrative. It is clear that she understands her proposition will be a tough sell, and she has rolled up her sleeves and proven her case well.

For this reviewer, teaching in high poverty schools and raising teenagers–white, Asian, and Black–in the city of Seattle has provided evidence enough. If I didn’t value the privacy of my family and former students, I could write my own book. So to be fair, I should mention that Mallea didn’t have to convince me; I was already convinced. But for those more skeptical but willing to look at the data, she has painted an extremely compelling argument.

Because in making drugs either a minor offense, punishable by a fine as many locales punish violations of open container laws, a great deal of money can be saved by federal and local governments. If legalized, some sort of quality control can ensure that fewer people ingest rat poison when they think they are taking a barbiturate. Education and treatment plans are more effective if those who wish to be treated don’t fear arrest when they come forward to seek help. The money saved in chasing America’s Black youth and packing them off to become denizens of the ever-growing prison system could instead be used for treatment facilities. It’s both economically sensible and humanitarian.

But what of those who don’t want treatment?

Again, it doesn’t change anything in the long run for those people, just as Prohibition would not have kept your Aunt Millie from getting drunk enough to fall forward into the eggnog at holiday gatherings. But very few people–especially youth–are actually rehabilitated by prison. The data on this is thick on the ground, but Mallea’s bibliography and footnotes should convince you if you don’t already know this.

What is more, 50% of the abuse is due to prescription drugs that have fallen into the wrong hands. Those of us who have legitimate prescriptions for controlled substances (this is me speaking, not the author) have noticed that we have to do everything except strip naked and write our name in blood when we fill those prescriptions. and it is because there are individuals out there who lack any sense of obligation to the greater good, and procure those drugs through theft or fraud, then sell them on the street. In some cases, people who legitimately have the drugs and need them sell them anyway out of economic desperation: she cites the case of a truck driver who sold two Oxycontin to a woman he thought was a prostitute so that he could put fuel in his truck. Bad news for him! She was an undercover cop, and he was under arrest.

The War on Drugs is more like a Frankenstein monster that has orbited out of control. It’s time to seek a saner solution.

Here in Seattle, Mallea’s postulation has proved correct so far, at least in regard to decriminalization of marijuana. Let’s be a little braver, probe a little deeper. Most huge social changes appear frightening at the outset, and yet later we look back, as we do now at the choice to end Prohibition, and wonder why the change wasn’t made sooner.

But don’t take my word for it. Look at what Paula Mallea has to say. Look at the logical, well laid out arguments, and then check the footnotes. Her data is excellent and from a wide variety of sources. With this much information in favor of what she proposes, what seems like a radical idea at first becomes an obvious solution.

Highly recommended.

A Swollen Red Sun, by Matthew McBride *****

A shudder went through me as I pressed the five star rating, but it’s true: this is among the very best of its genre. Think of Deliverance; think of The Shawshank Redemption on steroids. No…picture it on crank.

A Swollen Red Sun is set in the middle of the hills and “hollers” in Missouri, a long, long way from a real city, a miserable, impoverished place where some folks’ goal is just to find a nice, normal person to smoke crank with instead of all these crazies. (I am avoiding the direct quotation because I read a galley and the rules don’t allow me to use them, but the figurative language and many other well-turned passages here make it really really tempting.) All told, this horrific account of a small community that has rotted from the inside out will make you think long and hard about whether growing up out in a rural area will somehow keep your kids isolated and protected from all the drugs, crime, and gangs that you know big cities hold.

At least in those cities, there are wholesome choices to be made as well, such as museums, theaters, and video arcades. And at least in those cities, there will be someone to hear you scream.

In my own digital shelves, I labeled this grim but brilliant work as “crime fiction”, but that doesn’t really cut it (oh, if you’ll excuse the expression). It’s more like a horror story minus the supernatural elements. McBride stirs up plenty of horror without needing to summon spirits from the great beyond. His are right here on earth, and they do a fine job of giving the reader a case of the heebie-jeebies all by themselves.

Yet, curiously, this novel has just enough moments of relief, however momentary, to keep it from crossing my “ick” threshold. You know what I mean, right? Once in awhile I start reading a book that is so unrelentingly horrifying, contains deeds so nightmarish that I think, “I don’t want to spend my time with something like this,” and then walk around with a sour stomach for a week over what I have already read. I thought this one might go there, but it didn’t.

I have a friend who likes Patricia Cornwell just fine, but there are certain other writers that she’s told me she’ll take a pass on. When I finish a book by Stephen King, I don’t send it her way, and likewise, both Jan Burke and the non-Sherlock thrillers by Laurie B. King caused her to say, “It’s too much.” And for my friend, this story would also, I guarantee, be too much. Let that be your litmus test.

So my advice for you is this. If you like a fast-moving, original, complex thriller with plenty of skeletons in plenty of closets metaphorically, I promise this hardscrabble tale will hold your attention to the very end. If your nerve-endings are too tender for horror tales, or if you have recently had someone close to you die and you aren’t really over it, you may want to set this title aside, at least for now.

I would be amazed if there are no awards headed this author’s direction. It’s a powerhouse of a story, and there’s really nothing else like it.