Wednesday, March 30, 2016

#BookReview: THE KITCHEN HOUSE by Kathleen Grissom

This review previously appeared on the site in December 2010. In anticipation of the release of its sequel, Glory Over Everything, I'm re-posting it.

I think sometimes we, or at least I, forget that in addition to slaves toiling in America's early years, there were also indentured servants.  The Kitchen House is the story of Lavinia, an Irish servant, brought to America to work off the debt her family incurred in exchange for their voyage.  Traumatized by the death of her parents on the trip over, and the separation from her brother, Lavinia arrives at the Pyke plantation as a young child.

Lavinia is immediately thrown into the family of slaves that work the plantation and becomes especially close to Belle.  Belle's birth mother is long deceased, but Mama Mae and Papa George head her extended family.  Having been promised freedom, Belle continues to bide her time until her manumission papers are signed and freedom becomes a reality.  As Lavinia moves toward the end of her servitude, it becomes clear that she's hesitant to leave the safety of the only family she's known and move into a world where the color of her skins affords her the freedom her family will never know.

What did you like about this book?
Told from the points of view of both Lavinia and Belle, The Kitchen House is an absolutely fascinating read.  It's interesting to watch Lavinia grow into a young woman and see how she repeats the cycle of those that have come before her.  The whole time I was reading it, I wondered if she had a light bulb moment where she realized that she had become what she pitied most.

As a first time author, Kathleen Grissom hit it out of the ballpark.

What didn't you like about this book?
 I really wanted Lavinia to end up with one character and I kept holding out hope that eventually it might work out that way but, unfortunately, it didn't.

What could the author do to improve this book?
Not a thing

368 p.
Published February 2010

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Friday, March 25, 2016

New Books Coming Your Way, March 29, 2016

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris
256 p. (Non-fiction; multicultural education)

Fifteen-year-old Diamond stopped going to school the day she was expelled for lashing out at peers who constantly harassed and teased her for something everyone on the staff had missed: she was being trafficked for sex. After months on the run, she was arrested and sent to a detention center for violating a court order to attend school.

Black girls represent 16 percent of female students but almost half of all girls with a school-related arrest. The first trade book to tell these untold stories, Pushout exposes a world of confined potential and supports the growing movement to address the policies, practices, and cultural illiteracy that push countless students out of school and into unhealthy, unstable, and often unsafe futures.

For four years Monique W. Morris, author of Black Stats, chronicled the experiences of black girls across the country whose intricate lives are misunderstood, highly judged—by teachers, administrators, and the justice system—and degraded by the very institutions charged with helping them flourish. Morris shows how, despite obstacles, stigmas, stereotypes, and despair, black girls still find ways to breathe remarkable dignity into their lives in classrooms, juvenile facilities, and beyond.

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Don't Let Him Know by Sandip Roy
256 p. (Fiction; India; LGBT)

In a boxy apartment building in an Illinois college town, Romola Mitra, a newly arrived young bride, anxiously awaits her first letter from home in India. When she accidentally opens the wrong letter, it changes her life. Decades later, her son, Amit, back in the U.S., finds the same letter and thinks he has discovered his mother's secret. But secrets carry within them their own secrets sometimes.

Amit does not know that Avinash, his devoted father, lurked on gay chat rooms at times, unable to set aside his lifelong attraction to men. Avinash, for his part, had no idea about the memories of a starry romance his dutiful wife kept tucked away among her silk saris. As Amit settles down as a computer engineer in San Francisco, he too is torn between his new life here and his duties toward the one he has left behind in India.

Don't Let Him Know sweeps up multiple generations of a family, moving from an illicit encounter in a Calcutta park to an unlikely friendship forged at a Carbondale gay bar, from midnight snacks of a great-grandmother's mango chutney to wayward temptations at a McDonald's drive-thru. Tender, funny, and beautifully told, it is an unforgettable story about the sacrifices we make for those we love.

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The Gilda Stories: Expanded 25th Anniversary Edition by Jewelle Gomez
288 p. (Fiction; African-American; LGBT)

This remarkable novel begins in 1850s Louisiana, where Gilda escapes slavery and learns about freedom while working in a brothel. After being initiated into eternal life as one who "shares the blood" by two women there, Gilda spends the next two hundred years searching for a place to call home. An instant lesbian classic when it was first published in 1991, The Gilda Stories has endured as an auspiciously prescient book in its explorations of blackness, radical ecology, re-definitions of family, and yes, the erotic potential of the vampire story.

