Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

EFD9FC14-C160-498F-8A7F-7B028658C6EDI live in Los Angeles, and this book about crime in South Los Angeles has been on my radar since it came out in 2015. I mean, it has all the things that I proclaim to like: true crime, race relations, specifically those dealing with Black folks; a journalistic style and approach, and a woman author. Plus, it talks about locations I’m familiar with and people that live 20 minutes (without traffic) away from me. This has just always felt like a must read for me.

If you aren’t familiar with Ghettoside, here is more about the book.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

I found Ghettoside to be a very well manicured book. It is clear from the moment the book starts where it will end, and it is clear exactly what points author Jill Leovy will hit. It has no twists and turns, no suspense, no real excitement in the storytelling. That is not what Leovy is doing here. The point of this book is to show how routine and mundane murder has become in South Los Angeles. The point is that day in and day out Black men are being killed, and the LAPD detectives are the only people of authority who care (her point of view not mine).

Leovy embeds with the Southside detective unit and spends much of her time with one detective, John Skaggs. He is ostensibly the hero of this book. He is the guy we are told to be impressed by, he is the best one, he solves the cases, he is dedicated to justice. While I enjoyed hearing about the detectives, the parts of this book I enjoyed most were about the victims, their families, and even those people involved in perpetrating the crimes. Detectives are cool, but we have so many stories focused on them. I wish Leovy would have spent more time engaging with the stories of those who live in Watts, those who lost loved ones, those who stories are often erased in from their own narratives.

Something that got in the way of my enjoyment of Ghettoside, is that Leovy clearly grew to respect and admire the work of the detectives in the units she was with. I think that biased her to the work of other police officers. The book felt incredibly pro-detective, and mostly anti-patrol cop. I’m not doubting the detectives do good work, and that cops make mistakes, its more that it felt like the detectives were the heroes only being foiled by lousy police work and out of control gang members. I found it hard to trust her praise or condemnations fully.

I am glad I finally read this book. I enjoyed the well researched subject matter, and the amount of effort Leovy put in to talk to so many different people involved in South Los Angeles murders. I also appreciated her willingness to discuss the anti-Black racism that has led to a world in which the murder of Black men goes mostly unseen, unreported, and unsolved. She really gave these murders the context that is so often overlooked in place of a “personal responsibility” narrative.

If you’re interested in the detective process and how crimes are solved, this would be a good book for you. I also would suggest this book to anyone living in a city with high rates of murder perpetrated against Black men, or anyone who thinks this topic sounds interesting.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (October 27, 2015)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Ghettoside on Amazon

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Devils Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea

2912C833-EC19-4E44-A72B-70B58A50E35BA friend gave me her copy of The Devil’s Highway, and told me I had to read it. This was back in February, and I just wasn’t into it. I couldn’t motivate myself to pick it up. However, in the last few weeks with all thats going on with family separation at the US border I felt compelled to finally pick up this book.

Here is a little about this book.

In May 2001, a group of men attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadliest region of the continent, the “Devil’s Highway.” Three years later, Luis Alberto Urrea wrote about what happened to them. The result was a national bestseller, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a “book of the year” in multiple newspapers, and a work proclaimed as a modern American classic.

This book is so well crafted. It is a heartbreaking story, however there is still strength in its telling.  Urrea uses beautiful yet uncomplicated prose to describe the story of the US-Mexico border and all those who are caught navigating it’s terrain.

The Devil’s Highway is the story of one group that is representative of a greater population. Those people who feel that life has gotten too hard where ever they are, that it is better to leave home and try to find something better. Even if that means going through hell.

I think it trivializes the magnitude of this book to say it is “timely”. It does speak to this current political moment, but it was written over 15 years ago, and it spoke to that moment as well. It speaks to any moment where one group of people is trying to keep out another group. It speaks to humanity. It speaks to human nature. That is what makes this book powerful. It is about how we treat one another, when the option is, to be kind or to be cruel.

Urrea makes a point to include the narratives not only of the men walking through the desert, but also that of the coyotes, and the border agents, and the US law enforcement. He includes consulate workers from Mexico, and families of those men who left home. He is inclusive in his work, and yet he is clear in his point of view. Its a challenging balancing act, that Urrea executes perfectly. It is what gives this book credence and authenticity.

This book is graphic, and there are moments where I wanted to turn away from the story, because it was overwhelming and bleak. This book is wonderful. It is powerful. It made me feel things. It allowed me space to think about immigration and compassion. It has allowed me more perspective as I think about what it means to be American, and who has to stay out, so I can stay in.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu

AF357627-167C-4A24-A9EB-25093AF52EB2Before I say anything about this book, here is the premise.

