16

Another Day in the Death of America

I’ve been working hard on making some of my reading more meaningful. On choosing books that make me feel like I’m educating myself in a way that is necessary right now. So that I can’t just be an ignorant privileged white woman.

Thankfully, there are so very many books that can help me on my way.

Today we’re going to talk about Gary Younge’s Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives.

america

Younge is a British journalist who found himself living in the United States after falling in love while working there short term. He stayed, got married, worked, and had two children in his time in America. Younge is a black man and the longer he stayed, especially once he had black children, the more he became worried about the gun violence in his adopted country. As he got to know more Americans, as he came to consider himself as less of an onlooker and more of a participant in every day American life, gun violence became more personal.

So, in an effort to show how personal the epidemic is, he picked a day, any day, and reported on all the stories of children shot to death on that day.On an average day, seven children will be shot. On the day Younge picked, November 23, 2013, ten children aged nine to nineteen were killed by guns. Younge spent eighteen months travelling around, talking to the people who loved them, those who were there, the mothers, fathers, friends, cousins left shattered in the wake of such unnecessary loss.

The children he profiles were black, white, hispanic. They were students, athletes, little kids who played in the streets until the lights came on. They fell in doorways, at sleepovers, in their own homes, on street corners. Their lives ended in California, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas. They all left behind completely devastated families.

Gary Younge profiles these short lives with empathy and compassion. He speaks freely about how occasionally he messed up and didn’t approach grieving relatives with the space they needed to feel comfortable speaking with them. Over the course of the book, you can see Younge getting more and more involved in his subject matter.

This is a book about what happens when you don’t have gun control. Americans are no more inherently violent than anybody else. What makes its society more deadly is the widespread availability of firearms. Every country has its problems, unique to its own history and culture. But in no other Western society would this book be possible.

Another Day in the Death of America is an incredibly researched portrait of an epidemic that does not discriminate against its victims. I read most of it with my mouth open, horrified with the ease with which these young lives were wiped out. And I’m not sure really where it left me. Gary Younge and his family have since moved back to the UK.

One final note: this book has been optioned as a movie with David Oyelowo to star as Gary Younge.

9

Canada Reads 2017: The Break

Two years ago, I tuned into the Canada Reads debate for the first time. I ended up reading two of the books after the fact (one of which, When Everything Feels Like The Movies stays with me still).

Last year, I read two of the books ahead of the debate (progress!). I bought the winner soon after it was over and have yet to read it (because that’s how I roll).

This year I’ve bought two of the books and currently, I’ve read one. I’ll read the other one but I hope The Break wins.

thebreak

Katherena Vermette’s debut novel, The Break, centres on a sexual assault that takes place in the middle of the night. Stella, a young Metis mother, hears something outside and, fearing that someone is hurt but unable to leave her house and her children, she calls the police. The book tells the story leading up to that night and it’s aftermath from rotating, multi-generational viewpoints: the sisters, cousins, mothers and aunts that make up one Aboriginal family affected, their friends, and a young Metis police officer assigned to investigate the case.

The Break slowly burns into an inferno of a book. It rightfully comes with a trigger warning due to scenes of sexual and physical violence and those scenes are brutal. But they don’t take away from the beauty of this book.

Vermette weaves a layered tale involving perspectives from mothers, daughters, lost children, of Aboriginal women who have chosen to forge a life in the city away from their ancestral lands and traditions. It is a commentary on the value our country has placed on these women, how easily we dismiss their concerns, the destruction of their young. Vermette’s vivid characters belong to a sisterhood long used to fending for themselves, who worry for their children and how the world will view them.

The whole idea of Canada Reads is that we’re supposed to find that one book that the country needs to read. In the face of all that is wrong in this country when it comes to Aboriginal relations, I think it would benefit the country massively to read The Break. It is a the kind of book that breaks you wide open and lets some much needed light in.

 

2

Aud Thoughts: City of Saints and Thieves

Sometimes I get lazy and ask my sister to write content for me. This is one of those times. She’s an art school student, cat sitter, instagram wizard and one of my favourite sisters – here’s Audrey.

Wow it’s definitely been awhile since I’ve written a review. Let me just tap the dust out of my keyboard, crack the rust out of my fingers and get this gal moving.

So, Eva asked me if I’d write a little something for one of the books she was sent and so here I am, in the digital flesh and blood. 

