Posts Tagged ‘Race’

Best New Books of 2014: Sarah K’s Picks

December 5, 2014

Identity and struggle are the themes of five of my favorite books from 2014. How does adversity shape who we are? How much do we control our identities and how much are we shaped by external forces? I invite you to check out these following titles

An Untamed StateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Kidnapped by an armed street gang in Haiti, Mireille trusts her wealthy father to pay ransom to return her to her fairy tale existence with her husband and baby. When Mireille’s father refuses to capitulate to her captors, she must find the strength to endure days of torment while trying to maintain a connection to the woman she was. Gay’s frank treatment of rape and its aftermath with clean understated writing adds to the intensity of this book.

On the RunOn the Run by Alice Goffman
As an undergraduate, Alice Goffman moved into a neighborhood in Philadelphia and began taking field notes as she fully immersed herself in the lives of the families living there. The War on Drugs had created a culture of constant police surveillance of the lives of the residents there, especially among the young men, many of whom were in some sort of entanglement with the legal system. Goffman witnessed arrests, escapes from the police and how police use employment and familial relationships as leverage against suspects. Goffman has written an insightful and sobering critique of the policing of poor neighborhoods and the human toll that it takes on the individuals living there.

The Empathy ExamsThe Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
From the confinement of illness to the traps of poverty and prison, Leslie Jamison’s clear-eyed and far-ranging essays explore the intersection between empathy and pain. If you only have time for one essay, read “Fog Count,” which begins with a prison visit, but then expands to include the larger picture of the prison-industrial complex, strip mining and the economy of West Virginia.  Her curiosity about the human condition brings into sharp focus the capacity and limitations of compassion. She deftly weaves personal experience with the universal to create a collection that rivals early Joan Didion.

The Other LanguageThe Other Language by Francesca Marciano
A woman writes about the ideal Italy while homesick in New York. Another seeks out an old companion on an isolated island in the Indian Ocean; while a third buys a Chanel gown on a frivolous whim. In this collection of nine stories, Marciano travels across countries and cultures with a knack for capturing settings and tone. She vividly captures the lives of her characters at moments of transformation with lovely and fluid storytelling that keeps the pages turning.

How to Build a GirlHow to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
Eager to escape her lackluster existence as a working-class teenager in the Midlands of England, and her unfortunate Scooby-Doo impersonation on local television, Johanna Morrigan decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, music journalist. After gaining the attention of a London-based music magazine, Johanna/Dolly embarks on a series of professional and sexual misadventures as she tries to figure out how to build her new life. If you were a teenager in the early 1990s, or enjoy bold raucous humor, chances are you will love this book as much as I did.

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

July 25, 2014

Sycamore RowJohn Grisham is in familiar territory back home in Mississippi with a fascinating legal battle. Eccentric and wealthy, Seth Hubbard despises most of his family and is estranged from everyone except his brother, Ancil… who has disappeared. No one knows if Ancil is still alive. However, Seth is dying of lung cancer and he decides to commit suicide. Before dying he creates a new handwritten will and sends it to Jake Brigance asking Jake to be his lawyer and execute his wishes.

Jake is famous in Clanton for defending a black man and getting him acquitted with an all-white jury. He is just bored enough to be fascinated by his new assignment. But the will is about to open ‘ a can of worms’. Seth has left nothing to his two children, Ramona and Herschel, but instead has left 95% to his housekeeper, Lettie Lang. Since a more formal will was filed several years before, this new will opens a huge court battle. Jake hopes he is ready for this adventure.

Ramona and Herschel’s lawyers are prepared to do anything to make the handwritten will ‘null & void’, and I mean anything! Jake will need all his skills to have Lettie inherit Hubbard’s fortune.

I can promise you one thing–if you hated lawyers before reading this book, you will detest them even more afterwards. John Grisham is one of my favorite authors and this is one of his best books!

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

June 23, 2014

AmericanahIfemelu is a teenager in Nigeria when she first meets Obinze.  Immediately, sparks fly, and from that moment forward they are inseparable.  However, the political reality in Nigeria works against them.  While at university, teacher strikes keep interrupting their education for long stretches.  Finally, Ifemelu is convinced by her family to try and finish her education abroad.  She is accepted at a school in Pennsylvania and travels to America to live with her Aunt.

