Sunday, July 14, 2019

Review: 'The Nickel Boys'

The Nickel Boys
By Colson Whitehead
Literary fiction
July 2019
ISBN: 978-0385537070

A child ready to become a man, inspired by the words of justice and equality by Dr. King; children cut off from their families, kind boys, lost boys, cruel boys and men thrown together; and a reform school where food and materials meant for black inmates are sold and some boys disappear. They are the Nickel Boys. Some of them survived.

In Colson Whitehead's new novel, The Nickel Boys, revives the hopes, the loss of dreams, the cruelty and evil of Jim Crow segregated "reform schools". The Nickel School in this novel is based on such a Floridian institution. 

Elwood is on the cusp of manhood, being raised by his grandmother in Tallahassee during the early days of the Civil Rights movement. He wants to learn about everything and is careful in matters great and small. A record album his grandmother purchased of Dr. King's speeches is his lodestone. The hard-working teen, trusted by his white employer and ready to start early college classes, makes one error in judgment.  

Elwood's views of individual and systemic justice don't stand a chance at a place like Nickel, the reform school where he is sent. Elwood is not corrupted by the system he encounters at Nickel. He suffers through learning how to navigate that system, and refuses to give up on Dr. King's ideals. He wants to emulate his hero.

His friend, Turner, does not look at the world in the same way. He already knows there is no such thing as justice and that what you do will never be as important to those in power as what you are. If Turner can game the situation, he will. It's what he has learned to do to survive. It's how he gets by.

Both boys do what they can to cope as best they know how, whether it's the random but expected little acts of cruelty or beatings so severe a boy ends up in a hospital bed on campus. Whether it's working on campus or even off the grounds, it doesn't matter. Working hard doesn't pay off if someone in power has it in for you. And if someone in power can use you, don't mistake what they do as acts of kindness or understanding. After all, there is an unmarked graveyard.

Even in these dire conditions, with characters mired in can't-win situations, Whitehead writes about dignity and caring. The stories of the boys remain stories of boys and how they try to figure out how to become men. They observe, they work, they have a code of honor that serves them as can be best expected. Some endure. Some never quit being free in their souls. Others will remain imprisoned regardless of whether they left the place or not.

This is an important work. It is not fanciful. It is moored to reality, but with its spirit of humanity, it is not weighed down.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted by permission

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Review: 'The Other Americans'

The Other Americans
By Laila Lamani
Literary fiction
March 2019
ISBN: 978-1524747145

A daughter seeking to live her own life on her own terms, a dutiful daughter her mother compares her to, a beloved father who is killed in a hit-and-run accident one night, a man who may or may have not seen that hit-and-run but who is afraid of the police, a deputy who remembers that first daughter as his beautiful and kind high school classmate, and his war buddy who is struggling with his return to civilian life -- all of these characters are Americans, those who are us and not us, brought to vivid life in Laila Lamani's latest novel, The Other Americans.

Lamani, a Pulitzer Prize finalist with her prior novel, The Moor's Account, slowly introduces each character in short chapters that are told from their points of view. Regardless of background or any other identifier, each character is fully realized and speaks for himself or herself. Their voices are grounded in how they see themselves and how the world sees them.

Nora is the daughter seeking to live her own life. She is a musician, a composer studying at university with a life not connected to that of her family. Her parents and older sister fled Morocco before she was born in America. Her father, Driss, has owned and run a diner in their small California town for years. One night, he is hit while riding a bicycle, coming home. The vehicle never stopped. Nora feels a great deal of guilt for not being there, and hurries back.

As the family's story, and the stories of each member, unfolds, others connected to the family, the diner and the accident also are revealed. Efrain isn't sure how much of the accident he saw and doesn't want to talk to the police. He is undocumented and has a family. His wife believes it is his duty to report what he knows, because it is the right thing to do.

