But the News...
Some books that help us think about racism
Today, the Book Jam had planned to post reviews of some great books to read as summer fades. However, the news from Charlottesville, Virginia has us reeling. Thus, we reviewed our archives and are republishing reviews of books that might help us all contemplate racism in the United States and what we wish to do about it. We include books for adults, young adults, and children because it seems to us that, no matter our age, we all have a lot to think about.
To sum -- because we feel, for a variety of reasons, that these books are far more relevant -- today instead of the "beach reads" we had planned to recommend, we re-share these reviews with the best of intentions and love.
Mudbound by Hilary Jordan (2008) — This novel provides yet another reason to always read Bellewether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction winners. This prize-winning story set in post WWII Mississippi is a heartbreaking story of racial relations, poor treatment of returning veterans, and the high price of silence as members of two families living in rural Mississippi collide. ~ Lisa Christie and Lisa Cadow
March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (2013) – Congressman John Lewis wrote this memoir in the form of a graphic novel. Book One begins with his childhood in rural Alabama and follows Mr. Lewis through meeting Martin Luther King and then his own student activist days in Nashville. We also recommend Book Two and Book Three that follow his life to the present. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (1999) – If you somehow missed this collection of nine short stories about Indian-American immigrants, fix that now and read these Pulitzer Prize winning tales. Ms. Lahiri’s prose is gorgeously crafted, and her characters and their trials and tribulations – both the mundane and the incredible – will stay with you long after you finish the last sentences. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) – Before she wrote We Should All Be Feminists, Ms. Adichi earned our reading loyalty with this incredible novel of love and culture clash. As Maureen Corrigan of NPR stated, “Adichie has written a big knockout of a novel about immigration, American dreams, the power of first love, and the shifting meanings of skin color . . . Americanah is a sweeping story that derives its power as much from Adichie’s witty and fluid writing style as it does from keen social commentary. . . . ”
Sycamore Row by John Grisham (October 2013) – Mr. Grisham is a master at plot and suspense, and has once again created a page-turning story. Since I am a fan of the movie A Time To Kill, spending time with Jake Brigance during Sycamore Row — this time three years after the trial from A Time to Kill — felt like a mini reunion. Again, as with Mr. Iles’s book, other reviewers agree this is a must read. As the New York Times review stated “‘Sycamore Row’ reminds us that the best legal fiction is written by lawyers.” Or as the Washington Post reviewer wrote “‘Sycamore Row’ is easily the best of his books that I’ve read and ranks on my list with Stephen King’s “11/22/63” as one of the two most impressive popular novels in recent years.” Please note: This book ended up on many best of 2013 lists — lists that include authors whose novels tend not to become blockbuster movies — and it was also previously mentioned by The Book Jam in our 2013 last minute holiday gifts post. ~ Lisa Christie
Like No Other by Una LaMarche (July 2014) – West Side Story with an African-American as the male lead and a Hasidic girl as the female lead. Set in modern-day Brooklyn, this tale explores the feelings one’s first true love brings, and what it means to make your own way into the world — even if it requires navigating respecting one’s parents while rebelling from their rules. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (2013) – When a renowned surgeon dies suddenly outside his home in Accra, his family, which is scattered across the globe, suddenly learns much more about him and what his choices meant for them. Beautifully rendered, this novel takes you from Accra to Lagos to London and to New York. It also shows us the power of love, family, and choices as we figure out who we are and where we come from. ~ Lisa Christie
Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia (1992) – Reaching far back in our bookshelf, our memories, and into the Caribbean Sea, our hands land on Garcia’s 1992 novel of the Cuban immigration experience. Told from the perspective of three generations of strong women, this lush narrative will be appreciated by lovers of magical realism. Strong female characters tell the story of the experiences of being political expats in New York City, and also of the ones left behind in Cuba. Moving between the United States and Cuba, and the present and the past, this book creates a sensation of dreaming but also of the very real situation of a country and its people experiencing turmoil and change. ~ Lisa Cadow (seconded by Lisa Christie)
The Distance Between Us: YA version by Reyna Grande(2016) – With this book, Ms. Grande has adapted her adult memoir for middle grade readers and young adults. In it, she tells of her life as a toddler in an impoverished town in Mexico, her three attempts to cross into the USA with a coyote as a young child, her life in LA as an illegal immigrant, how her family gained legal status, and how she managed college. This is not for the faint hearted due to themes of physical abuse and complicated relationships with parents who are always leaving. But it is important to be informed; and, this book will insert faces into any political discussions about immigration that the pre-teens and teens in your life might encounter. ~ Lisa Christie