For Francisco Cantú, the border is in the blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Haunted by the landscape of his youth, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners are posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors, where they learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive. Cantú tries not to think where the stories go from there.

Plagued by nightmares, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the whole story. Searing and unforgettable, The Line Becomes a River goes behind the headlines, making urgent and personal the violence our border wreaks on both sides of the line.

This book enraged me. I found it to be a self serving and romantic look at immigration into The United States. Cantu’s story is told through short glimpses into his life. He tells us little antidotes of how he was kind to an immigrant he captured on the border, of how he literally takes the shirt off his back to give one man, and how he asks people their names. He tells us so much of his humanity, and so much of the humanity of all the border agents around him. Even the bad ones come off as not that bad, they’re Cantu’s friends after all. The problem is there is no journalistic integrity. Cantu never sites anything about his experiences, there are no dates, no records, no direct quotes. So how are we to know if any of this book really even happened? And if it did, did it happen how he says?

Every once and a while Cantu will give us a little historical context into the border, its development, the changes in its policing, and the violence that has led so many to leave central America looking for a better life in the USA. In these more academic moments, Cantu does use quotes from other writers. Thankfully. Its the only time actual quotations are used.

The Line Becomes a River is a love letter to Cantu. He writes about his trauma and his growth and the things that haunt him and the things he’s scared of, and his dreams, so much about his dreams. Its a memoir, so of course it’ll be told through his lens. However this book takes it to the extreme. He always does the right thing. He is never in the wrong, he just happens to be in the wrong profession (a profession he chose to go into for perspective). He is always our hero. There is however no one to corroborate any of his stories. It might all be fiction, how are we to know?

There is another conversation at play here, and that comes from Cantu’s desire to be a border agent in the first place. He says its because, after studying the border in college, he wants to see the border in a new way. He wants to be on the front lines. I got the sense that this book was always in the back of his mind. That when he took the job, he knew his experiences would become something more, a vehicle for him.

Cantu tells us, he is trying to humanize the immigrants he comes in contact with, but even that falls short. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the whole book felt like a ode to himself. His growth, his ability to see the humanity that others missed, his trauma, his struggling, his triumph. He is so centered in the book, its hard to believe he really can see anyone else.

When The Line Becomes a River received a lot a criticism after its release, Cantu took to twitter and said the following

“To be clear: during my years as a BP agent, I was complicit in perpetuating institutional violence and flawed, deadly policy. My book is about acknowledging that, it’s about thinking through the ways we normalize violence and dehumanize migrants as individuals and as a society.

I’m not here to defend BP. But I am here to listen and learn from the ways my writing may be construed to normalize, eroticize, or beautify border violence, and the ways my voice may amplified at the expense of those who suffer from it. Ultimately, I’m here to work against it.”

Even this clarification feels a little off. Cantu was not, as he states complicit, he was an active participant. Just like in the book, he misses the fact that he enables this activity and behavior. And it is worth noting, he does not ever truly condemn the border patrol or the US policies around immigration as violent, hostile, or hateful. He more notes that these things are true, but doesn’t do any work to say why it is that way. Just thats how it is, and isn’t it so sad that he had to live through this.

The last third of the book focuses on Cantu’s journey on the other side of the system. His undoucmented Mexican friend isn’t allowed back in the USA. Simply befriending an undocumented immigrant and helping out while he goes through court proceedings, does not wash away Cantu’s sins. Asking us to believe that it does is condescending.  It also does not mean that you’re humanizing other undocumented people. Cantu’s one experience is not neccessarily indicative of the greater picture, no matter how many pages he writes about it.

Cantu’s sense of entitlement to these stories is felt through out this book. Without any real research or journalistic integrity, we are told this story. We are asked to follow this man and trust his observations, because he is Mexican America, because he worked in border patrol, because he was given a book deal. I simply could not buy in. I don’t believe you should have to either. I would not suggest you read this book. If you’re looking for books about immigration that are both good stories and give insight into the lives of migrants and/or the border patrol look into, The Devil’s HighwayThe Far Away Brothers, and Tell Me How It Ends.Each of these books uses well sited research and beautiful writing to tell stories from the border. In addition, Radio Lab has a fantastic (and also very graphic) three part podcast about the border that is wonderful. I think these are all a much better use of your time.

