Wednesday, October 19, 2016

#BookReview: SMALL GREAT THINGS by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult just might be woke af. While reading her latest, I realized that she didn't write this book for me or any other person of colour that's the victim of daily microaggressions from well-intentioned friends, coworkers, family members or perfect strangers. Jodi Picoult wrote this book because she finally gets it.

Small Great Things, as all other Picoult novels, tells a story from the points of view of several characters. In the past, her books have touched upon teen pregnancy (The Pact), a child birthed specifically to save her older sister (My Sister's Keeper), a former Nazi soldier hiding in plain sight (The Storyteller), and a number of other topics. What I've always admired, and sometimes been annoyed by, is how deeply Picoult is willing to delve into a topic. It's obvious that she did her homework before tackling race in her latest.

Ruth Jefferson has always played by the rules. As a black woman born and raised in Harlem, she's always fought to be an exemplary person. More importantly, an exemplary black woman. While her sister resisted that role, Ruth excelled first in public school, then in private school. Years later, she's a graduate of Yale Nursing school. Within the cocoon of campus, she's a brilliant student, period. Outside of that bubble, she's the black woman on the bus that white people look past when searching for a seat, even though there's usually one available next to her. Carrying her Yale coffee cup around acts as her shield, a notice, if you will, to the rest of the world that she's a safe black person, she's not like those other people.

Turk Bauer doesn't like blacks, Jews, lesbians, Asians or anyone else that isn't a straight white person. Once upon a time he might have tolerated them, but his upbringing and subsequent events changed that. When he and his wife, white supremacists, give birth at a local hospital, he's already on edge worrying about their newborn son. His anxiety is only magnified when Ruth Jefferson walks into their room. And what happens next becomes Ruth's wake up call. Black is black is black.

Kennedy McQuarrie fancies herself a liberal at heart and defender of the defenseless. When Ruth's case falls in her lap, Kennedy refuses to believe that race has played a part in Ruth being charged and arrested. She refuses to believe race has anything to do with Ruth being the only nurse of color in her unit with seniority who has only been promoted once in 20 years, despite her glowing reviews. And she refuses to believe that the hospital has thrown Ruth under the bus because of her color. Kennedy refuses to see race in anything simply because she doesn't have to. And that gets right to the heart of Picoult's point.

As a black woman, it can be exhausting trying to explain microaggressions to people that don't notice or claim not to notice them. Being followed around stores, the look of surprise when someone you've only talked to on the phone realizes you're black when you see them in person, the assumption that you got into an institution simply because of your color - Picoult hits on all of these things and more as Ruth becomes Kennedy's personal guide to what day to day life looks like as a person of color. Ruth teaches these lessons not because they're fun, but because she's fighting to save her life.

It's been awhile since a Jodi Picoult novel has hit so close to home, and I've read almost all of her books. As I said earlier, though race plays a huge role in Small Great Things, she didn't write this book for me. Those things that Ruth experiences, that's my daily life. More than anything, Picoult wrote this novel to open the eyes of those people that don't know this experience, white people in particular. I can only hope that those people that need to learn and understand how their actions and interactions affect others read it and take it to heart.

480 p.
Published: October 2016

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Friday, October 7, 2016

New Books Coming Your Way, October 11, 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Fiction; China

Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.

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Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities' Red Dress Code: New and Selected Poems by Thylias Moss

A poet whose innovations have influenced generations of writers, Thylias Moss is a sort of taxonomist-preacher, whose profound meditation on American culture underlies and propels the dazzling lyrical and impassioned passages she writes in outraged response. This new volume gathers together substantial selections from her previous books and follows them with more than fifty pages of daring new work. Whether in early poems or more recent output, Moss make no promises of smooth sailing: even when they begin with beloved cultural icons (Robert Frost, Dr. Who, the Statue of Liberty), her poems spiral outward, insisting on new perspectives, truths, and realities—particularly of African American experience.

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Gone 'Til November: A Journal of Rikers Island by Lil Wayne
Non-fiction; memoir

In 2010, recording artist Lil Wayne was at the height of his career. A fixture in the rap game for over a decade, Lil Wayne (aka Weezy) had established himself as both a prolific musician and a savvy businessman, smashing long-held industry records, winning multiple Grammy awards, and signing up-and-coming talent like Drake and Nicki Minaj to his Young Money label. All of this momentum came to a halt when he was convicted of possession of a firearm and sentenced to a year-long stay at Rikers Island. Suddenly, the artist at the top of his game was now an inmate at the mercy of the American penal system.

