mini-reviews: fire this time, we gon’ be alright, underground railroad

Three more books related to race issues that I read recently, two of which (The Fire This Time and We Gon’ Be Alright) were among my favorites from last year:

I will read anything and everything by Jesmyn Ward. She only wrote the introduction and one entry in The Fire This Time, but there is fantastic writing by all the authors, which include Carol Anderson, Claudia Rankine, and more. Everyone should read this book. Ward has compiled a thoughtful, powerful, and moving collection of essays and poems—sometimes autobiographical, all unique perspectives—on life and race in America today. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking, but also hopeful. I wish I had read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time first, but I will get to it someday for sure. [Read ebook in October 2016.]

Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright is another essential collection of essays to help understand why race relations in America remain so strained today. The pieces examine Ferguson, racism in higher education, the morphed definition of “diversity,” #OscarsSoWhite, growing up Asian American, Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, white flight, segregation in k-12 schools, the symbolism of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and more. The chapters focused on student protests in Missouri really hit home—he mentions an incident with then-UM President Tim Wolfe being approached by student protesters in Kansas City after a fundraiser gala. I was at the event working, but I didn’t witness the confrontation. It was a big deal—we had to plan ahead for his attendance and what might happen. I admire the protesters for their courage and resistance, and my colleagues who were there for keeping the peace and being respectful. Tim Wolfe, on the other hand, was ignorant, rude, and dismissive. Anyway, this is a timely, incisive, and impactful must-read. [Read in December 2016.]

And now for my unpopular opinion. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was by far one of the most hyped books of 2016, but unfortunately I didn’t find it engaging. It’s about a runaway slave and her journey to freedom, only Whitehead’s “railroad” here is a physical one with trains. I thought there would be more about the trains and railroad, like it would become magical realism, but it does not. I was so intrigued by the premise of this book, but the plot jumped from scene to scene and past to present too frenetically, or it slogged too slowly, and I had trouble connecting with the characters—they fell flat for me. The cheese stands alone, though, as The Underground Railroad has won numerous awards including the 2017 Pulitzer for Fiction. I think perhaps a non-fiction on this subject would have affected me more than an historical fiction. I had to force myself to finish. [Read ebook in September 2016.]

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