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The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
496 p. (Fiction; India)

Three young men, and one unforgettable woman, come together in a journey from India to England, where they hope to begin something new—to support their families; to build their futures; to show their worth; to escape the past. They have almost no idea what awaits them.

In a dilapidated shared house in Sheffield, Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his life in Bihar. Avtar and Randeep are middle-class boys whose families are slowly sinking into financial ruin, bound together by Avtar’s secret. Randeep, in turn, has a visa wife across town, whose cupboards are full of her husband’s clothes in case the immigration agents surprise her with a visit.

She is Narinder, and her story is the most surprising of them all.

The Year of the Runaways unfolds over the course of one shattering year in which the destinies of these four characters become irreversibly entwined, a year in which they are forced to rely on one another in ways they never could have foreseen, and in which their hopes of breaking free of the past are decimated by the punishing realities of immigrant life.

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Dothead: Poems by Amit Majmudar
120 p. (Poetry; India)

Dothead is an exploration of selfhood both intense and exhilarating. Within the first pages, Amit Majmudar asserts the claims of both the self and the other: the title poem shows us the place of an Indian American teenager in the bland surround of a mostly white peer group, partaking of imagery from the poet’s Hindu tradition; the very next poem is a fanciful autobiography, relying for its imagery on the religious tradition of Islam. From poems about the treatment at the airport of people who look like Majmudar (“my dark unshaven brothers / whose names overlap with the crazies and God fiends”) to a long, freewheeling abecedarian poem about Adam and Eve and the discovery of oral sex, Dothead is a profoundly satisfying cultural critique and a thrilling experiment in language. United across a wide range of tones and forms, the poems inhabit and explode multiple perspectives, finding beauty in every one.

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Friday, March 18, 2016

#BookReview: THE BIRDS OF OPULENCE by Crystal Wilkinson

Mother-daughter relationships can be complex. They always have been and always will be. Some mothers place their hopes and dreams in their daughters and when those daughters fall short of the mark, they bear the burden of their mother’s disappointment. Other daughters thrive and their mothers see them as competition to be cut down. Still, there are mothers that want only the best for their daughters and cheer the loudest for their accomplishments, no matter how big or small.

Mama Minnie doesn’t suffer fools, so in 1943 when her 13 year old daughter Tookie comes up pregnant, Minnie is sure it’s her fault and nothing Tookie or anyone else says is going to change her mind. Tookie births Lucy, a fragile woman that loses herself birthing Yolanda, the story’s narrator. Through Yolanda’s eyes, readers are given a front row view into the complicated relationship between Minnie and Tookie, and Lucy’s with Yolanda in the small Kentucky town of Opulence.

From the outside looking in, the Goode women are to be envied. Francine Clark knows that there is love in her neighbor’s house while she has none. A recent widow, she longs for someone or something to love. When she finds herself pregnant, she’s too happy to worry about what the women in her small town will say about her blessed event.

While Birds mostly focuses on the women in the story, Joe Brown is a strong and welcome presence. A solid man from the city, he marries Lucy and into this family of opinionated Kentucky women. He brings a sense of stability to the Goode women. Francine’s daughter, Mona, and Yolanda are best of friends, but Mona doesn’t have a Joe Brown in her home, so she seeks attention in the wrong places and from the wrong people, soaking up as much of Joe Brown’s goodness as she can when she’s visiting.

As Wilkinson takes us through the twists and turns of small town living, I was especially entranced by the Dinner on the Grounds, an annual homecoming of sorts. Everyone returns to Opulence, including Tookie’s brothers, June and Butter, men who’ve escaped Opulence and the constant gaze of Mama Minnie. She dotes on them in a way that she’s never done for Tookie. As the saying goes, mothers love their sons and raise their daughters. But these men she’s raised are greedy and their visit leaves the family at odds with each other.

Crystal Wilkinson has a way with words that will remind readers of J. California Cooper and Bernice McFadden. My only regret is that we don’t get to see enough of adult Yolanda or Kee Kee (her brother). He plays such a minor role as a child, so it’s odd that he becomes so prominent toward the end of the book. At just 208 pages, surely more of his story and his relationship with Yolanda and his wife could have been fleshed out. But overall I enjoyed this read and I’ll definitely take a glance at Wilkinson’s back catalog and catch up on her previous works.

