Heads of the Colored People: Stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

In my quest to be a “good and responsible” book reviewer I am reading my way through many of the long listed books for The National Book Award. I know I won’t read them all any time soon, but I’m making a major effort to read a chunk of them. I love book awards, even if I seldom agree. Heads of the Colored People is my third book from the fiction long list.

Here is more about this book

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide—while others are devastatingly poignant—a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.


There is so much to enjoy about this book. It is smart, and dark, and funny, and really well done. The stories feel well thought through and edited. I never lost interest, often times I wanted more. Her characters were specific and their desires clear. She breathed deep full breaths into each of her characters.

Heads of the Colored People excels at humanizing Black experiences. Not in the way that we see that Black people have feelings too, but in a way that allows Black people the privilege of being wholly individual. They get to care about stupid things like fluorescent lighting. They get to do odd things in the privacy of their own homes. They get too have control issues. They get to exhibit the mundane personality flaws that we so often see represented through Whiteness. Thompson-Spires gives Black characters the space and freedom to be unique, idiosyncratic, particular, neurotic, and vulnerable. All the things we often associate with Whiteness. Her characters are free to be alive and to have non life threatening issues. She makes space at the table for individuality in Blackness.  Heads of the Colored People is a reminder that Blackness is not a monolith, and it never has been. This type of representation matters.

What Thomspon-Spires is doing with Heads of the Colored People is almost more important than what she is saying; no one story stands out as more valuable than any other. Rather, they all work together to paint elaborate tableaus of modern Black life. There is now a book in the world where these stories of Black people being human exist. I don’t know that the specifics of the majority of these stories will sick with me. I think that is okay. What will stick with me is that this book happened and I read it and it was good.

If you like fiction short stories, dark humor, and want to examine people’s quirks this is your book. The writing is well crafted and intentional. It tackles themes of what it means to be Black in new ways. It hits all its marks and works on many levels. It is short and sweet, and I certainly look forward to what more Nafissa Thompson-Spire brings to the table.

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • PublisherAtria / 37 INK; 1st Edition edition (April 10, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Heads of the Colored People on Amazon

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Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

E4FA3654-5315-4685-8748-2A65FF1D6F41Every year I try to read at least one or two Pulitzer Prize winners, while I generally don’t enjoy the fiction books for a myriad of reasons, I have found some of my favorite nonfiction books have won or been short listed for the Pulitzer (Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson, sticks out a recent favorite). It was a no brainer to pick up Locking Up Our Own, it won the Pulitzer in 2018 for general nonfiction, and had a subject matter that excited me.

Here is a little more about this book

Former public defender James Forman, Jr. is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand the war on crime that began in the 1970s and why it was supported by many African American leaders in the nation’s urban centers.

Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office amid a surge in crime and drug addiction. Many prominent black officials, including Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry and federal prosecutor Eric Holder, feared that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness―and thus embraced tough-on-crime measures, including longer sentences and aggressive police tactics. In the face of skyrocketing murder rates and the proliferation of open-air drug markets, they believed they had no choice. But the policies they adopted would have devastating consequences for residents of poor black neighborhoods.


This is a smart and thoughtful book. It highlights the role Black politicians, officials, and community members have had on mass incarceration. I appreciated Forman’s in depth look at this small and specific group of people. There are many nuances and subtleties in the giant machine that is the prison industrial complex, and this book zeros in on one of those nooks, especially from the vantage point of a defense lawyer.

The book mostly focuses on Washington DC (a majority Black city), and places a lot of blame on Black leaders, which Forman explains in detail. However, found myself questioning how different these laws were in other cities with large Black populations and White elected officials. A lot of the blame is laid at the feet of the African Americans who run DC, but it isn’t clear if this is unique to DC. If these trends were seen nationwide, including cities with few Black leaders, the case made against the Black leaders in DC is significantly diminished. I didn’t feel that I understood if the movement toward stricter laws was truly being led by Black folks, or if it was more a national trend in cities with large Black populations. Said another way, sure, Eric Holder enacted harsh search and seizure initiatives in DC, but was this any different than stop and frisk in Giuliani’s New York? This makes a huge difference in the argument, and these questions were left unanswered.

The writing style of Locking Up Our Own was mostly straight forward, nothing particularly fancy or noteworthy. Forman does include the cases of his past clients to connect the laws in theory to the lives they affected in practice. This didn’t feel like a priority for the book, but rather an after thought, and therefore these stories fell flat. They functioned more like interludes than anything else.

