An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

an american marriage

Roy Othaniel Hamilton is a well-to-do Black man from the Louisiana, who now lives with his wife, Celestial in Atlanta.  They’ve come home to visit Roy’s parents, but because of a little friction between Celestial and Roy’s mom, they decide to stay in a little motel for the night.  After a benign encounter with a woman down the hall, they are suddenly accosted by police and Roy is eventually convicted of a crime he never committed.  As the story unfolds, we are drawn in to feel the painful ripple effect of how one (erroneous!) incarceration can devastate so many lives around the one, innocent, individual.

Tayari Jones is a masterful storyteller.  She changes voices with each chapter, a la Jodi Picoult, and this helps the reader to see inside the heart of each main character.   In addition, she utilizes letters written by the characters, which help the reader to feel the distance that the characters themselves feel when they are kept at a distance by prison walls.  The characters she creates are deeply human – they are all Black, and they are each beautiful and flawed and real in their own ways.  It is hard not to sympathize with each and every one of them.  And the story itself is extremely powerful, playing out slowly and rising to a dramatic crescendo.

According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated more than 5 times the rate of whites, and although African Americans and Hispanics make up only 32% of the U.S. population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015.  There is clearly a problem here.  And of course this problem is complex; with poverty and educational disparities and opportunities being at least part of this problem.  And I don’t profess to be able to solve things merely by reading a book.

But…  by reading books such as these, we begin to bring to light what the problem is and how deeply this affects so many people.  We begin to bring understanding and compassion to what people experience when this happens and it becomes more than just a statistic.  And hopefully it will help us to stand up for our fellow man and woman and to see it as a problem that affects us all and not just “the other.”

Reading books such as these – is a start.

This is a MUST READ, for sure.

 

Advertisements

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

alone in berlin

This unusual story of the quiet insurgency of Otto and Anna Quangel against Hitler’s war begins with the various characters in their apartment building.  At the beginning of the story, each family has little to do with each other, but because the Gestapo has fostered a culture of paranoia and turning others against each other, each has an eye out for/against the other and their lives become unwittingly embroiled together.  Ironically, the most self-contained and private of all of them, reveal themselves to be the most truly dignified, even as they are ineffectual in their attempts at postcard propaganda.

Let’s just start with the statement that this is not the usual WWII novel, at all.  The quirky writing and the shift in focus from minor character to character keep it floating just a little bit above the usual depth of despair that one usually carries, although it is certainly not without its violence or death.   The focus, though, is really on what is going on in Germany proper and particularly in the ” criminal justice” system.  There are more than a few interlocking stories of how corrupt Nazi Party officials use their positions to gain from the losses of the masses and everyone tries to profit from informing on each other.   The overarching irony becomes who are the “criminals” and who are those who deliver “justice.”  The highlight of this is the actual trial scene, during which a judge essentially does the work of the prosecutor.  After this, when Otto’s “defense attorney” accuses Otto of being mad for what he’s done, Otto rightly asks him, “Do you think it’s mad to be willing to pay any price for remaining decent?”

The most dignified characters here are also the most common, ordinary ones.  Otto and Anna are not wealthy, and not well-educated.  They are hard-working, awkward, regimented people.  Otto is pretty OCD and shuns social interactions.  He is not the typical novel hero.  Which I think is what makes him all the more striking as a hero here.  He’s saying here that anyone can, in his own, small and dignified way, stand up for what he believes in – for what is right.

There is an obvious message here and relevance to what is going on today.  I apologize for my frequent references to political issues in this supposed literary blog, but I can’t help myself.  As I read this book, particular lines and issues jumped out from the pages as if coming fresh out of the newspaper headlines of 2018 as well.  Injustices done to people because of their race or religion, leaders getting away with abuse of power because people worshipped them valuing party over constituents, having a leader of a country who believes himself a deity deserving of unlimited power as if he is not in a democracy at all.  It’s all too familiar and if we do not stop this, it will be just as it was in 1933 at the beginning of all of that.

