Long Division by Kiese Laymon

51mAbD8758L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes I read something and when I’m finished I think, “I don’t know if I really got this.”  Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division is one of those books.  I know I would benefit from a reread, and from simply sitting with it longer than my appetite for reading allows.  Even after a book group meeting and discussion, I still don’t think I fully grasp this novel.  It’s a mind-bending book-within-a-book.  We go from 2013 to 1985 to 1964 and back again.  Characters show up and disappear, characters experience and witness violence, there is humor and sadness and time travel and I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to take from all of this except that I was invested and surprisingly moved in the end.

The book starts out in 2013 with our hero, Jackson, Mississippi high-schooler City (Citoyen) Coldson, getting ready to compete with a few classmates and others in the Can You Use That Word in a Sentence Contest, which was “started in 2006 after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased.”  It’s nearly impossible to set up this novel, so here’s the Goodreads description:

 The book contains two interwoven stories. In the first, it’s 2013: after an on-stage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest, 14-year-old Citoyen “City” Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. The next day, he’s sent to stay with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, where a young girl named Baize Shephard has recently disappeared.

Before leaving, City is given a strange book without an author called Long Division. He learns that one of the book’s main characters is also named City Coldson–but Long Division is set in 1985. This 1985 City, along with his friend and love-object, Shalaya Crump, discovers a way to travel into the future, and steals a laptop and cellphone from an orphaned teenage rapper called…Baize Shephard. They ultimately take these with them all the way back to 1964, to help another time-traveler they meet protect his family from the Klan.

City’s two stories ultimately converge in the mysterious work shed behind his grandmother’s, where he discovers the key to Baize’s disappearance.

It’s not a long book, despite all the plot elements. There’s different typeface for what’s happening in the present day and what’s happening in the book City’s reading, which helps a bit to keep everything straight.  It tackles serious subjects like race, class, and sexuality, with a sideways dark humor.  It felt alternately playful and serious.  Parts of it, especially at the beginning, reminded me of another book that made me feel dull-witted:  Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.  (Not as outrageous, though.)  I was not prepared for how absorbing this book is – it’s more like a speculative mystery than straight literary fiction. What happened to Baize?  What is City’s grandmother hiding in her shed?  Does everyone make it back to the present day?  I was also not prepared for how emotional I would get reading it.  I know.  I cried, how shocking!  😀 But for most of the book I was kept at a distance by the book-within-a-book format and the dizzying prose, and then – BAM!  The last 30 pages hit me hard.

Make no mistake, this book is using fantasy and humor and meta fiction to talk about race in the Deep South.  A white man in conflict with City’s grandmother says a mouth full with one sentence.

“Y’all mad at something more than me,” he said.  “I ain’t do it.”

There’s a powerful moment where City is in his grandmother’s church, and he’s wondering what the parishioners would think if they knew what his grandmother was doing.  He says,

If they ever found out, maybe two of them would talk smack about my grandma, but I figured that everyone in the church had been treated like a visitor on their own road, in their own town, in their own state, in their own country.  It wasn’t really complicated at all, but I’d never understood it until right then in that church.  When you and everyone like you and everyone who really likes you is treated like a pitiful nigger, or like a disposable nigger, or or like some terrorizing nigger, over and over again, in your own home, in your own state, in your own country, and the folks who treat you like a nigger are pretty much left alone, of course you start having fantasies about doing whatever you can – not just to get back at white folks, and not just to stop the pain, but to do something that I didn’t understand yet, something a million times worse than acting a fool in front of millions at a contest.

As I write this, I’ve decided that I must read this book again.  And I’ve got to slow down next time.

 

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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.

 

Juliet Takes A Breath by Gabby Rivera

I really enjoyed reading Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath.  Several bloggers I follow had  recommended this coming-of-age novel and I thought it would be a good pick for my goal of reading more LGBTQ authors in 2017.  What I didn’t anticipate was what a lively, energetic voice the character of Juliet would have.  I didn’t anticipate the extent to which I would identify with Juliet, despite not being Puerto Rican or a lesbian. This novel truly was a breath of fresh air.28648863

The bones of the story is this:  Juliet is a freshman in college, and she’s just come out to her close-knit family in the Bronx the day before leaving for a summer internship in Portland, Oregon.  She obtained the internship with feminist author Harlowe Brisbane by writing a beautiful, funny, soul-baring letter to her, which the book opens with.

I’ve got a secret.  I think it’s going to kill me.  Sometimes I hope it does.  How do I tell my parents that I’m gay?  Gay sounds just as weird as feminist. How do you tell the people that breathed you into existence that you’re the opposite of what they want you to be?  And I’m supposed to be ashamed of being gay, but now that I’ve had sex with other girls, I don’t feel any shame at all.  In fact, it’s pretty fucking amazing.  So how am I supposed to come out and deal with everyone else’s sadness?  … You did this to me.  I wasn’t gonna come out.  I was just gonna be that family member who’s gay and no one ever talks about it even though EVERYONE knows they share a bed with their “roommate.”  Now everything is different.