The cranky bowling alley owner, Anderson Baker, whose business is next to the diner, didn't see anything. The long years he has put in at his alley are showing. Newly arrived Detective Erica Coleman is frustrated by the lack of information as much as she is by the barriers she sees to her son making friends and fitting in. Jeremy, the deputy, remembers Nora's kindnesses to him when they were classmates and stops by the family home to offer his condolences.

The structure has a Rashomon feel. As the various portions of each character's stories show events in different lights, revealing a greater understanding of them and of what happened the night Driss died and what led to that point. Not everything that happens to these characters is by chance, but everything that follows is determined by how they feel.

It is in the nuances of these feelings and reactions that the beauty of the novel lives. When Nora learns of her father's death, she thinks:

I could have talked to him one more time, heard the care in his voice, and yet I had squandered the chance. And all for some bitter coffee in a paper cup, hastily consumed before confronting a class of bored prep-school kids making their way through The Odyssey.

Or Efrain, as he tries to remember exactly what he heard and saw on the night of the hit-and-run:

Perhaps memory is not merely the preservation of a moment in the mind, but the process of repeatedly returning to it, carefully breaking it up in parts and assembling them again until we can make sense of what we remember.

Or Nora's mother, Maryam, the woman who relies on her faith in matters great and small, praying for her daughter:

... I murmured a prayer for her, as I had so many times in the past, only this time I prayed for more than her health, more than her safety, more than her happiness. I prayed for her greedily, for the thing I had given up years ago and never found again. Home.

And, Nora again, on this novel's foundation, love, especially within a family:

Only now, after my father's death, did I come to understand that love was not a tame or passive creature, but a rebellious beast, messy and unpredictable, capacious and forgiving ...

Just as in Lamani's earlier works, the personal becomes the universal. We are the the others to those who are the others to us. When looking at other Americans, what is being reflected back matters as much as the original. Everyone is part of a family, and these ties that bind can be restricting, empowering and supportive, or some of each.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted by permission

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Review: 'Unto Us a Son is Given'

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews

Unto Us a Son is Given
By Donna Leon
Crime fiction
March 2019
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802129116

Donna Leon continues to explore ambiguity in human emotions and how situations develop into life-changing decisions in her latest Brunetti novel. This time, the exploration centers on family ties, including new ones and those that last throughout the years.

Unto Us a Son is Given centers on the concern Brunetti's father-in-law, Count Falier, has for one of his oldest friends. Gonzalo Rodriguez de Tejada is a long-retired art world mover and shaker who no longer has that world's respect. But he does have a much younger man in his life and wants to adopt this man to be his son. That would mean inheriting his still considerable estate. The count and others are aghast at his plan. Brunetti is more in the live-and-let-live camp, and doesn't understand the fuss. But he will do a little looking into the young man's bona fides to ease his father-in-law's concerns.

But that's not how the world works. Before much is discovered, Gonzalo suddenly drops dead on the street while away from home. As his older friends gather for a memorial service to honor his friend, someone else dies. This time, it's murder.

As is usual when visiting Brunetti, the ruminations and philosophy are draws. This time, the good commissario ponders prejudices acknowledged and unconscious. How do any of them feel about each other if there is a label attached? And if the prejudicial beliefs were true, how deep would they go? How far would they extend? What about criminals in general? Are they born this way? Because this is Brunetti, he makes connections between these lines of thought and Calvinists and Greek tragedies he is now reading again for the first time in years.

Is there predestination? Do the gods dictate someone's journey? And how does revenge, or justice, tie into all of this?

Heady ideas, but ones that are tied to the deaths in this book, the 28th Brunetti novel. As Guido himself notes in this book, how can a writer make something horrific not, well, beautiful, but rather powerful? That's what Leon does here. Families, love and how we feel underlie this whodunit.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted by permission

Monday, June 24, 2019

Review: 'The Man Who Sold America'

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews

The Man Who Sold America
By Joy-Ann Reid
Current Affairs
June 2019
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0062880109

From the introduction, "Welcome to Gotham" with on-point comparison of today's occupant of the White House to a Jack Nicholson signature performance, to the epilogue about who we really are, Joy-Ann Reid tells us about ourselves in the age of Trump, how we got here and what we must do next before a new chapter can be written in her new book, The Man Who Sold America: Trump and the Unraveling of the American Story.

