How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

How It Went DownHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

Sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson is shot and killed in his neighborhood while leaving a convenience store, in full view of several friends and acquaintances. His shocking death rattles his friends and family, and as his community tries to piece together what happened that day, different people have different opinions and notions about what they think they saw that day, and what kind of person Tariq really was. This novel is told from the perspective of several of his friends, a few acquaintances, his mother, his grandmother, and his sister, and it becomes clear as the book goes on that no one really has the full picture of how it went down that day.

This book is tough, guys. Kids being killed for no apparent reason – hell, anyone getting killed for ANY reason – is a really difficult subject. The subject itself is rough but add to the subject matter what’s going on now with KKK members and Nazis marching in Charlottesville, people being killed for opposing the obvious hatred and bigotry we saw there – it’s just heavy, guys. My heart is just so heavy these days.

But anyway, back to the book. How It Went Down is fantastic although so difficult to read. The way that Magoon is able to show these different perspectives of an incident that took seconds to occur, and how each person who was present saw things differently, people who weren’t there have Very Strong Opinions about what happened to Tariq, it’s just so true to life when these horrific things happen to real people.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, but with severe reservations. It’s done extremely well, the characters are vivid and true to life and nuanced and not one character is a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. Magoon created such realness within these pages, so much truth and genuine emotions. But it’s tough, because sometimes things like this happen in real life, and there are no answers as to why, and people have to live with the fact that their brother or son or best friend or sister or mother died and there’s no real explanation for it. How It Went Down is wonderfully done but oh so painful to read.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White AmericaTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
Published by St. Martin’s Press

This is a difficult one to “review” because there really can be no argument that what is being said here is in dispute, nor can we argue that it’s not being said in an eloquent, thoughtful, intellectual way by Dyson. He is a minister, so yes this is called a sermon, and it’s written as a sermon, but there is SO MUCH here that the format really shouldn’t matter. Anyone who says racism isn’t a problem in this country is either unable or unwilling to see the truth that is all around all of us, evidenced in every single institution we have, implicitly and explicitly woven throughout the fiber of the United States. As a white person, it may be uncomfortable at times to hear and see the truth of what we have done to create and cultivate racism in this country, but the truth is that we have. To ignore it is only furthering the problems and issues that centuries of hatred and ignorance have created.

There is so much in this book, so much meat to mull over and think about and discuss among friends/colleagues/family, that I think Tears We Cannot Stop falls into the category of must-read. But it’s one of those books that you can’t just read through, think about for a few minutes, and move on from. It’s one that needs to sink in, to fill your brain and consciousness, to reread passages over and over until the implications of what Dyson is saying are perfectly clear. This is not an easy read, but a critically important one. Don’t miss it.

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White MotherThe Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
Published by Riverhead Trade

From the publisher:

The Color of Water tells the remarkable story of Ruth McBride Jordan, the two good men she married, and the 12 good children she raised. Jordan, born Rachel Shilsky, a Polish Jew, immigrated to America soon after birth; as an adult she moved to New York City, leaving her family and faith behind in Virginia. Jordan met and married a black man, making her isolation even more profound. The book is a success story, a testament to one woman’s true heart, solid values, and indomitable will. Ruth Jordan battled not only racism but also poverty to raise her children and, despite being sorely tested, never wavered. In telling her story–along with her son’s–The Color of Water addresses racial identity with compassion, insight, and realism. It is, in a word, inspiring, and you will finish it with unalloyed admiration for a flawed but remarkable individual. And, perhaps, a little more faith in us all.

I’ve had The Color of Water on my TBR shelves FOREVER so I was happy to use the excuse of #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks to finally read the damn thing. It was really good – why did I wait so long?

Ruth McBride’s story is inspiring and fascinating. That she had the courage to go her own way, to leave her family and religion of origin in the name of true love and being authentically herself is inspiring. That she felt more at home among her husband’s family and friends and culture than her own is fascinating and a true testament to the fact that how a person is raised does not have to be how a person chooses to be as an adult in the world. Reading her story of how she grew up among fear and intolerance and a religious tradition that was not very favorable towards women sheds a lot of light on why she made the choice to leave that culture, but I’m sure many people grew up in a similar fashion and did not make the same choice. It was so fascinating reading about the circumstances and the series of events that led to her making the choices she did.