Did you read this book? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. Comment below.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer

IMG_6134For this week’s The Stacks Book Club episode, we discussed Franklin Foer’s book, How Soccer Explains the World. Our guest Aaron Dolores, founder of Black Arrow FC, and I look at this book and what is has to say about race and class.

Before I do my complete review of the book, take a look at what its all about.

A groundbreaking work—named one of the five most influential sports books of the decade by Sports Illustrated—How Soccer Explains the World is a unique and brilliantly illuminating look at soccer, the world’s most popular sport, as a lens through which to view the pressing issues of our age, from the clash of civilizations to the global economy.

The first thing of note, is that this book was written in 2006, a World Cup year, and Foer is clearly a lover of the sport. The book has the feel of someone trying to convince us, that we’re missing out and we should like soccer too. There is an earnestness, and a romanticization of all the issues that come up in the book.

While I found the idea of this book to be exciting and interesting, in actuality it lacked. In his desire to convince us to like soccer, Foer is uncomfortably uncritical. Granted, this book was written 12 years ago and issues that are front in center today, were barely discussed then. However, Foer goes out of his way to dismiss things as racialist, instead of calling them out for their blatant racism. For example, a group of reporters calling an African player a   “monkey”. This dismissal of real issues is also present when Foer justifies violent hooliganism as a charming relic of an old way of life, instead of noting the aggressive nationalism at play. I don’t know if its all as bad as I say, but as I read the book, I kept thinking who is benefiting from this? And who is at risk?

Where the book worked for me, was that the writing style was easy and straight forward. I didn’t always agree with what was being said, I understood the points being made. It is also worth noting, that most people who I have talked to who have read this book, love it. I think that can be attributed to the Foer’s style.

If you like soccer, you should read this book. It provides insight into the world’s most popular sport. If you’re not so into soccer, I think you can skip it, as it doesn’t really speak to the world on as grand of a scale as is presented in the title.

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (May 11, 2010)
  • 2/5 stars
  • Buy How Soccer Explains the World on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

 

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

C453A6E7-C6C0-4746-BDF9-2E68F8A3D081Before I share any of my thoughts, here is a little bit about Harriet A. Washington’s book.

Medical Apartheid is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. Starting with the earliest encounters between black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, it details the ways both slaves and freedmen were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some black populations. It reveals how blacks have historically been prey to grave-robbing as well as unauthorized autopsies and dissections. Moving into the twentieth century, it shows how the pseudoscience of eugenics and social Darwinism was used to justify experimental exploitation and shoddy medical treatment of blacks, and the view that they were biologically inferior, oversexed, and unfit for adult responsibilities. Shocking new details about the government’s notorious Tuskegee experiment are revealed, as are similar, less-well-known medical atrocities conducted by the government, the armed forces, prisons, and private institutions.

This book is a major accomplishment on Washington’s part. It took her years of schooling and preparation to even be able to learn the correct way to speak of these medical abuses. You can sense her passion on the issues that are brought forth, and her immense understanding of all the forces at play. This book is ambitious and vast, and for that I am eternally grateful to Washington’s patience.

Aside from exposing the many atrocities against Black bodies, one of the most important things this book does is give context to the common idea that Black people are scared of medicine and doctors. Iatrophobia is the fear of doctors and medical treatment, and after reading this book you will come to understand that the Black communities fears are well founded.

The detailed language and intricacies of this book are admirable, however they do not make for an easy read. I really struggled to get through this book. Not only because the subject matter is devastating and infuriating, but also because the book is dense. Medical Apartheid is closer to reading a text book than anything else. It is a detailed history, and Washington takes herself and her subjects seriously. While there is great care to make sure the reader understands the medical jargon, there are plenty of statistics and clinical terms through out this book. There is a lot to get tripped up on. I made it through this book, but I had to work hard. I had to earn it.

The reward is an extremely well written expose on medical practices that target Black Americans. We are led from Marion Sims’ experiments on his female slaves through to governmental chemical attacks on Black neighborhoods in the American South. There is much that has been hidden away about the racist treatment of Blacks in this country, this book scrapes the surfaces of these events.

If you’re not sure you’re ready for such a dense look at a deeply troubling topic, you might consider reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which deals with one example of medical malpractice and theft of Black patients. Another book about racism in America is Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. I think Stamped from the Beginning (you can see my full review here) makes a great companion read with Medical Apartheid, as it dives into racism in America in a way that I have not often seen in books about race.

I recommend this book to anyone who is passionate about understanding anti-Black racism in The United States, anyone who works in fields where they conduct experiments on humans, or anyone passionate about medicine. Give yourself time, and be patient. This book is worth it.

