Thursday, November 26, 2015

Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Such a hard, beautiful, and important book! Highly acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me as a letter to his son, and last week it won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

Coates did not write this book for white readers (or as he says, "people who believe they are white," quoting James Baldwin). But that's exactly why we should read it. It's brutally honest, raw, and gut wrenching. He doesn't mince words, and he doesn't sugarcoat history or reality.
"I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner chocked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone's grandmother, on the side of a road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy ... The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include frisking, detaining, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible."
The book brought me to tears several times...when Coates arrives at Howard University and feels comfortable in his own skin for the first time...
"There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were the high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set. There were California girls turned Muslim, born anew, in hijab and long skirt. There were Ponzi schemers and Christian cultists, Tabernacle fanatics and mathematical geniuses."
...or when his friend, Prince Jones, is killed by police for the crime of driving while black...or when a white woman rudely pushes his son and he feels helpless to defend him...or when he takes his son to preschool for the first time and wants to warn him not to be so happy and carefree...
“But now I understand the gravity of what I was proposing—that a four-year-old child be watchful, prudent, and shrewd, that I curtail your happiness, that you submit to a loss of time. And now when I measure this fear against the boldness that the masters of the galaxy imparted to their own children, I am ashamed."
This idea, of parenting a child while knowing that you cannot fully protect him...of knowing that Prince Jones' mom gave him every privilege she could, yet all it took was one racist act to destroy everything...this realization of how many white male privileges my sons have that Coates' son does not and will never have...this brought me to tears several times while reading this book.
 “So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to 'be twice as good,' which is to say 'accept half as much.' These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile."
Black children are told, either directly or indirectly, to be twice as good and accept half as much, while white children are told to, or allowed to, take more.

I've observed black friends parenting their children in a way that is much stricter than my own, and Coates articulated why that is:
“But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered...I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made...later, I would hear it in Dad’s voice—'Either I can beat him, or the police.'"
I attended a well-attended book discussion about Between the World and Me this week at my church. Although everyone liked the book a lot, one woman said she was troubled by the anger in this book...because she believes that anger doesn't get you anywhere (e.g., look at the Islamic State). I can understand her perspective, but I can see both sides. 

I am not by nature an angry person, but I understand the anger in Te-Nehisi Coates' soul. I think we need anger at injustice to move forward. We need the nonviolent Martin Luther King Jrs as much as we need the Malcolm Xs. We need the Sandra Blands, who was a Black Lives Matter activist before she was killed, as much as we need the Maya Angelous. And Oh My Gracious God, do black people ever have the right to be angry. 

This country was built on their backs, woven with their arteries, and yet we continue to have racists like Donald Trump claim that racism no longer exists...and fail to understand why Black Lives Matter. We have people use the word "thugs" or decry "black-on-black crime," which Coates says is like shooting a man and then shaming him for bleeding. 

And I cried when I read about Coates' son giving up his hope for the first time:
“That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 P.M. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, 'I’ve got to go,' and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you."
This knowledge that it was no use to comfort his son, because he couldn't give any comfort. Damn straight he's angry, and he has a right to be. No more sugarcoating. We all need to wake up.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Masterminds and Wingmen

Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy WorldMasterminds and Wingmen, by Roasalind Wiseman

A great book about boys, written by the author of Queenbees and Wannabes, who is actually the mom of boys (rather than girls).

Wiseman wrote this book after interviewing hundreds of boys and trying to figure out how they think. As a woman living in a house with four males (three sons and a husband), I can honestly tell you that their brains are wired differently, and they are also conditioned to behave in a different way. It's called Boy World, and I'm often out of my element!

I learned some helpful tricks from this book, such as not bombarding my sons with questions. I am a detailed person, and they, alas, are less so. When I pepper them with questions at the end of a school day, or when they come home from college, it is less than effective.

Boys are faced with entirely different challenges than girls are, and this book identifies those challenges and helps parents figure out a way to assist their sons in navigating those challenges.

God Is Disappointed in You

God Is Disappointed in YouGod Is Disappointed in You, by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler

This is a funny retelling of each of the books of the Bible, in a highly accessible, irreverent, and humorous way. If you're willing to flex the way the Bible is interpreted, and you have a great sense of humor, you'll enjoy this book. It's sort of like a Cliff's Notes told via Tina Fey...written by humorist Mark Russell with cartoons by the New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler.

Tibetan Peach Pie

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative LifeTibetan Peach Pie, by Tom Robbins

If you've ever read Tom Robbins, you're well familiar with his gallivanting across the field of language and experience. This book, which he insists is not a memoir, is no different.

