Tuesday, October 20, 2015

#Diversiverse: Thank You!

The A More Diverse Universe reading event ended this past Saturday, and I'm so thrilled with the participation!  We had a nice, round 80 posts about books featuring such a wide array of characters and settings and plots.  I know I added many books to my reading list, and I hope you did, too!

I hope that the A More Diverse Universe event inspired you to seek out diverse authors and read more widely than you did before.  I particularly hope that, if this was the first time you really looked at your reading list and considered how diverse it is or is not, you will keep that thought in your mind and change the way you approach your reading.  We all vote with our money and with our time, and if we spend our money and our time seeking out the libraries and bookstores and bookshelves that we want, then that is what we will see in the future.  The world is in no way perfect; by reminding ourselves to see how other people experience life, we can all be more understanding and empathetic world citizens.

I will be adding have added all of the reviews to the #Diversiverse master tab on this site.  Please use that tab as a resource and inspiration for your diverse reading going forward!  While the A More Diverse Universe event only lasts for two weeks each year, I hope it becomes a mindset that you adopt all year long.

Thank you again, so very much, for participating in the event.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

#Diversiverse Review: Balm, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I thought Dolen Perkins-Valdez's first novel, Wench, was excellent.  It was so well-written and so evocative of what life may have been like for a slave woman in the American South.  So many conflicting loyalties.  So little power.

It's not surprising, then, that I was so looking forward to Perkins-Valdez's new book, Balm.  I mistakenly thought that Balm was a companion novel to Wench.  It is not; it's a completely different story with completely different characters.  Personally, I did not find these characters nearly half as compelling or three-dimensional as the characters in Wench, so this book did not quite hold up to the promise of the first.

Balm takes place at the end of the Civil War and centers on three people who are all dealing with the ghosts of their pasts, some more literally than others.  Madge comes to Chicago from Kentucky, where she inherited a supernatural power to heal from many generations of women.  Hemp is a former slave who comes to the city looking for his wife and her child, both of whom were sold off without him.  And Sadie is a widow, haunted by the ghost of a Civil War soldier.  The three of them meet in Chicago, but before they can move forward with their lives, they have to face their pasts.

I appreciate the intent of this book.  After tackling the antebellum South, Perkins-Valdez moves north to give us a glimpse into what life was like for blacks and whites in the north as the tide of war turns.  War obviously leaves multiple wounds on people, but Perkins-Valdez has just as much empathy for the wounds people carry from before the war, and how those wounds can impact life for years and years later.

I admit that I found this book pretty boring.  I didn't connect with any of the characters, which was disappointing after how much empathy I had for Perkins-Valdez's characters in Wench.  I just didn't think any of the histories were that compelling and didn't really care to see the story through to ensure that all of them came to terms with their pasts and moved on.  I read this one on audiobook, and I don't think the narrator was all that great, either, so that possibly had a huge impact on the way I read this book.

Balm wasn't a hit for me at all, but based on GoodReads and Amazon and LibraryThing reviews, it's quite popular with other readers!  That said, I would still highly recommend that you read Wench over Balm, and that you read Wench very soon.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

#Diversiverse Review: Family Life, by Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma's Family Life is a small book that packs a pretty whopping punch in the gut.  It's no wonder it took Sharma a full decade to write it.  The book is based on the author's own harrowing life experience of his brother's fateful headfirst dive into the floor of a swimming pool and the subsequent trauma that his family went through.

In the 1970s, Ajay's distant and wealth-obsessed father moves to the United States.  Ajay, his older brother, Birju, and his mother join a couple of years later.  Immediately, Ajay's parents are consumed with Birju getting into a selective high school.  They pour all their energy and love into their son and are thrilled when he is accepted.  Before he can attend, however, Birju has a major accident.  Ajay narrates how completely life changes for all of them and how hard it can be to lose hope when so many of your dreams were pinned on one person.

This is not an easy book to read.  The language is spare and Sharma doesn't get very emotional.  But the way he describes Ajay's growing sense of isolation from his parents, his father's descent into alcoholism, and his mother's growing resentment of everyone who cannot help her son return to his former self all comes through so clearly.  All this while they dealt with being immigrants in a foreign culture.  While it didn't take me 10 years, it did take me a good three weeks to finish reading it because it's so weighty.

I admit I didn't really like any of the characters in this book.  Ajay is not a very sympathetic character, but it's easy to see why he feels neglected when his parents seem not to care much at all for all his successes.  His parents, too, seem unkind and cruel, but again, you can see how much stress they are dealing with.  The other Indians in the story seem pretty shiftless, and the non-Indians seem racist.  And maybe all that is true, but it does make for some hard reading.

But I don't think this is a book about the characters, necessarily.  It's a book about dealing with the loss of someone who is so central to your life, even while you care for that person every day.  It's about what happens when other people stop feeling sorry for you or giving you sympathy and care, but you have to keep going while nothing changes for the better or worse.  It's about navigating relationships that have lasted through so much but now are defined by one moment that was no one's fault.  It's not a situation anyone wants to go through.  But it's a situation a lot of people do go through.  And maybe Akhil Sharma has written a book that makes sense to them, and gives comfort to them.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

#Diversiverse: A More Diverse Universe Link-Up Post!!

