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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Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood

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4.0 Stars

I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed Trevor Noah’s autobiography. As a reader, you get so much from this book. It serves as a history lesson and a first-hand account of growing up in apartheid South Africa. The title Born a Crime derives from actual laws that were in place during apartheid in South Africa. One of these laws stated that interracial children were, in fact, a crime because the whites were not allowed to fornicate with any non-whites and a mixed child was proof of such a crime, “In any society built on institutionalized racism, race mixing doesn’t merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race mixing proves that races can mix, and in a lot of cases want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.”

In his autobiography, Noah achieves the difficult task of combining serious, often sad memories with humor. I found his experiences to be funny and relatable. As a child of an immigrant, I was familiar with his retellings of poverty and the eating of “dog bones” and such. His recounting of being disciplined by his mother made me chuckle because it was similar to the way my sisters and I were raised. Another thing I liked about Noah’s narrative is the circularity aspect of it; he finishes where he starts, with the theme of laughing through the pain. As you reach the end of the book, you realize this wasn’t just an autobiography but a letter of love and admiration to his mother.

On a somewhat deviating note, there’s a part of the book that reminded me of something Ta-Nehisi Coates said in, Between the World and Me. He talks about how Black people discipline their children through whoopings because they rather beat their children into listening to them and potential safety than have them killed by the police or some outside force. Coates writes to his son, “Now at night, I held you and a great fear, wide as all our American generations, took me. Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra– ‘Either I can beat him or the police.’ I understood it all– the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is the philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket” (82). Although Coates is an African American and some of the dangers he and his son face are different than Noah’s dangers in South Africa, the sentiment of attempting to avoid the destruction of the Black body at any cost is the same. It is a theme that is prevalent in various Black literature. Noah’s mother says something similar to him in the book, “Everything I have ever done I’ve done from a place of love. If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”

I chose to pair this book with Cigar City‘s Jai Alai White Oak IPA. This IPA is a variant of standard Jai Alai. It’s a bit bitter but also has a subtle sweet caramel flavor. I thought it was a good pairing for Born a Crime because like the beer’s bitter notes, the book deals with a lot of sad shit but still has an underlying theme of love and positivity.

Quotes:

“I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done in life, any choice that I’ve made. But I’m consumed with regret for the things I didn’t do, the choices I didn’t make, the things I didn’t say. We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to. “What if…” “If only…” “I wonder what would have…” You will never, never know, and it will haunt you for the rest of your days.”

“If you’re Native American and you pray to the wolves, you’re a savage. If you’re African and you pray to your ancestors, you’re a primitive. But when white people pray to a guy who turns water into wine, well, that’s just common sense.”

“The name Hitler does not offend a black South African because Hitler is not the worst thing a black South African can imagine. Every country thinks their history is the most important, and that’s especially true in the West. But if black South Africans could go back in time and kill one person, Cecil Rhodes would come up before Hitler. If people in the Congo could go back in time and kill one person, Belgium’s King Leopold would come way before Hitler. If Native Americans could go back in time and kill one person, it would probably be Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson.”

“So many black families spend all of their time trying to fix the problems of the past. That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.”

Format: Hardcover.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fates Worse Than Death

20160831_1908183.5 Stars

The picture quality is terrible for this review, but fitting for the way I read the book.  Most of the book was consumed in a poorly lit bar.  I read until words became blurry, consuming most of the novel in that sitting.  Fates Worse Than Death is the third in a series of what Vonnegut called autobiographical collages, a collection of writings that were a blend of essays and personal anecdotes all done in that undeniable Vonnegut voice.

For me I’ll always prefer Vonnegut novels although there is something to be said about his short stories as well. With that said, this collection was highly enjoyable and quite thought-provoking. Vonnegut covers such a wide range of topics but the collection spends a lot of time around the topic of death.  The suicides of various family members and friends come across time and again, as does his own attempt.  His time in WWII, especially behind a prisoner at Dresden during the unfortunate bombing is another reoccurring throughout.  Although anyone familiar with Vonnegut shouldn’t be surprised about that.

