Friday, August 18, 2017

Race in America - Books That Will Make You Smarter

A Colony in a Nation by Christopher L. Hayes
Thanks to Net Galley, I was able to read this fascinating new book by MSNBC anchor, Chris Hayes. Hayes writes a scholarly yet engrossing new book looking at the various nuances of law and the explication of so-called 'order' in today's America.  Borrowing the quote from Richard Nixon for his title, he explores the great divide in our country between the disenfranchised of our nation who still live as if in a separate colony, while the privileged 'nation' attempts to maintain the status quo. While he focuses on people of color, poverty and the inequities of the educational system also play a role.  It begins in Ferguson, where Hayes was on the ground reporting the aftermath of the shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown.  His insight into the past history not only of Ferguson, but also the surrounding areas, highlights information that is pivotal to the understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement.  American history is used to inform the reader of past practices in law enforcement: the fall out of tariffs all the way to revolutionary times, the statistics of stop-and-frisk, the community policing movement, the 'broken windows' policy, and many more.  Hayes also fully embraces his own white privilege and his Ivy-league background, honestly and provocatively displaying his own prejudices and forcing the reader to look in his or her own mirror.  This is not a book for the reader who wants a fast, thrilling mystery, but it is a book for our time, a book we should all read, a book that will not only make you smarter, but will force you to ask questions of yourself and the rules of society.  Do we want order or do we want to be safe?

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (June 7, 2016)
Stunning.  Jaw-dropping. Brilliant. Those are the first words that come to mind with this debut novel of twenty-six year old Yaa Gyasi.  Homegoing has been the talk of the publishing world for months, and should garner all the awards in 2016, and yes, the praise is well-deserved.  The unique subject, plot-line, and writing style contribute to a novel that I will not soon forget.  It begins in the late 1700's, in Ghana, when two sisters who do not know the other exists, have life choices thrust upon them.  Effia marries a white British man who runs the Castle, the coastal prison where the Fante tribe members bring the slaves they purchased from the Asante tribe.  In the dungeon below, bodies piled upon bodies, lies Esi, soon to be shipped to America and a life far different than her sister's. Each chapter follows the bloodline of the two sisters, changing each generation.  We see the wars in Ghana, the colonization by the British, the tribal fighting, and the steps towards modernization.  In America, we see the utter degradation of slavery, the effects of the Fugitive Act, the outcome of the Great Migration, the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and the struggles of the new century.  In each descendant's story, Gyasi creates complex characters, heart-wrenching situations, and deep love for family.  This book is truly a masterpiece.   

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson
As a teacher of English literature, I would delve superficially into the story of Emmett Till when we read Toni Morrison novels; the emotional beginning of the civil rights movement still had interest to my students of the 21st century.  However, I 'did not know what I did not know.'  Having read Tyson's previous book, Blood Done Sign My Name (it is also excellent),  I knew this author was a perceptive researcher and a powerful, honest writer.  The first page of Emmett Till and I was hooked.  This is an in-depth look at the story of 14 year-old Chicago boy, visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, whose body is found beaten, shot, and drowned in a river.  His mother's decision to hold an open casket, to show the world what was 'done to my boy,' mobilized the nascent movement for civil rights in the south.  WWII had opened up the power of resistance, but the laws of the South, as well as the purposeful blindness of the North, demanded a passionate call to action.  Emmett Till's murder was it.  Tyson does a masterful job of detailing the life of Mamie Till and Emmett's other relatives, the background on the many heroic NAACP workers at the time, the arrest and trial of the two perpetrators, and the life behind the woman who accused the young boy of verbally and physically assaulting her.  At times the long lists of organizations and occasional repetition, particularly in the epilogue, slowed the book down.  However, the historical significance of this event, the tie-in to today and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the powerful story-telling of Timothy Tyson makes this a book that I believe deserves, and needs, to be read.  It would be a powerful tool in a classroom, as well as a worthy book club choice to provoke conversation and connections.

Darktown by Thomas Mullen
Back in 2006, Mullen wrote a fabulous book called The Last Town on Earth; it won some big awards, including debut book of the year.  I still remember it (story of an Everett, WA logging town during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1916).  His next two novels received solid reviews, but never quite 'caught on.'  Darktown could be a sleeper hit this fall, juxtaposing the reading world's love of a taut mystery along with the racial tension still prevalent today.  The story takes place in Atlanta, Georgia whose police chief has just commissioned the city's first black police officers, eight in total.  Jim Crow is alive and well, even as these ex-soldiers return from fighting in Europe.  The main character, Lucius Bogg, is a Morehouse graduate and son of a prominent preacher, raised in the segregated well-to-do black neighborhood.  His partner has a more realistic view of the issues of race, having been raised in a poor black neighborhood of Atlanta, as well as being part of General Patton's black tank battalion.  As these two new police officers try to maneuver their way through racist white policemen, the unwritten rules of headquarters, the lynch-happy country crowd, and the heroic expectations of their black community, they team up with a decent white officer to try and solve the murder of a young black woman.  This book is a heck of a ride, and I highly recommend it.

Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Round two in unforgettable books, this was one of the more disheartening books I have read in quite some time. Brilliantly written and deeply researched, Matthew Desmond spends years with eight families in the heart of Milwaukee's poverty stricken neighborhoods, as they struggle with eviction, shady landlords, literal slum lords, drug addiction, job searches, and the type of devastating poverty that most people like to pretend does not exist in America.  Desmond, with brutal honestly, shows us a side of Milwaukee and humanity that is often difficult to understand, but he does so with compassion and truth.  He was able to tape many conversations and be a part of a world often denied to researchers; it is an impressive thesis on the state of housing in America for the disenfranchised.  Desmond pulls no punches and chooses to show his subjects in all their fallibility, not romanticizing their life choices (which at times are beyond questionable), yet also not condemning them.  It is admirable.  Desmond shows us the toll eviction takes, the unbearably high cost of housing in the slums, and the vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to break, generation after generation.  Not an uplifting book, to be sure, but one that will provide you with an education that is well worth the depression.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (September 2016)
A brilliant new historical fiction, touched with surrealism, Whitehead has written what many of us booksellers feel is an award-winner.  He takes the context of the underground railroad, a system of houses and other hideaways, manned by abolitionists, and imbues it with magical fantasy, creating a 'real' locomotive that speeds runaway slaves away on their journey to freedom.  Cora, a young woman who lives a hellish life on a Georgian cotton plantation, ostracized by the other slaves, motherless and alone, is chosen by Caesar, a fellow slave, to catch the train to freedom.  Thus begins Cora's adventures, with allusions to Gulliver's travels as well as the travails of Odysseus.  The strangers who both assist and impede the slaves are complex, showing great violence at times, as well as great compassion.  It is a tale well told, that will leave thought provoking ideas behind in its wake.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
This is another book that is timely, politically charged, and I believe, a book that should have a wider audience.  Written by a professor, who grew up in a small Mississippi town on the border of Louisiana, Ward tells of the five deaths in this black township that changed her life and the lives of many of its citizens.  It seems so simple and straight forward, but it is not; this is Ward's view into a world that exists only for poor black people, a world that does not really exist here in the Pacific Northwest or even on the West Coast.  This small town lives, breathes, and dies together; the children grow up with their cousins, pop in and out of each others' homes depending on the happenings in their families, and as readers, we slowly see the insidious effect poverty has on the young men in particular.  Most of the dead boys dropped out of school after being seen as stupid, lazy, or incapable of learning.  As a former teacher, I know the power expectations, high or low, has on a student and as a reader, we see the powerful effect this lack of education has on their future, or lack thereof.  Ward escapes, but with each death, she is sucked back in by the dominant pull of the South and of family.  She finishes her autobiographical tale with the story of her brother's death, and it is a poignant, heartbreaking sign of what is happening still today in poor townships down South.  This could be an intriguing book club choice that would garner some provocative discussions; it is also a strong companion book to Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy.  

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Okay, so I'm a little late to the dance on this book; literally everyone was reading it last year, but heck, I hate following the crowd. Plus to be honest, I did try it, but was uninterested by page 40 and tossed it. Thankfully, my millennial-generation daughter said it was required reading, so once again I dove into the printed page of Americanah. I practiced patience, and was well rewarded by page 75 as I could not put this book down until I had read every page of this 588-page book. It is profound, provocative, thoughtful, and exceptionally well-written, required reading indeed. It follows the lives of two young Nigerian teens, in love but separated over the years. Ifemelu goes to America, where she experiences the life of an immigrant, attends university, and blogs about race and 'discovering' that she is black in America. Her blogs on race are courageous and sometimes uncomfortable, providing me with much to think about in my own life. Obinze, on the other hand, stays in Nigeria, eventually emigrating to London as he tries to find his way to success. Eventually, life leads both back to Nigeria. The premise sounds simple, and Adichie rolls out the narrative in a straightforward manner, yet so much depth exists in this book that one continues to think about certain conversations between characters long after the book has been put down. When you are in the mood for some legit literature, please pick up this book and be patient; you will not be disappointed.

Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo
This memoir drew me in slowly and insidiously; Ms. Kuo finishes her degree at Harvard University, is accepted into the Teach for America program, and heads to Arkansas to change the world. As I grew to know Ms. Kuo and her middle school students at Star, the 'alternative' school in the Mississippi delta, I became enmeshed in their lives, both teacher and students. As a former English teacher myself, I wondered if this book would be too saccharine, or too heartfelt, or too tragic? It was none of the above.  It is a gripping and engaging memoir of a young woman who tries whole-heartedly to make a difference, to change a child's life.  When she meets Patrick, a sixteen year old stuck in eighth grade, Ms. Kuo sees a glimmer of hope in this young man.  As life buffets both Patrick and Michelle Kuo to unexpected places, his teacher never gives up on him.  And I mean never - who can say that? For any teacher who always wanted to be 'the one,' the teacher who changes a child's life, read this book.  For a new teacher, just starting out, read this book and be inspired by what it means to truly teach, and the incredible time and effort it takes to be amazing.  To anyone who believes in the power of literature to change the world, read this book.  I will never forget Ms. Kuo, Patrick, or the strength of character shown by them both. (July 11 Pub date)

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Wow, just wow.  This book contains a powerful punch - DO NOT MISS it, trust me.  Taking a page from the news, this debut novel deals with a police shooting of a young black man, followed by both the community and law enforcement reaction.  Told by Starr, a young black teenager who was in the car with Khalil when he was pulled over and shot, this young woman opens up the world of the inner city, of being a black student in an all-white suburban high school, of the anger in a community, of the frustration over injustice, of trying to straddle both worlds.  Starr is a rockstar, plain and simple.  Is she perfect? Nope.  She is sassy, combative, and angry; she is also fiercely independent, brave in the face of death threats and social exclusion, and knows when to shut up and when to step up. The supporting cast are stars in their own right as well: Maverick, Starr's ex-con, ex-gang, grocery-store owning father who loves his family fiercely and is not afraid to show it; Maya and Hayley, Starr's teenage girlfriends who provide two opposing pictures of racial knowledge and ignorance; Starr's siblings - Seven who shows what it means to be a big bother, the step-siblings who provide a look into a family in turmoil, and the baby of the family who quite honestly just made me laugh out loud.  This book will provide many "ah-ha" moments, as well as a deeper appreciation of the bubble where we all reside. I highly recommend this to all ages, all colors, all income levels - the more we learn, the more we can come together, stand together, progress together.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
The latest in the Hogwarth Shakespeare series, Chevalier (Girl with A Pearl Earring) takes on the story of Othello, the tragic tale of friendship, love, and the ultimate betrayal.  Chevalier, however, takes the plot line and places it into...wait for it...a fifth grade playground, with each of the five acts a recess, lunchtime, and after school.  As a former elementary teacher, it is quite a brilliant move, as recess is the ultimate social experiment, with friendships lost over not being picked by a kickball team, a love affair that blooms at lunch time and is killed by the end of the day, and schoolyard bullies who rule the school.  In this case, Osei is the new boy from Africa, in a 1972 white school outside Washington, D.C. Immediately, Osei and Dee (ie Desdemona, the hot popular girl, ) become an item, causing Ian (ie. Iago, resident schoolyard bully) to become jealous, Casper (ie. Cassio, the hot popular boy) to become entangled in their web, and even Mimi (ie. Emilia, Dee's best friend) gets her loyalties pulled in opposite directions.  At times, I wanted more complex thinking and writing from this story, yet the voice truly fit those of elementary age children; they were fleeting in their emotions, impulsive in their behavior, and short-sighted over their relationships.  Would you enjoy this book more if you knew the story of Othello?  Absolutely.  Would it be an entertaining companion to the teaching of Othello in your classroom? For sure.  However, it is also another excellent example of how Shakespeare continues to be relevant hundreds of years after his death; he spoke of the most basic human emotions (love, revenge, betrayal, loyalty) that are still wrestled with in today's world.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
After reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, this book was listed consistently that other people had purchased it as well.  The plot line sounded intriguing: bright young black boy in Newark, New Jersey goes to Yale.  However, the title rather gives it away and his potential heroic tale of making it out of the 'hood' goes awry.  I was drawn into the story quickly and was intrigued by Robert's young childhood - raised by a single mother with a father in prison for first-degree murder, the rotating family members in his home, the struggle to send him to private schools, the numerous adults in the educational system who gave him a helping hand, the water-polo team who gave him a family - all of these things helped to explain how Robert Peace became the poster boy for someone who made it out.  However, Jeff Hobbs, his Yale roommate, is rather too wordy for my taste; an editor who slashed and burned a bit more could have been helpful.  As we start to see Robert's life go wrong in the class-conscious, snobby world of the Ivy League, the story begins to drag.  I found myself frustrated not only with the writing style, but with Robert himself, which I think is the actual point of this book. While I was not a fan of Hobbs' writing, I do think this book has great potential as a book club book, with many different themes to discuss and probably quite a bit of contentious and intriguing possibilities for disagreement, which in my experience, can make for the best club discussions.