This time I read City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson, a book that before it was given to me I had never heard of before, not because it doesn’t deserve attention but because my nose was so far stuck up school work and fantasy books that it had been awhile since I had popped my head out into the open. 

cityof

City of Saints & Thieves is best described, I think, as a mystery thriller with a side sip of romance and definitely a bunch ton of thievery and running away like an epic badass – as Tina totally is. 

Tina is a teenage girl who is living with one of the more prominent gangs in Saigon City, having fled the Congo with her mother as refugees long ago. They come to this city and her mother gets a job with one of the big, rich important man, that make a lot of money off of the land but also off of some less savoury things. While staying there, her small family gets entangled with the man’s family, the Greyhills and thus sets off a series of events that end with her mother dead and Tina taking her sister and leaving the family behind, promising vengeance and ruin on the man she blames for her mother’s death. 

It isn’t until years later that Tina gets her opportunity and that is where the books opens up, Tina sneaking into the Greyhill’s estate and attempting to rob them blind – only of course things don’t go as planned. 

So when I started reading this book I had absolutely no idea what to expect and it was kind of exciting. I didn’t look up what it was about online, didn’t check any other reviews, I don’t think I even really read the description, I just dove in. 

And what a dive.

The first line itself, is one of my favourite lines, seriously, what a great opener. 

If you’re going to be a thief, the first thing you need to know is that you don’t exist.

I mean, how do you come back from that not interested?

So I finished this book, stumbling across this story and being sucked into this world that I didn’t know and being amazed that it wasn’t strictly fantasy, that this was a world people lived in.

On this escapade to seek revenge for her mother, and prove who murdered her, Tina finds herself winding through the intricate ties of secrets, greed and dark, dark answers that will leave you otherwise breathless and praying for sunnier days. 

It was a wonderful young adult book, illuminating the tenacity of a young girl who against all odds has chosen to be the epic badass that she is and of course her friends are as lovable as they come. 

It is definitely a sampler of a true thriller for an audience that isn’t constantly straining to hope no one dies. While the book describes itself as “nail-biting” I wouldn’t quite say that. It was definitely 120% interesting and I found that it was well paced, but the urgency that perhaps was intended wasn’t always immediately present. Still, the way this book was written achieves the feat of beauty in simplicity, really bringing you directly into Tina’s thoughts and feelings and making you understand what it is to feel angry and upset at the world and still come out to make something more than what the world has tried to hand you.

So if you need to feel like a badass, like you can do anything, like the world can be crap and kick you down and you get the hell right back up again, give this book a try. Tina might just teach you something. 

Paperback Princess note: Just saw that Universal has bought the movie rights and KERRY WASHINGTON is producing so I might have to take this book back and read it ASAP.

7

A different Canada

In Canada, we like to think that we are totally accepting and open with everyone. All colours, creeds and religions are welcome in Canada.

Right?

Not quite.

I recently read B. Denham Jolly’s memoir, In The Black: My Life and came to see a side of Canada that I’d rather was comfortably in the past.

jolly

Jolly was born in Jamaica in 1935 – in 1955, he came to Canada for the first time for school. He writes about a Canada where people smile at him but throw his resume in the garbage, where he wasn’t allowed to socialize in certain places, where even when he had paid back a student loan in full, he wasn’t eligible for another one, where schools hadn’t officially desegregated until 1954 and bad feelings lingered.

Once he finished school, he had to return to Jamaica – when he had first come to Canada, he had to sign a form saying that after he finished school, he would go home, that he wouldn’t try and stay in Canada. Jolly enjoyed his time in Canada, had built a life for himself in Toronto and wanted to stay. The reason why there were so few black people in Canada is because there were unofficial policies in place limiting the number of black people allowed to immigrate. Despite his education and his standing within the community, Jolly was shown the door.

Eventually he made it back to Canada and he was ready to start his life. He was a teacher in a small community where he met his wife – together they had three children. Jolly also set up a nursing home business, eventually owning a number of properties. And he was incredibly active within the black community, working with other activists to ensure that black Canadians were heard, that their contributions were valued and most of all, that they were given the same opportunities as white Canadians.

In The Black was an eye opening read for me. It challenged me to think of Canada in a different way. We like to think that we are better than other countries, notably our neighbours to the south, when it comes to race relations. Jolly’s experiences (and he opens the book with a run in with police that happened when he was in his 70s) illustrate that we haven’t come as far as we like to think we have.