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (January 8, 2008)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Medical Apartheid on Amazon
  • Listen to Medical Apartheid on Audible (for your free 30-day trial and audiobook download click here)

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Ep 11. Talking Books and Soccer with Aaron Dolores from Black Arrow FC

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgThis week we’re joined by Aaron Dolores, founder of Black Arrow FC, a lifestyle brand that focuses on the intersection of soccer and Black culture. The World Cup starts tomorrow, so we’re talking about Soccer and how it relates to the Black experience. We also discuss story telling in the Black community, when reading doesn’t come so easily, and how challenges in your reading life can effect your relationship to books.

 

Check out everything we discuss right here in the show notes.

BOOKS

BDF1512D-132E-4D9D-8B35-9F1D7D7779E4EVERYTHING ELSE

 

 

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

Ten Non-Fiction Books for Fiction Lovers

AB2EBDFE-7E76-4563-941D-06EB3B3B0AA9As I have become more engaged with the book world, and I have been outed as a non-fiction lover, I have had lots of conversations with many of you on what are some good non-fiction books. So I put together my list of top 10 non-fiction books for people who don’t read non-fiction.

This isn’t a list of the best non-fiction I’ve ever read, but books that I think those of you who love a good novel will enjoy. Those of you looking for a way in. Most of these books are more narrative driven, and use rich language to develop characters and events. While there are a variety of types of non-fiction books on this list, they are all captivating.

This list is presented in alphabetical order, I simply can not play favorites with these books.

Between The World and Me Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic) is known for his work on dissecting the experience of Black Americans. Between The World and Me written to Coates’ son, is a powerful look at the history and practices that have created a culture in America, where Black people are not valued as full citizens. He looks at slavery, discrimination, mass incarceration, and the murder of Black citizens by the police. Coates asks us not only how did this happen? But also, where do we go from here?

 Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood This is the story of Trevor Noah’s upbringing as a mixed child in Apartheid South Africa. It is at once funny and poignant. You learn so much about his life, and gain a new appreciation for his success. I laughed at loud at parts and felt my self tearing up here and there.

Columbine In this deeply emotional reexamination of one of the most famous school shootings in American history. Author, David Cullen looks at the facts of the shooting and uses forensic experts, the killers’ own words, and all the evidence to figure out what really happened on April 20, 1999.

Jesus Land: A Memoir In this memoir by Julia Scheeres, we learn of her childhood with her adopted brother, David who is black, in racist rural Indiana. We see her life in the Mid-West and also her experience in a religious camp in the Dominican Republic. Scheeres’ story is heartrending and emotional. You can’t imagine the world she comes from and the stories she has to share.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption The story of a lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, and his journey as an activist and advocate on behalf of those who are sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. Not only is this book a memoir of Stevenson’s early days as a appeals lawyer, it is also a searing indictment of the United States criminal justice system.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir Over the course of five years, author Jesmyn Ward loses five young black men in her life. This book is her examination of why something like this could happen. It is a look at what it means to be young and black in America. Written with all her skill as a fiction writer, and all the truth of her lived experience. This is a really special book. We cover this book on The Stacks Podcast and you can listen to our episode here.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After In her memoir, Clemantine Wamariya (with co-author Elizabeth Weil) tells her unimaginable journey of life as a refugee from Rwanda in 1994. Clemantine and her sister Claire, travel through eight African countries, before they ultimately end up in America. While the book is about their journey, it is also about finding one’s voice and strength to carry on and to thrive. It is both devastating and empowering. The writing is beautiful.

Unbroken:A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption This is one of those stories that you wouldn’t believe if you saw it in a movie (and guess what, this book is now a movie).  Laura Hillenbrand writes this story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner turned WWII pilot, turned prisoner of war, turned survivor. Its almost more than you can handle, and then you remember what Zamperini went through, and you remember you’re just reading.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith When it comes to non-fiction, author John Krakauer is my favorite. I can highly recommend any of his books (Where Men Win Glory is a personal favorite). In Under the Banner of Heaven Krakauer dives deep into the Fundamentalist Mormon Church. He examines the religion, their traditions, believes, and brings up many questions about Mormonism. This book is not to be missed.

Zeitoun Dave Eggers tells the story of a Muslim man caught in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The book takes place at the intersection of natural disaster response and The War on Terror. The story is almost beyond believe, and the storytelling is illuminating.

