Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

5.0 Stars

»»» Possible Spoilers Ahead «««

Processed with VSCO with c7 preset“We believe the one who has the power. He’s the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clear yet still imperfect picture”  (227).

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi weaves a multigenerational tale addressing the history, colonialism, and slavery of Ghana and America by following the stories of two half-sisters. One sister “marries” a white British slave trader because her tribe and family are in the business of selling their African brethren. The other sister is sold as a slave and ends up in America. Each chapter introduces us to a new descendent and a new struggle. Gyasi gives us a glimpse of each person’s life and their hardships. We meet Ness who tries to run away from her slaveowner and ends up captured; but secures freedom for her son, who in turn never knows his mother and grows up as a free man. Across the ocean, we are introduced to James, an Asante, who leaves the bloodstained wealth of his tribe to marry a poor girl whom he loves.

Gyasi’s narrative allows you to only have a portion of each person’s story. There is no end, no closure for some of these characters and that is one of the important lessons of her book. One of the great tragedies of slavery is how much history was lost. Descendants of slaves can only trace themselves back to a certain point – a point in which they were sold, traded, or an ancestor was killed. It is a haunting quality that aches in the minds of people of color today. Imagine being a child with brown skin having to listen, around Thanksgiving, as your white counterparts brag about being able to trace themselves back to the Mayflower or back to George Washington. There is a whole race of people in America who are excluded from that pride because their heritage leads them to slave ships, African slavers, and white slave traders. When white people boast about being able to trace their lineage back to the Mayflower, are they also sorry if they can trace their lineage back to the Confederacy?

This book makes you take a hard look at what being Black was and is like. Gyasi holds you captive in a slaves’ dungeon, sells you in the South, helps you run away from a cruel white master, urges you to leave your Asante lands and tribal wealth, makes you fight in the Civil War, gets you arrested by implementing the black codes, kills you at the hands of a white missionary, forms a union for Black workers, makes you a teacher of your colonizer’s language and religion, helps you escape the Jim Crow South, takes you to Harlem where you are forced to face colorism and the limitations of being too black and not black enough, through the doping and drug-addicted 80s, makes you live in Alabama, all the way to making you a college graduate and becoming your ancestor’s wildest dreams.

The narratives of these characters leaves you longing to learn more, but the point of the book is not to tell you each character’s life story. It is to build on the shared experiences of pain, regret, terror, ignorance, assimilation, pride and strength until what is forged is Black healing- American and African. The reconciliation of the history of colonialism and slavery, and what was lost by the atrocities of the slave trade births a healing that comes regardless of whether you can pinpoint where that pain started. It is a concept that eludes most people today unless you study Black history and Black writings. This is the great achievement of Gyasi’s book: it takes centuries of pain and history, and condenses it into 300 pages using stories that bring to life the subjugation, humiliation, pain, and terror of Black people based on the history of colonialism and slavery, without you having to be well-read and learned in Black history. If all you know about the Civil Rights Movement is that MLK had a dream, if you never cared to read Malcolm X, if you never asked yourself why Confederate statutes exist, if you simply never found it relevant to understand Black Lives Matter; then this is the book for you. It will open you up to centuries of pain and leave you with unfinished stories that have you longing to find out why? When? How come? How could this happen? And hopefully, that will lead you to other books on the history of race in America, which in turn will lead you to understand the current events around race and culture.

A few non-fiction recommendations:

•·• Letters from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King

•·• The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

•·• The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist

•·• The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

•·• Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram Kendi

•·• Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

•·• When Affirmative Action was White by Ira Katznelson

•·• Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Fiction recommendations:

•·• Beloved by Toni Morrison

•·• Half of the Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

•·• Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

•·• Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Quotes:

“If we go to the white man for school, if we just learned the way the white man wants us to learn. We will come back and build the country the white man wants us to build. One that continues to serve them. We will never be free” (223).

“Sonny would tell Marcus about how America used to lock up black men off the sidewalks for labor or how redlining kept banks from investing in black neighborhoods, preventing mortgages or business loans. So was it a wonder the prisons were still full of them? Was it a wonder that the ghetto was the ghetto? There were things that he used to talk about that Marcus never saw in his history books, but that later, when he got to college, he learned to be true. He learned that his father’s mind was a brilliant mind, but it was trapped underneath something” (285).

