Book Review:  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (YA)

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Starr Carter has two lives.  She lives one with her family in Garden Heights, a mostly black neighborhood where neighbors take care of each other, small locally owned businesses provide hope, and gang violence affects everyone’s lives no matter how hard they try to avoid it.  She lives the other in her mostly white school, Williamson Prep, where she is careful to keep her speech slang-free and never gets emotional because she doesn’t want to be known as “the angry black girl.”  She has friends in each world, but they never mix, and she prefers to keep it that way.

Over spring break, Starr attends a Garden Heights party at the insistence of her friend, Kenya.  She feels out of place, a girl in a hoodie and ponytail surrounded by girls dressed in their sexiest outfits, until she sees her childhood friend Khalil.  Once best friends, Starr and Khalil had not even crossed paths in months, but they catch up quickly.  When gunshots go off at the party, Starr and Khalil leave in a hurry, taking his car home. On the way home, Khalil is pulled over for a broken taillight.  Pulled out of the car by an aggressive cop, Khalil is treated like a criminal, and when he opens the door to ask Starr if she is all right, the cop assumes Khalil is reaching for a gun and shoots him in the back, killing him.

After Khalil’s murder, Starr tries to keep a low profile, not wanting to known as the witness in her community or in her school, and she does not know how to speak about the murder to her own friends in either world. She cooperates with the police in the investigation, but quickly realizes they are not interested in investigating the cop but in investigating Khalil and Starr and finding out if Khalil had a criminal history and if either teen had been drinking that night.  Soon, Starr is no longer able to keep quiet, learning that she can only honor Khalil’s life by becoming his voice.

The Hate U Give (or THUG) is a heavily hyped book right now, and with any book that is receiving an unusual amount of attention, the first question is always, “Is it worth the hype?”  The answer for this is a definite yes. The first 100 pages don’t move as quickly as the rest, but once you are a quarter into the book, it is very difficult to put down. For me, the primary appeal was that I fell in love with the characters.  Not only has Ms. Thomas created well developed main characters, but even the supporting characters are worth rooting for, from Starr’s neighborhood friend, Kenya, to the grumpy barbershop owner, Mr. Lewis.  My favorite character may have been Starr’s father, Maverick, a wonderfully complicated man.

Another thing I appreciated about this book is that it feels universal, or at least national. We are never told exactly where Starr lives, but I think this could take place anywhere in the U.S.  The images in my head were that of my hometown of Saginaw, a heavily segregated Michigan city that is quite similar to Flint or Detroit.  I highly doubt that Ms. Thomas, a Mississippi resident, had Saginaw, Michigan in her mind when she wrote this, but it’s to her credit that you can take this story and move it into your own world and it will feel true.

THUG does not simplify the issue of police violence in black neighborhoods.  Starr’s uncle is a police officer and a colleague of the officer who killed Khalil, and Uncle Carlos is definitely a positive part of Starr’s life.  Also, Khalil has a past.  If he had been presented as 4.0 student who never got into trouble a day in this life, this novel might have been didactic with a simple message. But with Khalil presented as a good person who has not always been on the right side of the law, there are more questions that a reader has to work through.  Questions about the assumptions we make about victims of police violence, wanting to make angels or demons of them, and questions about whether a white teen with the exact same history as Khalil could have ever found himself in the same situation.

I do strongly recommend The Hate U Give, and I am going to pass this onto my stepdaughters because that is what I do with the YA novels that I love.

FCC Notice:  I bought my own copy.

April Book Review Club:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (memoir)

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I have been thinking a lot about reading these days: reading as escape, reading for information, reading as an act of resistance. It’s my interest in reading as resistance that led me to this book. I have picked this book up in bookstores at least a dozen times over the last decade, only to put it back down.  Which I am now grateful that I did because I needed to read this book –and read it as a first time reader– right now.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is the story of Professor Azar Nafisi’s book club, where she invited seven of her female former university students to join a weekly reading group at her house where they would discuss forbidden works of Western literature.  There are four sections to this memoir:  Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen.  Lolita and Austen serve as bookends and tell the story of the book club, while the Gatsby and James sections go into Nafisi’s academic career and how her students responded to Western literature in different political climates. Reading Lolita in Tehran praises how literature teaches empathy, which the author would likely say has more value than any moral lessons embedded in the text, and emphasizes the importance of imagination.

In addition to being about literature and personal liberty, Reading Lolita in Tehran is about the lives of women and about female friendships.  The young women in the class range in age from the late teens to early thirties. Some are liberal, while others are more religious and traditional.  Some have had multiple marriages while others have never had a boyfriend.  Some of them have been imprisoned.  All of them are well-educated, and each is independent in her own way.  They are alike in their love of literature and in that all of them are restricted by the laws and culture of Iran.