63439241-927F-48C9-B6A5-67C450C9950AThis list is a great starting place if you think you’re not so much of a non-fiction person. And if you make your way through this and think maybe you want a little more, here are ten bonus books. While some of these may be less accessible (more niche topics, more clinical writing) for pure fiction lovers, the stories are inescapably engrossing and the writing is of course delicious.

I hope that these books help you add a little non-fiction to your world of reading. And if you already love non-fiction I hope you find something here that sparks your interests. Tell me what you think of my list, and add any of your favorite non-fiction books.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

 

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

IMG_6194 2Have you ever picked up a book thinking, this is “my kind of book”? Before you read it, before you even hear other people’s opinion of it, you know this is a book for you? Well, thats how I felt about New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. It is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, a group of novels written based on Shakespeare plays.  I knew it was going to be a hit with me, I love Shakespeare, so I even made it a pick for The Stacks Book Club. The only problem is, I ended up not liking the book at all.

Here is a little more about the book, before I dive into my thoughts.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds – Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant ‘girlfriend’ Mimi – Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

Even re-reading that blurb of the book, makes me excited about all its potential. However, Chevalier does not deliver. The racism and bigotry in this book is handled as if it is no big deal. Its a lazy and inaccurate depiction of how prejudice works in America and on the school yard. The teachers, refer to Osei as the “bla— new boy” as if they are caught in the urge to say black, but must be PC. Considering how overtly racist these characters are, these seems like a unrealistic, false modesty. Its contrived at best. The book would be better off being more direct, the title should be Black Boy. The teachers should call Osei “colored” (as they would have in the 1970’s) and the current political correctness should be done away with.

This is the root problem with this book, there is no punch. There is no edge. There is no hurt. Its all a little too clean, and kind. If you’re talking about racism, lets talk about it. Its too big of a deal to get polite and shy away. Shakespeare certainly didn’t. IMG_6171

There is another major flaw in the story telling. There is no where for Osei to fall. In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, those who end up as the tragic characters (Hamlet, MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet etc.) start off high and end in utter disrepair. The plays start off as near comedies, and then there is the fall. Othello, is leading ranks in the army, beloved by his troops, newly married, and off on another great battle. In New Boy, Osei is hated from the moment he walks on the school yard. Students notice him and shun him right away. He is nothing and therefore has nothing to lose. There are no stakes. The same is true of the Iago character, Ian. Ian is hated by all the kids, everyone is terrified of him, and he is known as a bully. Why would anyone ever listen to or trust him? In Othello, Iago is constantly called “honest Iago” and people love and trust him. This is what makes his betrayal and lies so devastating. We don’t see any of this in New Boy.

The book takes place over the course of a school day, this also diminishes any chance of building real emotions and consequences. How could any one of these children want to destroy one another after just a day? Chevalier really belittles her efforts by narrowing the time frame and the characters in this way.

This book minimizes the many characters and their motivations. It also neglects to embrace the complexity of racism and the feelings of entitlement that are clear in Shakespeare’s original. Chevalier has successfully stripped away much of what makes Othello great, and leaves us with the most simple and trivial version of what was once a complex and nuanced narrative.

I would not recommend this book to anyone, unless you’re planning to read through all of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection to compare the work of many contemporary artists, and to see how they each dive into Shakespeare’s source material. The good thing is that New Boy is very short, and an easy read. Its too bad the content isn’t any good. There are so many books on race, alienation, betrayal, and entitlement, that I can not suggest you spend time on this one. Honestly, you’re much better off reading the original (you can find my full review of that here).

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (February 13, 2018)
  • 1/5 stars
  • Buy New Boy on Amazon

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

B5DEB0BF-DB0D-48AD-9963-60B75E9C0F0BAs far as I can tell, An American Marriage has been the most hyped and talked about book in 2018. The day the book was released it was also announced that it would be part of Oprah’s Book Club which is about as much buzz as a new book can get. So before I read this book (which I of course ordered as soon as I saw it was on Oprah’s list) I knew I was in for something.

If you don’t know much about this book, here is a little synopsis.

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

Before I go further, I am trying to talk about An American Marriage without spoilers, but if you haven’t read the book, you might want to proceed with caution.

I enjoyed this book. I read it in about three sittings, the writing is smooth and easy to consume. While I wanted to know what came next, I had already figured out what would happen. There were no surprises (for me). I just wanted to hear Jones tell me her story. Jones is the MVP of this book. She creates a story that is nothing special, with characters that are polarizing and mostly unlikeable (I know some of you might disagree), that I still wanted to read and know where everyone ends up. The book is neither plot driven nor a full introspection on the characters, its somewhere in between. Its a good place to be.