208 p.
Published: March 2016
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

#BookReview: WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN by Kaitlyn Greenidge

The Freemans aren’t the typical family. They’re typical in the sense of two parents and two kids, but atypical in that they’re a hearing family that speaks in sign language. Growing out of the mother’s, Laurel’s, fascination with signing as a child, she goes on to major in it and teach her daughters, Charlotte and Callie to sign as well. Laurel is a bit quirky, but that’s why her husband, Charles, fell for her.

Having been subjected to less than ideal classrooms because of her refusal to “sign white,” Laurel jumps at the opportunity to move her family from the city to rural Massachusetts where she and her family will adopt a chimpanzee into their family with the idea of teaching him to sign. Out of all the families interviewed for an opportunity to live and work at the prestigious Toneybee Institute, Charlotte is horrified to find they’ve been chosen. Not only will she have to live in close quarters with an animal, he’s taken on her nickname and she’s to treat him as a sibling. Callie falls for Charlie immediately and easily takes on the characteristics of a middle child. She dotes on Charlie, lashes out at Charlotte and feels overlooked by her parents.

While the family dynamics during the experiment are interesting to watch, I was far more blown away by the backstory of the mysterious woman found in brochures at the institute. Nymphadora is the only child of a pharmacist and his wife. As members of Spring City’s elite, her mother was a Star of the Morning and her father was a Saturnite. Becoming a Star was all Nymphadora ever wanted; so what if she was a 36 year old spinster schoolteacher? At least she had her dignity before her parent’s unfortunate demise. Her vulnerability makes her susceptible to the white man that comes snooping around Spring City doing research.

Presenting himself as an anthropologist, Dr. Gardner makes the residents of Spring City uncomfortable. Why is a white man studying residents of their town as if they’re animals in a zoo? He’s acting at the behest of Julia Toneybee-Leroy, his well off patroness who fancies herself a lover of monkeys. Nymphadora is drawn in by him, lonely woman that she is. Taking the risk of bringing shame on herself and to her race, she’ll do anything to keep Dr. Gardner near her.

As the story shifts back and forth between 1929 Nymphadora and the present day Freemans, it’s interesting to watch how both Nymphadora and Laurel are sucked into the web the institute weaves. Both women seem to relinquish all common sense and give in to the requests of various members of the institute. While Nymphadora only has her sense of self to lose, Laurel’s entire family is at risk.

The whole time I was reading this, I kept wondering what was missing in Laurel that she would put everything aside, including her husband and children, for one chimpanzee. It seemed that she was determined to prove her worth by teaching Charlie to sign, but at what price? How did Laurel’s lack of parenting affect her girls? Affect her husband? She’s watching her family implode, but the only thing that matters to her is Charlie.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman
is one of those stories that stays with you. When I first finished it, I thought, well that’s a 3 star read. Then it kept creeping into my thoughts the rest of the evening. I woke up thinking about it. There’s a lot to unpack and it’s not easily done while you’re actually reading the stories of the Freemans and Nymphadora and the white gaze of their benefactors. The fact that it stayed with me for so long is a sure indicator that Kaitlyn Greenidge accomplished what she set out to do, which is make the reader think.

336 p.
Published: March 2016
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

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Friday, March 11, 2016

New Books Coming Your Way, March 15, 2016

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao
256 p.
Fiction/short stories; India/Pakistan

The twelve paired stories in Shobha Rao's An Unrestored Woman trace their origins to the formation of India and Pakistan in 1947, but they transcend that historical moment. A young woman in a crushingly loveless marriage seizes freedom in the only way left to her; a mother is forced to confront a chilling, unforgiveable crime she committed out of love; an ambitious servant seduces both master and mistress; a young prostitute quietly, inexorably plots revenge on the madam who holds her hostage; a husband and wife must forgive each other for the death of their child. Caught in extreme states of tension, in a world of shifting borders, of instability, Rao's characters must rely on their own wits. When Partition established Pakistan and India as sovereign states, the new boundary resulted in a colossal transfer of people, the largest peacetime migration in human history. This mass displacement echoes throughout Rao's story couplets, which range across the twentieth century, moving beyond the subcontinent to Europe and America. Told with dark humor and ravaging beauty, An Unrestored Woman unleashes a fearless new voice on the literary scene.

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Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper
112 p.
Fiction/short stories; race/gender

While a mother can be defined as a creator, a nurturer, a protector—at the center of each mother is an individual who is attempting to manage her own fears, desires, and responsibilities in different and sometimes unexpected ways. In Know the Mother, author Desiree Cooper explores the complex archetype of the mother in all of her incarnations. In a collage of meditative stories, women—both black and white—find themselves wedged between their own yearnings and their roles as daughters, sisters, grandmothers, and wives.