Although Jolly sees that we have come a long way, he posits that there is still more work to be done. That even as an old man, who has lived in Canada for more than 50 years, who is very much Canadian, he is still seen as a Jamaican immigrant. As he writes about the work that has already been done, he urges young Canadians to keep working towards a better future, to recognize that the work isn’t finished.

I think this book will challenge a lot of Canadians. But it’s an important book, a reminder of where we were, where we are and where we could be. In The Black includes the history of one man, of a community demanding more, of a country trying to be better.

We can still be better.

9

The American Dream: Lucky Boy

Every once in a while, a book shows up that I didn’t know I was looking for.

That’s kind of what happened with Shanthi Sekaran’s Lucky Boy.

luckyboy

At the age of 18, Solimar Castro Valdez leaves her small Mexican town for the U.S. After an incredibly dangerous journey, she finds herself on her cousin, Silvia’s doorstep, pregnant. Silvia takes her in, helps her find work as a housekeeper for the Cassidys and supports her as she tries to figure out her place in this new world. But neither of them are in the U.S. legally and know that their positions are precarious.

Kavya and Rishi Reddy have a beautiful life in Berkley. Kavya is a chef for a sorority, and Rishi works at a massive tech company – they are both on their way to fulfilling the dreams their Indian parents had for them. But while their lives are successful in so many ways, they have been unable to have a child of their own. Their struggle tests their marriage and sets them in a crash course with Solimar.

When Solimar finds herself in immigrant detention her son Ignacio, barely a year old, is placed with a foster family. Eventually he is placed with Kavya and Rishi who find room in their hearts for this little boy, even though they are both terrified of what could happen should his mother be released.

This book’s emotions are so layered, it was delicate work to peel them all back. There are Soli’s dreams of coming to America, of what her life will look like and how she handles the reality, the love she feels for her son and how that fires her up to do whatever is necessary for his wellbeing; Kava’s yearnings for a child of her own, her frustrations in her marriage when she and Rishi aren’t necessarily on the same page, the euphoria of realizing her heart is meant to adopt; and Rishi, trying to succeed on his own terms within the confines of the expectations of his Indian heritage, comparing himself to those around him, the difficulties he has figuring out how to be a father to someone not his own.

Sekaran’s prose is beautiful, parsed along sparingly until it overflows with love and anger and need. She so ably captures opposing sides of the spectrum of life in America. This is a dense book  – I felt like I had lived several lifetimes when I finished. But it was worth every page. It was a good reminder of what can happen if we open our hearts to those around us.

If you’re heartsore about what’s going on around you, read Lucky Boy, if only to remind yourself of what the American dream used to look like.

11

A Chosen Exile

One of the best things about Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon is their non-fiction department.

Nowhere else do they have such a diverse collection of amazing non-fiction. Nowhere else would I have found Allyson Hobb’s A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.

First, let’s admit that I was completely ignorant about the practice of passing. If there are any of you that have no idea what I’m talking about, passing was the practice of lighter skinned African Americans choosing, for various reasons, to ‘pass’ as white. It meant turning their backs on their culture, and in many instances, saying good bye to their families forever.

But many were willing to make that sacrifice because living as themselves post-slavery, during the Reconstruction and then under Jim Crow, was unbearable.

Passing offered countless freedoms – from the pleasure of sitting in other sections of movie theatres besides the “buzzard roost,” to the simple dignities of trying on a hat in a store without being compelled to buy it, to the elusive opportunities to ‘feel more like a man’ or ‘to be treated like a lady.’ But passing – the anxious decision to break with a sense of communion – upset the collective, “congregative character” of African American life; it undermined the ability for traditions, stories, jokes , and songs to be shared across generations.

achosenexile

Hobbs highlights the lives of many African Americans between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries who chose to pass: Elsie Roxborough, who lived in New York City as Mona Manet to pass as a white actress; Albert and Thyra Johnston who lived as a successful white couple in New Hampshire and kept their race a secret from their four children; Theophilus Syphax, the son of an elite black family who, upon graduation from Columbia Law School, decided to change his name and pass as white.

While highlighting the lives and loves of those who chose to pass, Hobbs also highlights certain movements of American history. How the Reconstruction era, seeking to right some of the wrongs caused by slavery, may have given rise to Jim Crow as white people were threatened by the rise of a black middle class.

