Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner (Memoir)

Incredibly well-written memoir by prize winning journalist Dawn Turner. I listened to this on audio books, and the reader — Janina Edwards — was fabulous. I’m not an audio book fan, but it’s hard for me to imagine this book without her voice.

The memoir covers Turner’s life from her earliest memories (late sixties) to the present. Her experiences shaped her lifelong passion for exploring and understanding how people manage to change their lives — a theme that pervaded her journalistic career. The titular “three girls” refers to herself, her younger sister Kim, and her childhood best friend, Deborah, who lived in the apartment literally right above her. While Turner stuck to the straight and narrow path of good behavior, education, and vocation, Kim and Deborah made a different set of life decisions leading one to an unnecessary early grave and the other to a long prison sentence. But while this could be seen as a morality tale, that is not Turner’s intention or focus. She is far more focused on who gets second chances and who is able to make the most of them. Some of the stories she tells in her columns are both inspiring and helped me have a better understanding of the different individuals who find themselves (due to whatever set of circumstances and bad choices) at rock bottom and what some manage to do about it. I was a little disappointed that the book did not address why some people make bad choices when presented with the same opportunities as those who don’t — all three of our Bronzeville girls grew up with strong and supportive families and educational opportunities — what happened? However, Turner’s focus is on the other side — once someone is far off their chosen path, what can they do to redeem themselves and get back onto a more positive track — regardless of how impossible it may seem.

This book was full of exquisitely written and deeply meaningful quotes — I wish I had been able to capture and share them, but unfortunately that is one downside of listening to, rather than, reading a good book! Not easy to highlight!

Memphis by Tara Stringfellow (Fiction / Multi-cultural interest)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

The story covers 70 years in the lives of a family in Memphis ranging from 1937 through 2001. Sisters August and Miriam, their mother Hazel, and Miriam’s daughter Joan are the voices that tell the story with date labeled chapters that jump back and forth across time (which can be confusing — I had to take careful notes). The book is written in a highly emotional style, guaranteed to make you angry at the injustice and hardships these women must suffer through.

I believe this is intended to be a positive novel about the tight knit Black community of women who pull together and give each other strength when needed — and I loved these women characters and would have loved to be a part of the community. But the other side of the coin is that the book is strongly anti-man and pretty anti-white as well. The big sign in August’s hair shop is “NO CHILDREN, NO MEN, & WE EAT WHITE FOLK HERE.” It’s not really a joke.

Through the generations, everything bad possible happens to this family including a child rape, multiple instances of domestic abuse, and lynching. It reinforces negative stereotypes of current Black culture — single mothers and abusive, violent men. The one decent man in the history was lynched, with the strong implication being that he was lynched by his white colleagues (he had made homicide detective — the first Black man in the area to do so). The author took every opportunity to blame whites or men for everything that went wrong, without considering any errors of judgement made by the women. And while she gave each of the violent black men a backstory that might explain their violence, she gave them no path to rehabilitation and completely exonerated the women who may have contributed to their “badness,” whether intentionally or not.

In summary, the story was gripping but I found the writing overly dramatic, manipulative, and full of good messages (be strong, be independent) based on the wrong (IMHO) reasoning. I’m all in favor of women being independent because everyone should be able to take care of themselves — this is not a safe or uniformly just world — but they shouldn’t need to be independent because men are uniformly violent, bad, and untrustworthy.

I know a lot of people love these emotionally heavy-handed books. For me, however, it is too easy to absorb strong, negative, messages without a more nuanced treatment. No, there is no amount of nuance that makes lynching or domestic violence OK, but there are a lot of good men (black and white) out there and lots of good white people, too. Do we really need to fan the flames of racism and sexism (in reverse) by ascribing horrible behavior to every person who appears to be male and / or white? I found the book disturbing — not just for the content (which was disturbing enough!) but for the incendiary way that Black men and all white people (except one nice Jewish store owner!) were painted as irreedemably and unquestionably bad.

Thank you to Random House Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on March 1st, 2022.

Bitter by Akwaeke Emezi (YA / speculative fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 5/5

Bitter is a quiet, wary, girl who has found a haven in Eucalyptus — a school for artists that is safe from the violence that pervades the town of Lucille. After a harrowing childhood spent in horrific foster homes, Bitter needs this feeling of safety to be able to function. Many of her friends are part of Assata, a group that is willing to use violent means to finally bring justice to Lucille. She is afraid to join, but also feels guilty that she cannot. After one of her close friends is intentionally maimed during a protest, her anger rises and she intentionally uses her blood to call forth a creature she has painted with the intent of Vengeance.

