sing, unburied, sing

Jesmyn Ward has become one of my new favorite writers. Her work is eloquent and powerful, and she deserves all the awards and accolades she’s received lately for her latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing. Edited from Goodreads:

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When Michael, the white father of Leonie’s children, is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I initially had trouble getting into this book. I agree with some of the criticisms I’ve seen online—it’s a slow-moving burn, too much vomit (sorry, ever-so-mild spoiler), and I wasn’t entirely convinced of the ghosts until about halfway through. While an alternating first-person narrative doesn’t typically bother me, I found Jojo and Leonie’s voices a little too similar in tone. It too me far too long to get through; I started in October and didn’t read it at all in November (I was traveling… I barely read anything when visiting family!)

Ward’s esoteric, delicate writing as well as an excellent ending that made everything click for me ultimately made Sing, Unburied, Sing one of the best books I read this year. She builds tension describes situations and scenery so vividly you can easily become wrapped up in the story (at least, I did when I finally committed and settled into reading the rest of it this month). The characters were heartbreaking in their struggles and suffering, from Leonie’s addictions (to drugs and Michael) to Jojo’s protective instincts and loss of innocence, to Pop’s burdens as patriarch of this family and as an older Southern black man with his own personal demons. Ward powerfully illustrates many of America’s ills (specifically those that have historically and disproportionately effected black Americans)—poverty, parental neglect, disease, racism, incarceration, addiction, premature death, violence—with a multi-generational, mixed-race family in the deep South and a good dose of magical realism. It’s a Southern Gothic tragedy, one that is all too typical (ghosts notwithstanding) and familiar these days.

Read in December 2017.

book club: colony in a nation, bitch planet 2, and new jim crow

During my visit back to the States in November, I spent a week in Kansas City and one of my priorities there was a Best Friends International Book Club meeting with my beloved Anthony! He was a sight for sore eyes and gives the greatest hugs.

We may not have stayed on topic quite as well as last time by Skype, but it was still so great to discuss books and life with him, especially in person.

We like to typically choose two to three books: one or two that one or the other of us has read already, and one or two that’s new to both of us. For this installment, Anthony had read A Colony in a Nation (but I’ve had it waiting on my shelf), and both Bitch Planet, Book Two and The New Jim Crow were new reads for us. (We also ended up discussing Hillary Clinton’s What Happened a little bit, too!)

Our first choice was A Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes. Confession: I have the biggest nerd-crush on Chris Hayes! I loved his first book, Twilight of the Elites, and I was super excited for Colony to come out. I bought it on its release date at Kinokuniya here in Singapore. As an astute and observant reporter for MSNBC and The Nation, Hayes has been checking his white privilege for a long time. He discusses his coverage of the turbulence in Ferguson and Baltimore after the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. This is not “a white guy explaining race to you.” Hayes does use personal anecdotes to point out aspects of racial inequality in the States, but always in a way that serves his argument. For example, he relates a time he was genuinely terrified of getting busted for weed by the cops, at the Republican National Convention no less, but was waved through security with no issue. But if he had been black? Surely arrested with unnecessarily tough punishment, possibly even shot on the spot. You may think, Well this is all very obvious, of course black Americans are discriminated against in society and the criminal justice system. But Hayes takes that and lays out exactly how, historically and democratically, the system has always been stacked against black Americans, and how there are two distinct Americas (“… American criminal justice isn’t one system with racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other is the kind you expect in an occupied land… the terrifying truth is that we as a people created the Colony through democratic means.” pg. 32). This is an awesome, short read to get you started on this subject, and a good companion to our other pick this time, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. [Read in October 2017.]

After liking the first volume, Anthony and I decided to continue with Bitch Planet, Book Two: President Bitch by DeConnick and De Landro. What I said when reviewing the first book (“I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass…I think Bitch Planet has a great premise and is an excellent, creative way to get readers thinking and talking about intersectional feminism, the prison industrial complex, sexism, societal expectations of women, and more.”) is still pretty much how I feel. I enjoyed President Bitch even better than Extraordinary Machine. This second installment had the backstory I was missing in the first, as well as even more inclusion of intersectional feminism, featuring trans women too. I was glad to see less of the Megaton game (if at all? I can’t remember!). I love how one message in particular is loud and clear: if women (on Earth and Bitch Planet) stick together and fight, their resistance of the patriarchal Protectorate will only grow and surely eventually triumph. And it closed with a compelling cliffhanger! [Read in October 2017.]

