Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

Americanah by Ngozi Adichie (2013) November 25, 2017

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 8:52 pm
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Aside from a somewhat disappointing ending, I appreciated this story, specifically its Nigerian perspective of being a non-American black in America.  I don’t think I often enough distinguished the Black experience into its many subcategories, but I feel 81PwSNLlMpL

at the very least more informed now. In a nutshell, the story centers around Ifemelu who leaves Nigeria during her university years for America where she succeeds in school and in her career, becoming a successful blogger (though not without numerous setbacks in her early years, including unemployment and poverty).  Yet, she feels as if she never quite fits in. Left behind in Nigeria is her boyfriend, Obinze, who eventually emigrates to London but never escapes the pitfalls of undocumented life, eventually returning to Nigeria.  At times a little rambling, she tackles numerous issues in this book: Nigerian politics and corruption, immigration (US and England), race, interracial dating, love, and more. Good–but not great–writing, its rawness gave me a better understanding of the frustrations of each of these issues.  Perhaps what I liked most were the blog entries, the most interesting titled “Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking about Blackness.” So even though she’s a non-American Black, she has much to say about both the non-American Black experience and the American Black experience.

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Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (2014) August 7, 2016

This might be the most important book I’ve read this year.  Paired with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s  Between the World and Me, these two memoirs offer a raw and brutal lens with which to examine race in America.  As a recent Harvard Law graduate in the 203426171980s, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a firm based in Alabama dedicated to defending the poor, the non-represented, the incarcerated, the  condemned–specifically those on death row. The book spotlights one of his first cases–Walter McMillian, a black man wrongly convicted of murdering a white woman–in which Stevenson discovers not only a shocking lack of credible evidence that sent a man to death row (where he spent decades of his life), but also a rural Southern culture steeped in political corruption, racism, and fear-mongering. Stories of numerous inmates are woven in between the McMillian case, one just as heartbreaking as the next.

I found myself continually shocked by the information in this book: shocked and embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of prison statistics and my lack of understanding of policies like “three strikes and you’re out” or political slogans like “tough on crime.”  These seemingly positive policies that appear to protecting our safety have actually led to startling statistics: “the highest rate of incarceration in the world, a quarter of a million kids sent to adult jails and prisons for extremely long sentences, 3,000 juveniles sentenced to die in prison, hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders forced to spend decades in prison, a half a million people in prisons for drug offenses, and life sentences for non-homicide offenses” (p 15). And finally, “scores of innocent people who were sentenced to death and nearly executed” (16). An unprecedented amount of money has shifted from health, education, and social services to prisons, and a huge number of private prison companies have hit the jackpot through our mass incarceration rate.

I could go on for pages and pages, but here are some of the most memorable statements I took from this book:

  • “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (17).
  • One older man said to Stevenson, “Tell them to stop saying our country never experienced terrorism before 9/11.  We grew up with terrorism. Anyone who was white could terrorize you. We had to worry about bombings, lynchings, and racial violence of all kinds.”(299).
  • “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we have thrown away children, the disabled, and the weak, not because they are a threat to public safety, but because it makes us seem tough” (290).
  • A society should be judged not by how it treats the rich, but how it treats the poor and the disenfranchised.
  • The opposite of poverty is not wealth.  The opposite of poverty is justice.

When I teach Mockingbird to 9th graders next month, we inevitably talk about race, racial profiling, false accusations, and fear.  But over and over again, students are quick to say, “thank goodness it’s not like that anymore.”  They are so mistaken.  Because most of them are white, they have no idea what it means to be black.  And they have no idea what it’s like to live with the fear of being arrested and jailed for something they didn’t do or for something so minor, it would heed little more than a warning for someone with lighter skin. Stevenson has committed his entire career to providing equal justice for those who have been ignored by our court system.  We could learn so much from his definition of mercy.

View Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk: We Need to Talk about an Injustice

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) April 6, 2016

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:31 pm
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This is a tough and powerful read: it’s intellectually challenging, and, at times,  emotionally draining. Written as a letter to his teenage son, Coates  puts 150709_SBR_Coates-COVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalforth his philosophy of life and what it means to be black in America.  Within the first few pages he questions not what Abraham Lincoln meant by a “government of the people,” but what the word “people” actually means because–as he asserts–America’s progress was built on looting and violence by those Americans “who believe they are white” (6).  Wow.  I had to read that sentence several times.  Not white Americans, but Americans who believe they are white. What does he mean by this? I think he means that being white allows me to live a white life, but the phrase “white American” is not strong enough or angry enough to convey the privilege and the freedom that comes with that life .

He spends much of the book talking to his son about living in a black body–again, not living as a black man but living in a black body. Emphasis here on the fact that the black body has encased him in a frame that allows others to suspect him, trail him, harass him, shoot him. And so his question to his son is “how to live within a black body within a country lost in the Dream”(the dream being the American dream which was built on the backs of slaves). Ultimately he says that the question is “unanswerable, though not futile” (12). I have to say, though, that the tone of much of the book makes it feel futile–and yet, Coates intersperses this grim reality with a hopefulness at times. He wants his son to understand the reality of their world and their black bodies, especially since his son has grown up in a different world from his father’s streets of inner-city Baltimore; thus, he feels his son has more to lose.  He follows this with, “I am not a cynic.  I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of black bodies, which, somehow will always be assigned to you” (71). That’s the line that hit me hardest, and when I hear white teenagers at school say “if we just stop talking about race, we’ll all get past it” it’s because they have never lived in a black body; thus they will never know what it feels like to carry that responsibility every day of their life.

This is a must read.  Coates made me think and reflect in a way that I have never pushed myself before.  Others need to do the same.

 

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem (2003) July 2, 2012

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:25 am
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It took me three tries to get through this book, but as the adage goes, the third time was the charm.  You can’t be in a hurry or distracted by other tasks or in the mood for a page-turner.  So a lazy summer weekend was the perfect time for Lethem’s detailed descriptions of 1970’s Brooklyn with its grit, racial tension, industrial pollution, graffiti, cocaine, comic books, and gentrification. It reminded me of four other books morphed together: Kavalier and Clay (comics, superheroes, and Jewish kids), Let the Great World Spin (a story held together by setting more than plot or characters), The Corrections (detailed characters that take a while to care about), and A Visit from the Goon Squad (punk music and abrupt scene changes). This story centers around Dylan Ebdus (aka whiteboy), raised by his artist father, and Mingus Rude, black, and raised by his washed-up-musician-cocaine-addict father.  Dylan sees Mingus as an “exploding bomb of possibilities” It’s an unlikely friendship begun in elementary school with comic books and stick ball and tagging and life on Dean street.

Lethem’s writing is like a zoom lens.  He focuses in on a scene, giving us every detail, and then boom—switches to a new scene, new characters, new setting.  Not much panning around or smoothly shifting to a new focus.  It’s a little disconcerting for the first hundred pages or so, but then I got used to his style.  What’s most striking, though, is the writing itself—the way he captures the landscape, physically and sociologically.  His description of NY public schools: “Fifth grade was fourth grade with something wrong.  Nothing changed outright.  Instead, it teetered.  You’d pushed futility in public school 38 so long by then you expected the building itself would be embarrassed and quit.  The ones who couldn’t read still couldn’t, the teachers were teaching the same thing for the fifth time now and refusing to meet your eyes, some kids had been left back twice and were the size of janitors.” And later, Lethem writes about gentrification: “The white families appear continuously these days, now too many to count, but collectively they’re still a dream, a projection. . .The renovators—that’s a polite word for them—they’re a set of ghosts from the future hunting the ghetto present.  They’re a proposition, a sketch.  Blink and they might be gone.”

Impressive stuff.  He cuts to the heart of issues without preaching or moralizing.  He just describes.  This is a book that could—and probably should—be read twice.  (fiction).

 

 
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