The Sellout by Paul Beatty
As an avid reader of literary fiction, I make it a habit to read the Man Booker Prize winning novel each year. I’m always curious to see what the committee selects, as well as their rationale for the prize. For two years in a row, a black male author has won the prize—last year’s winner, Marlon James, wrote a hefty tome about Jamaica, A Brief History of Seven Killings. This year’s winner, American Paul Beatty, wrote a much shorter book that took me almost the same amount of time to read. [On a separate note: it really does feel like cheating to have the United States eligible for the Man Booker Prize, at least to me. We already have the National Book Award, plus a myriad of other prizes that non-American authors are *not* eligible for, so what gives? It’s not Beatty’s fault at all, but it bothers me]
The Sellout is about an unnamed narrator who lives in Dickens, California. His father is a psychologist who conducts a series of unorthodox experiments on our narrator and records the results. This continues until his father is killed by the police and our narrator discovers that Dickens has been wiped off the map. In order to put Dickens back on the map, he decides to resegregate it—he institutes separate schools and facilities, as well as painting boundaries for white, black, and Latinx citizens. At the same time, he tries to win back his ex-girlfriend and maintains the dignity of a former black child star by enslaving him (at the star’s request), which culminates in a case that threatens to reopen history.
This book is supposed to be satire, I think. There are some clever moments of alternate history that show some what-if scenarios, but there are many more points of confusing exposition or plot that left me scratching my head. I think this book is supposed to be appreciated more than enjoyed, but that never makes a book easier or more pleasurable to read, does it? I think I was supposed to find it brilliant and clever, but I felt lost a LOT. I don’t know what could be different about it, I just know that this took me a week to read, and it was hard to step into a reading groove when I did get a chance to pick it up.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
As you all know, I’ve been trying to expand my diverse books knowledge, and The Chancellor recommended a few that he thought would be great companion pieces to one of my new YA favorites, All American Boys. I’ve already read and reviewed Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, and today, I finished Angie Thomas’s extraordinary debut, The Hate U Give.
The novel begins when our protagonist Starr witnesses her childhood best friend Khalil being shot by a police officer while she sits in the passenger seat, stunned, too afraid to move. Khalil was unarmed and pulled over for a “tail light.” If you are a minority in the United States or keep up with the news, you know this story by now. Starr is already caught between two worlds: her urban neighborhood, where she has lived her whole life, but is plagued by gang wars and lack of opportunity; and the preppy world of her predominantly white school, where she has a scholarship. Starr struggles to make sense of the shooting, her information of the crime, and how and with whom she can share it. She realizes that she must do right by Khalil, her family, and herself, but she wonders how, when she knows the way the justice system often stacks the deck.
This is a fantastic novel. Thomas creates a sympathetic and complex protagonist, in that this story also serves as a sort of coming-of-age for Starr, or at least a moment of enlightenment within the bildungsroman genre. The writing also builds the world of the Gardens effectively—you can sense Starr’s neighborhood and colliding worlds, and you become immersed in them. Finally, the emotional stakes are high. Thomas does not sugarcoat anything that happens, and she doesn’t give a sense of false hope. It’s crushing and uplifting at once. I highly recommend this book, and I’ll be on the lookout for Thomas’s next work.
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
I’m always on the lookout for diverse books, especially if they are culturally relevant. The Chancellor recommended me two books: Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down and Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give. I’m currently reading the latter, so you’ll get to read my review later this weekend (I hope), but I just finished the former, and it was an interesting, engaging, thought-provoking book.
Tariq Johnson leaves a convenience store buying groceries, when the owner chases after him, shouting, “Come back!” A white man stops him to intervene, young black men rise up, and then, with the shout of “He’s got a gun!” another white man comes up and fatally shoots Tariq. This is all we know. The rest of the story is told in pieces from multiple perspectives: the owner, Tariq’s best friend Tyrell, Jennica, the young woman who gives him CPR, Brick, the unofficial gang leader who was trying to initiate Tariq and Tyrell, Tariq’s sister Tina who has special needs, and the Rev. Alistair Sloane who has a senatorial campaign at stake. The story is at turns frustrating and lyrical, evasive and honest. It shows the danger of a single story, as well as the way we frame a narrative to suit a particular need.
This was a solid 4-star book for me. It is well-written and engaging, a fast book to dive into, and one that critiques the media treatment of crimes committed against black teenagers. I think Magoon could have trimmed out a few voices in her narrative, and there just isn’t the same emotional connection you get from All American Boys, but it’s a worthy read, nonetheless.
1984 by George Orwell
I feel like the last week or so has been spent chasing down book club selections (and I even missed the CBR Book Club, which was unfortunate, although the reviews have not exactly been glowing—so maybe it wasn’t a tragedy to have missed out?). This Sunday marks my regular book club meeting—A has chosen George Orwell’s 1984, which seemed terribly fitting, since the United States has a president who is being praised for not pooping on stage (that’s only the barest of exaggerations. I mean, the media is cooing over how he choked his broccoli down like a big boy, when he’s a GROWN ADULT) and is now actively engaging in acts of intellectual dishonesty, historical revisionism, and willful stupidity. I was eager to revisit the book for the first time in over 12 years, because it seemed terribly and sadly relevant.
Winston Smith is our protagonist, and he lives in a world populated by a faceless state and governed by the monolithic Big Brother. He engages in re-writing history to suit the particular narrative the state requires (are they at with Eurasia or Eastasia? That answer will constantly change throughout the book). In the middle is the confusing attention he receives from a young woman who is part of the Anti-Sex League and his growing restlessness with his lot in life. It all comes hurtling forward in a shocking and provocative conclusion.