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is ESSENTIAL READING FOR EVERYONE. I can’t stress enough the importance of this book. It took me kind of a long time to get through because every few pages I’d get so infuriated that I’d have to set it down and pace around for a while. The situation is just so bleak and unjust. Alexander didn’t even have to go into dramatic histrionics—literally just plainly lay out the facts and statistics. I knew some things going into this, in general as a concerned citizen and after reading Colony, but Alexander does an eye-opening job of unveiling layer after layer of corruption and bullshit in the criminal justice system and Prison Industrial Complex, and exactly how deep this all goes, and why it’s rooted in the War on Drugs, which was DESIGNED to legally create the next, current iteration of Jim Crow. A black man, for example, is convicted for possessing a miniscule amount of weed for the first time. He is convicted to 10–20 years in prison. When he gets out, he has no housing, no job, often no access to a car, tons of court and other fees to pay, no food assistance, he loses custody and access to his kids, and he can’t participate in basic rights as a citizen such as voting and serving on a jury. (CANNOT VOTE. Think about that—a whole mass people who can’t vote… what would the outcome of the 2016 election have looked like if prisoners and parolees could have voted?? This is yet another example of our racist system disenfranchising and keeping black and brown people from participating in democracy as fully recognized citizens.) Family members are reticent to take him in, as they’re liable if anything happens again and could lose their homes… even if it doesn’t happen in their homes but down the street!! Society has also engineered a system where black and brown Americans are left out of jobs and housing in cities across the country, which contributes to this nasty, practically inescapable cycle. They’re automatically second-class citizens, unable to get ahead (or even back to the starting line) by political design. This book made me better understand why people take terrible, lose-lose plea deals. I’m having heart palpitations and just sick typing this all up right now. This is a must-read, profound, accessible book and I’m pissed at myself for not reading it immediately when it came out. [Read in October 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (one of my all-time favorites), The Glass House by Jeannette Walls, and The Power by Naomi Alderman. I’m going to try to read Glass House and Power before the end of this month/year!

reading recap: october 2017

I know I say this every month, but wow this year has flown by. Again, again, again almost all my reads were on audio. What can I say, I like to be told a story while I’m drawing.

  • How to Win at Feminism … Reductress
  • A Colony in a Nation … Chris Hayes
  • The Awkward Thoughts of… (audio) … W. Kamau Bell, read by author
  • I Know I Am, But What Are You? (audio) … Samantha Bee, read by author
  • Chernobyl 01:23:40 (audio) … Andrew Leatherbarrow, read by Michael Page
  • Black Mass (audio) … Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, read by various
  • Bitch Planet, Book Two … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro
  • The Secret History (audio) … Donna Tartt, read by author
  • Dear Ijeawele (audio) … Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, read by January LaVoy
  • It’s Up to the Women (audio) … Eleanor Roosevelt, read by Suzanne Toren
  • The New Jim Crow … Michelle Alexander
  • The Iceman (audio) … Anthony Bruno, read by Bronson Pinchot

I am proud of myself sticking pretty well to my goal of catching up on blog posts. I’m saving my review of The New Jim CrowBitch Planet 2, and A Colony in a Nation until after I meet up with Anthony, my fellow reader and partner in crime in our Best Friends International Book Club, to discuss in person in a couple of weeks.

My favorites of the month were definitely The New Jim CrowA Colony in a Nation, and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. I really enjoyed getting back into mafia books with Black Mass and The Iceman.

Next month I’m going back home to the States for a visit, and I’ll be bringing with me on paperback The Glass Castle and Killing Pablo. I have a books on my Libby app, True Story and Patient H.M. (audio) and Katy Tur’s new one Unbelievable (ebook). I’m also bringing home What Happened for my mom to read. And I’ve downloaded Stranger Things season 2 and a bunch of other videos to my iPad Netflix app. Why am I always so concerned I’ll be lacking in entertainment choices on flights and trips?? LOL!

monthly recap image

the enchanted

My second vacation read was The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. This book has been popping up everyone online lately—I couldn’t resist and treated myself to this one right before I left. From Goodreads:

The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison, viewed through the eyes of a death row inmate who finds escape in his books and in re-imagining life around him, weaving a fantastical story of the people he observes and the world he inhabits. Fearful and reclusive, he senses what others cannot. Though bars confine him every minute of every day, he marries magical visions of golden horses running beneath the prison, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs, with the devastating violence of prison life.