We have to circulate our own little postcards here and now.  This is mine…

 

Playing with Matches by Carolyn Wall

playing with matches

Clea is a smart, but smart-mouthed girl who seems to not be able to stop herself from saying things that get her into trouble.  And while Auntie (her adoptive mother) loves her dearly, she still craves attention and love from her Mama, who seems to show love only to the men who come to her each night from the prison up the road.  As Clea grows older and the hurt grows deeper, Clea learns to internalize this hurt and drive it inward, until she finally learns how to cope and ultimately to forgive.

This is a poignant coming-of-age story, that blends flavors of the deep, poverty-stricken South into a young woman’s struggle with trauma and development of empathy and forgiveness.  While Clea starts off as a bold, outspoken, actually crass and rude child, she learns quickly that her words can do terrible harm.  And they do.  But she clings to words in other ways, and words ultimately become what save her.

The character I find the most beautiful in this story, actually, is Auntie.  Auntie is the one who has taken Clea in, an hour after Clea’s Mama has given birth to her, with no blood relation (in fact, she’s black and Clea is white) but only because she’s a human child with no one to care for her.  And she raises the child as she would her own child and loves her unconditionally.  She does not give Clea everything she wants, but rather she gives her everything she needs.  She sets admirable limits with her and guides her with wisdom and tenderness.  She is so very kind.

My only reservation about this book is that toward the end, there is a little more forgiveness than I think is realistic.  There is one character, in particular, who is extraordinarily evil.  Forgiveness for her may be beyond realistic – but maybe that is because I am not kind enough.  I’d love to hear others’ opinions on this one!

I definitely recommend this book – but it is pretty serious, so prepare yourself!

 

Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo

seven days in may

This is a gorgeous work of historical fiction that is a new addition to my “Must Read” list.  Isabel is a woman hell-bent on reinventing herself as a decoder for the war effort for Britain during the second World War.  Across the ocean, Sydney begins as a headstrong suffragette, much to the chagrin of her sister, Brooke, who just needs Sydney to tone it down so as not to scare away Brooke’s fiancee Edward.  They are all entwined by the voyage of the Lusitania, which is to carry Brooke, Sydney and Edward to England where Brooke and Edward are to marry.  Will the Lusitania make it through war zone waters safely?

This is a beautifully orchestrated novel, with suspenseful subplots and many amusing and colorful characters that draw the reader in and keep the pages turning.  Both Isabel and Sydney are strong protagonists, each with complicated pasts but each also very forward-thinking.  The reader cannot help loving both of them for their idealism and their honesty.  I imagine some of the scenes as being beautiful, by the descriptions of the elegant rooms on the ship, the gowns that the sisters wear, the view from the ship – I can easily picture a filming of this book.

But the real beauty lies in the suspense that builds throughout the story, both in the various sub-plots as well as in the overall big story.  There is a battle between the sisters that must be overcome.  There is someone who might jeopardize all that Isabel has worked so hard to achieve.  And will the Lusitania actually defy the Germans and cross to Liverpool safely?  This is a page-turner that will bring tears to your eyes, that you will read late into the night, and that will stay with you after putting it down.

 

 

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall

sweeping up glass

Olivia is determined to figure who is killing and disfiguring the wolves on her property and why.  She has her suspicions about it – the Phelps boys have always been evil, for example- but she cannot understand why.  Meanwhile, she has to go about her life, juggling her responsibilities of raising her grandson, caring for her insane mother whom she has always called Ida, running her grocery store, and maintaining her household, until her life gets completely turned around by her gradual discoveries from her wolf investigations.