Ifemelu tries everything to find a job to help pay her way in America, both legally and illegally.  No one is hiring, though, and out of desperation she answers a shady ad that is not what it seems.  Shame fills Ifemelu about what happens, so she cuts off contact with Obinze.  If she cannot forgive herself, she assumes that he will not forgive her either.  For 13 years she lives in America.  She finishes her degree and finds a job that will pay her way.  However, it’s just a job and she doesn’t really find her passion until she starts a blog.  The blog discusses issues of race from the perspective of a Non-American Black person.  The popularity of the blog astonishes her. She is able to live off her advertisers and speaking fees.  Yet something still seems to be missing in her life.

Meanwhile, back in Nigeria,  Obinze finishes his schooling and attempts to immigrate to England.  His life does not go quite as smoothly, and he is deported for working illegally.  Disillusioned and depressed, he returns to Nigeria an unemployed man. His luck changes finally, when through contacts of a friend, he is given an investment opportunity set up by a powerful man.  By the time Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, Obinze is wealthy, married, and a father.

The story of these two people is interesting, but where the book really shines is its witty commentary on people, immigrants, race, politics, and everything in between.  Not just American society, but also English and Nigerian. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is funny and insightful, moving from scenes of a dinner party with wealthy academics, to a poor immigrant hair salon with ease.  I enjoyed this story very much.  I liked the characters, and was fascinated by the look into Nigerian society, as well as the experience of a foreigner here in America.  I definitely want to read another of her books!

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Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo.

May 30, 2014

pickingbookcover.phpA 22 years old college woman was raped at a knife point in the middle of a summer night on her own bed. She managed to study her attacker’s facial features and everything about him during the rape. She thought that would help her to correctly identify this assailant.

Jennifer picked Ronald Cotton among other men in a line-up because of Ronald’s seemingly close resemblance to her assailant.  Ronald Cotton was arrested, but he was sure he would beat this accusation, because he hadn’t raped Jennifer, and he was sure he could prove it, unfortunately, his alibi was not enough to free him. Ronald Cotton was convicted of Jennifer’s rape and another woman who was raped the same night.

Ronald Cotton was given eleven years in prison despite the lack of a convincing evident. He was transferred to various prisons, but coincidentally ended up in the same prison with another inmate serving life for a similar crime. This inmate confessed the crime to another inmate who happened to like Ronald but the confession was thrown out.
Ronald Cotton was exonerated after eleven years behind bars based on a DNA test. The result of the DNA pointed to the inmate who had earlier confessed to the crime.

Jennifer did not get in touch with Ronald right after his release because of guilt and fear.  Ronald’s faith, family and his personality helped him to get over his hurt and forgave the woman who accidentally robbed him of 11 years of life. What happened when Jennifer and Ronald finally reunited was the result of forgiveness and redemption..

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Best New Books of 2013: Sarah K’s Picks

December 5, 2013

This year a study came out that demonstrated that after reading literary fiction, people scored better on tests measuring empathy. With that in mind, I present you five of my favorite novels and memoirs from 2013.  All of them pack an emotional wallop with characters that will linger with you, long after you finish their stories. After a year filled with impasses and increasing polarity, it wouldn’t hurt to see things from another point of view!

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze separate when Ifemelu goes to university in the United States leaving Obinze behind in Nigeria. Stymied by post-9/11 immigration policies, he is unable to join her, and instead journeys to England to live illegally. Reunited years later, the pair must decide whether to begin anew or to return to their current life trajectories. Adichie’s keen observations and precise wit put her in the tradition of Jane Austen’s social and romantic explorations.

The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman
A year after Yehoshuah’s crucifixion, Roman-occupied Judea is in a state of unrest. Four people, Miryam, Iehuda, Caiaphas and Bar-Avo, try to make sense of the past as well as present life under their Roman oppressors. Alderman’s provocative retelling of the life of Christ is filled with vibrant descriptions of temple rites, riots, and assassinations, which bring immediacy to its ancient setting. Throughout the book, both Alderman and her characters wrestle with who Yehoshuah really was; the Messiah, or a roving preacher from a backwater town.

The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
Reno leaves the deserts of her hometown to join the New York art world in 1975. There she meets Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian motorcycle and tire company along with other bohemian characters in his creative sphere. She begins to develop her art and on the way races high speed vehicles to become the fastest woman in the world. After a crushing betrayal, Reno joins a radical group in Italy. Kushner’s writing is a delight, deft and sharp and surprising; she describes Pat Nixon as “a ratted beauty-parlor tough who became first lady.” She layers stories upon stories to create a rich buffet of a book that you won’t be able to put down.

