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

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

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

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

publication date: 2010
pages: 623 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-679-44432-9

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson documented the Great Migration, or the movement of black Americans from the South to Northern cities from 1915 to 1970. This movement, though relatively unknown, was profound. For example, according to Wilkerson,

In Chicago alone, the black population rocketed from 44,103 (just under three percent of the population) at the start of the Migration to more than one million at the end of it. By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents, with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.

To support her book, Wilkerson used surveys and studies, both old and new; census data; and in-depth interviews with three subjects who made the journey from the South to the North themselves. Wilkerson presented her book as a story about the three subjects, but within a broader framework of movement and change.

This book was packed with wonderful information. Wilkerson was clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the material. The book’s discussion was comprehensive. Wilkerson examined everything from white flight and the courting of black labor by northern industry to race riots and being black in Las Vegas. She explored several topics I’d never thought of, such as the shift in attitude of white Southerners after the Civil War and during Jim Crow:

The planter class, which had entrusted its wives and daughters to male slaves when the masters went off to fight the Civil War, was now in near hysterics over the slightest interaction between white women and black men.

Although Wilkerson was good at presenting research and data, she also excelled at more personal storytelling. She included several anecdotes about recognizable people whose families were part of the Great Migration, such as Ray Charles, Jesse Owens, and Michelle Obama. Also, her exceptional analysis of her three main case studies, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, was somehow both reverent and uncompromising. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people. Her discussion at that point had turned less from the broad sketch of the Great Migration to a detailed portrait of her aging migrants. She surprisingly spent her last chapters presenting the indignities and dignity that can be found in old age.

For how good the book was, it was not without flaw. Conspicuously, it suffered from a fault that is seemingly written into every nonfiction writer’s contract: repetitiveness. I don’t know if nonfiction books are usually written as separate articles or thesis papers, or if editors just don’t think readers can keep up, but they are repetitive. Likewise, the chapters had inconsistent formats and typography. More troubling, two or three of her statistics seemed unsound. For example, this statement, which supposedly showed that Southern black migrants had more education than the northern white population:

In Philadelphia, for instance, some thirty-nine percent of the blacks who had migrated from towns or cities had graduated from high school, compared with thirty-three percent of the native whites.

I find that statistic troubling because it didn’t demonstrate as much as she claimed. What if only 1% of Southern blacks moving to Philadelphia migrated from towns or cities and the rest of the migrants hadn’t graduated high school? That would mean 1/3 of a percent of the migrating people graduated from high school, which would support an opposite conclusion than Wilkerson’s.

Those data-based issues were few and far between. Largely, The Warmth of Other Suns is a rich and informative book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
AARP
LA Times

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

publication date: 1937
pages: 227
ISBN: 0-06-093141-8

Their Eyes Were Watching God starts with a woman walking through a town. She’s familiar to the town, but unexpected. It’s Janie, the main character, who left the town with a man years earlier and now returns alone and unexplained. Janie simply walks right past the town square and returns to her former, empty house. Janie’s friend Pheoby, who has the strength of the whole town’s curiosity behind her, approaches Janie’s house to find out the story. Janie is happy to oblige and Zora Neale Hurston starts her story off like this: “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.”

And Hurston proceeds to beautifully chronicle Janie’s life. Janie’s life isn’t extraordinary, but it is described by Hurston with feeling and intensity. Janie was raised by her grandmother, a slave on a plantation before the Civil War. When Janie was young, she had an epiphany and felt herself capable of great love. However, after she married, she felt unfulfilled and unloved. As explained by Hurston, “Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”

Throughout the book, Hurston peppers her prose with wonderfully written passages that at first seem eccentric but upon closer examination are completely perfect. Here’s a fun one: when Hurston is describing one of the sexiest women in town, she explains that the woman has “negro hair, but it’s got a kind of white flavor. Like the piece of string out of a ham. It’s not ham at all, but it’s been around ham and got the flavor.” Explaining how something is similar but not the same by comparing it to ham string was utterly surprising, yet effective.

Hurston also captures the striving of Janie in several passages. For example, in a passage where Janie is considering leaving the husband she doesn’t love, Janie cautions herself that, although she doesn’t love him, he does provide for her and maybe that is enough. Hurston responds that Janie “didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop. Man attempting to climb to painless heights from his dung hill.” Another example of Hurston’s wonderfully-crafted passages describing the human endeavor:

When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each on over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.

There was one aspect of Hurston’s writing I found problematic: the dialect. All Hurston’s dialogue is written in heavy dialect. Here is an example of a random bit of dialogue from the book: “Ah don’t blame yuh but it wasn’t lak you think.” Dialect is my second greatest literary pet peeve, behind foreshadowing. Dialect is cumbersome, alienating, and sometimes offensive. But even with all that in mind, let me tell you something: by the end of the book, I enjoyed the dialect! Hurston’s use of dialect was the most effective example I have ever encountered. Maybe it’s because it was so consistent. Or maybe it’s because Hurston was not ashamed of it. I don’t know what it was, but it worked.

Overall, Their Eyes Were Watching God was a stirring and important book about one woman’s effort to live a full life. But Janie’s striving was not unique; it was universal. Because Hurston captured that, she was able to craft a remarkable book.

4/6: worth reading

Some other reviews of Their Eyes Were Watching God:

Between the Covers
Book Stove
goodreads