The voice of the storyteller is Olivia’s and it is frank and raw and powerful.  Olivia lives in such frequently harsh conditions that her emotions usually must be kept tamed, but the heat of her seething anger sears the page.  She loves her father as fiercely as she hates her mother, and her world is build around this contrast.  She is smart but not educated and while she doesn’t give herself credit for having much, she manages to navigate complicated and even dangerous situations with strength and with heart.  She is a truly beautiful, strong woman character.

I think the way that racism and racial violence is woven into the story is extremely effective as well.  There is a building of very tender relationships between Olivia and some of her black friends, particularly of her best friend, Love Alice, as a preface to any of the tension.  When incidents do happen -or even threats of them-  then, it becomes all that much more personal and so incredibly disturbing.  It feels like my own family members have been affected when they are only fictional characters, because of this beautiful character development.  And the story builds into an incredibly suspenseful and somewhat complicated plot line – I literally could not put this book down!

This was a surprisingly excellent book – I very highly recommend it!  A new “must-read” for the blog!

Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

Rabb_AmongtheLiving_final-540x826-229x350

“Ike” Goldah seems to be finding his way to adjusting to life after the concentration camps of World War II.  He has come straight from the DP camp to live with his cousins in Savannah, Georgia.  His cousin has set him up with a room in their house, a job in his shoe store, and he is even looking into doing some writing on the side, which was his previous career before the war.  That is, until he has a surprise visitor who is like a ghost from his past – and seems to turn his world upside down.

I really like this book for its many plot threads and themes.  You can look at the Jewish Holocaust themes, but there are also comparisons between the Jew/non-Jew and Black/White race relations that are laid out so starkly here.  In addition, Goldah’s cousin is involved in illegal dealings with his shoe business that are a bit murky but that give the story another dimension.   Goldah’s love interests also create another side story, giving his “visitor” addition a real shock value.

I actually think the book could have been expanded upon.  It felt like it ended much too soon.  The characters were great and there was so much happening in it that it could have been broadened further.  I was left wanting much more.

I think this book was a good read, but probably edited down a bit too much.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

the hate u give

Knowing she’d rather have stayed home watching reruns of Fresh Prince on her laptop, Starr isn’t even sure why she’s agreed to accompany Kenya to the party at which she’s found herself.  But while she is wandering around (Kenya of course has dumped her), she finds Khalil, her old best friend, whom she has not seen in months.  They slip into old comfortable conversation when suddenly gunshots ring out.  She and Khalil run for what she believes will be safety – not knowing that this moment will affect the rest of her life.

This story is a young adult novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, about the murder of a black boy by a white police officer.  The story invites the reader to step into the life of this friend of the victim, Starr, whose life is already complicated as she is grappling with having to straddle two different communities – the poor neighborhood in which she lives and the affluent school she attends.  Her two worlds require two different personae and this is a lot to juggle for a young woman of 16 years.

As the events unfold, it becomes clearer that Starr is the only witness to the murder that has occurred and it is up to her to come forward and testify.  And here is the difficulty: history has taught us that this is hard – and we’ve seen this again and again particularly in the past few years.  While police have incredibly difficult jobs to do and we owe them a debt of gratitude for what they do every day, there are always a few that take their power too far or have too low a threshold for fear of “other” and assume that the “other” is going to do something harmful to them first.  This is the case in this story, and this is often the narrative in these cases where there is a wrongful death.  There is a presumption of guilt based on race and circumstances when that is an unfair presumption.

There is a lot of humanity to this story.   There is circumstance and perspective on the drug dealing issue and how and why some people get involved – which some might feel is obvious but others might not appreciate.  There is also the recurrent theme of a person’s right to presumption of innocence, and right to life and liberty and so on even if he might be a drug dealer.  This is a serious point.  On the other hand, I do think that dehumanizing the cop that shot the victim by referring to him by only his badge number almost throughout does not serve a purpose.  I think that creates its own bias and one sided perspective and I think presenting the other side would have only made the story stronger.

In any case, I do think this is an important book for most people to read, but especially young readers.  Definitely a must read!