As a reader the main question of this book, is which character do you want to come out on top. Whose side are you on? I had a hard time picking sides. While I felt for Roy, (how could you not?) I also felt for Celestial. Twelve years isn’t a life sentence, but its long enough to destroy a marriage, especially one thats only 18 months old. Its not so much looking for excuses or passing blame, its just that for me, none of it was simple or cut and dry. I could understand where they were coming from and wish it could’ve all played out differently. Or at least that they both had mediators to help them communicate with each other.

Let me also say this, loud and clear, Andre is the worst. What a cornball. I’ll take any team he is not on. Andre is a strong no for me. I couldn’t let this review proceed any further with out getting that all off my chest.

What I’ve discovered from discussing this book with friends and family, is that we all bring to this book whatever we feel about marriage. Thats what makes this book powerful, and worthy of praise, and continued conversation. We all look at Roy and Celestial and we see ourselves and our partners, our failed and successful relationships. The ones that got away, and what we attribute to a successful relationship.  The things we each value most in love; loyalty, forgiveness, communication, physical connection, are the things we base our arguments on for why we’re #TeamRoy or #TeamCelestial. That is the beauty of the book. No matter what you think of the characters and their choices, you see yourself in it, you see yourself navigating this most terrible of situations.

I recommend this book. I’m glad I read it, and met these characters and saw their world. I don’t know that it will stick with me for years to come. I enjoyed it in the moment. It touches on wrongful convictions in a important way, and in a way I’ve never seen in fiction before. Jones asks us to look at the cost of incarceration on those who are ultimately cleared for their crimes. For that alone, this book is worth reading, and lucky for us this book takes on even more. I can’t wait for the movie, it must be coming right?

And since I know you all want to know, and since we’re picking teams, I’m going on the record as #TeamTayari all the way.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; Oprah’s Book Club edition (February 6, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy An American Marriage on Amazon

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Othello by William Shakespeare

AF5A379C-606C-48A1-AF83-92754A187CF9I have to admit up front, I am a total Shakespeare nerd. I love his plays and I actually enjoy reading the verse. I also feel that these stories are plays, and should be heard and seen. However, for an upcoming episode of The Stacks, we are discussing New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, which is a retelling of Othello, so I thought I should brush up on the original text.

Here is an introduction to Othello if you’re not familiar with this great tragedy.

In Othello, Shakespeare creates powerful drama from a marriage between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona that begins with elopement and mutual devotion and ends with jealous rage and death. Shakespeare builds many differences into his hero and heroine, including race, age, and cultural background. Yet most readers and audiences believe the couple’s strong love would overcome these differences were it not for Iago, who sets out to destroy Othello. Iago’s false insinuations about Desdemona’s infidelity draw Othello into his schemes, and Desdemona is subjected to Othello’s horrifying verbal and physical assaults.

I find Othello to be one of Shakespeare’s most relatable and easy to read plays. The story is very straight forward, there are not a lot of characters or subplots, even the language is relatively simple (for a Shakespeare play). If you’re a little intimidated by reading Shakespeare, this is a great place to start.

What makes Shakespeare masterful is how he was able to weave together so many themes and ideas into a short play. In Othello we are looking at the themes of, fear of the outsider, entitlement, sexism, love, trust, truth, rage, racism, and jealousy, and thats just to name a few. Shakespeare employs his characters to engage in debate over these issues, weather it be a conversation about jealousy, or a monologue on faithfulness. He uses the words to speak directly to the audience and drive home his points. You’re being asked to think as you read (or watch).

One of the things that stuck out to me upon re-reading Othello, is just how current the story feels. Iago might as well be the “Trump Supporter” we have heard so much about in the last few years. The white man who feels he is owed some standing in the world, and can not handle life not being what he thinks he is entitled to. He is racist, misogynistic, and thinks if he didn’t earn it he can just take it. His reality doesn’t meet his expectations of where he thinks his life should be, so he acts out instead. He throws the whole tragedy in motion, because of his fragile ego.

The last two acts of this play are fantastic. They move at the perfect speed and deliver a gut-wrenching finale. Each scene tops the one before, until you’re left with a feeling of what just happened here, and a pile of dead bodies, a staple of a Shakespearean tragedy.

If you’ve never read this play, I think its worth a read. If you read it years ago, it might be time for a re-read. It is that good. Its short and powerful. It is current. I would love to hear from you, so add your comments below.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group (July 3, 2001)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy Othello on Amazon

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here