In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero (2016) – One of the stars of “Orange is the New Black” penned this memoir (with some help from a co-author) about her life as the USA-born daughter of undocumented immigrants from Colombia. Her story hinges on the day her parents were deported while she was at school, after which she was left to fend on her own, relying on her friends for places to live so she could finish High School in the USA. She is now using her fame to help shed light on the lives of the undocumented in the USA. While the prose may not sing quite as well as some of the other books on this list from award winning authors, I, for one, was appalled at some of the more surreal aspects of her story (e.g., she was completely forgotten by the US government which never checked on her, or helped her in any shape or form). And, I am very grateful she broke years of silence to put her face on many nameless Americans, and on a problem we all need to help solve. ~ Lisa Christie
Flying Lessons and Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh (2017) – Ms. Oh, the founder of “We Need Diverse Books“, has edited a collection of short stories by authors who happen to be persons of color. Among them, the group has earned every major award in children’s publishing, as well as popularity as New York Times bestselling authors. Each story is completely unrelated to the rest and totally fabulous. This collection is perfect for a reluctant reader as one of these stories is sure to be just right. (Perhaps the one by Kwame Alexander?) And, as a collection, it makes a great family read aloud. ~ Lisa Christie
Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper (2015) – A superb book about racism in depression-era North Carolina told from the perspective of a young African American girl. Don’t take my word for the quality of this book, my 11-year-old says it is among his top five favorite books. The New York Times said it is a “novel that soars”; School Library Journal called it “storytelling at its finest” in a starred review. The audio book will make car rides pass quickly. ~ Lisa Christie
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017) – Sometimes it takes a work of fiction to give life to current events. And sometimes it takes a book for children to give all of us a starting point for conversations about difficult issues. Ms. Thomas has done all of us a service by producing this fresh, enlightening, and spectacular book about the black lives lost at the hands of the police every year in the USA. Starr Carter, the teen she created to put faces on the statistics, straddles two worlds — that of her poor black neighborhood and that of her exclusive prep school on the other side of town. She believes she is doing a pretty good job managing the differing realities of her life until she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood friend by a police officer. As a description of this book stated, The Hate U Give “addresses issues of racism and police violence with intelligence, heart, and unflinching honesty”. Just as importantly, it is a great story, with fully formed characters who will haunt you, told by a gifted author. Please read this one! ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie
The Golem’s Mighty Swing by James Sturm (2017) – This graphic novel tells the tale of the Stars of David, a barnstorming Jewish baseball team that played during the Depression. Using the true story of a team that travels among small towns playing ball and playing up their religious exoticism as something for people to heckle, this books combines baseball, small towns, racial tensions, and the desperate grasp for the American Dream. ~ Lisa Christie
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (2014) – Mr. Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. Peppered with statistics about of people — those on death row who are people of color, the number of people permanently incarcerated for non-violent crimes committed when they were 12 or 13, etc… — Mr. Stevenson’s book brings these numbers to life in ways that make you care. He also, although he could not have known this when writing it, bring stories from today’s headlines home in ways that, be warned, may incite action on your part in 2015. (Note: The New York Times selected this as one of its 100 notable books of 2014, Esquire Magazine called it one of the 5 most important of 2014 and it was one of Time Magazine‘s top ten books of 2014.)~ Lisa Christie
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah (2016) – Mr. Noah, of Daily Show fame, is funny. He is insightful. And, he has a unique backstory for his life thusfar. All this combines to create a superb, insightful, humorous, and important memoir about life as a biracial child in South Africa during and after Apartheid. Read it, laugh, learn, and pass it along to others who can benefit from a well told life story. (Please note: Mr. Noah reads the audiobook version and we have been told it is tremendous.)
How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon (2014) – A powerful look at “what goes down” when a 16-year-old black boy in a hoodie is shot by a white man. Was it defense against a gang incident? Was it a man stopping a robbery gone wrong? Was it being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it none of these, or a combination of these? And, just when you think you have all the pieces and perspectives to know what happened, a new piece of information inserted into one of the multiple voices used to tell this story, sends you another direction. A seriously impressive book – cleverly staged, with superb and unique voices throughout, and a plot from today’s headlines. This book makes you think about how perspective influences what you see, how stories are told, how choices have implications, and – well, to be honest – the pull and power of gangs. Read it and discuss with your favorite teen. ~ Lisa Christie
How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston (2012) – As the author himself facetiously writes, please read this as part of your preparation for African-American history month activities. Through truly funny and often painful humor, Mr. Thurston makes readers think hard about their own racist tendencies. He even has a focus group, with a token white person, to help him think through many of the items he discusses. Whether you agree with him or not, for me, any time I am thinking about how I could better interact with the world, I am truly appreciative of the source that started me thinking about improving my actions. Bonus – it makes you laugh. ~ Lisa Christie