FIRST THINGS FIRST:  PLEASE READ THE INSTRUCTIONS AT THE END OF THE POST FOR HOW TO LINK TO YOUR REVIEW!  This will help me enormously when it comes time to organize the reviews and add them to the #Diversiverse tab.

Hooray!  #Diversiverse is HERE!  

Two weeks of gloriously diverse reading suggestions for you and yours, all so that we can work to make our world a more understanding, empathetic and open-minded place to live.

Considering that I have been barely on the inter webs at all over the past two months, I am mazed and so humbled by the number of people who have signed up for #Diversiverse this year.  Thank you to everyone who has hyped up the event.  By the end of next week, we will have countless reviews that cover an entire spectrum of genres, perspectives, and writing styles.  I cannot wait to read all of them.

I hope that when you read through the many reviews, the A More Diverse Universe mantra will cement itself in your mind:

Reading diversely may require you to change your book finding habits.  It ABSOLUTELY does not require you to change your book reading habits.

Authors all over the world write romance novels, historical fiction, social science, folktales, memoirs, poetry - everything.  You just may need to look a little bit harder to find them.  But luckily for you, there's the #diversiverse link-up post below, and the #Diversiverse tab above.  Browse at your leisure, add dozens of books to your TBR pile, come back for more when you've finished them, and enjoy!

Thank you SO MUCH for participating!  Let's flood the digital world with reviews!

When you add your link below (and PLEASE link to the permalink for the specific #diversiverse post, not just your blog's main home page), please use the following format - COMMAS, NOT DASHES:

Blog Name, Book Title, Author Name
(ex.  Booklust, The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henriquez)

Monday, September 28, 2015


Roland Lazenby
I grew up in Chicago in the 90s, and my entire family (and really, the entire city) was completely obsessed with the Chicago Bulls basketball team.  Scottie Pippen is my all-time favorite player, and I'm still a huge fan of the team (though they have the tendency to break my heart more these days than they ever did in the 90s).

The most dominant player of the 90s era (and possibly of all time) was Michael Jordan.  Pretty much as soon as I saw that there was a new-ish biography out about Jordan, I planned to read it.  Looking back at Jordan's time with the Bulls, it is amazing that the team did so well so consistently for so long.  I really wanted to look back on that amazing period.

Michael Jordan:  The Life, by Roland Lazenby, is an account of Jordan's life, including his family, close friends, and his very volatile relationships with the teams he played on.  Quite honestly, I don't know if this book would appeal to anyone who is not a big sports fan in general or a huge Bulls fan in particular.  I debated whether I should even write a review because it's hard to be objective about a book when it's about a childhood hero.  I'm certainly not an objective reader here.

Lazenby's book is very detailed.  There's a lot of time spent on Jordan's family history and his childhood, which I really appreciated.  There's also beautiful writing about the games Jordan played, the way he moved on the court, the way he could dominate everyone.  I wish that the book had been a more multimedia experience; so many times, I wanted to go to YouTube and find the play that Lazenby was describing.

What comes across on almost every page is just how competitive Michael Jordan is.  He was able to pump himself up for every game, wanted to win every single game.  When you consider that the regular season of the NBA stretches from November to April and includes 82 games, that is absolutely mind-blowing.  He competed not only with other teams, but also with his teammates, forcing them to get better, and with himself, always drilling, always pushing to see how much further he could go and how much better he could become.  He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.  But the fans hardly ever saw that; they saw an amazing player, a team leader, a media darling.  And, of course, they saw all of his commercials.  Nike, Gatorade, McDonald's... but mostly Nike.  I was fascinated by the Nike deal and all the implications that contract had for Jordan and for Nike.

But fame and fortune have their drawbacks.  And someone so obsessed with competition and winning can easily become addicted to something like gambling.  Michael Jordan gambled a lot.  And for huge sums of money.  He also had a large family and group of friends that depended on him for all sorts of things, and the massive sums of money he made created a lot of tension with them, too.

As a fan, you really only see your team on the court.  To you, they don't really have anything else going on.  No personal lives, no triumphs or failures, no issues with teammates or family or friends.  All you care about is how they play.  In that way, I really appreciated Lazenby's book.  I enjoyed getting a peek behind the Bulls organization of my childhood and understanding just how special that team was.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Another trip to Gateway City

Only the Strong, Jabari Asim
I thoroughly enjoyed Jabari Asim's collection of short stories set in the fictional (St. Louis-inspired) Gateway City, A Taste of Honey.  I picked it up on a whim at the library, and it was one of my favorite reads of 2014.  A couple of weeks ago, the library had Asim's newest book on display, so I immediately picked it up.

