Monday, June 30, 2014

#BookReview: Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

Okay, you know how you’re reading something and you know it’s fiction and you tell yourself something like this could never really happen, but then you start thinking, what if? That’s exactly what happened to me as I read Forty Acres. From start to finish, I didn’t want to put this book down. It was just that fascinating.

A young Queens lawyer, Martin Grey has just won the case of his life. Pulling in big money in a civil suit means he and his best friend and partner can finally stop struggling. Winning the case against a renowned attorney such as Damon Darrell is almost better than money. For so long, Martin admired the attorney with a proven track record for winning when it counted most. And he, Martin Grey, had bested him. So it comes as a surprise when Martin and his wife receive an invitation to dine at the home of Damon and his wife.

Sitting in this house, smoking cigars and drinking brandy with some of the most important men in the world is mind blowing, and an invitation to join them on a weekend getaway is more than he could have hoped for. Who knew where winning just one case would lead him? Suddenly, he’s a part of a group of African American men dedicated to righting the wrongs of the past. He’s drawn to their power and the potential of wealth, but he can’t reconcile those things with what he sees on a retreat with them.

I’ll admit that early on in reading this I got thrown for a loop. The author had the main character attending Spelman College for undergrad. As most of you know, Spelman is women’s college. I was a little disappointed in the author for not knowing this off the top of his head when he picked a school, and just as disappointed with his proofer and editor for not catching it either. When authors start with such blatant mistakes about something easily researched, I wonder how much effort they put into researching other areas of the book. When he saw me post about the mistake on Goodreads, Dwayne Smith actually took the time to reach out to me, apologize for his error and promised that it would be corrected in the final version. He gets major points from me for that.

Aside from that error, the book is an amazing read. The words of Dr. Kasim, the group’s leader, really give you pause to think. It’s obvious that Smith is a student of history and this is shown through the speeches and background of Dr. Kasim. The men who follow him completely buy into his theories, making it easy for him to accept his actions, and it’s easy to see how they are swayed. I can’t imagine that anyone will be able to read Forty Acres and not wonder, even just a little bit, about how the world would change if the scenarios written about were to actually happen.

Published: July 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Friday, June 27, 2014

#BookReview: Long Division by Kiese Laymon

I’m so in love with this book that I’m not even sure where to start. I first listened to it back in February and couldn’t find the words to review. I gave it another listen last week and, this time, I took notes. Understand that I rarely take notes on books, but I ended up with 10 pages of them. It’s not that the concepts of the book are difficult to understand, it’s that there are so many gems to be found within that I didn’t want to miss any.

The first thing you need to know about Long Division is that it’s a book within a book and the names of the characters within and outside of the book are the same. Time shifts between 2013, 1985 and 1964. The main character is 2013 Citoyen (City) Coldson. He’s not a bad kid, but he has a smart mouth on him. It’s helped him win “Can You Use That Word in a Sentence” contests, but it’s also landed him in hot water with his mama, his principal, his grandmother and most people that come in contact with him. The book opens with City doing verbal battle with his biggest competitor, LaVander Peeler, which lands him in the principal’s office. Frustrated with his ignorance, Principal Reeves makes City take a test, which becomes a pre-cursor to his time traveling. The first time I listened, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the questions, but this time, they hit me hard. Those that stood out most really summed up what Long Division is all about:

“Only a fool would not travel through time and change their past if they could.”

“Past, present, and future exist within you and you change them by changing the way you live your life.”

2013 City notices a book called Long Division in Principal Reeves office, borrows it and discovers 1985 City Coldson. 1985 City is in love with Shalaya Crump, the girl that lives next door to his grandmother in Melahatchie, Mississippi. Shalaya is a bit of a mystery to City. The way she talks, the things she says throw him off, especially, “I could love you if you helped me change the future in a special way…” Loving Shalaya the way he does, 1985 City takes off on a journey with her that takes him back to 1964 where he meets his grandmother and forward to 2013 where he meets Baize Shephard, a girl that’s missing in 2013 City’s world. If the future is to be changed, as Shalaya wants it to, will it be up to 1985 City or 2013 City?