While Juliet is in Portland she is dealing with the emotional fallout of her coming out to her family and also trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with her first girlfriend. She’s researching forgotten feminist heroines for Harlowe and learning new terms like “PGPs” (preferred gender pronouns.) She smokes weed and drinks soy milk and flirts with cute baristas and librarians.  She learns that while her idol may be an expert on feminism, she is still clueless when it comes to dealing with her white privilege.

What I really liked about this novel was the fact that we not only got to join Juliet on her journey, geographically and spiritually, but we also got to see a loving family grappling emotionally with her coming out.  There are some honest, wrenching phone conversations between Juliet and her mom, and she finds a safe haven later in the book with one of her aunts and cousins on a trip to Miami, FL.  I loved all the references to the music Juliet listened to – her description of Ani Difranco’s music absolutely cracked me up. (“Her music evoked images of Irish bagpipes and stray cats howling in heat.”) I loved seeing Portland through Juliet’s eyes.  I’ve visited the city a couple of times and could see Powell’s Books and Pioneer Courthouse Square in my mind.  I identified with Juliet in that I was once a fiercely feminist young woman in a conservative environment, eager to experience life in a more liberal place.  When I got to my small liberal arts college I, too, felt out of my depth with all the new-to-me terms and language people were using to describe themselves.  I liked seeing her wrestle with her lesbian identity, her feminism, and her brownness, trying to find a place for herself where the intersection of all three identifiers gets messy.  All sorts of characters in this book are earnestly trying to be good to one another, which is a refreshing tone in modern fiction.  It was funny profane, and sweet.  I think this book would be a lifeline to a young person trying to deal with their sexuality.  It’s an excellent pick for anyone looking to diversify and shake up their reading.  I’m glad I read it.

For a brilliant take on this book, check out Naz’s great review here.

Have you read Juliet Takes A Breath?  Do you have any other recommendations for a coming-of-age story or a novel by a LGBTQ author?  Have you ever visited Portland, Oregon?  Let me know in the comments.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

If I’d not already written my Best Of 2016 list, I would have included Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad near the top.  I started reading it December 27 and deliberately held off on finishing it until it was January 1 so that it would be the first book I finish this year.  It will undoubtedly be in my top ten for 2017.28250841

You’ve heard a lot about this book, probably.  Oprah picked it for her book club, even moving the publication date up to do so.  It won the 2016 National Book Award.  It was Amazon’s editors’ pick for #1 book of the year.  You’ve seen it on just about every critical book list.  And sometimes all that acclaim can make a person weary of a book before they’ve even picked it up.  Too much hype.  I know, I have done this myself, avoided a book because too many people love it.  I’ve also avoided books that I feared might be too difficult for me to handle emotionally, which is what I suspected about this one.  Well, I’m here to say that I was wrong.

Is this book sad?  Yes, of course; it’s about slavery, one of the worst, most degrading and cruel periods of human history.  But is it an unrelenting misery-fest?  No.  It’s one of the most suspenseful works of literary fiction I’ve ever read.  I started it late at night; before I knew it I was fifty pages in, and I had to make myself put it down and go to sleep.

I was immediately taken with Cora, the young slave at the center of the book.  She is a marvelous character, an eleven year-old orphan on the Randall plantation in Georgia when her mother, Mabel, runs away.  She is sent to the slave shack with the women who are “not right” in some way, either through accidents of birth or traumatic injury.  She keeps her grandmother Ajarry’s small garden plot at all costs, as it represents the only sense of agency and freedom she has in the little time she has to herself.  She hates her mother for leaving her in the night without saying goodbye.  A violent incident one night at a plantation slave gathering, in front of the plantation’s cruel new owner, leads Cora to accept an offer made to her by another slave, Caesar, to run away with him. Throughout the course of the novel she exhibits an indomitable will to survive, and through her eyes we see some of the worst ways humans mistreated one another in the past 175 years.  All the while she is being pursued by the relentless slave catcher, Ridgeway.

The mosquitoes and blackflies persecuted them.  In the daylight they were a mess, splashed up to their necks in mud, covered in burrs and tendrils.  It did not bother Cora.  This was the farthest she’d ever been from home.  Even if she were dragged away at this moment and put in chains, she would still have these miles.

You’ve no doubt heard that the Underground Railroad in the book is not just a metaphor for the network of people and structures that sheltered and shepherded runaway slaves, but an actual railway system built underneath the land of the southern states.  Whitehead has created a dazzingly original work, playing not only with historical fact but also speeding up and slowing down time in the places that Cora eventually ends up.  It’s difficult to talk about the plot very much without giving away page-turning twists and turns that reference some of the 20th century’s great injustices to African Americans as well.  I’ll just say that where this book went surprised me.

I’m profoundly glad to have read this, and want to encourage others who may be reluctant to pick it up.  It’s simultaneously a masterful work of imagination and a harrowing portrait of the real horrors of slavery.  But it’s also just a really good story, engaging and captivating, with a fierce, very human heroine at its center.  I rooted for Cora, I hurt for Cora, I didn’t want to leave Cora.  What a marvelous way to begin my 2017 reading.