The Leavers byLisa Ko
I am in a bit of a quandary over this book.  On one hand, the plot premise is engaging and topical.  A young Chinese-American boy, Deming, is abandoned by his Chinese mother and adopted by an American couple who re-name him Daniel.  While loving and well-intentioned, these new parents construct a completely unfamiliar new path towards adulthood for Daniel, with unwieldy expectations, a lack of knowledge for his past, and yet a willingness to hang in there during difficult times.  The story flips back and forth in time and character, with both Deming and his mother telling the story of past and present.  The quandary comes in when I think about the characters, both leading and peripheral. None are particularly heroic or likable, yet perhaps that is the author's point? This is a story of immigrants who are poor, who are buffeted by laws, by racism, by economic deprivation, who are merely trying to survive.  The questions I am left with it possible to be heroic in these circumstances?  Do we ask too much of our children and of ourselves? Are laws supposed to be retaliatory and punishing, or should laws contain compassion?  This book provokes thought, and that is the point of literature.  I do think this would be a provocative book club choice, as it is a book that does not choose to give answers, but requires us to look at our own selves and our beliefs.  Solid debut outing by Lisa Ko, as is shown by the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Do you like a good mystery?  How about history?  How about heroic FBI agents, twisted nasty bad guys, and an honorable tribal culture cheated out of both money and their lives?  The latest book by the best-selling author of The Lost City of Z will not let you down. This was an intriguing time in American history, one of which I had never heard about in either school or the media.  At the inception of a national department of investigation, soon to be known as the FBI, a new young director by the name of J. Edgar Hoover had a pile of crap laid in his lap:  in 1925, down in the Oklahoma area called the Osage hill country, Osage natives were being murdered.  The local and state law enforcement was too enmeshed with the suspects, thus a federal investigative team was needed.  Enter ex-Texas Ranger Tom White to save the day, and what an investigation it was.  The murder of Mollie Burkhart, and subsequently her sister and mother begins this tale of a dark time in our history, of a native tribe whose reservation sat on the richest oilfields in the world, of money stolen from the Osage, of family members, neighbors, friends, and lawyers willing to literally do anything to get their hands on the head rights of these fields, of lawmen who risked and lost their lives to uncover the insidious dark crime against these natives, and even the author, who uncovers hidden truths about new culprits decades after the trials.  I read voraciously, finishing in less than 24 hours, completely engrossed in this true-life crime of passion, prejudice, and broken family trust.  Even when you think it is all solved and what is left to be uncovered, you will find your mouth hanging open at the latest revelations.  This is what I call a 'humdinger' of a book!

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
Ironically, I read this book right before diving into Go Set a Watchman.  This is a deeply historical account of the beginning of the civil rights movement, but not the protests, the church involvement, or the boycotts.  This book tells the true account of the attack on the legal system, to bring equality to the land through the courts, in particular the U.S. Supreme Court.  While the book focuses very much on Thurgood Marshall (a fascinating, brilliant, complicated man), it also delves into other vital players who not only defended innocent clients, but pushed the argument for equal rights into the forefront of the American public.  The case of the Groveland boys, accused of raping a white woman in Florida, was the story of the decade...and I had never heard of it.  It is a painful look into our past, and causes one to question how SCOTUS could do away with the Voting Rights Act after being reminded of how far we have come.  For any history buff, this is a fascinating read - however, it is dense and very factual, so it is not a quick read.

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Her first book in eight years, Sekaran has written a humdinger of a story that is getting tons of buzz out there in the publishing world.  Charged with provocative themes of race, class, illegal immigration, and familial rights, this is a winner.  You'll need to get past the first 40-50 pages for the characters to gel, but be patient; it is worth it.  In this modern day re-telling of King Solomon and the mothers who both claim one child, Sekaran gives us two different mothers:  one, a young Mexican girl who has come to America, through the help of coyotes and generous parents, and who experiences horrific tragedy to give herself and her family a better life; the other woman, well educated at Berkeley, with a steady job, Silicon Valley husband, who desperately wants a child but is denied by her biology.  Throughout the book, we see the story of Solimar, an illegal immigrant, the fear that forces her to run through sidewalks in case ICE is around, who takes far less pay for her work as a nanny due to fears of IRS issues, and who is imprisoned for a nonsensical reason, in danger of losing the child she bore.  However, we also see Kavya, a woman who so longs for a child she can think of nothing else, who is a sincerely loving woman, who bonds deeply with the child in her care.  I found myself having to starkly and honestly confront my own embedded of class and race,  about what a child needs, or deserves - this is a powerful story that will provoke great conversation. 