In concisely researched sections, Reid, host of MSNBC's AM Joy, shows the origins of Trump, the current state of his party, the media and government. It's a perfect storm of resentment, yearning and complacency. She begins with the 2016 election, laying out not only the vote counts but also the underlying studies that show why anyone would vote for someone who had no political experience but plenty of bluster. That the narrative is calm and fact-based sets the tone for the book. This is not a political rant. This is a reflection on the current point in the American story.

Information from a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in April 2018 displays what "economic anxiety" really means for white Americans who voted for Trump. Regardless of their actual economic status, it was their perception that mattered. That perception, as seen in media feature stories still being published on a regular basis, is the fear that white Americans are being crowded out by people of other races, ethnicities and religions, regardless of their immigration or citizenship status. Diana C. Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania political science department noted in the study that candidate preference was connected to a political party's position on American global dominance and an American population that is becoming majority-minority. In other words, if white Americans feared no longer being part of the dominant group, they voted for Trump.

At the same time, American culture is becoming more divided, with groups staying together based on how they view the world and less genuine communication among different groups. Reid notes the work of Robert P. Jones in a Public Religion Research Institute study done with The Atlantic in 2017 to show the fear among those who do not like the increasing diversity of America. In a chapter on the media, Reid adds how what we believe determines where we get our news. Facts themselves have become a malleable commodity.

In addition to quoting other studies, Reid also goes into the cultural aspect of how Trump's base was built and why it remains true to him. Britain is dealing with the same resentments that led to Brexit, so it's not just an American phenomenon.

One of the strongest chapters in the book compares and contrasts the journey of South Africa following apartheid to the United States since the Civil War and Jim Crow eras. Reid reports how white people in both nations have feared change and losing power, and how they are responding. The countries are different, and Reid is clear to note that. But seeing the paths the two countries have taken and the origins of conspiracy theories in South Africa that have made their way to the United States is illuminating. What unites us is stronger than what divides us, but what is it that unites us? And divides us?

Reid tell us how we got here and how we see ourselves. One of the great take-aways from reading The Man Who Sold America is that until and unless Americans face up to who we are, things are not going to improve for anyone who isn't already one of the .01 percenters. Superhero mythology is a motif in the book. But Reid makes it clear we should not be holding out for a Superman or Captain America or Wonder Woman. As Joan Didion said, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." What is the new chapter in the story we tell about ourselves? It is up to us to write it.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and reprinted by permission

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Review: 'With the Fire on High'

With the Fire on High
By Elizabeth Acevedo
YA fiction
May 2019
Harper Teen
ISBN: 978-0062662835

In The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo crafted a novel in verse that expressed the wonder, questioning and determination a young woman feels. In her sophomore novel, With the Fire on High, Acevedo brings to vivid life another young woman who infuses her life and those around her with joy, pride and fierce love.

Emoni is in her senior year, a good but not great student who is more interested in her family and creating magic in the kitchen than studying. It's a focus Emoni needs. She's been raised by her grandmother in Philly. Her father went back to Puerto Rico when her mother died. Emoni and her grandmother are now raising Emoni's daughter. When not caring for Babygirl, hanging with her great friend Angelica, or appreciating her grandmother, Emoni also keeps her cool when her ex-boyfriend (a generous term) picks her three-year-old up for visitation. Even Tyrone's snooty mother doesn't knock Emoni's balance. All the irritations fade into the background when Emoni gets to be her best, true self -- creating food in the kitchen the way a musical genius might improvise a symphony.

Even with a plate this full, our heroine is about to see if she can handle more. There is a transfer student this year -- a fine young man who sees Emoni's beauty and strength straight away. And there is a new elective class, about restaurant food and service, taught by a real chef. Emoni makes the cut for the class, as does the new guy, Malachi. But it is no cake walk. Chef Ayden recognizes her ability. But he does not appreciate her last-second improvisations. He teaches her that you need to know the rules in order to break them.