I enjoyed learning about the role that Black people have played in the mass incarceration crisis, even if it wasn’t clear if they were following trends versus creating a road map for The United States. I appreciated a much more subtle look at something that has become a topic that engenders a lot of debate.

If you find nonfiction to be a little dry, this isn’t the nonfiction book for you, I might suggest Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, because it has a much more human element (thought it is more focused on death penalty law). I would suggest you read this book if you’re like nonfiction, even when it is not story based, and are well versed in mass incarceration. It is a great compliment to The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Alexander.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (February 6, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Locking Up Our Own on Amazon

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There There by Tommy Orange

17FDFE76-5F92-4255-8527-79ED037331A5Last week the National Book Award longlists came out, and There There made the cut. I already owned the book and had heard good things, but hadn’t actually taken the time prioritize it on my reading schedule. Then the list came out, and just like with Oscar nominees I felt like I just had to read the book so I could weigh in on all the conversations.

Here is more about this book

As we learn the reasons that each person is attending the Big Oakland Powwow—some generous, some fearful, some joyful, some violent—momentum builds toward a shocking yet inevitable conclusion that changes everything. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and will to perform in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and loss.


This book is a fantastic work of storytelling, which makes sense because so much of the book is centered on the power of sharing one’s story. This theme of storytelling is woven throughout the book beautifully. In There There we meet characters who tell us their stories, and each character is different and well written and important to the narrative. So often in books that weave many perspectives together, there are characters that are flushed out and imperative to the action, and then other people who exists more for function (i.e. to have a different point of view or progress the plot), not here. Orange does a fantastic job of giving each character autonomy and purpose. His characters are not pure. They are full people both good and bad, pathetic and proud, complex and relatable. Human.

There There centers on Native voices. Not just Native Americans, but modern Native Americans living in a major urban landscape. This is not a story of a reservation or the wild wild west. The setting, Oakland, California gives the book a strong place and identity but also allows for movement and isolation and independence for the characters. We get to see the connectedness of the community, and how the characters cross paths in ways that feel both organic and truthful. I’m from Oakland, and I loved the way Orange talks about the neighborhoods and landmarks, it made me appreciate where I’m from a little more.

I’ve never read a book about Natives in a major cosmopolitan city and that alone made the book fell fresh and exciting and special. I can’t speak much to the authenticity of Orange’s depictions, I can say that I appreciated what I learned about the Native experience in Oakland. The characters in There There are dynamic and delightful, deeply pained and wildly hopeful. You’ll have your favorites for your own reasons. You won’t be able to help yourself. Orange never settles into any one feeling or moment for too long, giving his humans room to evolve as the book progresses.

I really loved this book. The pacing, the plot, and the suspense, are all so well done. Orange is able to tap into so much humanity while still driving a plot forward. I often find books are either all about characters or all about plot, and this book melds the two beautifully. I think this is a wonderful (and quick) read. It is Orange’s debut, I am so looking forward to see what comes next from this creative talent.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (June 5, 2018)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy There There 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.

Henry VI Part 3 by William Shakespeare

99FDDE2B-D633-4E55-935F-DFA48A78B68FThis month, I read Henry VI Part 3  for my #ShakeTheStacks Challenge. The book is part three is a four part series that fictionalizes The War of the Roses in medieval England.  If you’ve been following along with my Shakespeare reading you know that I was not a huge fan of Henry VI Part 1 or Part 2however, Part 3 is good.

The first three acts of Henry VI Part 3 are fantastic. The acts are filled with fights over who is heir to the throne, who succeeds who, and how that can all be change. The scenes are smart and occupied with ruthless characters unafraid of hurling insults and doing much worse. Richard (soon to be Richard III) and Queen Margaret stand out as the leaders of their sides, and the most cutting with their words and deeds. As the play moves toward its conclusion there is more focus on preparation for The War of the Roses and less attention to interpersonal fighting. The first part of this play stands out more, for being high stakes and deeply emotional.

I read the majority of this play out loud to myself, and the use of verse drives the speed of this play. There where moments when I heard the words I was saying and got chills from their power. There are a few speeches in this play that truly stand out to me. One is from the elder Edward, Duke of York  (Act I.4), where he mourns the death of his son. There is devastation and curses and deviance and rage. It is a beautiful speech. Another is from Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Act III.2) where he speaks directly to the audience, telling us of his plans to become king. This soliloquy is self loathing mixed with raw ambition. It is masterful and you can’t look away. When done right, it becomes the turning point in the entire play, in the entire tetralogy.

