The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’ve seen it happen over and over again: a black person gets killed just for being black, and all hell breaks loose.  I’ve tweeted RIP hashtags, reblogged picture on Tumblr, and signed every petition out there.  I’ve always said that if I saw it happen to somebody, I would have the loudest voice, making sure the world knew what went down.

Now I am that person, and I’m too afraid to speak.

I loved The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  This is one of those books that’s gotten a lot of “buzz,”and sometimes that makes a reader not want to pick something up. Sometimes the buzz is just too much to live up to.  I can only speak for myself when I say that, for me, it lived up to the hype.

IMG_0248I don’t typically read a lot of YA/Teen books, and I don’t think this book was really written with someone like me in mind, a 40 year-old white woman in Tennessee.  I really do think this was intended for young people, and I think that it would be particularly mind-blowing for young white people.  I know that if I’d read something like this when I was 14 or 15, it would have exploded my brain in the best of ways. That said, I think it still has much to offer us “old folks.”

A brief set-up for those who haven’t come across it:  it centers on Starr Carter, a 16 year-old African American girl living in contemporary times in a poor black neighborhood called Garden Heights.  She’s attending a predominantly white private high school called Williamson that’s 45 minutes away. Navigating relationships and friendships between the two worlds isn’t easy.  Her sense of self and how she feels she can talk and act shifts depending on where she is.  Her dad owns a store in the neighborhood, and his sense of duty to provide services and positive energy to the people in Garden Heights keeps him from moving their family away somewhere safer, despite Starr’s mother’s desire to move.  When Starr was ten years old, one of her best friends, Natasha, was killed before her eyes in a gang-related drive-by shooting.  Six years later, driving home from a party with another good childhood friend, Khalil, they get stopped by the police.

When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.

One was the usual birds and bees…

The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me. 

Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that.  He argued that I wasn’t too young to get arrested or shot.

“Starr-Starr, you do whatever they tell you to do,” he said.  “Keep your hands visible.  Don’t make any sudden moves.  Only speak when they speak to you.”

I knew it must’ve been serious.  Daddy has the biggest mouth of anybody I know, and if he said to be quiet, I needed to be quiet.

I hope somebody had the talk with Khalil.

This book is sad, no doubt, and made even more so for all the real young black men and women over the past few years that have been killed by police in the US in high-profile cases.  Starr’s beloved uncle is a police officer, so Thomas isn’t painting all the police with the same brush.  But this is definitely written from the perspective of a scared, hurting young black woman, filled with sadness and rage at the horror that’s happened right in front of her eyes.  It’s about a young women finding her voice, finding out who her friends really are, realizing just how much her family loves and supports her.  We go on an emotional journey with Starr, navigating her two worlds and trying to find a way to bring them together, while also trying to stay true to the memory of her childhood friend and the fight for justice.

What I appreciated most about the book was Starr’s family.  Her mom, dad, and brothers felt so real to me; the dialogue rang true, the references to hip-hop, both current and “old” (Tupac) placed this story in a recognizable cultural area for me, a hip-hop fan, even if I am the age of her parents!  Her mom and dad in particular are well-drawn, showing fierce love and protectiveness for their kids and a nuanced, realistic relationship with one another.  In reading about the warring gang members of Garden Heights I also felt like I got an education of sorts in the kinds of situations that might lead a young person to join a gang and maybe sell drugs, something that I think a lot of us white people who haven’t been in that situation would question.  Thomas really made me empathize with the lack of family support and lack of opportunities to get out of a hopeless situation by other methods.  I know it’s not her job, nor the job of any other black author to educate white people like me, but I do feel like my mind and my heart was opened more to something that I previously thought I already knew something about.

I do highly recommend this novel even if you don’t normally read YA, because I think that it’s among the best YA I’ve read.  It’s moving, compelling, thought-provoking.  There’s a vibrant momentum carrying the narrative forward, and even though it’s got some terribly sad scenes, there are moments of humor sprinkled throughout.  (One of my favorite scenes was when Starr’s dad explains his theory about Harry Potter being about gangs!  It’s classic.)  I’m excited to read anything Angie Thomas comes up with next.  Her refreshing, powerful voice is just the kind of voice we need more of in fiction, for readers of all ages.

