Jam On the Vine

Jam On the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett 

publication date: 2015
pages: 323
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2334-3

Much like Artemis Fowl, Jam On the Vine started out ex-ceed-ing-ly slow. Unlike Artemis FowlJam On the Vine picked up as the story went on. It took me almost two weeks to read the first half and about two days to read the second half.

Jam On the Vine followed Ivoe Williams and her family as they moved from the sharecropping South to Jim Crow Austin, Texas and Kansas City, Missouri during the late 1800s and early 1900s. During all this the Williams family endured several racial injustices, including sexual and physical harassment, false imprisonment, and torture.

I wanted to like this book, because I had heard good things about Barnett’s writing and because this subject matter needs more narratives, but I simply did not enjoy it. There were certainly bright spots wherein Barnett captured the human experience, such as this passage from Lemon, the matriarch of the Williams clan, as she discussed her children:

You love your children more than they can ever know. I mean, they can’t never best you in the loving department. But they sure can make you proud.

I liked another similar passage equally as well, as Lemon discussed her stagnant and unemployed son Timbo:

He ought to know sooner or later you got to pay with something – your mind, your heart, your sweat. Something.

Although the book had a few stirring passages, for the most part it was confusing and naggingly unrealistic. For example, this is how the author told us that Ennis Williams had injured is arm:

Truth like that stared you down. More than hurt you, it numbed you – even to a hungry flame. Ennis cussed and stumbled backward to the slack tub, his right arm bubbling with blisters.

After a few re-readings of those lines and several pages later, I finally figured out that what Barnett was trying to convey in those lines was that Ennis was a blacksmith who burned his arm because he was distracted by feeling unable to provide for his children. Barnett revealed another important plot point in a similarly roundabout way. Here was how we found out that one of the character’s children might not actually be his:

Life ought to feel heavy when secrets piled up so high not even a crack of light could get through. Made a soul dark is what it did – all the untelling.

After seeing these passages in isolation, they don’t seem so bad – beautiful even. But reading several chapters with sentence after sentence like this was confusing and overblown.

Additionally, as mentioned above, parts of the book were simply not realistic. Some of the characters’ actions made no sense. And there were little things that would take me out of the story. I wish I liked this book more than I did, but I just can’t give it more than:

3/6: more good than bad

Other reviews of the book:

Chicago Tribune
Kansas City Star
Lambda Literary

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë 

publication date: 1847
pages: 207
ISBN: 978-0-307-95780-1

Anne Brontë – in the tradition of her sisters and other writers from her time, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot – used novels and language to satirize contemporary culture and mores. In Agnes Grey, Brontë satirized the upper class and employment opportunities for women.

The book followed Agnes Grey, a young poor woman who loved and cherished her family but wanted to see more of the world and be financially independent. To that end, she became a governess.  The bulk of the book was Agnes’s encounters with members of the upper class – most of whom were morally depraved or downright psychopaths. For example, there was this young man, who trapped birds and tortured them:

“Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.”
“But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?”
“Oh, that’s nothing! I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.”

Beyond being mildly disturbing in parts, Brontë’s portrayal of the English gentry could be very funny. This was a conversation between husband and wife at lunch, beginning with the husband asking what is for dinner:

“Turkey and grouse,” was the concise reply.
“And what besides?”
“Fish.”
“What kind of fish?”
“I don’t know.”
You don’t know?” cried he, looking solemnly up from his plate, and suspending his knife and fork in astonishment.

There were also a few times where Brontë presented brilliant insight:

We are naturally disposed to love what gives us pleasure, and what is more pleasing that a beautiful face . . . when we know no harm of the possessor at least? A little girl loves her bird . . . Why? . . . Because it lives and feels, because it is helpless and harmless. A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt the toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes.

However, the book in its entirety didn’t thrill me. It was good, but not great. There was a lot of pontificating and moralizing by the author, as she instructed the reader on how to raise children, how to be a governess, how to grieve, how to be a good neighbor, and on and on. It was also somewhat boring and predictable. I knew who the “good” characters were, and who the “bad,” almost immediately, and what comeuppance they would all receive.

In the interest of completeness, and because it is slim, and interesting, Agnes Grey was certainly a worthwhile read. However, there are more exemplary books from that period that I would recommend.

4/6: worth reading

The Guardian
Books Please
She Reads Novels

Calico Joe

Calico Joe by John Grisham

publication date: 2012
pages: 227
ISBN: 978-0-345-54133-8

This was my first John Grisham and it was about what I expected. The book very easily could have been converted into a 1980s flashback movie about kids a la Stand By Me. To illustrate my point, here is the beginning of chapter 2:

In the summer of 1973, the country was slowly emerging from the trauma of Vietnam. Spiro Agnew was in trouble and would eventually go down. Watergate was getting hot with much more to come. I was eleven years old and slightly aware of what was happening out there in the real world, but I was wonderfully unburdened by it. Baseball was my world, and little else mattered.