As I read this, I kept thinking of current events.  On some level, this is not quite fair to what the people of Iran went through in the eighties and nineties.  Nafisi had friends and family who were executed during this time, and she kept a nightly vigil outside her small children’s bedrooms while bombs fell on Tehran.  Nafisi had to make choices between her career and her personal liberty.  Meanwhile I am irritated by the people who are currently in power and concerned about what will happen to the rights of women and minorities over the next few years.  So I am not suggesting the two situations are the same, especially on the level of severity, but I think lessons can be learned from Iran in how political climates can change so dramatically and how everyday people both contribute to this and are victimized by it.

I hope that in ten years time, I will look back at my current blog posts lamenting certain current events and find my posts to be melodramatic and ridiculous.  I hope the current national environment is nothing more than a normal step backyard that will soon be remedied by moving two steps forward.  I hope the checks and balances are more effective than I think and the American people less apathetic.  But it may not be.  Reading Lolita in Tehran does show that progressive changes can be reversed.  Nafisi writes of being young in a progressive environment, only to have her daughter be born into an environment where women’s rights had moved back to what they had been in her grandmother’s youth when girls could be brides at age nine and courts ruled in favor of domestic abusers.

It could have been a depressing book, but it is not.  It is a celebration of life, love, friendship, and literature.  This book left me grateful to be a reader and grateful to Professor Nafisi for sharing her stories and her life with us readers.  I wanted to be part of her book club, eating oranges and pastries and drinking tea out of beautiful glassware, while talking about literature and life with these women.  And I am left with an urge to read and/or re-read the books mentioned in this memoir, looking at them with a new perspective.

FCC Notice:  I read a library copy.

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March Book Review Club: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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When Caesar first invites Cora to run away from the Randall plantation, she says no. She is cautious, like her grandmother, Ajarry, who learned caution through her own tragedies. The second time he asks, she says yes, because she is also independent, like her mother Mabel, who was the only slave to successfully run away from the Randalls. Caesar and Cora join the underground railroad, which is a literal underground train in this novel. Cora knows little about the country, and she finds each state to be a completely different world. Her birth state of Georgia is a land of misery and evil landowners. South Carolina wears a progressive face, as Cora learns to read and live as a free woman there, but it has secrets. North Carolina is a nightmare police state, where runaway slaves are routinely hanged in the hanging tree in the town square along with those who aid them, and children turn in their parents to the gallows and neighbors turn on neighbors. Tennessee is a cursed land, ravaged by wildfires and yellow fever. Indiana is a haven, where Cora can farm the land and read books.

While Cora is on the run throughout the country, the infamous slave catcher, Ridgeway is chasing her. Ridgeway never got over his inability to capture Mabel, Cora’s mother, so he pursues Cora with all of his energy, even after Cora’s former owner dies, eliminating the possibility of a cash award. Ridgeway has a diabolical sense of irony. He purchased exactly one slave in his life, Homer, who he immediately freed and taught to read and capture runaway slaves. He is also a firm believer in Manifest Destiny. He understands the Trail of Tears and slavery to be injustices, but he simply doesn’t care, as both are in line with his vision for the country.

I did enjoy The Underground Railroad, and I do recommend it. It was creative and well-written. It is primarily written from Cora’s point of view in a close third person narration, but short chapters scattered throughout the novel portray the POV of other characters, so we also get stories of Ridgeway, of Caesar, of corrupt doctors, and of wannabe missionaries. The characters are all well-developed. Some are kind; others are monstrous; and all of them are part of a world where there are no good choices, only difficult and dangerous ones.  While this is a good read, it is a difficult one, as there is no justice for many of the characters.

Although it may be a dark book about a terrible time in our nation’s history, The Underground Railroad is a good reminder that Americans are creative and resourceful in the face of injustice. We may not have runaway slaves being rounded up in our current age, but a hunt for undocumented immigrants is on, as civil rights and women’s rights both move backwards and religious freedoms are under attack, making both creativity and sacrifice as necessary as they were in the nineteenth century.

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FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

February Book Review Club:  Mosquitoland by David Arnold (YA)

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When Mary Iris Malone (Mim) learns that her mother is sick, she steals money from her stepmother and runs away from her Jackson, Mississippi home to return to her hometown of Cleveland and be with her mom.  Mim boards a Greyhound for Ohio, but her bus trip is anything but routine.   With bus accidents and encounters with poncho-wearing sexual predators and homeless teenage bullies, Mim finds herself off course and eventually road tripping with Beck, a college student on a mission, and Walt, a homeless boy with Down syndrome. There are some interesting revelations at the end of the book.  One involving Mim’s mom could be anticipated; the others are more surprising.