 

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Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (#20BooksofSummer book 12)

I feel some trepidation as I begin writing this review.  I so want to do this book justice. Hunger by Roxane Gay is so powerful and honest and brave, and it’s one of my favorite books so far this year.  Roxane Gay pretty much puts her soul out there for everyone to see, the good and the bad, in an attempt to convey to the world what it’s like to live as a very fat woman in a society that abhors, pities, and stigmatizes fat people.22813605

I wish I did not see my body as something for which I should apologize or provide explanation.  I’m a feminist and I believe in doing away with the rigid beauty standards that force women to conform to unrealistic ideals.  I believe that we should have broader definitions of beauty that include diverse body types… I (want to) believe my worth as a human being does not reside in my size or appearance.  I know, having grown up in a culture that is generally toxic to women and constantly trying to discipline women’s bodies, that it is important to resist unreasonable standards for how my body or any body should look.

What I know and what I feel are too very different things.

This is not an easy read but neither is it unrelentingly brutal.  Gay chronicles the changes in her life, mental state, and body after being gang-raped by a boy she trusted and his friends when she was twelve.  She was a “good Catholic girl” and didn’t understand that what happened was not her fault, that she didn’t invite it in some way.  She didn’t tell her parents until she was well into adulthood (indeed, until her essay collection Bad Feminist came out.)  Instead, she decided that the best way to protect her body and soul from anything like that ever happening again was to eat.

I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode.  I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied – the hunger to stop hurting.  

Throughout high school and college and beyond, she kept getting bigger and her mental state kept deteriorating.  She even experienced a “lost year” where she moved to Phoenix on a whim, not telling her roommate or her parents where she was going.  Her parents, loving and supportive but always trying to “fix her weight problem,” finally hired a PI to find her.  She completed college, got her Masters, and slowly built her professional life.  But progress in her personal life was painstakingly slow, as she admits to letting people use her and treat her poorly because she felt she didn’t deserve better.

Gay also writes about weight loss “reality” shows like “The Biggest Loser,” how doctors (mis)treat her, and the wonders of the famous cook Ina Garten (“She teaches me that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.”)  She talks about getting tattoos (“I am taking back some part of my skin”) and the stress and indignities of dressing up for, traveling to, and getting around at readings and bookish events.  She is charming and insightful and very, very human.  I can’t imagine the courage it took to lay her life out there like this, so open and vulnerable.

Any woman, any person, who has ever felt ashamed of their body in some way will feel a kinship to Gay.  We may not know her exact struggle but we know the ways in which our bodies let us down, fail to measure up to the ideals in our minds.  Gay is, like any of us, a work in progress, and I was left feeling hopeful when I finished reading Hunger. Writing and talking about her pain and her body has helped her.  She writes, “I am not the same scared girl that I was.  I have let the right ones in.  I have found my voice.”  I am profoundly grateful that Roxane Gay decided to be so vulnerable in such a public way. I feel like she is helping others find their own voices.   This was a moving, compelling, beautiful memoir.  Five Stars.

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

With a full-time job, a husband, and a five year-old, most of my reading gets done on my breaks at work, or maybe in 20 minutes chunks before I fall asleep.  I hardly ever read for more than an hour at one time – either sleep or my short attention span win out.  So it’s a BIG DEAL for me to say that I read most of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (231 pages) in one sitting.  It was a Friday night, and I just felt like devoting my night (after my son fell asleep) to reading.  I did not want to put it down.  I was riveted by the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people falling in love in the midst of an unnamed Middle Eastern city crumbling into sectarian violence.

9780735212176They meet in class when the city had only experienced “some shootings and the odd car bombing.”  They have coffee in the cafeteria, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they talk and get to know one another a bit as any young couple might do.  And then more and more frightening and violent things begin to happen, and then things start to go all to hell, and they are thrown into a much more intimate relationship at a faster pace than they probably would have experienced otherwise.

But then a way out emerges:

Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe…

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so I won’t reveal more about the doors. That said, this not a book for everyone.  Lately I’ve read some of those Top Ten Tuesday lists about things that turn people off as readers, and magical realism is a popular turn-off. My tolerance for “weirdness” in books has only increased as I’ve gotten older, so I like magical realism, if it serves the story.  For me, the magical doors to more stable European and American cities worked.  I went with the device as a way to move the narrative along and as an ironic commentary on how often treacherous and deadly real-life migration is.  I ve read that sometimes magical realism makes a reader feel removed from the characters, but I didn’t feel this way at all.  I was fully immersed in Nadia and Saeed’s plight as they tried to find a place to be and tried to navigate complicated emotions in such a new and fragile relationship.