It can be difficult to follow the story at times if you don’t keep track of what year the characters are in. Even if you’re keeping track, it can be hard. Laymon drops quiet hints from start to finish, but you really have to be on the lookout for them. Though both 2013 City and 1985 City can be obnoxious, know it alls, there is a slight distinction in how they talk and their mannerisms. 2013 City is never without his wave brush and has taken over YouTube. 1985 is much more respectful of his grandmother and doesn’t question or talk back the way 2013 City would. Shalaya Crump and Baize Shephard are tied together by an ellipses, or “dot dot dot” as both would say.

Laymon is masterful with capturing the words, dress, etc. of people in each era. It’s rare that I re-read or re-listen to a book. When I was younger, I re-read books because my mother had me on a book budget and if I was already at my limit for the month, I’d go back and re-read a book just because I had to have something to read. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been on her book budget, but I re-listened to Kiese Laymon’s Long Division recently just because I felt like I missed so much on the first listen. To be honest, there are some books that are meant to be read and some that are meant to be listened to. The written book differentiates by using a different font. Long Division is definitely meant to be read, simply because if you stop listening for just a second, you’re sure to miss something important.

Listening time: 7 hours, 41 minutes
Published: June 2013

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

#BookReview: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

In a family so full of secrets that it’s a wonder members aren’t choking on them, it’s really no surprise that when the eldest daughter, Lydia, goes missing, no one can fathom how or why. I was absolutely blown away by how well Celeste Ng dug into the insecurities of each family member and how it affected how they interacted with each other and the outside world. By the time I finished Everything I Never Told You, it felt like the layers had just been peeled off of the inauthentic lives the whole family had been living. Wow!

When Marilyn went off to Radcliffe in the 1950s, it was with the intention of becoming a doctor. Unlike her mother who was a home economics teacher and believed that keeping house was the most suitable job for women, Marilyn was determined to follow her passion. As fate would have it, she fell into the life that her mother predicted for her. Though she goes through an unhappy and frustrated period, outwardly she appears to be content with her life.

To his students, James is an anomaly at Harvard, an Asian-American professor teaching American history, specifically about cowboys. While the other students question how this is so, Marilyn is intrigued by the shy professor. James has never felt like he belonged anywhere; not in his small private school in Iowa as the only Chinese student and certainly not as an adult at Harvard. From the beginning, being with the white, blond Marilyn is like an acceptance letter to American normalcy.

Nath and Lydia both struggle with acceptance at school in the late 1970s. Nath makes good grades and can’t wait to escape their small Ohio town for Harvard.  While he appears to be the most well-adjusted of his family, he carries just as many secrets. His biggest one won't be revealed to readers until almost the end of the book.  At home, so much of the focus is on Lydia that neither parent really notices Nath. It’s interesting to watch Lydia complain about how much attention is paid to everything she does, but when the focus is re-directed to Nath, she always manages to swing it back her way. It’s true that her parents are much more invested in her than their other children. Hannah, the youngest child, is almost invisible to her parents and her siblings. I feel sorry for her the most because while the others are grieving the loss of Lydia, no one even thinks to check on Hannah, who likely misses her sister the most.

I have so many questions for James, like, if you know that you had a hard time being the only Asian student in school, why would you put your children in a situation where they’re the only Asian students? To be fair, I know that he felt Marilyn’s white side “normalized” the kids, but it didn’t. The kids are left dealing with the ridicule from others while, at the same time, hiding it from their parents because they know how desperately their father wants them to fit in. Lydia catches a double dose of parental guilt. James is overly invested in making sure she has friends, proving that she has been accepted; Marilyn crams her head with math and science, forcing her to shun the few potential friendships she’s been offered, instead spending her evenings and weekends studying and trying to live up to her mother’s expectations.

Hannah sees all of this. She sees Lydia sinking deeper and deeper into despair. She knows about her secret rendezvous with a neighbor. She knows that Lydia is afraid that once Nath leaves, she won’t have anyone to turn to, she won’t have anyone that can relate to what she’s going through at school and at home. I can’t help but to think that all problems could have been solved if only someone had asked Hannah earlier. Everything I Never Told You definitely proves that secrets will eat you alive.

