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.

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.

Cassandra Clare’s The Bane Chronicles

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2.0 Stars

This was a courtesy rating because Magnus Bane is a great character and there were two short stories in this book that I enjoyed, the rest just sucked. I have a love/hate relationship with Cassandra Clare. Some of her books are actually good (personal favorite is The Infernal Devices series) and some are just garbage that she seems to be producing to squeeze every last penny out of the Mortal Instruments series and the Shadowhunter universe. That being said, one of my favorite characters that she has ever created is Magnus Bane. Magnus Bane is a biracial (Asian and white), bisexual warlock. He is incredibly stylish and his personality is amusing. A writer can do a lot with a character such as him, especially when this character is an immortal warlock. So how could this book be so bad?

The book is comprised of eleven short stories that take place throughout the eternal life of Magnus, so the time periods and countries change with each new tale. In some of the stories, you run into characters from other Cassandra Clare books which is cool for her fans. Some of the stories read like fan fiction, which probably has to do with Clare not being the only writer in this collection (featured authors: Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, and illustrator Cassandra Jean). Due to its fan fiction vibe, this book gives me a familiar feeling. It reminds me of when I go to a convention and the overwhelming awkwardness of my fellow nerds makes me wince in second-hand embarrassment.

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The collection of short stories features artwork by Cassandra Jean at the beginning of each story accompanied by a notable quote from the story itself. I thought it was a nice touch.

On a completely different note, there’s a line in the book that bothers me, “And it was nice to see a neighborhood where not everyone had white skin.” It is confusing to me that this sentence was put here because in all of Clare’s work there is a serious lack of minorities as main characters. Supporting characters, there are a few sprinkled in, which is great but never the main character. She also makes a point to describe these characters as being “stark white” or extremely pale all the time. Why pretend? Magnus Bane is the closest thing to a diverse main character and now that he gets his own book it’s utter shit.

I paired this collection with Forager Brewery‘s Untitled Art. because if Magnus Bane was a craft beer he would be this. It pours a dark burgundy/purple color which I thought was appropriate for Magnus. The bottle is also very pretty. It is a blackberry Berliner Weisse, a bit tart and incredibly enjoyable.

Quotes:

“Trust. It is like placing a blade in someone’s hand and setting the very point to your heart.”

“Love did not overcome everything. Love did not always endure. All you had could be taken away, love could be the last thing you had, and then love could be taken too.”

“One can give up many things for love, but should not give up oneself.”

Format: Hardcover.

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.