Can’t you imagine Patrick Dempsey’s voice intoning those words as the camera pans over rolling Arkansas hills just as the beginning credits are over?

As hinted at above, Calico Joe was baseball-centric, which I didn’t mind, and is, in fact, the reason I picked up the book. The baseball writing was often interesting but was sometimes completely unbelievable, although Grisham attempted to back up his characters’ athletic feats with statistics. The whole thing also got a little tedious, even though the book only weighed in at 227 pages. I felt like, if the baseball story was realistic, it would have made a better Grantland article than a Grisham novel.

Additionally, the book was formulaic, with characters only your dad could love, generic dialogue, and anachronistic asides that seemed to be pandering to the stereotype of a Grisham reader. For example, when the narrator meets his despised father’s latest wife, here are his observations:

It doesn’t take much to amuse Agnes, I decide after ten minutes. I wonder if it has crossed her mind that in virtually all polite circles she, as the hostess, is expected to offer me something to drink.

There were so many assumed values in those sentences! What’s wrong with being easily amused? And why couldn’t the father offer his son a drink? In fact, why do drinks need to be offered at all?! If being polite is offering my judgmental sons-in-law beverages, then you can shove your politeness!

With all that said and done, I was surprisingly moved by the ending. I guess that’s why Grisham is so good. He sets up characters, plots, places, and themes that tug at the heart strings just enough to provide a satisfying ending, but not too much as to actually be interesting.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews of the book:

Los Angeles Times
Washington Post
The Oregonian

The Omnivorous Mind

The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship With Food by John S. Allen 

publication date: 2012
pages (including back matter): 319
ISBN: 978-0-674-05572-8

In this book, John S. Allen attempted to explain Americans’ current relationship with food, by looking at humans’ evolutionary history, especially the evolution of the brain.

Allen divided his discussion into chapters, which examined different aspects of our brain’s relationship with food, including 1) why we like crispy food; 2) humans’ omnivorous behavior; 3) eating as a sensual pleasure; 4) problems with obesity and anorexia; 5) food and memory; 6) how we categorize food; 7) creativity and food; and 8) his thesis: our minds capacity for a “Theory of Food.”

Much like the preceding sentence, this book was dry. However, I’d rather read a dry, yet balanced, nonfiction book, than an intense rant or diatribe without any facts to back it up. Allen certainly presented facts to back up his theories. The book included many science-heavy discussions about the brain, animal evolution, and human behavior. It also included images showing different parts of the brain, which were sometimes helpful, sometimes not.

Although I had to read through a lot of heavy science stuff, which often went over my head, the book afforded interesting information. For example, I did not know that, according to scientists, when humans switched to an agricultural diet, we actually became unhealthier. As Allen explained:

[T]raditional agricultural diets, because they are less varied, are not as good as hunter-gatherer diets at providing all of the specific nutrients that our bodies need to thrive. On the other hand, they clearly provide enough to allow people to survive and reproduce, increasing population numbers.

Allen also had an endearing sense of humor that would pop up from time to time, such as in this discussion of human memory and the meals we eat:

It is with some distress (and a little pride) that I realize I can, off the top of my head, remember in detail burgers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, White Castle, Hardee’s, Carl Jr.’s, Jack in the Box, Five Guys, In-N-Out, Hamburger Habit, Nation’s Giant, and the now defunct Rich’s Bulky Burgers.

The subject-matter of this book was interesting to me, and Allen discussed it with humor and thoroughness, so I enjoyed the book. However, if you have no interest in this topic, I would not recommend it to you.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the book:

Wall Street Journal
Open Letters Monthly
Pop Matters

How It Went Down

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

publication date: 2014
pages: 325
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9869-3

How It Went Down, a topical recent book by NAACP-award nominee Kekla Magoon, examines what happens to a black community when a young person is shot by a white man.

How It Went Down began with sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson, recently shot, bleeding on the sidewalk. His shooter, Jack Franklin, was soon apprehended but was released on a theory of self-defense. The facts surrounding the shooting quickly became muddled and contested. Was Tariq causing trouble? Was he carrying a gun? Was he a good kid trying to make his way through the neighborhood, or was he a colors-flying, drug-selling gang member? Does it really matter?

The book explored the shooting and its aftermath from many different, and sometimes conflicting, points of view. By presenting varying narrators, Magoon showed that we probably can never know exactly what happened in incidents that were a lightning rod for a community.

Magoon sprinkled the book with poetic and intriguing descriptions of the lives of her characters. An example is this passage by Tariq’s mother, Redeema:

Cops got a special way of knocking at the door. With the meat of the fist. Sets the whole wall a-shaking.

Next thing that comes – it ain’t never good news.

I also liked this description by Jennica, a server at a local diner, who changed her nametag to read Jen because:

People always wanted to strike up conversation about it. Oh, that’s pretty, and so forth. Especially some of the jerks who come in and think I’m into them because I smile and bring them food. Like they don’t even get that it’s my job; they think I’m doing it for fun or something, like I’m doing something special just for them.