Two outsiders venture here: a fallen priest, and the Lady, an investigator who searches for buried information from prisoners’ pasts that can save those soon-to-be-executed. Digging into the background of a killer named York, she uncovers wrenching truths that challenge familiar notions of victim and criminal, innocence and guilt, honor and corruption-ultimately revealing shocking secrets of her own.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve dragged my feet on writing this review for days. Don’t get me wrong—The Enchanted was a great book. I think any words I use will be insufficient to accurately describe how a book could so beautifully take on the ugliness of a controversial subject.

Denfeld’s prose is simple, yet exquisite. It’s delicate, haunting, heartrending, and quiet, hinging on poetic even. The altering viewpoints were smooth and not distracting, as often they can be (the book switches between the death row inmate’s first-person narration and third person). The inmate is an especially fragile character, with an innocence and otherness to him but also a cryptic aura. But all the characters broken, tragic creatures aching to be seen… or not seen in some cases. The Enchanted has an ethereal, floaty vibe but once in a while will mention something horrifically real and slam you right back down to earth.

The Enchanted doesn’t detail the crimes the inmates committed so focus is taken off the crimes, the victims, and their families. The reader is left to imagine what the inmates may have done to land on death row, and for me that was fine—I didn’t feel like the book needed to go into it to be successful.

I probably could have devoured this book in one sitting, had I a good chunk of free time (I read it during my vacation in Hawaii—yes, there was free time, but it was filled with fun family activities mostly!). I’m sure one day I will read this again.

Read from August 21 to 25, 2014.

the hot house

Last week I read a book I’ve been interested in for a long time, The Hot House by Pete Earley, about life in Leavenworth Prison, 1987–89. This year, I decided to add it to my TBR Pile Challenge this year. From Goodreads:

An account of life in Leavenworth Prison, based on interviews with inmates and others, describes the lives of a sexual predator, a gang member in for forty-two years, a sociopath in “no human contact” status, and others.

I have been curious about The Hot House since I first learned about it, and realized that Leavenworth Penitentiary was so close to Kansas City, where I live. I also was completely hooked on HBO’s Oz, and now feel inspired to watch the series again after reading this book.

Life in the Leavenworth is pretty much how you’d expect it: schemes, violence, murder plots, drug and weapon smuggling, drug and gambling rackets, sexual predators, inappropriate staff behavior, and more. Much of it, though, I found incredibly mind-bending, like the relationship between Carl Bowles and Thomas Little. Was it sexual? They claim not. Did Bowles brainwash Little intentionally? Certainly emotional manipulation. It was complex and disturbing.

I was also fascinated by Thomas Silverstein, arguably the most compelling subject in the book. A “no human contact” clause has been enforced for Silverstein since he killed a guard in 1983. In Leavenworth, he was confined in a tiny basement cell with the florescent lights on 24/7, only sparingly interacting with guards that despised him. When Earley interviewed him, Silverstein admitted the disorienting isolation was taking a toll on his mental state. His drawings and dreams were disquieting.

One thing I noticed was that Earley’s main subjects were all white, with the exception of Warden Matthews, who was black. There is a big subplot regarding the Cuban prisoners rioting, but for the most part minorities remain in the background. I wonder if this is because Earley is white himself? It’s pretty clear in the book that races tend to stick to themselves. Perhaps it was difficult to get close and intimate (conversationally) to non-white inmates?

Anyway, The Hot House raises tons of issues that have escalated in the decades since publication, from race relations to the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs to mental illness to the staggering, embarrassing escalation of prison stats in the United States. This book brings to the forefront a huge, complicated blot on our society deserving of attention and action.

The Hot House is my second of twelve books read for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from March 3 to 16, 2014.

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

I finished reading The Hot House by Pete Earley yesterday! It was the second book for my TBR Pile Challenge. That one took me about a week longer than I would have expected, but I had a couple of particularly busy weeks with extra rehearsals, a concert, working through lunch a bit, and my parents visiting last weekend. I liked the book a lot though—it was a real page turner and it made me want to rewatch my Oz DVDs! I’m planning to have a review post up later this week. Stay tuned!

This week I’m going to read The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. This is my KC Library Stranger than Fiction book group’s March pick. Hopefully I will make it through and not get sick this month, I hate to miss the discussions! Anyway, I’ve had this ebook on my iPad for a while now, so it’s also a little bit of a TBR pile book, but I’m not counting it on my “official” list for the challenge. I know about the Dust Bowl already from knowing about Woody Guthrie and literature from that time, but I’m happy to be reading a non-fiction about it, especially since I live near-ish the Dust Bowl area now.

What are you reading this week?