At long last, Gone 'Til November reveals the true story of what really happened while Wayne was behind bars, exploring everything from his daily rituals to his interactions with other inmates to how he was able to keep himself motivated and grateful. Taken directly from Wayne’s own journal, this intimate, personal account of his incarceration is an utterly humane look at the man behind the artist.

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Precious and Grace: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
by Alexander McCall Smith
Mystery; Botswana

Changes are afoot at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, where Mma Makutsi, who has recently been promoted to co-director, has been encouraging Mma Ramotswe to update to more modern office practices. However, an unusual case will require both of them to turn their attention firmly to the past. A young Canadian woman who spent her early childhood in Botswana requests the agency’s help in recovering important pieces of her life there. With only a faded photograph—and, of course, some good old-fashioned detective skills—to guide them, Precious and Grace set out to locate the house that the woman used to live in and the caretaker who looked after her many years ago. But when the journey takes an unexpected turn, they are forced to consider whether some lost things may be better off unfound.

Busy as she is with this challenging investigation, Mma Ramotswe can always be relied on to come to the aid of her friends—who seem to have a special knack for landing in hot water. Mr. Polopetsi, an occasional assistant at the agency, has made an ill-advised business decision that may lead to serious trouble. And next door at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Fanwell, the junior mechanic, has become helplessly attached to a stray dog who proves to be a bigger responsibility than he can handle. With Mma Makutsi by her side, Mma Ramotswe dispenses help and sympathy with the graciousness and warmth for which she is so well known, and everyone is led to surprising insights into the healing power of compassion, forgiveness, and new beginnings.

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Around the Way Girl by Taraji P. Henson
Non-fiction; memoir

With a sensibility that recalls her beloved screen characters, including Yvette, Queenie, Shug, and the iconic Cookie from Empire, yet is all Taraji, the screen actress writes of her family, the one she was born into and the one she created. She shares stories of her father, a Vietnam vet who was bowed but never broken by life's challenges, and of her mother who survived violence both in the home and on DC's volatile streets. Here too she opens up about her experiences as a single mother, a journey some saw as a burden but which she saw as a gift.

Around the Way Girl is also a classic actor’s memoir in which Taraji reflects on the world-class instruction she received at Howard University and the pitfalls that come with being a black actress. With laugh-out-loud humor and candor, she shares the challenges and disappointments of the actor’s journey and shows us that behind the red carpet moments, she is ever authentic. She is at heart just a girl in pursuit of her dreams.

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Never Look an American in the Eye: A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American by Okey Ndibe
Memoir; Nigeria

Okey Ndibe’s funny, charming, and penetrating memoir tells of his move from Nigeria to America, where he came to edit the influential—but forever teetering on the verge of insolvency—African Commentary magazine. It recounts stories of Ndibe’s relationships with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and other literary figures; examines the differences between Nigerian and American etiquette and politics; recalls an incident of racial profiling just thirteen days after he arrived in the US, in which he was mistaken for a bank robber; considers American stereotypes about Africa (and vice-versa); and juxtaposes African folk tales with Wall Street trickery. All these stories and more come together in a generous, encompassing book about the making of a writer and a new American.

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A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Fiction; Korean German

Near the beginning of A Greater Music, the narrator, a young Korean writer, falls into an icy river in the Berlin suburbs, where she's been housesitting for her on-off boyfriend Joachim. This sets into motion a series of memories that move between the hazily defined present and the period three years ago when she first lived in Berlin. Throughout, the narrator's relationship with Joachim, a rough-and-ready metalworker, is contrasted with her friendship with a woman called M, an ultra-refined music-loving German teacher who was once her lover.

A novel of memories and wandering, A Greater Music blends riffs on music, language, and literature with a gut-punch of an emotional ending, establishing Bae Suah as one of the most exciting novelists working today.

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Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar
Short stories; Arab

Award-winning novelist Randa Jarrar's new story collection moves seamlessly between realism and fable, history and the present, capturing the lives of Muslim women and men across myriad geographies and circumstances. With acerbic wit, deep tenderness, and boundless imagination, Jarrar brings to life a memorable cast of characters, many of them "accidental transients"a term for migratory birds who have gone astrayseeking their circuitous routes back home. Fierce and feeling, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali is a testament to survival in the face of love, loss, and displacement.

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