For someone who has weathered her circumstances with aplomb, Emoni remains unsure if she can reach out higher, wider and deeper. A class trip to Spain, to be able to work for a professional chef, is her chance to find out if she has limits beyond what she has placed on herself. This is especially true considering the cost of being able to go.

The wisdom, grounded in reality, and the joy that are the essence of Emoni's story, along with the poetic flow of Acevedo's writing, make With the Fire on High a reading experience as filling as a grand meal prepared with love and a secret ingredient or two. It's also a grand inspiration to have a blast in the kitchen, making one's own music.

©2019 All Rights Reserved Reviews and posted with permission

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Short story review: Jamel Brinkley's 'A Family'

The best short stories are as rich and complex as any novel. They can contain a universe or a microcosm, a lifetime or an hour. They can be populated with complex characters rich in mixed motives and emotions. Such is the case with Jamel Brinkley's "A Family".

Curtis is back from prison, after hitting a woman with his car one night while drunk. He is watching Lena, who was the woman of his former best friend, Marvin, and her son. However, after 12 years in prison, Curtis is reconnecting to his city as much, if not more, than people. And the past is right with him every moment of his present:

After a while, he got up and strolled along the promenade in the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The only other person he saw was a man with an unsettling face. The man's bouts of muttering formed clouds that flowered like visible emblems of his secret language before being pulled apart by the wind. ... Curtis huffed the name of his long departed friend -- my dead friend, he told himself soberly -- so he could see the wind take it, imagining that it too, along with the words steaming from the man's mouth, drifted off and seeded the East River. ... As the man prattled on, now some distance away, Curtis again said Marvin's name, which rose from his lips and hovered there for a moment, clean as an unstrung bone. 

He might also have said the name of the dead woman, the one he had struck with his car, the one who intruded on his dreams. But his life was for other things now, he'd been desperately telling himself, beautiful and wondrous things.

That I wondered at first if the son, Andre, was Curtis's son or Marvin's, and that Brinkley soon answered that question, shows the quiet way in which the reader learns the full picture. Brinkley is not the sort of author to hit the reader with info dumps. I liked filling in the spaces as a reader, especially after realizing Brinkley was not going to leave me in doubt in the long run.

Andre is Marvin's son. Marvin died as well, while he and Curtis were estranged. The reason for the estrangement, who was the one who started it and who resisted reconciling can be seen as major reasons why Curtis is watching Lena and Andre. It also plays into what happens after Lena brings Curtis into Andre's orbit.

What is perhaps inevitable happens, but what happens after that is not. To say more would be a spoiler, but the title is very important. The way Curtis and Lena tell each other the truth, and what they keep from each other, is shown in precise detail. The reader is in no doubt what is taking place, and what the repercussions would be if things were different.

"I'm not somebody you know," Curtis said. "I never was." ...
"You don't know me either," she said, and began to dress.

Curtis has been living with his mother. Life has not treated her well but it has not defeated her. Still, the ways in which it has tried to do that are shown masterfully, and those ways affect how she treats her son and their relationship. It's as much a part of this story about "A Family" as the Curtis-Lena-Andre portions. It's one of the reasons why this story is as rich and complex as a novel. It is a complete world.

But he liked the feeling of being near his mother now -- he liked her when she was asleep -- so he sat with a tall glass of water and forced his gaze onto the television screen.

Later, this scene comes to mind when Curtis and Andre are talking:

"What makes mothers the way they are?" Andre asked one day. ...
"They lose themselves and get all kinds of ridiculous," Curtis said. "Ain't no mystery to it."

The richness of these characters, what happens to them and what they do in this story made this work a wonderful introduction to Brinkley's writing. And it's not just the characters. Brinkley's descriptions put me where his characters are, to see and smell and hear and touch what they do, with no purple prose. Now that's a gift.