Published: June 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Monday, June 23, 2014

#BookReview: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Charlie Wong has led a sheltered life in New York's Chinatown.  At 22, she still lives at home with her father and her younger sister, Lisa.  Thanks to her father, the best noodle maker in Chinatown, she has a job washing dishes at the restaurant where he works.  But Charlie is clumsy and washing dishes for a living certainly isn't her passion.  Her late mother was once a star ballerina in Beijing, but Charlie must have taken after her father because she has not an ounce of her mother's grace, or does she?

Thanks to an ad Lisa sees in the paper, Charlie lands a new gig as a receptionist at a dance studio.  Wearing her aunt's hand-me-down bras and baggy clothes, she's nowhere near as glamorous as the dancers at the studio, but she loves being around them.  Unfortunately, Charlie is no better as a receptionist than she was a dishwasher.  Luckily, someone at the studio sees her potential as a dancer.

I loved Charlie's time at the studio.  It was light and carefree in comparison to the issues she dealt with at home.  As the eldest daughter of a man that spends most of his time in Chinatown, it's Charlie's responsibility to deal with the world outside of Chinatown.  She's the person that oversees Lisa's homework, deals with her teachers and fights for Lisa's chance to attend a prestigious school.  She's also the one person that questions her father's undying loyalty to her Uncle Henry, a doctor specializing in Chinese medicine.  It's true that Uncle Henry and Aunt Monica have helped her family out, but the way her father accepts his advice without any question puts Lisa in danger and Charlie is the only one that realizes just how much danger.

Jean Kwok is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.  I appreciate that Mambo in Chinatown keeps one foot in the dreamy world of  "will the girl get the guy and win while doing so" and the other foot in the realistic world of what life is like for the children of immigrants.  Charlie's world is a little off-balanced overall, but thanks to Kwok's writing, she manages to find the balance in both and her happy ending.

Published: June 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Friday, June 13, 2014

#BookReview: Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset

Though the theme of passing is one we don’t see very often in present-day lit, it was popular in the early to mid-20th century. We’ve seen how it played out in Charles Chestnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and William White’s Lost Boundaries (1948). In each story, a character (or characters) makes the conscious decision to transition from being black or biracial to white as if simply shedding one’s skin or race guarantees happiness. As characters in the aforementioned books found out, in Jessie Redmond Fauset’s Plum Bun, Angela Murray soon learns that while white privilege may provide her with some creature comforts, there is much sacrifice to be made in forgetting who you are and from where you came.

Passing in public places had always been a game with Angela and her mother. While her darker skinned father and sister were left to entertain themselves in other ways, Angela and her mother, Mattie, used their complexions to frequent places where they might otherwise have been shunned, such as tea parlors and other places where society women gathered. If she had known what damage she was doing to her daughter, it’s doubtful that Mattie would have engaged in passing. Whereas Mattie was proud of her race and loved her husband fiercely, upon their deaths, Angela made the decision to leave Philadelphia and her sister, Virginia, behind.

Living in New York, Angela changes her name and tries to fit in with the other art students in her classes. In time, she begins a romance with a wealthy white man, not because she loves him, but because of what his race and money can afford her. She believes that she is happy, but, in reality, it’s just a superficial happiness that never lasts for long.

Meanwhile, her sister Virginia has brought herself to Harlem and is enjoying life. Surrounded by good people and good times, her life is held up as a mirror to Angela. What good is passing if you can’t relax and let your hair down and enjoy yourself? That really becomes the moral of the story. For all the perks that being white brings her, Angela doesn’t have any real friends. There’s no one she can be honest with about whom she is, except her sister, but her desire to be seen as white prevents her from spending too much time with her.

Without getting into the whole tragic mulatto theme, you’re safe in assuming that Angela does indeed play such a role. In trying to marry a man that wouldn’t love her if he knew she was black to loving a man that won’t love her because he believes she is not, her life is tragic indeed. With the exception of Lost Boundaries, where a whole family was passing, none of the stories have happy endings. It has to be difficult to cut one’s self off from family, friends, culture, etc. Even though people have been able to do it, I can’t imagine that the trade-off is worth it.

