The Coldest Winter Ever

The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah9781439119976

publication date: 1999
pages: 284
ISBN: 978-0-7432-7010-6

In one of the major books that fueled the renaissance in urban fiction, Sister Souljah presented a compelling story of a young black woman’s life as part of a culture of drug-dealing.

The Coldest Winter Ever followed Winter Santiaga, the self-proclaimed queen of the projects, who lived in Brooklyn with her family, including her drug lord father, Ricky Santiaga. Winter’s life began to change on her sixteenth birthday, when her father announced plans to move the family out of their vigorous urban neighborhood and into the rarefied New Jersey suburbs. However, Winter’s world really fell apart when her father was arrested by the FBI for drug-trafficking and RICO violations.

Winter was a wonderful main character. She was the perfect anti-hero, long before Walter White was introduced. Almost every move Winter made seemed morally wrong or, at least, against her best interests. And yet I wanted her to succeed throughout the book. I was rooting for her even as she knocked out an old woman with a sock full of rocks.

The tone of writing was punchy and stylized. As an example, here was a fun passage that showed the heat and sexuality of some teenagers:

Now I loved Poppa but I hated the way he cock-blocked. Every teenage girl wants to cut loose and get close to the fire, but I was like a pot of boiling milk with the lid on. You know that’s ready to explode and slide down the side of the pan.

Although the writing was animated throughout the book, the plot in the middle did become dull. Fortunately, that only lasted for about fifty pages and, by the end of the book, I was completely immersed again in Winter’s story.

Souljah has been explicit that she wrote this book with particular messages in mind. Specifically, she wanted to show that drugs lead to a hopeless path and that young people should apply their talents toward a legal business, and to create role models for black men, women, and families. Souljah’s explicitness of purpose made the book preachy at times. There were literally passages of speeches given by a character named Sister Souljah as she was speaking to a group of people about how to live their lives.

The characters in the book were also unambiguously anti-gay. Seemingly, Souljah shared that view. That made the book seem, at the best, dated and, at the worst, hateful.

The book contained a lot of sex, drugs, and language, and an irresistible story of a person who was trying to get theirs in a world that seemed set against them.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Senior Critics blog
Salon
YA Books Central

OUTsider

OUTsider by Ruth Marimo41mh4gjqj7l-_sx321_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2014
pages: 248
ISBN: 978-0-9895868-0-1

This book had two things going for it: a heartfelt and genuine tone and a thought-provoking account of a person not often represented in the media.

OUTsider was the autobiography of Ruth Marimo, a gay, undocumented immigrant activist originally born in Zimbabwe. The book detailed her struggles of being an orphan in Zimbabwe, the confusing events that led to her living in America at nineteen without a status, her abusive marriage, and her self-discovery as a lesbian and an activist.

Marimo was very open about much of her life, including her struggles with her sexuality, her noxious relationship, and her status as an undocumented immigrant. That sincerity and candor was often effective, as in this passage from shortly after Marimo arrived in the States:

At first, I was very alarmed and upset that I had come to this country so ill prepared. I had not been treated well, and I had to work real hard for everything I had.
I was nineteen.
I was a kid.
For the past year, I had fended for myself so far away from home and from any assistance. Now, with my predicament, I simply had to do whatever I could to survive. I shopped for all my clothes at the Goodwill . . . .

The ardent nature of the writing and the important subject matter, especially surviving a physically abusive relationship, was enough to recommend the book. However, the book had some problems.

The writing was self-indulgent, like a journal or diary, as though Marimo was using the writing process to work through her own problems. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with using writing as a tool, but then don’t sell the book to others as something that would interest them.

Also, the writing could be very disorienting. Parts were contradictory, from the smallest lines to entire passages. As just one small example, early in the book, Marimo said she was “really in love” with a young woman named Belinda when she was around 16. Then, only nine sentences later, she said she fell in love with a young man named Masimba at 17, and this “was the first time I was truly in love with someone.” Entire sections contained these kinds of contradictions, which made the book confusing to read and lessened its effectiveness.

Additionally, Marimo did not have a coherent thesis beyond just the importance of her story and stories like hers. That was enough of a thesis for me, but the book seemingly strove for a more actionable thesis, and failed.

The book was a quick read and contained many illuminating passages about Marimo’s life and experience.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

goodreads
Amazon

Roots

Roots by Alex Haley9780440174646

publication date: 1976
pages: 688

Roots is a classic and for good reason.

The book followed an entire family’s ancestral line, from 17-year-old Kunta Kinte being snatched from a Gambian forest by slave traders in the late 1700s, to the author, Alex Haley, who was born into freedom in 1921. The first half of the book was devoted to Kunta Kinte’s life, as a young man in Africa and then in adulthood as a slave in America. The second half of the book focused on the descendants of Kinte, from Kinte’s daughter Kizzy, through several generations down to Haley.