Okay, people, real talk comes now. I read this book for the first in 2004 when I turned 20 years old (yes, I was born in 1984, so this book does have some sort of ideological meaning). It blew my mind, because, as my sister puts it, I was at the age of maximum impact to be affected by it. I really think she’s right. High school and early college is the best time you can read this book, because getting older and more well-read will make you question a lot of things. For example, Orwell’s narrative involves a fairly sex-negative and patriarchal subplot that turns a woman into a sexual object and degrades her somewhat for male enjoyment. Blech. Then, there’s the craft itself. Having read Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, and The Handmaid’s Tale after 1984, I would say that Orwell’s prose absolutely pales in comparison to the others, particularly Bradbury’s and Atwood’s. I’d also say the plot can be fairly didactic and has an individualistic streak that would make Ayn Rand glow with ogreish pride. In fact, there were many points that reminded me of Rand’s Anthem, and I do not mean this as a compliment. I’m glad I re-read this book, but I think some of the luster of my youth has worn off, and I’m a bit past the point of being as deeply moved as when I was a kid. Time for a re-read of some other dystopian novels, I think.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
My library book club is reading R.J. Palacio’s Wonder for March, which has been on my to-read list for several years now. I like reading young adult and middle-grade fiction, because I get a sense of what kids read and what they like. I’ll be interested to hear how my peers found Wonder, because I just finished it yesterday and am processing a whole bunch of thoughts.
Wonder is the story of August (or Auggie) Pullman, a ten-year-old boy with craniofacial anomalies, starting with a cleft palate and a whole other series of syndromes. Auggie has had several surgeries already, but his face is deformed and scary looking. He is about to enter mainstream school for the first time, and he is nervous about the journey. Told in the perspectives of several people, including his sister Via, her boyfriend Justin, his friends Jack and Savannah, and Via’s childhood friend Miranda, we get a sense of who Auggie is and what a wonder life can be.
Palacio handles Auggie’s disabilities with immense compassion, as she should. She further sends a strong message against bullying, which is important for kids and teens to read. I can really see why people loved this story and gave it rave reviews.
This is the part where I tell you to take my review with a grain of salt, because I just did not love this book (let the record show that I also don’t go gaga for John Green, Rainbow Rowell, or Hamilton). I get that Auggie is the protagonist, and therefore the focus of the book. But it felt at times as if Palacio had Mary Sued him, that he had no real faults and no real character growth except endurance and riding out a wave of bullying. The story also had a Very Special aspect to it, which seemed like Palacio just tried Too Hard to Make Fetch Happen. And at times, the interactions between ten-year-old kids just felt overwritten and overplotted. Finally, the ending was kind of annoying and unrealistic to me. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that it was, while cathartic and affirming, also unrealistic and artificial. There are some deeply genuine moments that made the story moving, but those often got pushed aside for an overall arc of Very Special Story. I tend to like something a bit more organic. Your own mileage may vary.
I’m always on the lookout for new talent and newly published books. My friend B had posted a picture of her reading Emily Fridlund’s debute novel History of Wolves, which I found intriguing. I decided to place a library hold and see what I thought of the book.
Linda is our story’s protagonist, and she is determined to tell us about her life, albeit in a messy and unorganized fashion. We find out that she was part of a cultish religion, which abandoned her family, who decided to stay in rural Minnesota. The majority of the action takes place while she is in middle school when her teacher is accused of possessing child pornography. One of her friends comes forward with assault allegations. At the same time, a family moves across the lake, and Linda is swept up into their unusual life before she realizes that not everything is as it seems. We get the story in pieces, told when Linda is much older and trying to reflect on the summer that changed her entire existence.
I’m going to be honest. I did not care for this book much at all. The plot was messy and incoherent at times. There was no reason for why so many flashbacks existed, and thus it didn’t feel purposeful or like it had any direction at all. It also just lacked the kind of finesse that you expect from a story this complicated. I think Emily Fridlund has real potential, but it’s not recognized in this book. And that may not be a bad thing. You may like it more than me, but I felt like I had read this kind of book before. We’ll see how Fridlund’s next novel goes.
I Love Idi Amin by Bishop Festo Kivengere
When I was in grade school, my mom (who had homeschooled me up through the second semester of ninth grade) purchased a set of Christian fiction books called Trailblazers. Written by Dave and Neta Jackson, these books focused on Christian historical heroes and were written from the perspective of a fictional kid or teenager who was in some way in the path of this hero. One of the stories I most remember is Assassins in the Cathedral, which focused on the life of Ugandan Anglican bishop Festo Kivengere. The protagonist of the story had lost his brother in a church assassination and hated Bishop Kivengere for his message of peaceful nonviolence towards dictator Idi Amin. His hatred grew to a fever pitch after the publication of Kivengere’s book I Love Idi Amin, which piqued my curiosity. The book ends on a note of resolution, but I always wondered about Kivengere’s book. I picked it up from Interlibrary Loan through one of my colleges, and read it in an afternoon.
Kivengere focuses on the narrative of Christianity in Uganda during Idi Amin’s regime, the sacrifices that were made, and the miracles that occurred. His own life was threatened as he had to flee the country in order to keep his work for the church alive. He chronicled the many triumphs that God implemented in Uganda even during dark times of persecution.
I picked up this book wanting a philosophical discussion of how to love your enemy (something I’m currently struggling with, I wonder why) and how to be a Christian in the face of oppression and terror. This book is much more narrative driven and doesn’t really tackle those questions until the last page or two. I’m not disappointed to read Christian heroes discuss their struggles, but I wish Kivengere had been a bit more philosophical and abstract in reflecting on his experiences.