This book is as much about family as it is about Ruth McBride. It’s about how family can be whatever a person decides it to be – family can be created, family can become something different from what a person always anticipated they’d want as a child – family consists of many complex and nuanced relationships, there is a love/hate relationship among many members within a family. James McBride’s interactions and relationships with all of his brothers and sisters and of course, his mother, show how complex and complicated and interesting and sometimes, frankly, weird, family can be. But there is so much love in this book, love for his mother, love for his brothers and sisters, for his father he never knew and his stepfather who raised him, and pride for the woman his mother is and for the man she raised him to become.

The Color of Water is really a beautiful book, such a gorgeous tribute to an incredible woman who lived an ordinary and also extraordinary life. Highly recommended.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

We Love You, Charlie FreemanWe Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Published by Algonquin Books
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

The Freeman family–Charles, Laurel, and their daughters, teenage Charlotte and nine-year-old Callie–have been invited to the Toneybee Institute in rural Massachusetts to participate in a research experiment. They will live in an apartment on campus with Charlie, a young chimp abandoned by his mother. The Freemans were selected for the experiment because they know sign language; they are supposed to teach it to Charlie and welcome him as a member of their family.

Isolated in their new, nearly all-white community not just by their race but by their strange living situation, the Freemans come undone. And when Charlotte discovers the truth about the Institute’s history of questionable studies, the secrets of the past begin to invade the present.

The power of this novel resides in Kaitlyn Greenidge’s undeniable storytelling talents. What appears to be a story of mothers and daughters, of sisterhood put to the test, of adolescent love and grown-up misconduct, and of history’s long reach, becomes a provocative and compelling exploration of America’s failure to find a language to talk about race.

This is a tough one for me. The ideas presented in We Love You, Charlie Freeman are ones that don’t get explored much in fiction and definitely need to – we need to see more novels explore race in complex ways, to look at how racism has, and continues to be, such a huge part of the culture, but a part that we don’t want to talk about, we don’t want to examine, especially within our own hearts and minds. I love that this book does that. I love that this book takes racism and throws it in the readers’ faces – and the characters’ faces – and says, “look at me! I’m here! I’m a problem! You must figure out a way to talk about and address and maybe attempt to resolve me!”. While I love all of that, I didn’t love how the novel itself came together in a lot of ways.

Part of the issue for me was the chimp stuff was really, truly dark. I was expecting the family/chimp dynamic to be similar to a few other novels I’ve read on the subject, novels that portray this relationship as that of a family – perhaps the chimp becomes like a sibling to the kids in the family, or at the very least like a beloved family dog, part of the family in a very concrete way. That didn’t happen here. I get why it couldn’t happen, not just for the animal research part of the story but also for the greater arc of the story Greenidge was telling about this family, but it just was not fun to read about. This chimp, Charlie, did not like anyone in the family except for the mother, who he was of course obsessed with. This led to there being this level of tension just under the surface, in every single interaction between any two members of this family. It just felt so uncomfortable, and dangerous, because who knows what Charlie was capable of. I can also say that this feeling shows how talented of a writer Greenidge is, but in my case I just didn’t enjoy feeling that way throughout almost the entire book.

I did like how we saw this story from multiple points of view, and multiple time periods. I also liked how Charlotte’s sexuality was explored, but not in a showy way or like the author was trying to make a point, it was just part of her coming of age and growing up and figuring out who she is, what she likes, etc.

Like I said, We Love You Charlie Freeman is really a difficult one for me to “review”. Greenidge tried to do a lot with the book and I think she was successful in some areas, in others, not so much. I do plan to keep an eye out for her as an author, because I think she’s got excellent ideas and will continue to write smart, interesting books that push the envelope.

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Black BoyBlack Boy by Richard Wright
Published by HarperCollins

From the publisher:

Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.

Black Boy is Richard Wright’s powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.

I’ve had this book on my shelves for way too long, it’s one that I kept looking at, month after month and year after year, and telling myself how important of a book it is and that I HAVE to read it. Well, now I finally have, and of course I’m having that feeling of “why did I wait so long?”

To say that Black Boy is inspiring and powerful would be a huge understatement. Richard Wright grew up in the Jim Crow south, in a time and place when a black person simply looking at a white person the wrong way could cause them to be beaten or even killed. He grew up with parents who taught him that he wasn’t worthy of an education because of his race. He grew up being taught that reading was a waste of time, that learning wasn’t useful, and that to expect any more of himself than the poverty his family lived in would lead to disappointment.