This is a prequel to her last book, Pet, telling the story of Bitter’s first discovery that she can call forth “Angels” from her paintings to help combat the “Monsters” that live in the town of Lucille. In the last book, it is Bitter’s daughter, Jam, who bring the picture to life. You can see my review of that book here: https://bibliobloggityboo.com/2019/08/19/pet-by-akwaeke-emezi-ya/.

Emezi’s writing is always hypnotic — her characters, surroundings, and passion are completely gripping. This book is more political than her last book, and I have a small problem with some of it. She includes the requisite LGBQT characters and does a good job of blending everyone together into a “no big deal” community; she also has a character in a wheelchair who turns down an offer of healing because he already knows he is “whole.” However, I’m not thrilled at her overly simplistic portrayal of all “rich” people being the “monsters,” and Assata feels like a thinly disguised Antifa to me (I am not a fan). Given that the book is geared towards young people who don’t yet have a lot of experience in the world, I would prefer a more balanced depiction of the world with a set of more specific injustices against which they are fighting.

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 15th, 2022.

Maud’s line by Margaret Verble (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

This is a beautifully written, character-driven story of Maud, a young woman coming of age in Eastern Oklahoma in 1926 on an allotment parceled out to the Cherokee when their land was confiscated for Oklahoma statehood. It is a hard life, filled with violence, dirt, and hardship but also with family and love. When she meets a white peddler whose cart is full of (among other things) books, she sees a chance to escape her lot.

I love the characters in this book — Maud, her sensitive brother Lovely, and her bundles of relatives — all working to survive in this hardscrabble land. Maud’s voice is clear, compelling, and foreign. This chronicle of life is eye-opening and feels utterly real. There are no ridiculous plot devices and no political agenda — just a richly depicted existence with all the nooks and crannies of both an internal life lived among external circumstances.

This was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2016 (The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen won). While I have not read the winner, I would have been very happy to see Maud’s Line win.

Some quotes:

Quotes:
“She liked books, learning, and clean things. She liked folks being nice to one another. But most of all, she wanted to live in a place where people died of natural causes when they were old and were dressed up in suits and laud down in wooden boxes.”

“Maud began to feel a growing hatred for who she was and where she lived. She was sick to death of dirt, sick of dead bodies gnawed by animals. Her only chance for escape had been that bright blue canvas rocking hr way. She cursed Booker out loud. “

“She felt comfortable with her body taking its pleasure and giving it back. And she discovered right there next to the porch that her pleasure was in her own control and not entirely linked to a man who had up and left her with no warning.”

“Yes, Cherokee women have high standards. We only marry into whites to keep y’all from killing us off.”

“Maud thought those kinds of questions were worth asking, but she never came to the same conclusions her friends did. She thought God, if there was one, didn’t give a shiny penny for what they were doing or what happened to them. And he seemed particularly unpartial toward Indians.”

Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3.5 / 5 Characters: 4/5

Lit Hub lists this as one of the “22 novels you need to read this fall,” so I moved it to the top of my review list.

Willa is the bi-racial (Asian dad, white mom) daughter of parents who divorced when she was young and moved on to build new families. Somewhat adrift in New York City after finishing college, she falls into a live-in nanny position with a wealthy family and a precocious child and wonders what life would be like to be part of such a (in her eyes) perfect family. The story alternates between the present day and various experiences in Willa’s past.

What I liked about this book was the content-rich and easily flowing writing style and the high degree of reflectivity on the part of the main character. While at times it appeared to move slowly, that is a good reflection of how normal life proceeds, and I enjoyed the access to Willa’s mind as she slowly came to understand what was important to her and how she could make changes in her own behavior to make her life be what she wanted. I also liked the way the story focused on Willa as an individual and not as a representative of a particular group. It traces the impact of her various experiences (some teasing at school for being Asian, lack of attention in her broken home situation, etc.) without calling attention to an overly dramatic agenda. It’s a personal story of an individual.

Thank you to Tin House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 2nd, 2021.

Noor by Nnedi Okorafor (SF / Multi-cultural)

AO Oju has remade herself, literally, using cybernetics and AI augmentation, but in this Africanfuturism blend of technology with deep cultural roots, she is kept an outsider by people whose constant refrain is “what kind of woman are you?” On the run from a particularly disturbing engagement in the marketplace, she meets Fulani hersdman Dangote Nuhu Adamu (DNA), and together they set off into the desert, getting closer and loser to the abomination known as the Red Eye.

Written in Okorafor’s trademark mythical language, rich with pulsing sentiment, the story is an intriguing combination of the cultural and the technical. There is plenty of injustice and unfairness and big, bad corporations at the root of it all, balanced with wonderfully inventive technical solutions. I didn’t buy the science really, but as Arthur C Clarke famously said, “any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” so …

An engaging read. Works for the YA and Adult SF market.

