Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5.5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 (for me)

Colson Whitehead is a master of bringing a place and time to life. Harlem in the 60s — this is the story of a man who came from nothing and relentlessly made something of himself. But it’s not the typical rags to riches story with people “managing” to do this and that. This includes all the details of just what he had to do to make it in the world as it was — the pay offs (to gangsters and the police), the loyalties and trust, the “deals” made, the heists, and the constant jockeying for power, influence, and importance by the big shots while everyone else struggles to get by.

Carney is “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”. He has principles but suspends them as necessary with full awareness. He runs a furniture store with a secret side line in low level fencing of stolen goods. He primarily manages to stay out of trouble except when his cousin Freddie pops up (Freddie’s most constant refrain — “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble”).

Fantastic scenes in Harlem — The Theresa Hotel, known as the “Waldorf of Harlem,” Striver’s Row for the African-American elite, Black Star Travel agency to help black travelers at the time make their way through parts of the US without getting lynched. Some vivid scenes from the 1964 Harlem riots, resulting from the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman. All narrated by Carney with his somewhat cynical (and pretty realistic) worldview.

Whitehead is a fantastic writer — this had a little more focus on unsavory elements for my taste but it was very hard to put down.

A few quotes (out of many):

“Carney took the previous tenants’ busted schemes and failed dreams as a kind of fertilizer that helped his own ambitions prosper, the same way a fallen oak in its decomposition nourishes the acorn.”

“There was a hole in the air where the Ninth Avenue el used to run. That disappeared thing.”

“He reconsidered: The consequences remained, but the reasons had turned spectral, insubstantial. Harlem had rioted — for what? The boy was still dead, the grand jury cleared Lieutenant Gilligan, and black boys and girls continued to fall before the nightsticks and pistols of racist white cops. Freddie and Linus were gone, their heist unwound as if it had never happened, and Van Wyck kept throwing up buildings.”

“Death took Freddie from Carney and mourning returned to him a visitation, an invisible companion who shadowed him everywhere, tugging at his sleeve and interrupting when he least expected: Remember what my smile looked like, Remember when, remember me. Its voice grew quiet and Carney didn’t hear it for a while and then it was loud again: Remember me, This is your job now, Remember me or no one else will.”

Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 14, 2021.

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi (Fiction)

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

This was a hard book to read — not because of the ugly truths it laid bare (that too) but because of the ugly truths the author calls for: black revenge in the form of “Apocalypse sweeps the South. Vengeance visits the North.”

It’s the story of two siblings. Ella has her “Thing” — a deep and growing power that she spends years learning to control: clairvoyance, astral projection, and the ability to destroy with a glance. Her younger brother Kevin was born into violence: he is “Riot Baby” — born just as the Rodney King riots sparked. Kevin’s life is supposed to represent that of a typical black urban youth. We strobe through it: a smart kid doing well in school; a kid taunting cops; a failed armed robbery attempt; 7 years in Rikers waiting for an ever-delayed trial; parole release into a “sponsored community” with a chip in his thumb to keep him both tracked and drugged as necessary (the author extrapolates seamlessly into this future vision of released prisoners). The word “n**ga” is ubiquitous in the dialog as in every single sentence.

Onyebuchi’s writing is phenomenal — he brings the people, culture, and environment to life. He illustrates societal issues via Kevin’s life while Ella serves as the symbol of black anger and black power — the former slowly coming to a boil as she learns how to control it and turn it into the latter.

Reading this book you are immersed in the author’s feeling of what life is like in this environment. And it’s horrible and depressing. He doesn’t hide the fact that individuals are contributing to their own problems: Kevin didn’t have to try to try to rob a bank, he didn’t have to harass the cops when they patrolled, he could have stayed in school and taken advantage of what appeared to have been a good brain. But Onyebuchi appears to lay the blame squarely in White America’s lap calling out (fairly) the police brutality and discriminatory justice system. Like most fiction, the information included is emotionally powerful but also anecdotal. While the studies definitely show the discriminatory patterns, is it really the case that every black urban youth is destined for this future? Is there nothing short of the revolution he calls for that would help? Is every policeman who goes into these neighborhoods an a*hole bent on harassing the residents? Could we not try to do something about the bangers who commit far more murder of black residents than any number of cops? I know these are complicated issues, and I know as a white middle class woman I can’t possibly know what it would be like to be born into this life — but I also know it is the rare revolution (I can only think of one) that doesn’t just cause a lot of murder and destruction and end up in a similar situation with just another set of people with power.

Bottom line — powerful book, worth reading but very disturbing. One pretty dark picture of modern urban black life — I hope in future books Onyebuchi can come up with some positive actions towards improving things rather than revolution and rebirth. Definitely an author to watch — I’ll have to go back and look at his young adult fiction; this is his first adult novel.

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s Book Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser, which will publish September 25, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
Writing: 4 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

I loved this young readers book. It is the second in the Vanderbeeker series and every bit as good as the first. It reminds me of some of my favorite series from childhood — the characters became my friends, and I couldn’t wait to go along on the next adventure.

The five Vanderbeeker children live with their parents on the bottom two floors of a brownstone on 141st in Harlem. When Mr. Jeet, the above floor neighbor, has a debilitating stroke, they decide to create a hidden garden in the abandoned lot adjoining the church as surprise for his homecoming. This simple plot line gives rise to opportunities for a whole array of neighborhood kids to contribute while learning about caring, friendship, and the ability to create beauty from nothing.

I love this book for many reasons. These people are regular people. They are neither rich nor poor. Taking place in Harlem, the cast is decidedly multicultural, and there are little hints as to different backgrounds — but that is not the point. Some kids obviously come from loving nuclear families, while others have absent parents, substitute parents, or bits of tragedy in their histories — but that isn’t the point either. These people come together as friends and neighbors; they care about each other and try to help each other out. The book unashamedly models good values and behavior, demonstrating friendship, caring, self sufficiency, and having the agency to make bad situations better. Five stars.