Published: 1928

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

#BookReview: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Arturo and Alma Rivera have lived their whole lives in Mexico. One day, their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter, Maribel, sustains a terrible injury, one that casts doubt on whether she'll ever be the same. And so, leaving all they have behind, the Riveras come to America with a single dream: that in this country of great opportunity and resources, Maribel can get better.

When Mayor Toro, whose family is from Panama, sees Maribel in a Dollar Tree store, it is love at first sight. It's also the beginning of a friendship between the Rivera and Toro families, whose web of guilt and love and responsibility is at this novel's core.

Woven into their stories are the testimonials of men and women who have come to Delaware, by way of other states or countries. Their journeys and their voices will inspire you, surprise you, and break your heart.  I loved each and every character and their background stories.  From Nelia, who came from Puerto Rico in hopes of being the next Rita Moreno, to the nosy Quisqueya who sees all and reports all to the other neighbors, the characters are just fascinating.

I became so invested in the lives of the characters, especially Mayor.  I found myself feeling his pain when he recognizes that, once again, he's a disappointment to his father.  He's not the cool, Americanized, soccer playing college student that his brother, Enriquez, is.  He's a bit of a nerd and an introvert and is picked on often at school.  But he's a good person and that shines through again and again.

Alma, Maribel's mother, is another great character.  She feels the guilt of what happened to Maribel more than her husband, Arturo.  For that reason, she's created her own little prison that she keeps herself and Maribel trapped in.  Her quiet strength becomes her most valuable asset.

Although this is Maribel and Mayor's story, the story belongs to all of the characters.  I love that Henriquez fleshes out every single character.  We know why each person has ended up in this apartment complex in Delaware and we're thirsty for more of their story.  Though I rarely re-read books, this is definitely one I plan to re-visit again.  It's just that good.

Published: June 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Monday, June 2, 2014

#BookReview: China Dolls by Lisa See

Offering an interesting perspective on the lives of Asian Americans in pre-World War II San Francisco, Lisa See hits it out of the park with China Dolls. It seems so rare that American fiction allows depictions of Asians outside of the narrow confines that it has created for them. Often, their stories are set in their native countries of China, Japan, etc. By creating characters that live in Anytown, USA, Lisa See humanizes stories that are often overlooked in mainstream lit.

American-born Chinese Grace is from a small town in Ohio where her family was the only Asian family in town. As a result, Grace has missed out on Chinese culture and, in fact, has never met any other Asians outside of her mother and father. Arriving in San Francisco with hopes of a career as a dancer, she’s initially overwhelmed by Chinatown and sticks out like a sore thumb, until she’s rescued by the haughty princess of Chinatown, Helen.

As a daughter of one of the most respected families in Chinatown, Helen can do absolutely nothing without it being reported back to her father. She dreads her days working at the telephone exchange, but it’s what her family has determined is proper for a woman of her age and station. She can’t sing or dance, but that doesn’t stop her from coming to Helen’s assistance and offering to show her where she can make a living.

Ruby is Japanese, but passing for Chinese. Almost everyone in Chinatown knows this and accepts it until the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and the U.S. government begins setting up internment camps for Japanese citizens, whether they’re U.S.-born or not.

The three become fast friends working as dancers at one of Chinatown’s finer clubs, but mistrust seems to always be lurking in the background. Petty differences and jealousy are a central theme and each woman has her place in the spotlight as the betrayer of others. For that reason, it was difficult to like one character more than another or sympathize with any of them. At times, they’re downright cruel to each other, yet still dependent on each other for survival, so the friendships seem to be maintained more out of necessity than loyalty.

If I absolutely have to pick a favorite of the three ladies, I would go with Grace; least favorite is harder to determine. Ruby is a snake from the beginning and continues to show her true colors, so it’s hard to blame anyone that doesn’t keep their guard up around her. Helen, on the other hand, seems so honest and forthright, but she’s probably the one to fear the most, since you’ll never know when she might strike. Regardless, I loved the story lines of all the women.

Published: June 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.