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Yep, I know...Jodi Picoult, the writer of great pop culture, page-turners, but is it literature? Yep, it sure is, and her latest brings the reader smack into the face of a hot, divisive, charged topic of today - racial bias and the divide that has roiled this country for centuries. The premise is charged with emotion:  a labor and delivery nurse is helping a pair of young parents with their newborn baby, and the father demands she not be allowed around his child due to her race.  When tragedy occurs with the newborn, legal action is set into motion.  Simple, right?  Yet Picoult attacks the idea not just of the insidious racial discrimination against blacks in our country, but the white nationalist movement, being a black teenage boy in America, discrimination in the workplace, and the reality of white privilege.  This is an explosive book that truly attempts to see all sides, as it is told through the eyes of not only the black nurse, but the Neo-Nazi father and the Ivy league-educated white lawyer. I highly recommend, particularly to book clubs who like provocative, meaty discussions.

Blood at the Root:  A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips
Did you know that Forsyth county in the state of Georgie remained all-white for almost 100 years? neither.  It is always amazing to me to read about our county's history that I never knew existed, especially in today's world of wikipedia and instant sources.  Back at the turn of the century, Forsyth county was similar to many other post-Civil War southern agrarian society, dependent upon the black farmers and house servants who kept the white economy rolling, and tied to the KKK and other white supremacist beliefs.  Both races lived in an uncertain wariness of the 'Other,' willing to divide towns and villages to live in relative peace with one another.  That is until a cry of rape and murder tore them apart.  As told by a man who was raised in Forsyth county from the 1980's on, this is the tale of how the blacks were not only expelled from this region, but kept out for decades.  It was as if time stood still in Forsyth for race relations, until dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century and knowledge of the civil rights movement smacked the residents in the face.  It is a provocative tale that reminds us of our not-so-distant past.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
I had such high hopes for this book - written by a woman of color, it had great potential as a teachable novel in high school, or at the least, good entertainment.  I am, however, torn in my opinions of it.  First, the plot line:  a Mexican family moves to Delaware, seeking a better education for their daughter who has a traumatic brain injury.  Along the way, they meet a Panamanian-American family with two sons, one of whom falls in love with the daughter, Maribel.  The story is interspersed with stories of other Latino immigrants, weaving a rich tapestry of the story of new Americans, their struggles, their victories, their frustrations.  My problem had more to do with the teenage love story.  The boy, Major, falls for Maribel due to her physical beauty, and while he is kind to her, I did not find his treatment of her brain-damaged behavior to be of the best intentions.  That bothered me, yet it would provide a book club with some rich discussion fodder.  Henriquez does a great job of showcasing the struggles of immigrant Latino families, which is commendable and much-needed in our literature today, particularly in our schools.  Some gratuitous sex/language may make it difficult to get it by some school boards though.

Evening of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne
Sticking with the non-fiction trend, this tale of the end of the Plains native tribes, most specifically the Comanche, was a shockingly fascinating read.  Perhaps because when I grew up in the Northwest, kids studied Native Americans pretty much all the way through school, especially Sacajawea with the Lewis-and-Clark expedition.  After elementary school, I became obsessed with the Sioux and the destruction of Custer at the Little Big Horn.  (I know - I was a weird kid).  Then, as an adult I read a book on the massacre at Wounded Knee, and eventually the book Lies My Teacher Taught Me, which really detailed the destruction of the native people in North America.  With all this background, I was intrigued by this Dallas reporter's book on the dying days of the Comanche tribe, the greatest horseback warriors this world has probably ever seen.  They were lead in their dying days by a man whose mother was a white woman, kidnapped as a child and adopted into the tribe.  Add in some noble soldier and natives, as well as some pretty despicable ones, as well as the dishonesty and lies of both sides, and you've got a great tale.  With that said, do not expect a novel-based book; this is definitely an historical text.  When first looking at the pages, realizing little to no dialogue existed, I was a bit nervous about the author's ability to pull me into the story, but the story itself is just so fascinating I read the book in just three days...and it is dense.  Gwyne has done his research and shows in great detail what happens in the space of just one hundred years, of what occurs when a stone age people such as the Plains tribes, who were still in the hunter-gatherer part of evolution, meets the agricultural people of another millennium.  Tough to digest in some places but an altogether great learning experiences. 

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