I discovered this story in the 2018 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited this year by Roxane Gay. Finding a story like this is one of the reasons why I buy this collection every year. And because of this introduction to Brinkley's work, I've got the short story collection in which "A Family" appears, A Lucky Man, on my wish list. It's a worthy finalist for the National Book Award (the winner will be announced on Wednesday).

Brinkley's work centers on themes of family, black men navigating their way through life and mass incarceration, and the setting of New York City. The thoughtfulness he put into the title alone shows the depth of care in Brinkley's writing. I look forward to reading what he writes, and hope it is plentiful. It is certainly abundant.

©2018 All Rights Reserved Review and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Review: Melmoth

By Sarah Perry
Gothic fiction
October 2018
Custom House/William Morrow
ISBN: 9780062856395

The feeling you are not alone, a glimpse of a dark-robed figure just out of the corner of your eye, feelings of sorrow, loneliness and guilt -- Sarah Perry takes these elements and the fable of Melmoth the Wanderer to create a remarkably harrowing tale. And, just as her prior novel, The Essex Serpent, was about more than the possible sighting of a sea monster, so this novel is more than a ghost story.

Helen Franklin is a quiet, drab woman who has purposefully tried to not draw attention to herself or experience a moment of joy. A colleague, once calm himself, is distraught as he is drawn into a study of a creature just out of sight. Melmoth is not a name Helen has ever heard before, but it is one that will continue to haunt her once her colleague goes missing after giving her some of the historical documents he has been reading.

According to Perry's version of the legend, Melmoth was one of the women who witnessed empty tomb of Jesus but denied seeing him risen. So she is condemned to roam the earth alone, always watching, and seeking a salvation that doesn't exist in an increasingly wicked world.

The stories of people who claim to have been lured into Melmoth's orbit, interspersed with Helen's journey, are harrowing in that creepy, middle-of-the-night sense. Those who finally see Melmoth, after believing there is an unknown destiny to their journey, and who turn down the chance to spend eternity with her spend the rest of their lives trying to find her again. It's a curse that slowly begins to overtake Helen as well. Is there something following her? Or is that just a shadow?

Perry displays a grand ability to conjure up the atmosphere of possibly being followed. Early on, Helen gets ready for sleep in her spare, sparse little room:

Is she uneasy now? A little -- a little: the flesh on her forearms grows chill, the hairs there lift, there is a slight dropping sensation in the cavity of her chest, as if her heart has paused before a hasty beat. It is as if she feels a pair of eyes fixed on her, unblinking, calculating; she turns, and there is only the dressing gown on the hook, the satchel on the bed. Karel's disease is infectious, it seems: she recalls, with a quickening of the heart, herself as a child, as a teenager, certain that she was in some way marked out -- feeling, as the young so often do, that she could not possibly be as ordinary as she seemed. (There is something else, also, swiftly suppressed: the memory of a cold gaze passing at the nape of her neck, when she did what she ought not to have done.)

The documents in that satchel convey the stories of a wide range of characters. Some are innocent, some are evil, some are so lost they do not know the difference. The story of Josef Hoffman, who grew up with a father dismayed his son was denied his Austro-Hungarian empire birthright because of war, examines evil and self-worth in a way that shows how eternal these moral judgment calls remain. Josef's story is a complete one unto itself, and its reverberations echo not only across this novel, but across history and current events.

Perry also adds the layer of free will to the complexity of the novel when Helen and her friend Thea, who is the companion of her colleague who disappeared, realize how the people they are reading about react to the idea of Melmoth affects the rest of their lives. Remaining lonely or giving in to the temptation of thinking a creature has been looking out for you without you realizing it your entire life is the either/or choice Perry posits time and again for these characters.

Just as the story reaches a Grand Guginol climax of decadence and decay, Helen faces her deepest fears and feelings of guilt in facing down what others may have called a demon. And an unexpected episode of reaching out to others in a full-hearted expression of free will provides a strong counterpoint to the despair that other characters have felt or fought off.

Melmoth is a rich, deep novel tailor-made for reading while the trailing remnants of a harvest moon drift past a window.

©2018 All Rights Reserved Review and reprinted with permission