In the end, Hobbs looks at race in the 21st Century:

Perhaps passing, as traditionally understood, has “passed out”in the twenty-first century. But underneath, the core issues of race and identity remain. Hybrid identities are still radicalized identities. Racially ambiguous people are racially marked and still must negotiate the terrain of a racist society. Personal choices about how to live with race continue to be tested and contested over time, correlating and shifting with historical circumstances and social structures.

The one failing of this book is that it’s quite an academic read (probably not surprising coming from a Stanford professor published by Harvard University Press). It’s less than 300 pages and full of really interesting stories but I’m not sure that it will find a wide audience, which is a shame. But if the subject matter interests you, don’t let that scare you off.

11

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.

That’s how Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, begins. Right away I realized that this wasn’t going to be another comedian’s book about becoming famous. Noah’s book is as much about apartheid and racism as it is about how he grew up.

born-a-crime

Trevor Noah was born in 1984 when apartheid was still in full effect. His birth was literally a crime, as it was illegal at the time for a black woman to have sex with a white man. His birth was proof of their illegal act. For the first years of his life, he was barely allowed outside. His complexion was so light, deemed ‘coloured’ by the system that criminalized his existence, that his mother used to go out with a lighter skinned neighbour and walk behind them like she was the nanny.

Noah talks about growing up Other – how he wasn’t white, was too light to be black and how culturally, he wasn’t ‘coloured’ either. How, when he was 11, he chose to identify as black:

Before the recess I’d never had to choose, but when forced to choose, I chose black. The world saw me as colored, but I didn’t spend my life looking at myself. I spent my life looking at other people. I saw myself as the people around me, and the people around me were black. My cousins are black, my mom is black, my gran is black. I grew up black. […] With the black kids, I just was.

I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book. I hadn’t heard of him until he was announced as Jon Stewart’s replacement. I don’t watch The Daily Show anymore because I can’t stay up that late (I am old) but now I wish that I did.

Noah’s life is so far removed from any reality that I’ve ever known. He grew up hiding his parentage, he rolled with a gang in the “hood”, grew up playing in Soweto township, his mother threw him from a moving car when he was nine because the driver was very likely going to kill them, and his mother was shot in the back of the head by his stepfather.

Those last two are mentioned super matter-of-factly in the first pages, by the way.

There are funny moments too – Noah has a way of telling stories in a tongue in cheek manner that made me smile. He talks about how he and his mother used to communicate by letter when they were arguing, how a friend of his once passed him off as an American rapper, and how one time he sh*t on the floor in front of his blind 90 year old great-grandmother.

But mostly, this book was so much more than I thought it was going to be. It’s a rumination on race and belonging, the power of language, culture and the love of one’s parents. I loved every beautiful page and totally recommend that you read this one!

10

You Can’t Touch My Hair

When a copy of You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson showed up at the door, I read a couple of pages.

Right from the introduction, I knew that I was going to love this book.

phoebe

Robinson’s collection of essays on feminism, race and pop culture is compulsively readable and so, so relatable. She’s one of those writers whose authentic voice shines on every page – I could hear her speaking to me so clearly as I read. If you’ve ever listened to her podcast, 2 Dope Queens (that she co-hosts with Jessica Williams, formerly of The Daily Show), then I would guess you’d have a similar experience.

Robinson’s essays are littered with hashtags, slang, and amazing pop culture references. But don’t let that fool you – Robinson has some real stuff to say.

Essays include “Welcome to being Black” in which she talks about the experience of realizing that she’s somehow Other because of the colour of her skin and “How to Avoid Being the Black Friend” which covers advice like “Do Not Start Any Friendships with White People During the Summer Months”, “Call People out When They Say Unintentionally and Intentionally Racist Garbage” and “Take a Picture and See How Everyone Responds.”

Her essays are funny, obviously, but also not. There’s a story she includes where she was called “uppity”, how she once had to sit through a reading of a classmate’s play that involved a white woman falling in love with one of her female slaves and ended with the slave choosing to stay for love, rather than making a break for freedom  (“no slave is ever, ever, ever, going to say yes to more slavery”), and about getting ignored at a Michaels when all she wanted to do was get a frame.

Honestly, there were times reading this book that made me want to shout. WHAT’S WRONG WITH PEOPLE????

Robinson’s book showcases a millennial black woman’s voice. She is so, so funny, and writes things that honestly make me laugh hysterically but then she calls me back by dropping a truth bomb that I can’t ignore.