I was less than impressed with the first two parts of this tetralogy, but Henry VI Part 3 did not disappoint, and makes me even more excited to read Richard III next month.

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; Subsequent edition (December 1, 2000)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Henry VI Part 3 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.

All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island by Liza Jessie Peterson

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I picked this book up as part of a buddy read on #bookstagram. A buddy read is basically a one off book club, you all read the book and then discuss it (through video chat). All Day was the third book I’ve read with this group, and was our first miss, but it led to some great conversations. Before I dive in here is a little more about All Day.

 

Told with equal parts raw honesty and unbridled compassion, ALL DAY recounts a year in Liza Jessie Peterson’s classroom at Island Academy, the high school for inmates detained at New York City’s Rikers Island. A poet and actress who had done occasional workshops at the correctional facility, Peterson was ill-prepared for a full-time stint teaching in the GED program for the incarcerated youths. For the first time faced with full days teaching the rambunctious, hyper, and fragile adolescent inmates, “Ms. P” comes to understand the essence of her predominantly Black and Latino students as she attempts not only to educate them, but to instill them with a sense of self-worth long stripped from their lives.

All Day was a total miss. A book about incarcerated juveniles at Rikers Island and their teacher sounds like it would be a gripping and compelling narrative, Peterson, however, does not deliver. The book is mostly focused on Peterson and her thoughts and struggles, though she never gets vulnerable enough for us to fully see her. She puts up the front of a tough woman, but we never get to see her softer side. She barely shares with us information about her students and their lives and how they got to Rikers (however the few moments she does are great). Peterson mistakes the readers interest in what it is like to be a teacher at a jail, for what its like to be her. I did not care about her as the star of this story, I wanted to know about the boys, their lives, their struggles, and the battles they fight daily to survive. I felt most connected to the book when the boys were centered.

The writing is not great. The style is very casual, using a lot of slang. Peterson is making a point to her reader, that she is in fact a Black woman. Something that no one questions. She has insecurities around her own control and status, and they come across through out the book, both expressly and through inference. The book goes on too long and Peterson loses focus, drifting from subject to subject without any real points to be made. She retells the same stories over and over and tries to turn this book into a sort of comedy, relaying jokes and quippy interchanges between her and her students. Most of this is not funny, and makes little sense in the context of the book.

Peterson herself traffics in prejudices throughout the book. While she doesn’t say it expressly, the way she talks about the boys who come from single parent homes, how she dismisses their learning disabilities, and the words she uses to describe them are problematic and damaging. There is very little empathy toward them and their situation. She perpetuates stereotypes about Black and Latino youths, and even allows her own intuitions to be bases for condemnation. All Day was published by a very conservative publisher (Center Street), and this anti-Black lean allowed the publisher to get credit for a Black narrative by a Black female author, and still push forward damaging ideas about Black and Brown youth to their audiences.

I would not recommend you read this book. There is much better content (books, films, and TV) that captures the experiences of life as an incarcerated youth, and that of the people who work with them. All Day is self serving and has a conservative lean that is troubling and damaging.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Center Street (April 18, 2017)
  • 1/5 stars
  • Buy All Day 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.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

E4E88BC8-78C7-4811-8809-5AA5AE55942EWhile I don’t believe in shaming people for not having read something, I am a little ashamed that Hunger is my first book by Roxane Gay. The good news is, I can finally say I’ve read a Roxane Gay book, and the even better news is, this won’t be my last.

If you’re not familiar with Hunger here is a brief rundown.

In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.

Roxane Gay is brave and strong and wildly impressive as a human and writer. This book exemplifies all of these things. I doubt I could ever write anything as honest and candid about myself or my body. After reading this book and reflecting on what it took to write this memoir, I am blown away by Gay’s willingness to get vulnerable.

Mostly the book revolves around Gay’s body. Gay is super morbidly obese, and much of the book focuses on how she got that way, and how she navigates the world, both figuratively and literally. She details her thoughts on TV shows like The Biggest Loser and walks us through her eating disorder, she even talks in detail about kinds of chairs and how they effect her body. The whole book serves as a reminder that we are all vastly different and our experiences and shape and color directly influence our world view.

While Gay and her body are very different from my own, we are both black women, and in that share some solidarity when it comes to the way we interact with the world. Gay is masterful in the way she uses her own story to bring the reader in and isolate them. She shares ideas that are at one moment highly relatable, and then she switches quickly to thoughts that are uniquely her own. This style of writing allows the reader to feel both close to and far away from the author, it is a thrilling, and surprisingly rare.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and Gay is our narrator. Her performance is solid, the words are really the star, not her intonation or expressiveness. I would not, however, recommend this as an audiobook. I found her stories and reflections to be so personal and traumatic that I wanted to turn her off. I wanted to turn away and disconnect, and with Gay’s own voice there recounting the pain it is impossible to get a break. The book might be more manageable, as a reader you have control over the pace and can take time to digest some of the more intense moments of the book.