Mosquitoland has an escapist appeal, as a road trip book. It’s a story of finding friends in unexpected places.  Mim has struggled with friendships her entire life, but when liberated from the normal contexts of school, family, and home, she finds she can make connections with people.  Her first friend on the road is an elderly woman in sensible shoes who she initially bonds with over shoes.  However, Mim’s experiences are not all carefree.  She faces physical danger at a couple points, managing to escape bad situations with a combination of ingenuity and sheer dumb luck.

The biggest appeal of this book is definitely Mim herself.  Mim is quirky, inquisitive, sarcastic, and fiercely loyal to her mother.  We get to know her quite well between the first person narration and the letters she writes to Isabel through her journey.  While Mim is loveable, she is also a brat. She steals $880 from her working class stepmom, and she has written her own family history so her mother is a wonderful bohemian capable of no wrong and her father is the anxious killjoy.

Mental illness is an important part of Mim’s story.  We learn early on that Mim suffers from mental illness, like her Aunt Isabel, and this is the source of much of the tension between Mim and her father.  Her dad insists on medication, which Mim does not want to take, and switches her therapist when she had already bonded with her first therapist.  I appreciate that YA literature addresses mental health these days.  I went through severe depression in high school, and it was a bit like spending four years as a bat.  I would go to sleep the moment I got home and then wake hours later in the dark, disoriented, and I never felt like I was ever truly awake or interested in anything around me.  I would have appreciated a novel like this in the early nineties.

My only real critique of this book is that Mim’s love interest is far too old for her.  The relationship never gets physical, but the age difference between Mim and Beck is uncomfortable.  Overall, this is a likable, smart, and fast-paced novel, which I highly recommend.

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FCC Notice:  I read a library copy, and since then, I have purchased a copy for my stepdaughter

Book Review:  The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

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Told from the perspective of the prophet Nathan, The Secret Chord is a historical novel about the Biblical King David.  The novel begins just before David meets Bathsheba, when a restless King David orders Nathan to pay visits to his mother, brother, and first wife in order to write down David’s life story.  We first get to know David through these narratives and also through Nathan’s own story of how he first met David.  When Nathan returns to court, it is to learn of David’s affair with Bathsheba.  From that point, the story of the golden boy turned king becomes a tragedy.

I was excited to read this as Geraldine Brooks is one of my favorite authors, and I have read all of her historical fiction and one of her nonfiction books. What I admire most about her is how she manages to capture time periods that are so very different from our own time and culture, and I never feel like she is modernizing her characters or their points of view as many historical novelists do. I also love how all of her stories focus on faith in some way. Her characters are always perfectly developed and her writing is beautiful.

What Brooks has done very well in The Secret Chord is capture the earthiness of David: the shepherd boy accustomed to the quiet loneliness of fields, the young man who lived a nomadic and crude existence on the run from Saul, and the king given to excesses in women and food.  She delights in his contradictions:  both poet and warrior, both worshipper and murderer.

The prophet Nathan is an effective foil to David.  The two men’s stories are linked, but in nature, they are very different. Nathan is a soldier only because that is what is expected of men of his time.  He dislikes David’s refusal to show any mercy in battle, and he lives a quiet and celibate life. I didn’t like how Nathan was portrayed as serving David, as opposed to serving God, but otherwise I loved the character of Nathan, who was much more likable than David.

I love how this fills out all of the “whys” of the Biblical story.  Why was David not at war with his men when he first saw Bathsheba?  Why was he so easily overlooked by his family?  In some cases, I felt the need to go back to the Bible story to work out which details were in the Scripture, and which were Brooks’ invention.  The world she creates feels ancient, and the stories that are her own invention feel natural.  She does use spellings that are unconventional to me –Saul is Shaul,  Jonathan is Yonatan, Solomon is Shlomo, etc.– which I needed to get used to.

Although I love Geraldine Brooks, and this book has so many merits, I did struggle with it because of the violence. The violence isn’t gratuitous, given the nature of the book.  She is writing about Old Testament events, which are full of blood and absolutes, and I tend to not read the Old Testament histories when I want an uplifting devotional.  I do not stomach violence well in books or movies, so even though the violence was essential to the story, I did not like it.

The Secret Chord is a very intriguing novel, and it will appeal to fans of Brooks’ previous work, and possibly fans of the The Red Tent (although this is definitely a more masculine story than that one).  It will not please any fundamentalists as the David/Jonathan relationship is definitely portrayed as being romantic.  It also won’t appeal to anyone strongly opposed to violence in fiction.

I do recommend this novel in spite of my hesitations regarding the violence.  Just don’t read it while eating because there will inevitably be a scene where a skewered person’s entrails are spilling out of them like ribbon.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.