Somehow, even with all of these forces against him, Wright decided from a young age that he would become more than his family believed he could be. He decided that, no matter what the cost, he would move out of the south, he would become successful, and he would never let someone tell him he was worthless again.

A lot of Black Boy is incredibly difficult to read. The suffering Wright and his family endured is beyond what most people can imagine. The cruelty and hatred that Wright and his family, and every other black person in that part of the country at that time, had to experience is beyond comprehension. It was certainly beyond my understanding before I read this book – it’s one thing to intellectually understand what Jim Crow meant to people, it’s a whole other thing to see it through the eyes of a child who experienced it first-hand. There’s not enough words to express what Wright went through: devastating, horrifying, soul-crushing, and many others come to mind.

But this is why Black Boy is an important book. There are people in the world, in this country, who don’t think racism is a problem. IT IS A PROBLEM. It is a thing, and continues to be a thing, and it’s systematic and has roots back to slavery (obviously) and Jim Crow laws and guys, it’s not over. Just because we elect a black president does not mean that racism has magically disappeared. Reading this book helped me gain a more clear understanding of just how deep-seated and entrenched in our foundation as a country and a society racism truly is. For this reason alone, everyone should read this book.

It’s also such an inspirational story. Wright made a decision that he was going to change his life, and he did that. It’s a testament to how powerful reading and education can be – because Wright could read, and was educated, he was able to do things with his life that many others in his situation could not have dreamed possible.

There’s so much to discuss about Black Boy, but really I would just highly encourage you to read it for yourself. This is an incredible memoir, one of the best I’ve read in a very long time, and such an important historical and cultural book. Highly, highly recommended.

Mini-reviews: Books About Feminism

There are some topics I find extremely difficult to write about because to me the truth is just so obvious that I don’t even know how to explain or argue for it, and one of those topics is feminism. I don’t know how to say, other than DUH, that every woman should be a feminist. To me, feminism is the simple belief that women should have equal rights as men. And it’s not just rights under the law – women should have the same societal rights as men, things like … let’s see, the freedom to walk down a public street without getting harassed, the freedom to work at a job where your boss doesn’t sexually assault you, the freedom to have a few drinks at a party or bar without the constant vigilance to not get raped. Things like that. But since this is so obvious to me, it’s hard for me to discuss it with any measure of intelligence because I just want to throw up my hands at anyone who disagrees and walk out of the room in anger. Since that’s not productive, usually I just don’t discuss it. But I do like reading about it, I like books that enrich my understanding of where the feminist movement has been, where it’s going, and what feminists young and old can learn about those who came before us. So here are two such books.

The Beauty MythThe Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf
Published by Harper Perennial

Alongside the evident progress of the women’s movement, however, writer and journalist Naomi Wolf is troubled by a different kind of social control, which, she argues, may prove just as restrictive as the traditional image of homemaker and wife. It’s the beauty myth, an obsession with physical perfection that traps the modern woman in an endless spiral of hope, self-consciousness, and self-hatred as she tries to fulfill society’s impossible definition of “the flawless beauty.”

I wanted to put that short synopsis there because for those who haven’t heard of this book I wanted to give a little snapshot of what Wolf means by the beauty myth. This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years and somehow never got to. It’s exceptionally well-written, which is what you’d expect from someone like Wolf. She uses facts to prove her arguments and her research is extensive. Much of this book fell into the obvious category for me, but the way Wolf lays out her arguments and explains the intricate layers of the beauty myth, and how it affects woman at so many different levels, deepened my understanding of it. This is a must-read for anyone interested in feminism.

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of LibertyKilling the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
Published by Vintage

I am ashamed to say that before picking up this book, I hadn’t read a book that dealt with the intersection of race and gender. This book rocked my world, opened my eyes to so many things I hadn’t even considered before, and is generally one of the best books on feminism I’ve ever read. It’s incredible to understand how much my white privilege has kept me from even thinking about the issues Roberts presents in this book. Roberts does such a fantastic job tracing the history of black women’s bodies being used for purposes other than what the women themselves actually want all the way back to slavery. Her research is impeccable and the timeline of the book makes a lot of sense – it makes what could be a dense and difficult read very easy to follow and instinctual in its getting from start to finish. Killing the Black Body is an incredible read that is a MUST for anyone who cares about feminism or racism. (Which should be everyone, but sad to say it’s not.) Please read this one.