It’s tough to summarize Kurt Vonnegut, the man had a mind and a voice that was familiar while at the same time like no one else you’ve ever read. That comes through loudly in Fates Worse Than Death as it does in all his works. A lot of what is contained in the book had been published elsewhere as he uses lengthy bits of pieces he’s had published in various papers and magazines along with speeches he’s given to address his points. At times, the essays run on too long because of it and honestly, in the middle, they blur together.  I think that unless you are looking to be a Vonnegut completest this is one that can be skipped. I gave it 3.5 stars but truthfully it gained a star because of how much I love Vonnegut and possibly because of the setting where I started the book as well.

I’m pairing this with Hop God from Nebraska Brewing Company and it pairs pretty perfectly with this Vonnegut collection since it is a collage of styles with a unique flavor.  Hop God is a Belgian IPA that was aged in a Chardonnay barrel.  A Belgian IPA in itself is an interesting look at the traditional IPA but factor in the aging process in the Chardonnay barrel and it is something completely different just like Vonnegut.  Even the bottle, a 22-ounce beer bottle is a blend of a beer and wine bottle.  On a slightly morbid note that I think Kurt Vonnegut would appreciate, he has one other big thing in common with the beer, both are discontinued.  

Favorite Quotes:

“It is tough to make unhappy people happier unless they need something easily prescribed, such as food or shelter.”

“You cannot be a good writer of serious fiction if you are not depressed.”

“Liberty is only now being born in the United States.  It wasn’t born in 1776.  Slavery was legal.  Even white women were powerless, essentially the property of their father or husband or closest male relative, or maybe a judge or lawyer.”

“Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now?  Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians.”

“We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard”

Format: Trade 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.

André Brink’s A Dry White Season

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2.5 Stars

While I enjoyed reading this book, I find myself highly judgmental of the protagonist. He is a white male living in South Africa who has never really understood the racial injustices faced by his black acquaintances until a series of events happens to a black man he knows. He has been content to enjoy his privilege and status as a white man in South Africa.

Now, to be fair, this book and the voice of the character in this book are directed to white people in South Africa who do nothing about the injustices that were going on. As a woman of color, I have had to accept the role of whites “leading the way.” I’ve had to accept how because of white feminists, we are able to have colored feminists. Somebody has to pave that road. Granted, it would’ve been great to be included from the beginning. This is a more complex issue that I won’t delve too deeply into with this review. I feel as though it is the same situation in this novel. I, personally, would prefer to hear the story from the black perspective. I would like the agency and the authority to be coming from the person who the racist injustice is acted upon, instead of that of the white savior. However, that is not the purpose of this novel. And that’s OK (I guess). It is still a very interesting read. It makes a statement for justice. It denounces the acts of violence and corruption that went on in South Africa; and it did it in a white voice for a white audience, to give them perspective and to hold them accountable.

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve with this novel was the “Affair.” The protagonist – a good, honest, church-going, exemplary white man – cheats on his wife at the end of the novel, but we knew that was coming. What really annoyed the shit out of me, was how the affair went down. The day before he fucked the new, younger chick, he fucked his old wife. And he was struck by how he was so shocked to see how old she had become. How after 30 years of marriage, her skin with wrinkled, her breasts were sagging, there with a mixture of revulsion and arousal…ugh… I’m sure his hairy balls weren’t dragging between his thighs. I was so glad that I already knew that this motherfucker dies at the end. (FYI, I’m the type of girl who still hates Robert Lowell for The Dolphin).

My judgmental critique on the protagonist aside, this novel does bring to light racial injustice. It highlights one of the most important relationships, that between a parent and their child. A child represents hope for the future. What happens in the black community when children are shot and killed and jailed? These are questions that in our modern, American society we are still facing. We have seen it in Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Milwaukee, and all over the United States. The questions and the struggle for racial equality and racial justice are real and relevant to not only our American society but a global society. The Impact in the black community in regards to over-policing and racial profiling and racial stereotypes are disregarded by the more privileged of our society. A Dry White Season does an excellent job of highlighting this and showing how it’s not just a problem of a few racists in power. What we fight against when we fight against racial injustice is something far greater. For the protagonist, he comes to this conclusion toward the end of the novel:

“today I realize that this is the worst of all: that I can no longer single out my enemy and give him a name. I can’t challenge him to a duel. What is set up against me is not a man, not even a group of people, but a thing, something, a vague amorphous something, an invisible ubiquitous power that inspects my mail and taps my telephone and indoctrinates my colleagues and incited the pupils against me and cuts up the tires of my car and paints signs on my door and fires shots into my home and sends me bombs in the mail, a power that follows me wherever I go, day and night, day and night, frustrating me, intimidating me, playing with me according to rules devised and whimsically changed by itself.”

We face almost the same enemy in American culture, except that instead of wiretapping phones and slashed tires; we have indoctrination through white pride, racial stereotyping, inadequate representation, redlining and an eschewing of history to favor the white male.

Memorable Quotes:

“My time and your time is passing…but the time of our children is still coming. And if they start killing our children, then what was it that we lived for?”

” ‘One always reads about this sort of thing,’ he said absently. ‘One hears so many things. But it remains apart of a totally different world really. One never expects it to happen to someone you actually know.’ ”

“But if you were given a choice, Colonel: wouldn’t you rather be a white child in this country than a black one?”

“You’re white. ” as if that summarized everything. “Hope comes easy to you”.

I’m pairing this book with Einstok‘s Icelandic Toasted Porter. This is one of my favorite beers. It has a nice toasted malt taste and a medium-bodied mouthfeel. It balances the caramel and coffee flavors well, making it a pleasant brew for almost any book.

Format: Paperback.

Joani Blank’s Femalia

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3.5 Stars

I came across Femalia by Joani Blank while reading CUNT by Musico. Feminists have been advocating this book for men and women for years to help shape people’s perspectives about their own bodies and the bodies of their partners. Femalia consists of 50 photographs of the female vulva. The purpose of this book is to show males and females that the vulva comes in many different variations and they are each perfectly formed. Sadly, some women are uncomfortable with their ladybits and worry that it doesn’t “look right.” But where do we get our expectations of what a vulva should look like? Porn? Male-dominated conversations and opinions? Women body-shaming each other? I’m sure there’s another book out there that discusses these points. However, Femalia‘s only goal lies in the photographs. There is no denying that each woman is unique and it is the hope of Blank that when men and women view these photographs they will be more comfortable with their own bodies and the bodies of their partners.

I decided to purchase this book solely on the recommendations I came across while reading feminist texts. Truthfully, the only vulva I’m intimately acquainted with is my own. There are also depictions in pornography, but we know some of those women get labiaplasty surgery to make their vulva more “acceptable.” Hearing all of this is disconcerting, especially when (as far as being a straight woman is concerned) I consider my own to be “normal” but it’s also all I know. Taking that into consideration, I decided to purchase this book and I have to agree with my fellow feminists and concur that all women should know the many different shapes and colors and variations of other women’s bodies. This way, when we hear people shaming or criticizing their own bodies or the bodies of others, we can present them with the facts. After all, if all female bodies have it, how can it be “unfeminine,” or “ugly,” or “not right looking.” We live in a society where a mom tweets a picture of sandwiches to compare her daughters “vaginas” to that of Taylor Swift. Someone never told that woman that vaginas (and by vaginas, I mean vulvas) don’t work that way. Hopefully, someone will inform her daughters. (Check out the tweet HERE and read the comments for a good laugh.)

If this review teaches you anything, it’s that the outside ladybits is the vulva; and the inside is the vagina. I never cared enough to make the distinction since “vagina” is our society’s default word for lady parts, but Blank’s book has made me change my mind, and I hope to change all of your minds! If we cannot correctly name and label our bodies, how do we protect and love ourselves, thus teaching our partners to do the same? Language holds power over us. It gives us agency and allows us to empower ourselves. Let’s not take for granted that empowered women empower women.

I’m pairing this book with Good JuJu by Left Hand Brewery because all vulvas are good juju. This beer has a crisp, fresh hint of ginger that is refreshing and light.

Format: Paperback.