“…but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project. How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H‘s story without also talking about his Grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father‘s heroin addiction – the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin and Harlem in the 60’s,  wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the 80’s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d inevitably be writing, too, about the ‘war on drugs’. And if he started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about why friends from his hood we’re doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he gets so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table…And all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they would think they knew something about him, and it would be the same something that justified putting his Great-Grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was” (289).

“How could he explain that he wasn’t supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn’t in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American dream, but by mere chance. He had only heard tell of his great-grandpa H from Ma Willie, but those stories were enough to make him weep and to fill him with pride. Two-Shovel H they had called him. But what had they called his father or his father before him? What of the mothers? They have been products of their time, and walking in Birmingham now, Marcus was an accumulation of these times. That was the point” (296).

I’m pairing this book with Dogfish Head’s Romantic Chemistry IPA. I chose this beer because the fruity notes of mango and apricot, ginger and the hoppy finish worked well together. The blend of fruity and hoppy seemed like the perfect combination for this book, bitter but with an underlying sweetness.

Format: Hardcover.

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Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto

4.0 Stars

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Women & Power: A Manifesto is the book format of Mary Beard’s lecture on the subject. Beard explored the way in which women’s voices have been silenced, disregarded, and replaced ever since Ancient Rome. From Penelope waiting on Odysseus to Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel being harassed, Beard explores how women are attacked, repressed and disparaged while their male contemporaries are given a pass.

Take the book for what it’s worth, a brief exploration into the history of male dominance and male ridicule over a woman’s voice. It is short and seemingly incomplete due to that brevity, but it is well worth the read.

I decided to pair this essay with a Madeira. Madeira is a Portuguese, fortified wine so it’s stronger than most wine but decidedly sweet. I don’t usually like sweet wine, however, a small pour was perfect to get me through such a short book. The Sandeman Madeira is root beer colored, having a mixture of nutty aromas.

Quotes:

“The only other group in this country said to whine as much as women are unpopular premiership football managers on a losing streak. Do those words matter? Of course they do, because they underpin an idiom that asks to remove the authority, the force, even the humor from what women have to say. It is an idiom that effectively repositions woman back into the domestic sphere.”

“Women in power are seen as breaking down barriers, or alternatively as taking something to which they are not quite entitled.”

Format: Hardcover.

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

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4.0 Stars

There is so much to say about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with content. Whitehead doesn’t just talk about slavery in the basic way that we’ve heard the story told before. He describes all the atrocities that came along with it – medical experimentation on black bodies, the hiding of black bodies, the selling of black bodies and the neutering of black female bodies. He makes the reader wander through plantation-era America as a black woman so effectively that the pain and humiliation you feel as a reader will make you want to either put the book down or hurry up and get it over with. For me, it was painful. It was humiliating. I experienced second-hand rage and defeat at the feelings of powerlessness in the face of savage injustice. I don’t know if I should advise future readers to gird yourselves against these emotions or to open yourselves to the rage, humiliation, and despair that is certainly still echoing in our nation today.

Stylistically, Whitehead is simple and straightforward in his writing. The sufferings and situations are quite possibly real accounts that have been transcribed into a work of fiction. There is no need to elaborate on the suffering when the suffering was already so brutal. One factor that surprised me was that Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is an actual locomotive with an underground network of rails. Personally, I think this was a smart literary tactic to draw attention away from the workings of the real Tubman-style Railroad, and instead emphasized the experiences, emotions, and fears of the runaway, not just the system.

