fiction · YA

Book Review: In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton

Another book list gem! I picked up a copy of In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Caplan Carlton (Algonquin Young Readers, 2019) on my last trip from the library (during which I looked at my stack of like six books and went, “Well, that’s gonna take a while to get through…” and I’m already going to have to go back today and pick out a few more. BUT…I have an idea for a new project. I’ll write up a post about that later!). I’m super fortunate that my library has *so* many of the books from my TBR!

It’s 1958, and Ruth Robb has moved to Atlanta with her mother and younger sister after her father suddenly passed away. The move is already tough, but it’s complicated even more by the fact that Ruth is Jewish (her father was born Jewish; her mother, an Atlanta native, converted, a fact that is important to this story), and the South isn’t exactly friendly to Jews. Neither is her grandmother, who doesn’t fully accept that her daughter converted and is raising the girls Jewish. Ruth immediately falls in with the debutante group of girls from her grandmother’s club, but she knows she has to hide who she really is- admitting she’s Jewish is a recipe for immediate ostracization.

But it’s so much fun to be popular, and Davis Jefferson, the gorgeous popular guy, is falling for her. When Ruth’s mother starts requiring her to attend synagogue, she meets college student Max, who’s as dedicated to fighting for integration and social justice as the rabbi. He’s deeply intelligent, proud of who he is, and never hides anything about himself. When the politics of the day blow up in a way Ruth can no longer ignore, she has to make serious choices about who she is, who she wants to be, and how she wants to live her life.

I lived in the South for five years and oof, so many parts of this book rang true and made me feel claustrophobic again. Ruth’s grandmother is antisemitic- not in a Nazi-style manner, but in a dismissive way, in a way that it’s obvious she finds Jewish people kind of icky and different, and she’s constantly trying to encourage her daughter to abandon the religion and her granddaughters to hide who they are. I imagined that Ruth’s mother needed to do a LOT of tongue-biting in order to not tell her mother exactly where to get off; as they were living in the grandparents’ guest house, she needed to maintain at least some level of civility. She handled it far better than I would have.

As a reader, it’s sometimes frustrating watching Ruth make the decisions she does, but they’re understandable. After being wrenched away from her home, from everything familiar, in a place where there are plenty of other people like her and now dealing with the grief from her father’s death, she just wants to fit in and find a bit of normalcy, but in a place that demands conformity and spits out anything or anyone different, that’s not so easy to find unless you’re willing to compromise major parts of yourself. Ruth makes some difficult choices; to her credit, she never seems fully comfortable with the ones that require her to hide being Jewish. Her romance with Davis made me deeply uneasy; I may be an adult reading YA, but it wouldn’t have felt good to me as a teen, either. There are certain things I’ve never been willing to compromise, not even for the cute popular boy, but I think this was a realistic choice Ms. Carlton made as an author. The teen years are hard and full of challenging decisions. Figuring out who we are, especially when who we are goes against cultural norms, isn’t easy, and strength of character takes time to develop. Oftentimes, it only comes through adversity, as it did for Ruth, and she’s a great example for younger readers on doing the right thing even when it’s difficult, even when it comes at a cost.

I do wish there would have been a bit more of a build-up to the climax; the end felt a tiny bit rushed, but man, does Ms. Carlton do a fabulous job of setting the scene. 1958 Atlanta is steamy and full of tension; you’ll practically be able to taste the sweet tea and the Coca-Cola and feel the sweat trailing down your back and the girdle squeezing your midsection. I have zero desire to move back to the south (a former colleague who moved to North Carolina just informed my husband of a job opening at his new workplace; I LOVE that area, but nope nope nope, not for me and not for us as a family, sadly), but wow, did Susan Kaplan Carlton absolutely made me feel like I was there again.

I deeply enjoyed this. History, religion, politics, YA, it’s a perfect storm of so many of the things I love about reading. I’m looking forward to seeing what else Ms. Carlton comes up with!

Visit Susan Kaplan Carlton’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

Holy timely read, blogger friends!