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta
Domenica Ruta’s memoir of growing up in working class Massachusetts with her mother Kathi is both incredibly vivid and unsettling. As a reader I couldn’t turn away from her path of destruction, beginning with the opening pages as Kathi takes a crowbar to her brother’s ex-girlfriend’s car.  Kathi, whose life is a cascading series of high highs and low lows, is one of the most compelling characters to appear in a book this year. Loud, reckless, and chaotic, Kathi is the human equivalent of a V-2 rocket and Ruta neither glamorizes nor demonizes her difficult upbringing.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
After losing four close friends and a brother over four years, Jesmyn Ward tries to make sense of their premature deaths in this devastating memoir. Ward’s narrative moves back and forth in time as she explores life in her rural Mississippi community and the ways that the men in her life try to escape the snares of poverty, racism, and plain bad luck.  She writes to bring these men back from the dead and to draw our eyes to lives we would otherwise ignore.  As she says, “There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

Say Nice Things About Detroit by Scott Lasser

August 7, 2012

OK, I’ll say it up front: I was born in Detroit, so this title piqued my interest right away. In his spare little gem, Lasser has given us a snapshot of today’s down at the mouth, but not completely down and out, Detroit. David Halpert, our hero, though from Detroit, lived in Colorado until the tragic death of his young son and subsequent failure of his marriage, followed by his father’s call to come home because of his mother’s mental decline. A very decent sort of fellow, David visits and decides to “come home.” At the same time, his high school girlfriend Natalie and her brother Dirk, retired FBI, are gunned down in Dirk’s Mercedes in a not so nice area of Detroit. David contacts Natalie and Dirk’s mother to express his sympathy and meets the younger sister, Carolyn, home for the funeral from Los Angeles. Seems a lot of people leave Detroit as soon as possible.
Carolyn has her own story of a loveless marriage held together for the sake of her young son. The attraction between David and Carolyn is real, but tentative on her part because of her married state. This story has lovely vignettes of the relationships between David and his father, a gruff working class man, and Carolyn and her mother, German born and first married to a black man, Dirk’s father, and later to the doctor/father of the sisters. These relationships evolve and other characters enter their lives, such as Marlon Booker, a young black man on the run from a drug dealer whose profit he skimmed.
Admirers of tight writing such as Stewart O’Nan’s and John Steinbeck’s will enjoy this novel that doesn’t shy away from street grittiness, drugs, and, from an outsider’s view, almost futile lives of some citizens, yet in a few words portrays inner feelings of both black and white characters. These Detroiters each have a story, dreams, hopes, and once in a while the opportunity to start over right. Say Nice Things about Detroit was a must-read for me, but I recommend it highly if you appreciate contemporary urban American settings and a fast, but thoughtful, read.

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White Teeth by Zadie Smith

March 2, 2012

Are we ruled by fate or chance?  White Teeth is a funny and unusual look at race relations in London which raises this question repeatedly.  It begins with one character’s failed attempt at suicide, which leads to his meeting his second wife, who is almost 30 years younger and half a foot taller than him.  The rest of the story rambles through decades describing decisions which are made purposely or by merely tossing a coin.  All of these choices change the course of someone’s entire life in unexpected ways.

The main characters at the heart of this novel are two men who served together in WWII, one Muslim from Bangladesh and one British.  Their friendship survives the war and the book follows the two men through the years of marriage, children, and the ups and downs of their careers.  The two end up living close to one another in the melting pot area of North London in the 1970’s and 80’s; and their wives and children become a sort of extended family.  Samad Iqbal has an arranged marriage with a younger woman which has its ups and downs.  His twin boys, Magid and Millat, grow up watching their parents argue until Samad sends Magid back to Bangladesh with the hopes that he will follow the traditional ways.  Instead, he becomes enamored with the West, while his brother Millat, who stayed in London, joins a militant Muslim gang.  Meanwhile, Archie Jones’ second marriage to a Jamaican woman produces Irie, a bi-racial daughter about the same age as Samad’s twins.  Irie struggles growing up with little direction or help from her parents. She longs to go to Jamaica to discover her mother’s roots, but also considers herself English.

The story is rather long and meandering, yet I enjoyed the whole thing.  The author writes dialog so well you can almost hear the various accents of different Londoners. The interaction and reactions of all the different races, cultures, religions, and ethnicities are described, but there is no effort to pronounce one right or wrong. The story is wry and yet somehow hopeful, and gives us a fresh look at how the races interact in today’s society.

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