The last part of this review has less to do with the novel and more to do with the universality of the impact that slavery and colonization had around the world. I was raised in the West Indies and as I read more literature on American slavery I’m learning that so much of what I was brought up around is a product of white supremacist Christianity and racism leftover from generations gone by. For example, the term “pickney” is used in the West Indies to refer to a child or children. The word is derived from “pickaninnies” which we now know as a racist term for a black child. Now, the English Oxford dictionary says that the word “pickney” isn’t used to be offensive or as a racial slur. However, the more I read about slavery era customs and see how they have carried over to this century, the more I disagree. As a West Indian, I can say with confidence that they don’t know that the word is derived from a racist term. I didn’t until I was in my late twenties. I hadn’t heard the term “pickaninnies” until then either. West Indian and Caribbean education was ruled by the British for so long that we continue to tell our history through the lens our conquerors. As West Indians and Caribbean people are still just trying to survive economically, what time do they have to learn about the oppression and divide imparted to them by their British and Dutch conquerors? If they did, maybe they would change their language and not refer to their children as pickney and the racism that exists between them and Afro-Caribbeans would cease.

Processed with VSCO with a5 presetI’m pairing this novel with a cider because whenever the slaves in the novel were able to, they drank cider. This book was such an emotional trip, so feel free to get some moonshine instead. I chose an American made cider, Angry Orchard’s Cinnful Apple Cider. It is sweet with a slight heat that will warm you even as the flames of rage engulf you from the atrocities of slavery you will be reading. The juicy apple notes are complemented by cinnamon spice so that even if you aren’t a huge fan of ciders, this one is pretty tasty. Plus the double entendre of a “cinnful” cider paired with the sinful* practice of slavery was too much for me to ignore.

*Sinful is used here in a personal, moralistic sense, not a biblical sense. The Bible approves of slavery.

Quotes:

“Slavery is a sin when whites were put to the yoke, but not the African. All men are created equal, unless we decide you are not a man.”

“Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.”

“The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others.”

“Yet when his classmates put their blades to a colored cadaver, they did more for the cause of colored advancement than the most high-minded abolitionist. In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

“If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor–if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.”

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”

Format: E-book.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

3.0 Stars

I love Louise Erdrich and I enjoyed reading LaRose. I’m giving it three stars because there was something that seemed incomplete to me. In previous novels, sorrow and power are such strong forces in Erdrich’s storytelling. There are usually multiple points in her novels that wind me up and send me crashing through so many emotions and conflicts, leading me to dwell on a certain scene for weeks after I have finished the novel.
This novel seemed lacking in that aspect. If I had to speculate, I would assert that it’s because, Processed with VSCO with a5 presetdespite Erdrich selling this novel as a story of retribution, it reads more like a story of healing. It’s as though, these characters, whose predecessors were filled with magic and power, are slowly fading into “normal” Indians. They’re forgetting the language, forgetting how to use their power; but they’ve still got their stories. If I were to analyze this book in a hyper-critical sense, I would say that the story seems almost complacent and maybe that is where Erdrich, as a storyteller, was when she wrote this book. I’d argue that maybe this moment of healing and safety is just a prelude to greater things to come.

I’m pairing LaRose with a draft of Chimay Blue. The yeasty fragrance and roasted malt flavor set the mood for the reader as the story progresses. While I feel that the story of LaRose was borderline complacent, this beer certainly is not.

Quotes:

“She had been lying in her room – cooling off after another hot, hot shower. She had started to cry, alone. It was okay alone. But she still cut off the crying as quickly as she could, to toughen herself. She was a wolf, a wounded wolf. She’d sink her teeth in those boys’ throats.”

 

Format: Paperback.

Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits With Gun

3.0 Stars

Girl Waits With Gun is a historical fiction novel about one of the first female deputy sheriffs, Constance Kopp. The title of the book is taken from an actual headline in the early 1900s. Stewart’s prose is charming and steady. 

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I devoured this book easily enough. The Kopp sisters are fun, in a conservative 1920s kind of way. They are unmarried and living alone when they become the target of attack from a local businessman. The eldest Kopp sister, Constance, goes to extreme length (at the time) to protect her sisters and bring about justice. 

I would recommend this book as a great vacation read. It’s perfect for the plane or the boat. It’s a light, fun story that will have you engrossed cover to cover. 

I chose to pair this novel with a Hefeweizen since the Kopp sisters are part German. The Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier is a flawless beer with a smooth yeast taste that makes for perfect drinkability. 