I have no idea how this book ended up on my TBR list or where it came from; usually I have some sort of idea, whether I found it through someone else’s blog, a book list, a reading group suggestion, etc., but I have zero clue where No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert (WaterBrook, 2018) came from. But that’s okay. It’s an emotionally complex book that gets right to the heart of so many of the struggles we’re seeing play out before our eyes right now.

Jen is a newly adoptive mother and she’s struggling. Her (adopted) seven year-old daughter, who has only recently come home from Liberia, is, unsurprisingly, having trouble adjusting to life in a new country with a white family, and Jen, who has wanted nothing more than to be a mother her entire life, is shocked to find that the bonding process isn’t instantaneous. Camille’s picture-perfect life is unraveling at the seams: her oldest daughter barely speaks to her, something’s up with her husband, and the uproar over a primarily Black school sending its students to her children’s mostly white school isn’t painting her in the greatest of lights thanks to her own bad behavior. Anaya has just gotten a job as the new second grade teacher at said white school, but her teenage brother’s transfer to the high school and the stress of being Black in a sea of white faces who don’t necessarily understand her and who don’t want to try is testing her faith and strength.

Tensions are sky-high throughout the year as the town grapples with issues that shouldn’t even be issues and old attitudes are brought to light and found- by most people, but not all- deeply unflattering. The novel comes to a head at the annual 5K, where everyone will be forced to come together in a tragedy that could have easily been avoided.

WHEW. This book is an emotional powerhouse. Katie Ganshert perfectly nails so many of the complex emotions that go into making flawed characters. Camille’s racism isn’t necessarily outwardly malicious, but by refusing to listen and avoiding deep self-examination, she becomes a perfect Karen, concerned only with what affects her and her family. Anaya is determined but wounded and exhausted, states that become more and more clear as to why- not just for outward reasons- as her story unfolds. And Jen. Ohhhhhh, I understood Jen so well, and Ms. Ganshert has illustrated in her something that isn’t talked about enough.

Jen pictured motherhood as lots of snuggles and cuddles and an instant bond with her daughter, despite understanding that it would be work raising a child who had spent her earliest years surrounded by loss and trauma. Her reality was struggling to bond with a child who didn’t quite feel like hers, even though she wanted her to, so badly. I get that. Though my daughter is mine biologically, it took much, much longer for me to feel that deep soul-bond with her, much longer than I was expecting, and it made parenting her difficult in the early days of her life (and we weren’t even dealing with trauma and loss and all the many things adoptive parents know to expect! Although my massive sleep deprivation, to the point where I was hallucinating, didn’t help…). The parenting manuals don’t discuss this enough; they talk of bonding as immediate or as happening soon after birth; they don’t discuss what happens or what parents are supposed to do when it takes longer than that, which leaves parents like Jen and me (during the time that was happening to me), feeling lost and scared and resentful. I applaud Katie Ganshert for bringing this delicate issue to light and giving parents like me a chance to see ourselves and see that we’re not terrible people, that this is just part of what parenting can look like.

Camille’s growth throughout the novel is commendable; her growth stems from the tragedies and challenges her family faces throughout the year (and other near-misses), and her eventual learning to look outward and apply what she learns inward. Will readers see themselves in her? I hope so, because there are far too many people out there who need to.

Anaya is strength and conviction and determination; her family- her mother in particular- is so well-crafted. There’s a speech her mother gives her near the end of the book on forgiveness that had me rereading the paragraph several times; do not miss this. It’s perfection.

Content warnings exist for racism, both blatant and the kind that’s more inconspicuous but just as harmful, death of a parent, and allusions to what likely constitutes rape (where a drunken character is taken advantage of by one that didn’t seem drunk or as drunk). All the characters in the book seem to be practicing Christians (to some degree), and while their faith is discussed and put into practice (and some have labelled this novel as Christian fiction), it never comes across as the author having an agenda, only as something by which those characters live and base their morals on. Ms. Ganshert isn’t proselytizing or advertising here, only describing her characters’ commitment to or failure to live up to certain ideals, something which I appreciated.