Because the main action in the book, Tariq’s fatal shooting, happened before the book even began, Magoon spent time establishing side characters and their lives and peculiarities. She introduced love stories, night wanderings, and gang politics. Most of these were soggy and uninteresting. They were also scattered and random, which meant I didn’t really care about what was happening to them. Relatedly, none of the characters were fully-developed or deep enough, except maybe the one character the reader didn’t get to hear from, Tariq.

In How It Went Down, Magoon presented a need examination of her devastating topic, but it wasn’t as powerful or compelling as it might have been in more capable hands.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

Los Angeles Times
BookPage
Books YA Love

Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic

Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism by Daniel Harris 

publication date: 2000
pages: 265
ISBN: 0-465-02848-9

I present for you another bitter, overblown nonfiction book. How do I keep getting tricked into reading these? I guess that’s what happens when I judge a book by its cover (and title).

In Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic, Harris attempted to enlighten us, dear readers, with all the aesthetics that marketers use to manipulate us into buying their stuff, from “cute” to “cleanness.” He was very very serious about his undertaking. Here’s a sample sentence that shows just how seriously, and non-sensically, he took it:

The stylistic distortions of the market-place often reflect tensions in our attitudes towards the things and people around us: towards our children, whose waywardness we seek to smother beneath the conventions of cuteness; towards parents, whose denial of adolescents’ sexuality and independence our offspring throw back in our faces by adopting the exaggerated mannerisms of coolness; and even towards computer software, whose gaudy aesthetic emerges from the anarchic aspirations of programmers who seek to hide from themselves the dull, bureaucratic realities of their lives.

That sentence got crazier and crazier until it was a great big WHAT?!?!

I don’t know why he took this topic so seriously and reacted to it so brutally. Sure, I’m not fan of manipulative marketing, but, as he admitted, he can’t see an alternative. Instead, in his infinite wisdom, he always felt:

[I]t is sufficient for me to destroy – to slash, to burn – and [I] have never felt any desire to formulate utopian solutions, not only because I wish to avoid blunting the full force of my skepticism and palliating my reader’s urgent need for happy endings, but because I frankly do not have any answers to offer, no five-year plan, no program for reform, no campaign for organizing the Great Leap Forward into paradise on Earth.

(If the above passages are not enough to convince you that the author is seemingly a pompous dick, maybe this will: in his acknowledgements he thanks his ex in a way that reminds everyone that they used to date and are now great friends, notwithstanding his ex’s new guy:

As always, I would like to thank my former lover Anthony Aziz and his current companion Sammy Cucher for their loyalty and friendship. Life wouldn’t be the same without these two tremendous friends.)

Maybe I could have found the book’s discussion of marketing and aesthetics interesting. Probably not. But it’s tough to tell because it was hard to look past the author’s excessive and silly analysis.

2/6: many problems

other reviews of the book:

Publishers Weekly
Salon
12 Frogs

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

publication date: 2014
pages: 329
ISBN: 978-0-06-226834-1

There was very little joy in this book. There was passion and there were exhortations and exclamation points, but it was as though every paragraph was wrung out of Poehler after much pleading and coaxing. That came across in her writing, and Poehler also admitted as much in her prologue.

That made the book a little hard to read at times. I found myself wondering why she wrote certain passages or why I was reading them. For example, Poehler included a chapter about her divorce, but she prefaced it with:

I don’t want to talk about my divorce because it is too sad and too personal. I also don’t like people knowing my shit. I will say a few things.

If you don’t want to talk about your divorce or other personal things, why write this chapter at all? In fact, why write a memoir?

I also did not always find Poehler likable or relatable. She could be very judgmental and egocentric. This is how she talked about New York City post-9/11:

It was a tough time to join [Saturday Night Live]. It felt like America might not ever smile, never mind laugh, again. . . . I had to attempt to do comedy in a city that was battered and still on fire, while avoiding being killed by the ANTHRAX that had been sent to the floors below us.

Of course, a book, and a narrator, does not have to be likeable or relatable to be good or effective. And Poehler was often effective. The theme of the book was to accept life, experience, and fun as it comes to you and, generally, do what you want. Reading the book made me want to do that. It made me want to follow my dreams, and stand up for myself, and have an Amy Poehler in my friend group. (According to Poehler, “a key element of being [her] friend is being comfortable with [her] forced fun,” which sounds awesome.)

The book contained a lot of sincere advice and beautiful insights. For example, she reminded us that “other people are not medicine.” There’s also this great line that I loved:

People are their most beautiful when they are laughing, crying, dancing, playing, telling the truth, and being chased in a fun way.

The book was also pretty funny. For example, Poehler described her writing style like this:

I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.

Poehler wasn’t as good a writer as her contemporaries, like Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling, but her writing, though inconsistent, resonated and often delighted.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
Boston Globe
Bonjour, Elly