Have you read this?  Do you plan to?  I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

 

 

Mini Review – Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

It seems that my reading speed is far outpacing my blogging speed right now, so I decided to write a mini-review..  I feel like this is a book that I must share.  Based on my Goodreads friends, I know many of you have read it, or read selections from it.  If I borrow a book from the library, and I think it’s one that I’m likely to write a post about, I take notes in a medium-sized magenta  notebook.  While reading Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, I ended up with four pages.  It took me quite a while to get through this, because I did not want to rush it.  I wanted to sit with the essays for a while.  I’d read Lorde in college in my women’s studies classes, but that was almost twenty years ago, and honestly, I can’t remember half of what I did back then (other than make midnight trips to Taco Bell with my friends and pine obsessively for boys who weren’t into me.)

img_0322This is a collection written in the 1970s and early 1980s, but (sadly) so much of what Lorde writes feels relevant and fresh for today’s reader.  Bookended by insightful travel pieces about Russia and Grenada, the bulk of Lorde’s essays are about speaking , writing, and owning her truth, and the power of words, language, and poetry to unite women who may lead different kinds of lives but who are all oppressed by patriarchal structures.  There were so many powerful passages that I noted, so many sentences that spoke to me and that I wanted to share.

I was reminded of Lindy West and her excellent book Shrill when I read this from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action:”

What are the words you do not have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence… And where the words of women are crying to be heard,we must each of us recognize our responsibility, to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hid behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which we so often accept as our own.

This stunning passage is from “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response:”

I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine.  I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self.  For me this task begins with teaching my son that I do not exist to do his feeling for him.  Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly “inferior” capacity  to feel deeply.

And finally, this passage on guilt from “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism;”

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own action or lack of action.  If it leads to change then it can be useful, since then it is no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.  Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

Oh man, I felt that.  Did you feel that?

I wish I could be more eloquent in my appreciation of Lorde’s poetically devastating prose. While some of the essays in the book spoke to me more than others, this is a book to be shared, discussed, and pondered.  It is the kind of book that can change lives, that can galvanize action, that can inspire a woman to speak her truth and seek out common ground with others who are speaking theirs.  I am so glad that I read it.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

“I’m high as hell, but not high enough not to know that race is hard to ‘talk about’ because it’s hard to talk about.  The prevalence of child abuse in this country is hard to talk about, too, but you never hear people complaining about it.  They just don’t talk about it.  And when’s the last time you had a calm, measured conversation about the joys of consensual incest?  Sometimes things are simply difficult to discuss, but I actually think the country does a decent job of addressing race, and when folks say, ‘Why can’t we talk about race more honestly?’ What they really mean is ‘Why can’t you niggers be reasonable?’ or ‘Fuck you, white boy.  If I said what I really wanted to say, I’d get fired faster than you’d fire me if race were any easier to talk about.’  And by race we mean ‘niggers,’ because no one of any persuasion seems to have any difficulty talking out-of-pocket shit about Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and America’s newest race, the Celebrity.”

Well.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout won this year’s Tournament of Books, competing against Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.  Now that I’ve read both of them, I understand why The Sellout won the judgment by a a vote of 12 to 7.  To me it is definitely the more daring, more original, harder-edged novel.  One judge said that there was not one sentence that he wouldn’t have sold his entire glass eye collection to have written.  I get it now – Beatty has written something so scathing and hilarious that I was simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated after having just read the prologue.51gc1HCCV8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

It’s nearly impossible to explain what this book is “about,” a question I don’t enjoy at any time.  But the story centers on a black man living in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, California, which is situated on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  Our narrator is called BonBon by Marpessa, the lady he has loved off and on his whole life, but we never learn his real first name.  He was raised and home-schooled by a wacky, kind of abusive single father, who was a sociologist and made BonBon the subject of his racially centered experiments.  They had a house in The Farms, a ten square-block section of Dickens mandated by the city’s charter to be “residential agriculture.”  After his father’s death, he grows various fruits and weed, just selling a little of the latter for gas money.  His renowned satsuma mandarin tree, with its magically delicious oranges, looms large in the story line.

Oh yeah, and he takes a slave.  An old man, the last surviving Little Rascal, named Hominy Jenkins.  And after Dickens is erased from the map, and the signs pointing to the town taken down, he starts segregating the buses and schools in an attempt to get his city back on the map.

The novel operates on this larger than life, bitingly absurd level, where just about anything can happen.  But it’s done in such a smart, hilarious, targeted way that you’re cringing in recognition as you laugh.  It’s like Beatty’s shined a flashlight on all of us Americans, pointing out our ridiculous habits and fears, pointing out how completely NOT post-racial we are.  It’s uncomfortable and thought-provoking like the best satire is supposed to be, and it’s one hell of a ride in the meantime.  I am glad I read it and wish I’d read it sooner.  You better believe I’ll be offering this one to my book group when it’s my turn to host.  Definitely profane, not for the faint of heart, The Sellout is a novel that deserves a wide audience.