In this heart-wrenching collection, Cooper reveals that gender and race are often unanticipated interlopers in family life. An anxious mother reflects on her prenatal fantasies of suicide while waiting for her daughter to come home late one night. A lawyer miscarries during a conference call and must proceed as though nothing has happened. On a rare night out with her husband, a new mother tries convincing herself that everything is still the same. A politician’s wife’s thoughts turn to slavery as she contemplates her own escape: "Even Harriet Tubman had realized that freedom wasn’t worth the price of abandoning her family, so she’d come back home. She’d risked it all for love." With her lyrical and carefully crafted prose, Cooper’s stories provide truths without sermon and invite empathy without sentimentality.

Know the Mother explores the intersection of race and gender in vignettes that pull you in and then are gone in an instant. Readers of short fiction will appreciate this deeply felt collection.

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Shelter by Jung Yun
336 p.
Fiction; Korean American

Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future.

A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage, but never kindness nor affection. Now, Kyung can hardly bear to see his parents, much less ask them for help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he feels compelled to take them in. Once more under the same roof, Kyung is forced to question what it means to be a good husband, father, and son, while the life he knew begins to crumble and his own anger demands to be released.

As Shelter veers swiftly toward its startling conclusion, Jung Yun leads us through dark and violent territory, where, unexpectedly, the Chos discover hope. Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one's family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound.

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A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee
384 p.
Fiction; India/London

Ritwik Ghosh, twenty-two and recently orphaned, finds the chance to start a new life when he arrives in England from Calcutta. But Oxford holds little of the salvation Ritwik is looking for. Instead, he moves to London, where he drops out of official existence into a shadowy hinterland of illegal immigrants. The story that Ritwik writes to stave off his loneliness begins to find ghostly echoes in his own life. And, as present and past of several lives collide, Ritwik’s own goes into free fall.

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On the Way Back by Montague Kobbé
288 p.
Fiction; Caribbean (Anguilla)

Nathaniel Jones, a middle-aged businessman from England, travels to the Caribbean island of Anguilla to spend a fortnight on holiday when he's captivated by a brilliant and beautiful member of the local community, Sheila Rawlingson. After a secret, intense hundred-day courtship, Nathaniel proposes to Sheila, whose agreement to marry this white man is seen as a betrayal by her family and fellow Anguillans.

Recognizing the value Anguillan society places on economic projects, Nathaniel attempts to set up an airline business to gain the support and favor of the Rawlingsons. Nathaniel sends for his son, Dragon Jones, to travel to Anguilla and cofound Dragon Wings, the nation's first commercial airline. Nathaniel, Dragon, and Sheila turn to her uncle for financial backing. Sheila's uncle, however, foils Nathaniel's best-laid plans at every turn. Kobbé's hilarious social novel brilliantly echoes A Confederacy of Dunces and Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

#BookReview: THE BOOK OF MEMORY by Petina Gappah

Albinism superstitions and discrimination, a civil war, mental health issues, criminality of homosexuality and abandonment issues are all packed into Pettina Gappah's The Book of Memory. She covers a lot of territory in under 300 pages, but it never feels rushed or frenetic. Perhaps it is because her narrator seems to stay calm in the midst of her chaotic life.

Memory, our narrator, is in jail, sentenced to death for the murder of her adoptive father, Lloyd.  From the very beginning the reader is told that Memory did not kill Lloyd. To understand why she's still in jail for a crime she didn't commit, you have to understand what was going on in Zimbabwe at the time.

Because Memory is an albino, assumptions are made about her - that she is cursed, that she can harm children, etc.  As a child, she is shunned by her classmates and taunted daily. Her mother's mental instability means Memory is often on the receiving end of her verbal lashings. While her father does his best to protect Memory and all of the children from their mother, Memory finds herself sold to a white man for reasons she can't fathom.

Lloyd is different from Memory, but it's his difference that allows him to accept her as she is. At first I thought surely he had taken her in for illicit purposes, but he really is a kind man and exposes her to a life she would have never led had she stayed in the village with her family. Highly educated at Lloyd's expense and living outside of Zimbabwe, it's hard to imagine why Memory would return to the country where she faced so much ridicule.