My favorite part of the book was the first 150 pages, which described Kinte’s life as a member of the Mandinka tribe in Africa. Haley’s text captured the specific details of a culture very different from our modern-day Western culture, but he always considered the shared humanness that existed between Kinte’s Mandinka culture and our American one. For example, here was a passage describing when Kinte graduated from school:

One by one now, the arafang asked each graduate to stand. Finally came Kunta’s turn. “Kunta Kinte!” With all eyes upon him, Kunta felt the great pride of his family in the front row, even of his ancestors in the burying ground beyond the village – most especially of his beloved Grandma Yaisa. Standing up, he read aloud a verse from the Koran’s last page; finishing, he pressed it to his forehead and said, “Amen!” When the readings were done, the teacher shook each boy’s hand and announced loudly that as their eduction was complete, these boys were now of the third kafo, and everyone broke out into a loud cheering.

Although I loved reading about Kinte’s life in Africa, the most powerful part of the book was after his capture, when he was shackled in the slave transport ship from the African coast to America. In very concrete terms, Haley portrayed the horrific conditions of the months-long forced voyage that Kinte, and thousands of other Africans, took during the transatlantic crossing to slavery. Here was a passage:

Occasionally, down in the hold, Kunta would hear a little murmuring here and there, and he wondered what they could find to talk about. And what was the point? His Wolof shacklemate was gone, and death had taken some of those who had translated for the others. Besides, it took too much strength to talk any more. Each day Kunta felt a little worse, and it didn’t help to see what was happening to some of the other men. Their bowels had begun to drain out a mixture of clotted blood and thick, grayish-yellow, horribly foul-smelling mucus.

The ending of the book, with Haley investigating Kinte’s life in Africa, was also very emotionally moving, although I discovered in my research that there was controversy surrounding the truthfulness of Haley’s story.

Throughout the book, there was nothing very special or interesting about Haley’s writing. He didn’t create many memorable phrases or passages and there were timing and pace issues in the second half of the book. What made the book so memorable was Haley’s subject matter and his intricate characters.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book

Good Books and Good Wine
An Improbable Life
goodreads

Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine9781555976903

publication date: 2014
pages: 169
ISBN: 978-1-55597-690-3

Citizen was a collection of free form prose poetry and visual imagery that documented the black experience, especially when bounded by the white experience. The book was split into seven parts, which centered on loosely related topics. Generally, these topics were: personal experiences of racism, Serena Williams’s experience as a powerful black female tennis player, and violence against black people in the news.

The most effective parts for me were Rankine’s depictions of the subtle and relentless racism encountered by black Americans in everyday life. The pieces were written in second person and were usually vivid and intimate. Here was an example:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

Here was another very short passage:

And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, instinctively you take two steps back though all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.

The descriptions of the violence against black people were also effective, although they were more confusing and less striking than the more intimate verses. However, the pieces about Serena Williams really fell flat for me; maybe because they weren’t written from Serena’s perspective but instead from a spectator’s perspective.

The book also contained images of artworks. Some of these were more potent or useful than others. The cover image was probably the most powerful: it was a stark black sweatshirt hood.

The book captured aspects of life that many Americans don’t have cause to confront with very often. Although it was uneven, when it worked it really worked.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New Yorker
The Guardian
Slate

Bastards of the Reagan Era

Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts9781935536659

publication date: 2016
pages: 68
ISBN: 978-1-935536-65-9

This poetry collection chronicled Betts’s time in the 1980s and 90s during the “crack epidemic” and as an inmate in prison. He took a direct and nuanced look at the tangles of the drug war in cities at that time. The significance of the title seemed to be two-fold: first, he felt his community was complicit in the explosion of drug use that happened at that time, and the consequences of that complicity:

It take a nation of millions to hold / us back? Well they got that. We got that too. / Hands around our throat. Before you suffocate / your own fool self. Father forgive. . .

The second aspect of the title was the role the government and society at large played:

Death reinvented when red / was the curse of men born black / and lost in a drama Reagan read / as war: crack vials and cash and red / in our eyes and we not still / with a pocket full of stones.

The poems were generally focused on a few major themes: selling drugs, the inner city, and prison life. Many of the poems were labeled as elegies, including “Elegy Where a City Burns,” which contained these lines:

They wake / young & bound by count time & chow call, / burning in purgatory / where there is no rest. / & their lives: music, that same / melody —, / where prison is the imitation of life.

These forceful and repeated themes were present throughout and seemed to be focused around a thesis, possibly summed up in these lines:

We were all running down demons with our / Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was / Like them, unwilling to admit one thing: / On some days I just needed my father.

The language, rhythm, and imagery of the poems was usually striking and rarely fell flat. One of my favorite poems was about a game of street football with these lines:

Touchdowns are as rare as angels / & when the boy turns his body, / the RIP shirt slants against the wind, / & there is a moment when he is not / weighed down by gravity, when / he owns the moment before he crashes / into the other boys’ waiting arms & they / all look like a dozen mannequins, / controlled by the spinning sneaker / strings of the dead boys above them.