This is a a great memoir. It deals with violence done to a body and could have some trigger warnings in that respect. If you like an honest and raw memoir, this is your book. It is not an enjoyable read so much as an important and moving one. There is so much pain and suffering, but also much empowerment and honesty.

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.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

When I heard about Dopesick by Beth Macy, I was so excited. This is the kind of book I just love, investigative journalism meets profiles of drug abusers meets cover up by big business, meets politics meets the healthcare system meets current events. This book has all the things I love reading about. If you’re not familiar with this book here is a quick blurb:

Beth Macy takes us into the epicenter of America’s twenty-plus year struggle with opioid addiction. From distressed small communities in Central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs; from disparate cities to once-idyllic farm towns; it’s a heartbreaking trajectory that illustrates how this national crisis has persisted for so long and become so firmly entrenched.

Beginning with a single dealer who lands in a small Virginia town and sets about turning high school football stars into heroin overdose statistics, Macy endeavors to answer a grieving mother’s question-why her only son died-and comes away with a harrowing story of greed and need. From the introduction of OxyContin in 1996, Macy parses how America embraced a medical culture where over treatment with painkillers became the norm. In some of the same distressed communities featured in her bestselling book Factory Man, the unemployed use painkillers both to numb the pain of joblessness and pay their bills, while privileged teens trade pills in cul-de-sacs, and even high school standouts fall prey to prostitution, jail, and death.

This book is telling the story of the heroin/opiate addiction that runs rampant in this country, and in this book specifically in Virginia. It is a compassionate look at the individual lives touched by these drugs and a also a searing indictment on the big pharma companies and government agencies that allowed it to get out of control. I think this book is important in the stories it tells, and only wish that other drug addicts and families got the same compassion and understanding the the victims of the opioid epidemic invariably seem to get.

Macy’s writing style is verbose to say the least, there are sentences that are filled with so many commas and dashes that I found myself having to reread them to figure out what she was talking about. As far as investigative journalism goes, this style is not what you tend to see. Macy inserts herself in the book, which is a trend I’ve noticed in two other works of investigative journalism published this year (Bad Blood by John Carreyrou and To The Bridge by Nancy Rommelmann). I don’t feel that Macy needed to be an outright voice in this book, nor do I understand her choice to be one. It didn’t take away from Dopesick, nor did it add anything.

I learned a lot about OxyContin, heroin, methadone, fentanyl, a slew of other opiate drugs and the effects they have on a human body while reading Dopesick. I found myself constantly looking up from the book and asking my husband (who is a doctor) if he knew this or that, if he’d ever prescribed OxyContin, if he’d dealt with babies born addicted to opiates. The book excited my love of learning. Like most addictions, the stigma around heroin/opiate use prevents a lot of information from getting out to the world, and Macy’s work exposes the dark secrets we don’t hear about. Like the mother who takes the doors of the hinges to prevent her son from doing drugs in the house. All the things that people who aren’t connected to this kind of addiction would never see.

Macy is thorough in her research and reporting on this drug crisis. Her politics and perspectives are very much present in the book, and she even shares some of her opinions point blank (around drug treatment policy, the current President and his administration). I wish she would have pushed back on some of the racism and racial double standards we find through out the book and on the topic of drug use in America, in general. There was certainly more room for questioning and dissecting the politics around a book like this. Why is the main drug dealer in this story Black? Why is he described as a predator?

As I read the book, I kept asking myself, if we know that drug addiction alters brains, and changes humans, how come we’re only willing to extend the benefit of understanding to White kids and their families? Where are the compassionate profiles that examine addiction in theBlack and Brown communities? The book isn’t to blame for this, but it does highlight the second chances that White heroin addicts are given by law enforcement, the courts, doctors, and the community at large. That is what frustrates me most about the opioid epidemic and the way it has been prioritized in American political and popular culture.

Overall I suggest this book, if you’re OK with some of the more graphic and emotional details that come with drug addiction and overdoses. The book is a pretty heavy read, and the subject is upsetting. There is a lot to learn from reading this book. Trigger warning for those who are dealing with opiate addiction in their own life in any capacity.

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1st Edition edition (August 7, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Dopesick 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.