Quotes:

“My sisters and I have no one but each other, and if anyone should take up a handgun in their defense, I will be the one to do it. “

“If I could give something to Fleurette-if I could give her one silent gift from a mother she didn’t know she had – it would be this: the realization that we have to be a part of the world in which we live. We don’t scurry away when we’re in trouble, or when someone else is. We don’t run and hide. “

Format: Paperback.

Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers

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4.0 Stars

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is a strange little collection on loss that will leave you with a few tears by the end. 

The narrative is dissected into fragments based on perspective. The dad, the boys and the crow all have a viewpoint to share. The story starts after the death of a wife and a mother. Her husband and two young boys are left to grieve. Helping them grieve is Crow. Crow is all parts protector, comforter, and trickster. He watches over the family and offers his incites and anecdotes to help them cope. 

I greatly enjoyed this book. Edmund Burke describes grief as a pain we cling to and make the focus of our lives. Porter expresses this through the father when he is told he should move on: “Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us lets no man slow or speed or fix.”

A particularly heartbreaking part of the narrative was how the boys talked about being deliberately mean to their dad so that they wouldn’t feel bad if they forgot their mom. One of my favorite lines in the novel comes from the boys’ perspective: 

“We used to think she would turn up one day and say it had all been a test. 

We used to think we would both die at the same age she had. 

We used to think she could see us through mirrors.”

The vivid expression of grief is intermingled with the absurd, yet for anyone who has experienced grief, you know this is how it is. Grief will stalk you throughout your day, and just when you think you can keep it together; you break down. A memory or a thought will suddenly connect and there is no subduing your reaction to it. Perhaps, the single greatest line to sum up all that grief encompasses is from the dad as he remembers all the memories he shared with his wife:

“Again. I beg everything again.”

Feelings of sadness are always best soothed with a glass of dry, red wine. I recommend Domaine Paul Autard Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Rhone, France. The 2012 vintage was given a 91 rating by Wine Spectator. This red blend consists of 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Counoise. It has a full mouth feel and deep flavor. At $39 for a 350ml bottle, it’s on the expensive side, but totally worth it.

Format: Paperback.

Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air

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5.0 Stars

When Breath Becomes Air is heartbreakingly beautiful. A young neurosurgeon with a love for literature is diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and in his attempt to understand morality and death, he teaches us how to live.

Kalanithi’s identity in this book is as both doctor and patient or as he puts it, as subject and then direct object. He gives readers an insight into his experiences and opinions as a doctor. Then, once diagnosed, he struggles with the idea of how to live. He says, “The future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.” Always eloquent, Kalanithi recounts his struggles and his decisions. A great example, and one that I believe bears witness to the depth of his character and his capacity to live, is when he and his wife discuss if they should have a child:

” ‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ She asked. ‘Don’t you think that goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?’

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.”

The hard choices that he had to face and the love and grief that are intermingled will bring you to tears many times throughout his book, but still, read on. Philosophical, raw, eloquent and powerful, this book’s premise is about facing death and about leaving something behind; yet what we really learn is how to live: ceaselessly striving.

Favorite quotes:

“When there’s no place for the scalpel, words are the surgeon’s only tool.”

“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life – and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another soul – was obvious in its sacredness.”

“I searched for a question to bring understanding. None was forthcoming. I could only imagine the overwhelming guilt, like a tidal wave, but had lifted him up and off that building.” – describing how he felt when he found out a friend and colleague had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the hospital.

“The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”

“What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy. I expected to feel only empty and heartbroken after Paul died. It never occurred to me that you could love someone the same way after he was gone, that I could continue to feel such love and gratitude alongside the terrible sorrow, the grief so heavy that in times I shiver and moan under the weight of it.” – Lucy, Paul’s wife

I’m pairing this book with Boulevard Brewing‘s Tell-Tale Tart, a slightly sour ale. I chose this brew because even though not everyone enjoys a sour ale, the tartness seemed to fit this sorrowful yet powerfully inspirational book. Add that the name of the brew is a play on words regarding literature, Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, and it seemed like the perfect pairing for Kalanithi since he was a lover of literature. He majored in English literature before turning to neurosurgery and always struggled with what to do first – medicine or writing. It’s clear that he was accomplished at both. As we see from this book, he was a brave and brilliant man. It was only time that was against him.

Format: Hardcover.