It's a series of hilarious essays on a variety of topics. Robbins' stories of his childhood growing up in Appalachia, through his growing-up years and colorful relationships, are highly entertaining. Drugs, of course, made things more colorful!

This book made me want to go back and re-read some of the novels that made such an impression on me in my 20s...Jitterbug Perfume, Another Roadside Attraction, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Robbins is now in his 80s, but his voice and perspective (not to mention his author photo!) still seem to be in his 30s. Now he lives in quaint La Conner, Washington, a delightful spot. Wouldn't it be fun to go see him at a reading?

"A True Account of an Imaginative Life" of Tommy Rotten describes this book well.

Jacket photo

Robbins in 2014--he's aged pretty well, actually! 

Judgment Calls

Judgment Calls (Samantha Kincaid #1)Judgment Calls, by Alafair Burke

Confession: I acquired this book somewhere solely because it was based in Portland. I love to read books set in my hometown.

It was a solid mystery/thriller, by the daughter of famous writer James Lee Burke. Deputy DA Samantha Kincaid is a solid character. Sometimes the book veered a little too far into legal wonkiness, which led me to think "I COULD NEVER BE A LAWYER"! Far too many obscure legal procedures and technicalities.

I might read more of her to see where she goes as a writer...and where Samantha Kincaid goes as a character.

The Boston Girl

The Boston GirlThe Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant

Another book group selection, The Boston Girl came on the heels of A Gesture Life, our October book group pick. I found it much easier going than A Gesture Life.

It's the story of Addie Baum, whose Jewish immigrant parents arrived in Boston with her two sisters, and the hopes of a better life. Her mother is the classic Jewish critical mom, and the saddest thing about this book is that Addie never receives her approval.

I really enjoyed this easy was written in first person, as Addie is telling stories to her portrays the difficulties of life for a woman in the early 1900s. Addie was ahead-of-her time independent, smart, and feisty, which I loved. And that of course drove her mother crazy.

But as we concluded at book group, it doesn't go terribly deep. It would've been better if we had a better understanding of what was going on in Addie's head--and that of the other characters--and what her motivations were.

I also found the "stories for her granddaughter" format a bit far fetched. But all in all, it was a a fun read.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Gesture Life

A Gesture Life, by Chang-Rae Lee

A Gesture Life is another book that was really hard to get into, but the patience paid off. If it hadn't been a book group selection, I might not have stuck with it.

Franklin Hata was a man who was difficult to admire or respect, because he seemed cold and heartless. His stilted relationship with his adopted daughter Sunny just made me sad. He had a chronic difficulty in relating to anyone on a deep, true level.

Presumably, this was because of his difficult experiences in the war and his obsession with K, a Korean "comfort woman." The storyline about the comfort women made me truly sick to my stomach. Apparently when Chang-Rae Lee began writing this novel, it was going to be all about comfort women, but he found that to be too heavy of a subject. His obsession with K reminded me of the foreign men I knew in Japan who were obsessed with Japanese women...many of them ended up marrying them and staying in Japan. They were drawn to them because they were less likely to challenge them than western women. They liked the way the Japanese women looked up to them. Often, these men would not have been classified as "catches" in the US or UK. These relationships were not very equal.

That is the relationship between Franklin and K. He thinks he loves her, but she only views him as one more man who is taking advantage of her. In his case, perhaps he can help her a little. But he means nothing to her.

I appreciated this book more after discussing it with my book group. Some of them liked it better than I did, and one of my friends observed that perhaps it was the way she had been raised, with more distant parenting. That could be.

It was beautifully written, but a little bit disappointing for me. I expected more, and I found it to be really sad.

I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the SunI'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson

I loved this book. Written for young adults, I'll Give You the Sun is about fraternal twins...Jude and her twin brother, Noah, beginning with age 13. Told in alternating perspectives, the story is about their efforts to cope with adolescence and change, friendship, the experience of being twins and siblings, deep-seated grief and longing, art, love, and how to be truly, authentically yourself.

The only thing I didn't like about it was the use of the term "surftards." I kept thinking about John Green's stated regret about using the "retard" word in Paper Towns. One could argue that it's what kids say...but I also think that authors have the opportunity to raise the bar and set a higher standard.

As an Internet author friend has said in her review, "The words and terms toilet-licking, asshat, and surftard are used in nauseating excess. Plus, don’t get me started on how the word surftard is simply another version of “retard”--a slur wearing a cloak of originality. First Amendment aside, I think it is irresponsible for a young adult author to coin a new hate term. I challenge her to replace the tard in surftard with a racial epithet and see how it plays out. This unnecessary hate language adds absolutely nothing to the voice and persona of the character who uses it."

Otherwise, I adored this novel. It made me cry. Totally rich, complicated characters.