If you’re looking for something to add to your Non-Fiction November roster, I would really recommend this. If you have listened to 2 Dope Queens and want more Phoebe Robinson in your life, I recommend this book. If you have no idea who Phoebe Robinson is, I recommend this book.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book. 

6

Darling Days: A Memoir

When I started reading Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright, my reading mojo was bruised from two, basically back-to-back DNFs.

I read 10 pages of Darling Days and knew that that wasn’t going to happen here.

Darling Days is iO Tillett Wright’s memoir of growing up poor with an incredibly challenging mother as well as a queer gender identity.

This memoir is unlike any I’ve ever read before. It reminds me of The Glass Castle but I don’t want to compare the two because they are so unique. Darling Days is so unflinchingly honest, Tillett Wright’s life is laid bare but it’s written with so much love.

darling

Tillett Wright’s mother is a Viking warrior queen, a dancer, an artist, a beautiful soul in a cruel, hard world. She loves her child fiercely, cocoons them together away from the darkness of the rest of the world the best she can. But before iO is born, his mother suffered the violent loss of a lover. She never quite gets over it, and the medications that she takes to help her cope, to help her to feel closer to that lost love, end up causing their own kind of damage.

iO spends his childhood in awe of his mother, a happy sidekick in the kinds of adventures you can only have when you are very poor – like walking all your stuff to a new apartment after you’ve been fighting eviction.

iO’s story is complex. When life with his mother becomes too much, he tries living in Germany with his father and then a boarding school in rural England. But iO is also a product of his upbringing and always feels kind of other. As a teenager, he feels incredible rage and starts experimenting: with his sexuality, with alcohol and drugs.

The one thing that I really felt the entire time I was reading this incredible memoir was love. The book opens with iO’s letter to his mother, someone who continues to be a tangled presence in his life, basically saying that this is their story but that it’s written without judgement and that he has always loved her and always will and that he wouldn’t be the person he is today without his mother.

I mean, if that doesn’t make you want to cry your eyes out right there, I don’t know what will.

The reason that the love stands out for me will be clear if you end up reading this intense, honest, captivating memoir. Few people live this kind of life, survive this childhood, and come out on the other side with love and compassion for their parents. Even contentment is difficult to achieve and iO has come out with joy, enthusiasm and a delight in what this world has to offer.

iO Tillett Wright is clearly a pretty incredible person and I felt privileged to get to read his story. If you get the chance, I hope you do too.

22

Get on the bandwagon: The Mothers

Thankfully, since the DNF debacle (I actually DNF’d a weirdly disjointed Agatha Christie shortly thereafter!), I’ve read some GREAT books. I’m going to do my best to talk about all of them.

Today we start with Brit Bennett’s The Mothers.

By now, most of you have seen this book around. The cover is a colourful depiction of a woman, perhaps a stained glass woman. It’s been on Must Read lists all over the place and being lauded as a “dazzling” debut novel.

All of the hype is warranted.

How rare is it to be able to say that?

the-mothers

The Mothers is the story of three teenagers in a small African-American community in Southern California: Nadia, beautiful and motherless trying to find her way out of grief, making the only decision she can see; Luke, the son of the preacher coming to terms with his life after football; and Aubrey, a stranger in the community whose life centers around faith and being good, running from events that haunt her still.

When Nadia gets pregnant with Luke’s baby, the decision she makes ripples out through the years, touching all of their lives. This book looks at the decisions we make when we are young, when we are different from the people we will ultimately become, and how those decisions can define us for years after.

The title comes from the group of women, The Mothers, of the church who see everything unfolding, who see the experiences of Luke, Aubrey and Nadia through the lens of their own experiences, who tried to help where they could.

This book is beautiful. It astonished me. Somehow Bennett manages to weave a story around abortion that doesn’t feel judgemental – incredible when you realize that the story takes place in a community of faith. Although abortion is the device that propels the plot forward, this book isn’t about abortion.

Aubrey, Luke and Nadia come to us as flawed people, trying to forge their path in this world despite the obstacles thrown in their way. It is so, so, so beautifully written.

This is the kind of book that will give you a book hangover. The one that will leave you feeling dissatisfied with basically anything that you read afterwards. The best/most astonishing part? Bennett is only 25! It’s probably safe to say that we can expect more thoughtful, gorgeous, staggering stories from her.

PS she also wrote this.

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book.