And the writing – my goodness!  It moved me.  There is something essentially human in Mr. Hamid’s writing that touched my heart.  This passage about Saeed’s prayers especially spoke to me:

“…he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other was.  When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we all carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another…”

Because I was moved, because I was transported, I am confident that Exit West will be on my year-end Top Ten list.  I now want to read all of his books with a new sense of urgency.

You can read a great interview with Mr. Hamid (and you should!) from the New York Times here.

Do you have plans to read Exit West?  How do you feel about magical realism or weirdness in books?  What was the last book you read in one (or two) sitting(s)?

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Sometimes it’s nice to not have the weight of expectations behind an author’s newest work.  I’ve only read one book by George Saunders, his breakout short story collection Tenth of December.  (I loved that, by the way.)  So coming into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t have all the expectations that someone who’d read and loved his other three short story collections and novella might.  I just knew from reading December that he had the capability to make me cry and make me laugh and terrify me in the span of 300 pages.  I knew that he has one of the most inventive voices in modern fiction, as well as one of the most humane.97808129953431

I was only slightly aware of Bardo’s premise: President Abraham Lincoln, a year or so into the Civil War, distraught over the death of his beloved young son Willie, ventures to the crypt where he is laid to rest to visit his son’s body.  Various spirits, including Willie’s, talk and swirl around Lincoln. “Bardo” is a Buddhist term for the spiritual state between death and rebirth.  That’s all I knew going in.  When I type that it seems kind of weird and morbid and, frankly, kind of boring.  But knowing what a master Saunders is, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

I’m so glad I did.

It’s a difficult novel to describe.  The structure took a little while for me to settle into.  I wasn’t exactly sure who was speaking in the first chapter (turns out it’s two spirits in the graveyard,) and then the next few chapters chronicle a White House state dinner that President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln are having, while the country is at war and while Willie and his brother Todd are both lying in bed very ill.  These chapters are comprised of snippets of facts and first-hand accounts from people who were there or who wrote of the dinner.  Saunders uses this technique to give a framework to the novel and inform the casual student of history of what was happening in the country at the time.  It was disorienting at first but I grew to appreciate it as a way to ground the more fantastical, imaginative elements of the novel.

We meet many, many spirits while we are in the cemetery, including a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed couple who bemoan the fact that their children never visit them, a prodigious hunter who has had a change of heart and is atoning for his kills, and an anxious mother who is convinced that her husband can’t be trusted to raise her children. All of the spirits here are tethered to the world for some reason, and they don’t seem to understand that they are dead. Young people who linger are particularly in danger, for if they don’t move on to the next realm quickly, they become ghastly, gruesome vessels of anguish, chained to the cemetery forever.  Three spirits emerge as main characters:  Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas.  We get to know each of these spirits very well over the course of the book, and they valiantly work together to try and shepherd young Willie Lincoln to the next spiritual level before it’s too late.  In trying to help him they are also figuring out things about their own spiritual predicaments.

This book may hold the record for The Most Times Laila Cried While Reading.  I picked it up and put it down dozens of times in the first half just because I didn’t want to sob in the break room at work during lunch.  So it took me a week to read it.  But once I got into the second half of the book, it flew.  I couldn’t put it down.  I still sobbed, but I knew I could handle it, because it was going somewhere that felt… satisfying and authentic.  This is a book about a father learning to let go of his beloved child and simultaneously coming to a deeper understand of all the other parents losing beloved sons to the horrors of the Civil War.  It’s about how human beings contrive all sorts of ways to forget that all the people we hold most dear will one day die, and that one day we will too.  It’s about loving and letting go, and helping others along that difficult path.  It was bawdy, quirky, heartbreaking, and utterly astonishing in its agility and scope.  It’s one of those kinds of books that I like to say are “about everything.”  For me, it’s about life itself.   It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.  George Saunders is full of compassion for his characters and for his readers, even though he may put us through the emotional wringer.  Don’t let my emotional state put you off reading this.  I’m a huge cry-baby!  I fully admit it!  I have a Goodreads shelf called “Sad But Worth It,” and Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely on that shelf.  Although it’s only March, I’m confident than this will be on my year-end Best Of list.