These poems focused on a subject matter not often found in published poetry and the author crafted his thought and concepts wonderfully.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

New York Times
Rhizomatic Ideas
Muzzle Magazine

Dark Rain

Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story by Mat Johnson & Simon Gane9781401221607

publication date: 2010
pages: 160
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2160-7

In this brooding and bleak graphic novel, Johnson and Gane explored the condition of New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. The book followed two men, Emmit and Dabny, as they were sucked into New Orleans right after the levees broke. Both men were looking for a second chance after getting caught in the legal system and meeting each other in a halfway house in Houston. After hearing about the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Emmit crafted a dubious plan to get into the city and get some extra cash. The book also introduced Sarah, a young woman who attempted to wait out the storm in her neighborhood and ended up needing rescue.

Although the book revolved around Emmit’s Robin Hood-esque scheme and Sarah’s attempt to escape the destruction of New Orleans, the real story was about what was happening in New Orleans after the hurricane. Johnson and Gane examined many aspects of the hurricane, often through a socio-political lens. 80% of the city was flooded. Over 1400 people died in the aftermath of the storm, many from drowning. Refugees were corralled into holding centers at the Super Dome and the Convention Center. People were stopped from moving around the region, either by other counties’ police forces or by the hundreds of private mercenaries throughout the city.

As in many graphic novels, the illustrations in Dark Rain were heavily stylized. Most of the book was black, gray, and blue, which made for flat and dispiriting pictures. I didn’t think the style was very good. The panels were sometimes confusing and the images were too cartoonish to show much emotion. There were a few great images though, including a two-page image when Sarah looked out over the flooding of the city for the first time. The characters and plot weren’t that great either. The characters were often cliché and the plot, when it wasn’t confusing, was predictable.

The main reason to read this book isn’t for the drawings, or the plot, or the characters. Instead, the book explored the real tragedies that occurred after the hurricane and the racially-motivated responses to the aftermath.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Crave
popmatters

An Intimation of Things Distant

An Intimation of Things Distant: The Collected Fiction of Nella Larsen by Nella Larsen 

publication date: 1992
pages: 278
ISBN: 0-385-42149-4

Nella Larsen was a lesser known participant in the Harlem Renaissance. She published several stories in the 1920s and then abruptly disappeared after she was accused of plagiarism. The plagiarism accusation was never substantiated or proven, but it seemingly had such a negative effect on Larsen that she escaped from the scene. What she left the literary world with were three short stories and two novellas, all of which were collected in this volume.

Four of the works, The Wrong Man, Freedom, Quicksand, and Passing concentrated on middle-class urban black life. The fifth work, Sanctuary, revolved around a desolate spot somewhere on the “Southern coast.” This also was the work she was accused of plagiarizing.

Sanctuary was probably my favorite work, even though it included the most-dreaded of stylistic devices: dialect. It had a terseness and directness the other works were lacking. For example, this passage describing a man who was hiding from people who were after him:

For a second fear clutched so tightly at him that he almost leaped from the suffocating shelter of the bed in order to make some active attempt to escape the horror that his capture meant. There was a spasm at his heart, a pain so sharp, so slashing, that he had to suppress an impulse to cry out. He felt himself falling. Down, down, down . . . Everything grew dim and very distant in his memory. . . . Vanished . . . Came rushing back.

The two novellas, Quicksand and Passing, focused on women and their options at that time (namely: marriage). Both of these works started off very slow, almost to the point of dullness. Larsen attempted to use description to create a sense of mood and atmosphere and instead only created bloated and skimmable paragraphs:

A slight girl of twenty-two years, with narrow, sloping shoulders and delicate but well-turned arms and legs, she had, none the less, an air of radiant, careless health. In vivid green and gold negligee and glistening brocaded mules, deep sunk in the big high-backed chair, against whose dark tapestry her sharply cut face, with skin like yellow satin, was distinctly outlined, she was – to use a hackneyed word – attractive.

However, as the plot and characters developed, the stories became more interesting and tense. One of my favorite passages from the book came in the middle of Quicksand, while the main character was at a dance club:

Helga sat looking curiously about her as the buzz of conversation ceased, strangled by the savage strains of music, and the crowd became a swirling mass. For the hundredth time she marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slid by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow, peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. . . . Africa, Europe, perhaps with a pinch of Asia, in a fantastic motley of ugliness and beauty, semibarbaric, sophisticated, exotic, were here. But she was blind to its charm, purposely aloof and a little contemptuous, and soon her interest in the moving mosaic waned.

Larsen’s writing did not have the drama and humanity of other, more famous, authors of that time, such as Zora Neale Hurston or Edith Wharton. To someone who vigorously enjoys writing from that time, I would recommend this book. For a more casual reader who is looking to read the best that period has to offer, there are better pieces to read.

3/6: more good than bad

Another review of the book:

L.A. Times