This is a wonderful, timely book, one that I’m glad I read, and I’m looking forward to reading more from this author who not only has her finger on the pulse of America, but who is able to translate her observations into a deeply-felt novel that will tug at your heart and hopefully have you examining your attitudes towards a number of important issues.

Visit Katie Ganshert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

The Color of Love- Marra B. Gad

For all its ills, social media is useful for a lot of things (like finding out my favorite Indian restaurant closed *sob*), and one of them is connecting with other bookish people in various groups. I belong to a few readers’ groups on Facebook, along with a host of other various groups, and it was from one of those groups that I learned about The Color of Love: A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl by Marra B. Gad (Agate Bolden, 2019). The story was pitched as being about a mixed-race Jewish woman who eventually had to take care of a family member who treated her terribly. It’s that, but it’s so much more, and I’m deeply grateful I was able to obtain a copy through interlibrary loan.

Marra Gad was biologically the child of a Jewish woman and a black man. Her first mother knew she couldn’t keep her baby, and thus a rabbi helped to find a Jewish family to adopt Marra. Marra’s parents were happy to have a baby at all; the child’s skin color made no difference to them, but it didn’t take long for them to realize how differently the world around them felt, and member by member, their family and circle grew smaller. Within pages, you’ll be gasping out loud in utter shock and total disgust at the comments that family and friends thought nothing of leveling at Marra. Despite your heartbreak and rage on Marra’s behalf, read on; this is an important story.

Throughout her childhood and young adulthood, Marra is ostracized and made to feel different by the community that should have embraced her and celebrated her. Fortunately, she has her close family- parents, siblings, grandparents- to love her, fight for her, and instill a strong sense of self-worth in her. As the years go by and her family members begin to age and need care, Marra finds herself the only available family member to care for her out-of-state great-aunt, the woman who was perhaps the cruelest to Marra throughout her life. Despite the pain it causes her, she does so because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s never easy.

I won’t lie; this book brought me to tears multiple times. I kept turning back to Ms. Gad’s picture on the back inside flap and wanting so badly to both travel back in time and protect the vulnerable child that she was and to hug the adult she is now. I’m no stranger to racism; when I was young, my maternal grandfather was deeply, hideously racist, and I’ve heard racist comments coming out of family members’ mouths as recently as last year (you better bet I step in and say something these days, though. As a child, I didn’t, though I knew my grandfather was wrong. I’m not sure how well my correcting him would have gone over, but I remember having conversations with my mom on the way home from his house about why he was so awful regarding people of certain races). But the hateful comments directed toward Marra are just…soul-crushing. To have had such vitriol spat at you as a child and emotionally survive and still come out kind on the other side is an absolute miracle; I weep for the ones who did not.

Taking care of her hurtful great-aunt was difficult; there are many descriptions of tears and heartache on the journey to and from her care facility, and I deeply admire the fortitude of character Ms. Gad possesses to have kept returning and providing care in the face of such a difficult challenge. It may not have been what she wanted to do, but doing so was the kind of person she wanted to be, and so she did. This is something I strive for in my own life, though normally under much less challenging circumstances, so I understand her motivation and I applaud it.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful and a deeply emotional read, and will challenge any reader in just how far they’re willing to take their devotion to kindness and generosity.

I’m going to count this as the book for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book by a woman of color, but it won’t be my last for the year, not by a long shot (my next review is also for a book by a black woman, and my reading list for the year is bursting with diversity, as it should be). Read on, friends. 🙂

Follow Marra B. Gad on Twitter.

nonfiction

Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity- Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi

At the end of last month, I started veering into reading slump territory. Nothing too bad, just…nothing sounded good. I browsed my own shelves, poked through my TBR, checked out a few book blogs…

Nothing. My brain just wasn’t having it.

So I decided to hit up the library in hopes of stumbling upon something that spoke to me, and on the New Books shelf, a hefty, bright yellow tome jumped out: Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi (Tarcherperigee, 2019). At first, I wondered if I were up to the task, but once I flipped through the book and noted its bright photographs and short interviews with people from all walks of life, I knew I had to read this.