Civil war has ended in Zimbabwe and the country formerly known as Rhodesia has been reclaimed from British colonialism. At a time when whites are being killed in their homes and their lands seized, Memory and Lloyd make for an odd pair. Still, he is the one constant in her life and, at this point, she's been with him longer than she was with her own family. It's only natural then that when she finds him indisposed, she covers for him, keeping his secret while surrendering her freedom.

Memory is the only woman on Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison's death row, an example being made of her. At a time when whites are in fear of their lives, sentencing her to death is meant to send a message to others that actions such as these are not to be tolerated. . Her days are filled with interactions with prostitutes, financial scammers, etc., women who certainly hadn't committed crimes as abhorrent as hers, but who still must be housed somewhere for the long term. Their back stories and day to day lives are quite entertaining.

Flashing back between present day and her past, we finally come to understand the real story of how and why she came to be with Lloyd. You have to wonder if knowing then what she now knows would have changed her life and I really believe it would. Her path was set the moment she believed that her parents sold her.

This wasn't a gripping read. By that I mean it wasn't a book I just couldn't put down. Still, I wanted to know Memory's story and felt compelled to find out what happened next with her. I can see why it's been longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction.

288 p.
Published: February 2016

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Friday, March 4, 2016

New Books Coming Your Way, March 8, 2016

Half a Lifelong Romance by Eileen Chang
400 p.
Fiction; China

Shen Shijun, a young engineer, has fallen in love with his colleague, the beautiful Gu Manzhen. He is determined to resist his family’s efforts to match him with his wealthy cousin so that he can marry the woman he truly loves. But dark circumstances—a lustful brother-in-law, a treacherous sister, a family secret—force the two young lovers apart. As Manzhen and Shijun go on their separate paths, they lose track of one another, and their lives become filled with feints and schemes, missed connections and tragic misunderstandings. At every turn, societal expectations seem to thwart their prospects for happiness. Still, Manzhen and Shijun dare to hold out hope—however slim—that they might one day meet again.

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Afro-Politics and Civil Society in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil
by Kwame Dixon
192 p.
Political Science; Caribbean & Latin American

Brazil’s black population, one of the oldest and largest in the Americas, mobilized a vibrant antiracism movement from grassroots origins when the country transitioned from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s. Campaigning for political equality after centuries of deeply engrained racial hierarchies, African-descended groups have been working to unlock democratic spaces that were previously closed to them.

Using the city of Salvador as a case study, Kwame Dixon tracks the emergence of black civil society groups and their political projects: claiming new citizenship rights, testing new anti-discrimination and affirmative action measures, reclaiming rural and urban land, and increasing political representation. This book is one of the first to explore how Afro-Brazilians have influenced politics and democratic institutions in the contemporary period.

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The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson
208 p.
Fiction; African-American

The Goode-Brown family, led by matriarch and pillar of the community Minnie Mae, is plagued by old secrets and embarrassment over mental illness and illegitimacy. Meanwhile, single mother Francine Clark is haunted by her dead, lightning-struck husband and forced to fight against both the moral judgment of the community and her own rebellious daughter, Mona. The residents of Opulence struggle with vexing relationships to the land, to one another, and to their own sexuality. As the members of the youngest generation watch their mothers and grandmothers pass away, they live with the fear of going mad themselves and must fight to survive.

Crystal Wilkinson offers up Opulence and its people in lush, poetic detail. It is a world of magic, conjuring, signs, and spells, but also of harsh realities that only love -- and love that's handed down -- can conquer. At once tragic and hopeful, this captivating novel is a story about another time, rendered for our own.

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What is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
336 p.
Fiction; short stories

Playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “’Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).

Oyeyemi’s creative vision and storytelling are effervescent, wise, and insightful, and her tales span multiple times and landscapes as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities. Is a key a gate, a gift, or an invitation? What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours captivates as it explores the many possible answers.

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Guapa by Saleem Haddad
368 p.
Fiction; Middle East; LGBT

Set over the course of twenty-four hours, Guapa follows Rasa, a gay man living in an unnamed Arab country,as he tries to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political and social upheaval. Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room. One night Rasa’s grandmother — the woman who raised him — catches them in bed together. The following day Rasa is consumed by the search for his best friend Maj, a fiery activist and drag queen star of the underground bar, Guapa, who has been arrested by the police. Ashamed to go home and face his grandmother, and reeling from the potential loss of the three most important people in his life, Rasa roams the city’s slums and prisons, the lavish weddings of the country’s elite, and the bars where outcasts and intellectuals drink to a long-lost revolution. Each new encounter leads him closer to confronting his own identity, as he revisits his childhood and probes the secrets that haunt his family. As Rasa confronts the simultaneous collapse of political hope and his closest personal relationships, he is forced to discover the roots of his alienation and try to re-emerge into a society that may never accept him.