Thank you to DAW and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 9th, 2021.

Honor by Thrity Umrigar (Literary fiction / Multicultural)

Plot: 4/5 Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

Smita Agarwal is an Indian-American gender issues journalist who works hard to maintain her objectivity. Despite being Indian by birth, India is the one country she refuses to cover due to a long ago personal trauma that she has never really confronted. When a close friend is hospitalized and begs her to cover an important Indian story for her, Smita has no choice but to comply. The story is a tough one: a woman (Meena) whose husband was set on fire in an honor killing by her brothers is now bringing the case back to trial despite knowing that the outcome will not really help her in any way.

While the emotionally ridden story of the honor killing and precipitating events fills the pages, the real story is about the impact on Smita and Mohan — a well-to-do Indian man who took a vacation in order to help as her driver and translator — neither of whom are prepared for the ugliness they find.

This was a hard book for me to read. It’s written in a dramatic style that left me feeling constantly angry, frustrated, and hopeless (I am an emotional sponge type reader so these things hit me hard). The characters of Smita and Mohan were well-drawn — it was easy to identify and resonate with them as their reactions were similar to what mine would have been. The characters of Meena, her brothers, her mother-in-law, and her husband were more two-dimensional as though the author was trying to make sense of how uneducated villagers conduct their lives. It’s so alien to me that I couldn’t really “get” it, but let’s face it — it would be difficult for me to get it given my own, very different, background.

Good storyline — I like the way the author showed many good and non-abusive men in contrast to these utterly oppressive village men. At the same time she did a great job of showing how Mohan lived with an upper-caste and male oriented privilege and not even be aware of the advantages this conferred upon him. Also some wonderful descriptions of scenery and culture.

Worth reading but for me it became a “daytime only” book because it really put me in a depressed state that was not conducive to sleep.

Thank you to Algonquin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 11th, 2021.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi-cultural)

A Minneapolis bookstore is haunted by its most annoying (and recently deceased) patron. It’s not just any bookstore — it’s Birchbark Books — the very real bookstore owned by none other but the author herself who makes cameo appearances in the story. Tookie — a large, Native American woman who took up reading with a passion while serving a long prison sentence — is our narrator. Tookie is wonderful — she keeps her “to read” pile next to her bed in two stacks: the Lazy Stack and the Hard Stack — my kind of woman. The haunting story takes place while Minneapolis suffers first from Covid and then from being ground zero for the aftermath of the George Floyd killing.

It’s a tender, multi-faceted story with characters that are so real, so nuanced, and so vibrant it made me cry to know that I would never actually be able to meet them. Absolutely beautiful writing as always — see the quote sampler at the end. Louise Erdrich has gone from “never read because too depressing” to “favorite author” in the last year or two. I loved LaRose, I really loved The Night Watchman, and now I have fallen in love with her latest — The Sentence. By the way, I loved her use of the word “sentence” with multiple meanings, both literary and punitive.

The story follows personal lives through these bigger events — their fears, perspectives (not all predictable), frustrations, and actions — the impact on relationships. The long buried hurts that emerge at inconvenient times. The scenes in the bookstore with vignettes on various customers — their needs, conversation, and frequent crankiness — are priceless. Lots of great book references and lists interspersed — I was happy to find new authors (and I read a lot — this doesn’t happen to me very often). As always, plenty of historical and current information on Native Americans including (as an example) the statistic that Native Americans are the most oversentenced people currently imprisoned). The bookstore employs a great number of “indigerati” — a term I believe Erdrich coined because I can’t find it anywhere else — I love it!

One warning — reading the first chapter I thought this was going to be a very different kind of book, and I wasn’t thrilled. Once you get to chapter two everything works better (for me).

Quotes:

“Native Americans are the most over-sentenced people currently imprisoned. I love statistics because they place what happens to a scrap of humanity, like me, on a worldwide scale.”

“Pen is one of a mass of young Native people who have book-crushes and rich book life, a true Indigerati.”

“Actually, Penstemon is desperately romantic, deeply tied to her traditions, and I worry for her paper heart.”

“Sometimes she worked on the collage after plane trips, claiming that in hurtling through the stratosphere she’d lost brain cells. he couldn’t shake the conviction that pieces of her mind were scattered about in the sky.” When she came down to earth, she had the urge to glue things together.”

“Once free, I found that I could not read just any book. It had gotten so I could see through books — the little ruses, the hooks, the setup in the beginning, the looming weight of a tragic ending. I needed the writing to have a certain mineral density. It had to feel naturally meant, but not cynically contrived. I grew to dislike manipulations.”

“And so we sat there. Two haunted women. And one unhaunted baby trailing clouds of glory.”