Only the Strong is also set in Gateway City, though most of the action is in the 1970s, vs the 1960s setting in A Taste of Honey.  The set-up is similar, though.  While Only the Strong is hailed more as a novel, it feels more like three novellas, each one picking up where the last one left off.  The first section features Guts Tolliver, a man in love who still carries the weight of his past misdeeds.  The second section focuses on Dr. Artiness Noel, a prominent doctor locked in a long-term affair with a gangster; and the third section is told from the perspective of Charlotte, a foster child whose world opens up when she goes to college.

I enjoyed this novel just as much as I enjoyed A Taste of Honey.  The characters are just as flawed but truly well-meaning, the tight-knit community and the relationships that form between people are at the core of the story, and the setting of Gateway City is just as much a character here as it was in the previous book.

My favorite character in this book was Guts Tolliver.  I loved spending time with him, and every time he would pop up in the second and third sections, I would be thrilled to see him again.  He really exemplifies what happens to good people who feel like they have no choices, or who feel like life just isn't fair.  And he just does down a dark hole and then struggles and struggles to come back up and redeem himself.  The entirety of his life story is just so sad and then so sweet and then just absolutely beautiful, and I love Asim for bringing Guts to life in such an empathetic manner.

Both Dr. Noel and Charlotte's sections were excellent, too, though.  I enjoyed reading about how Dr. Noel worked so hard to become such a prominent physician, and all the sacrifices she made along the way.  I loved how passionate and excited Charlotte got when she went to college and learned SO MANY THINGS and met SO MANY PEOPLE.  It can be a heady experience, and it was fun to go through it again with Charlotte.

I would not say that this novel is a companion to A Taste of Honey.  You can absolutely read one without reading the other, and while some of the characters overlap, I don't think you miss anything if you read one and not the other or read in whatever order you would like.  I hope some of you give Asim a try.  I have really enjoyed his books, his writing style, and especially his characters.  I so look forward to more from him.  Hopefully, his books will continue to be prominently featured in my local library branch!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Growing up Black in America

Ta-Nehisi Coates
In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live - specifically, how do I live free in this black body?  It is a profound question because America understands itself as God's handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.
Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son, published as the book Between the World and Me has justifiably garnered a lot of attention since its publication.  As Americans struggle to understand their racial legacy, Coates' book provides us with a glimpse of what it was like for him to grow up Black.

For that reason alone, I think as many Americans as possible should read this book.  I am lucky enough to have a diverse group of friends with whom I can frankly and honestly discuss race and gender issues.  I realize that many people do not have that luxury, which is yet another reason why reading diversely is so important.  Between the World and Me offers those people with an idea of just how terrifying it can be to be Black here.  And it serves as a reminder to everyone that fear runs both ways.  As frightened as a middle-class white man can be to see a black guy walking the streets of his neighborhood, it's pretty much guaranteed that the black guy feels just as frightened, except add in the fact that he probably doesn't trust the police to protect him, either.

There are so many parts of this book that made me so very sad.  Coates is such an emotionally charged author.  He pushes you and challenges you, and it was such a good lesson.  Soon after finishing this book, I took a trip to Charleston, SC, and I think because the stories were so fresh in my mind, I found myself constantly telling myself and my friend, "Do not forget that these beautiful houses were built by slave labor.  Do not forget, do not forget, do not forget."  Of course, it's easier to remind yourself when you are a Northerner visiting the South, as Northerners love to think we have some sort of moral superiority to the South.  We like to forget so much of our own horrifying history.  Or the fact that when half the country uses slave labor, the entire country benefits from slave labor.  I hope that all my reading about the black experience in America will help me to flush out my own biases, and constantly remind myself that my experience of America is not universal.

Other quotes that really stood out to me and the reasons why:
I have no desire to make you "tough" or "street," perhaps because any "toughness" I garnered came reluctantly.  I think I was always, somehow, aware of the price.  I think I somehow knew that that third of my brain should have been concerned with more beautiful things.  I think I felt that something out there, some force, nameless and vast, had robbed me of ... what?  Time?  experience?  I think you know something of what that third could have done, and I think that is why you may feel the need for escape even more than I did.  You have seen all the wonderful life up above the tree-line, yet you understand that there is no real distance between you and Trayvon Martin, and thus Trayvon Martin must terrify you in a way that he could never terrify me.  You have seen so much more of all that is lost when they destroy your body.
 That one had me in tears, really.  The possibility of a life well-lived, lifelong friends, the potential and opportunity to do something extraordinary, so much of that passes through Chicago schools every day, and so much of it is lost to horrible schools, violence, and issues at home.  Think of all the amazing, brilliant, artistic, world-changing people that our country has lost.
You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras.  These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them.  The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.
Many times in this book, Coates reiterates the point that no matter how successful, how polite, how friendly, how un-confrontational a black man can be in every moment of his life, it can all fall apart so quickly and so easily because someone else can just see you and feel frightened and take action.  Many people move out of unsafe neighborhoods as quickly as they can, put their kids into excellent schools as early as they can, give them experiences and gifts that expand their minds in hopes of helping them become good, successful, happy people.  But black men have to work so much harder for that to happen, and the possibility that it can all be taken away is ever-present.
"And one racist act.  It's all it takes."


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