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
336 p.
Fiction; African-American

The Freeman family--Charles, Laurel, and their daughters, teenage Charlotte and nine-year-old Callie--have been invited to the Toneybee Institute in rural Massachusetts to participate in a research experiment. They will live in an apartment on campus with Charlie, a young chimp abandoned by his mother. The Freemans were selected for the experiment because they know sign language; they are supposed to teach it to Charlie and welcome him as a member of their family.

Isolated in their new, nearly all-white community not just by their race but by their strange living situation, the Freemans come undone. And when Charlotte discovers the truth about the Institute’s history of questionable studies, the secrets of the past begin to invade the present.

The power of this novel resides in Kaitlyn Greenidge’s undeniable storytelling talents. What appears to be a story of mothers and daughters, of sisterhood put to the test, of adolescent love and grown-up misconduct, and of history’s long reach, becomes a provocative and compelling exploration of America’s failure to find a language to talk about race.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

#BookReview: WHAT LIES BETWEEN US by Nayomi Munaweera

What lies between us are secrets and lies and memories we've chosen to forget or change or block out. This premise is at the heart of What Lies Between Us. As the book opens, we’re introduced to a character in jail. Initially we’re not sure why she’s in jail, only that she receives hate letters from mothers and that she, herself, is a mother. Because she’s in jail, we know that she’s committed a crime, but we’re not really sure what that crime is. What we do know is that she does not seem remorseful. I would go as far as to say she’s very matter of fact about whatever it is she’s done and that’s a bit disturbing.

“People write to me. Mothers, mostly; they spew venom. That’s not surprising. I have done the unthinkable. I have parted the veil and crossed into that other unseen country. They hate me because I am the worst thing possible. I am the bad mother.

…Then too, motherhood is broken because in this place, to be a good mother is to give yourself completely. It is to erase yourself. This is what I have refused to do. So they shudder when they hear my name, but inwardly they smile because they have not failed in the way I have.”
Before this character tells us what she’s done to land in jail, she takes us back to her childhood in the hills of Sri Lanka. Hers sounds like an idyllic upbringing. The only child of a wealthy professor and stay at home mom, she’s alternately adored by her father and ignored by her mother. A frail woman, her mother keeps her distance from her, meting out affection as one would ration food for a dog. So desperate is the daughter for her mother’s attention that she sleeps outside of her door in hopes of seeing her in the moments when she briefly leaves her bedroom.

In his sober moments, her father lavishes her with attention, but her constant companion is the family servant, Samson. He is the one that takes her to play by the stream and pulls thorns from her fingers when they’re pricked. But as she gets older, she begins to receive unwanted attention from Samuel and is almost relieved when she and her mother are forced to move to America.

There, she transforms into a typical American teenager with the help of her cousin Dharshi. And though Dharshi is her closest friend and ally, the secrets of first Samson and later Dharshi’s marriage lie between the two. Eventually she moves into a relationship with Daniel and things are perfect. Even in his overly white world, she finds a way to fit in, but cracks in her armor slowly start to appear so that by the time they’re married, you already know that she’ll find a way to ruin things because you can only keep secrets for so long before they take over your life. And those secrets bring us right back to the prisoner we met in the first few pages.

When I tell you this book did me in? It was sad, not sad in that “can I cut my wrists already” way that A Little Life is, but it’s sad. And that’s not to say that there are no happy parts, because there are. The protagonist’s life is happy overall in those moments when she’s by herself, before she’s a part of a couple, when she’s no one’s daughter. When she’s allowed to be her own person and fully live in her truth, she seems to be fine. But the secrets and the memories she’s kept and suppressed overwhelm her and they drown out her happiness. Yet, I couldn’t stop reading. How into What Lies Between Us was I? I didn’t even realize until the end of the book that no one ever uttered the character’s name. We don't even learn it until the end. It didn’t matter. The story line, the descriptions of life in Sri Lanka, the adaptation of a teen immigrant to America, the character’s emotional and mental states – Nayomi Munaweera does an amazing job of handling all of these.

329 p.
Published: February 2016

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