“I put my hand on my chest and closed my eyes. I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered. The glass heart belongs to Pollux. There was a ping. To my surprise, it had developed a minute crack, nearly invisible. But it was there, and it hurt.”

“The thing is, most of us Indiginous people do have to consciously pull together our identities. We’ve endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture. So even someone raised strictly in their own tradition gets pulled toward white perspectives.”

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 9th, 2021.

Joan is OK by Weike Wang (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Joan is a Chinese-American ICU doctor in New York City on the eve of what would become a devastating pandemic. She loves to work and is confused by inane HR department pronouncements insisting that she work less. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who packed up and returned to a better lifestyle in China once she had been fully launched. She is also the younger sister of a brother who has a very different idea of what it means to be a success. As Joan’s mother is visiting when the pandemic hits and is trapped in the US, we are treated to a stereotype-busting combination of Chinese vs American perspectives on life as the pandemic unfurls across the globe.

This is the second memoir-style story by Weike Wang. It is told in a dry, literal, unemotional, yet highly introspective style that I really enjoy. I love being treated to the inside story of what is going on in someone’s head — especially someone as different from me as Joan.

Let me be clear that this is not a story about the pandemic — the first inklings don’t even appear until half way through the book. Instead, it’s the story of Joan’s life as she struggles to figure out her place in the world. While never explicitly stated, Joan will appear to many as being on the spectrum — she is literal, she doesn’t have typical relationships, and she has intense focus — whether she is or not doesn’t matter to me. She is an interesting individual with her own ways of perceiving and handling the world around her and the author does an amazing job of detailing these perceptions and thought processes throughout the story.

Some excellent quotes:

“I listened. I smiled. I felt my teeth get cold from not being able to recede back into my mouth.”

“Relieved of any expectation to respond, I could simply listen and fun-sway along in my head. My on-service brain was the trenches, but my off-service one was a meadow.”

“Everything about him was average: five nine, 167 pounds, a face like most faces, like mine, situated somewhere between striking and hideous.”

“The surgical ICU had its surgeons and anesthesiologists, doctors who wrote the shortest and most indecipherable notes. The notes reminded me of haikus, and because I wasn’t a literary person, I called my time in this unit difficult poetry.”

“I had forgotten about crowds in China, that being in a crowd here was like being lost at sea, and for airports, train stations — for any transportation hub, any city really — for all the tourist sites… the phrase ren hai exists or “people sea”.

“The lobe of rage burst in my head like a polyp. I could feel a liquid temper seeping out of my pores.”

“Neither could imagine having wasted another person’s time or consuming every square inch of air in a room. Because Room People were full of themselves. They believed their own perspectives reigned supreme.”

“I hope you’re making some money at least, she pressed on. Because in China, a doctor makes the same salary as a public school teacher. There’s no difference in status or prestige between the two roles and the work-life balance is, of course, much better for the teacher.”

“… though his reproductive window was much longer. Did it make sense to call it a window, if after puberty it was flung open for the rest of his life?”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 18th, 2022.

A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin (Multi cultural / Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

A beautifully understated and surprisingly engaging book about a Chinese tenor struggling to make it on his own in the US after finding himself on the wrong side of the Chinese party. I appreciated the picture of modern China and an individual Chinese artist through Tian’s experiences with the Chinese government, friends, and family as he is bribed, blacklisted, and receives appeals to his love of and duty towards his country. Where some of the government techniques were things I had heard of, many were not, and I was surprised at the insidious nature of government manipulations outside of China through local operatives, foreign newspapers, etc. Tender and reflective, this is the story of Tian’s life, not a political treatise or call to arms. Tian in some ways is a bit of an innocent — decidedly apolitical and consistently working to maintain artistic integrity and personal principles. I learned a lot and was surprised that the book kept pulling at me as it isn’t my typical fare. Definitely worth reading.

A few quotes:

“This new understanding threw him into a peculiar kind of excitement, because it indicated that the citizens and the country were equal partners in an agreement. Tian gathered that this equality must be the basis of democracy. Now he could see why the Constitution meant so much to the United States. It was the foundation of the nation. With such a realization he became willing to defend the Constitution, even to bear arms if he was called upon, simply because he believed in noble ideas and was willing to sacrifice …”

“He realized many immigrants were in varying degrees of the same situation: They were attempting to break loose from the grip of the past and to start over in a faraway place, but few of them could foresee the price for that new beginning, or the pain and the hardship that came after.”

“In the context of the Tiananmen massacre, China seemed to him more like an old hag, so senile and so ailing that she had to eat the flesh and blood of her children to sustain herself. In the back of his mind lingered a question to which he didn’t yet know the answer: If a country has betrayed a citizen, isn’t the citizen entitled to betray the country?”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Pantheon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.