High school friends Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi came to the realization while still in high school that they’d never been taught anything about race by their school. Understandably disturbed by this, they set out together to not only educate themselves, via mentors and a diverse reading list, but to educate others. They gave TED talks, they wrote a textbook, they founded the CHOOSE Org, and they set out during their gap year between high school and college to travel through all fifty states, interviewing people of all races and ages, about their experience with race- their own and others’- racial education, racism, and more.

Each section has a loose theme, beginning with a piece of writing from Guo and Vulchi, who are both inquisitive and wise beyond their years. They’re not afraid to admit when they don’t know or understand something; instead, they search boldly for answers in a way that gives me such hope for the future if these are the women who will one day take the reins of our country. In their travels, they interview people of all races and mixed races, straight people, gay people, transgender people, people from various religions and ethnic groups. Each interview is rife with information on racial literacy, defining terms the reader may not be familiar with in an effort to better educate their audience. If, like so many of us (myself included), you didn’t receive much or any education in racial matters when you were growing up, Tell Me Who You Are is an amazing place to start.

What a deeply fascinating book. I grew up in a very white town, settled mainly by Scandinavians and Germans, and far enough from the city and boring enough that it stayed that way until very recently, so I received very, very little education in the way of race when I was young. It’s because of books like this, and diverse fiction, and making friends with different racial and religious backgrounds, and following people of color online that I’ve been able to broaden my understanding when it comes to racial literacy. Guo and Vulchi’s interviews bring to light the many facets of race and racism; it’s a deeply educational book that still manages to entertain by presenting each interview in a conversational style, almost as though the reader is listening to a trusted friend divulge their deepest thoughts. What can so often be a heavy topic to read about is really brought to life here in a creative and thoughtful way. As I turned the pages, moving from an interview with a Native American man to a native Hawaiian to a Mexican woman to a white man to a black woman, I marveled over the beauty of our world and mourned that in 2019, we still struggle so hard to open our minds and understand each other. Tell Me Who You Are is a strong, bold step towards that better understanding.

At my library, Tell Me Who You Are is shelved in the Adult Nonfiction section, but I hope a copy makes its way to the teen nonfiction shelves as well. This is brilliant writing and a brilliant project undertaken by teenagers and should be readily available to teens in the space they most frequent. It introduced me to new concepts of racial literacy (I still feel like I don’t *quite* understand positionality), a deeper understanding of what counts as cultural appropriation, the struggles of the disabled to get around in New York City (you’d think that with a city that big and that diverse, they’d do a better job, and you would be wrong; 80% of subway stops are inaccessible to people with a disability), and the concept of secondary (or vicarious) trauma. I really appreciated their attention to Native people; I’m aware that my reading lacks indigenous voices and that’s something I’d like to focus on a little more in the future.

Tell Me Who You Are is a cornucopia of experiences by a gorgeous mosaic of people and voices, one that serves to expand the mind of the reader if you’re willing to shut up, silence your own voice for a moment, and let it. This would be an impressive and captivating book by any author, but the fact that it was put together by two young women just out of high school also puts it in the category of an incredible accomplishment and a work of art. The world definitely needs more young leaders like Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi, and I’d be thrilled if my daughter grew up with their intelligence, their curiosity, their drive, and their commitment to making the world a more racially literate and understanding place.

As a brief aside, there are a few negative reviews for this book on Goodreads that illustrate the deep need for this book’s existence. Don’t let those reviews color your opinion; instead, think of those opinions as what marginalized people are up against, and use Tell Me Who You Are to educate yourself in such a way that you’ll never sound like the people who wrote those reviews. (Criticism of the book is perfectly acceptable; whining, “WHAT ABOUT THE WHITE MEN???” in regards to a book on racial literacy is ludicrous. There are nine bazillion other books about white men published and readily available on store and library shelves every year; not everything is about white men, nor does it need to be.)

Visit Choose Org’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

When I Was White: A Memoir- Sarah Valentine

I love a good memoir. I love hearing a person’s own life stories, what they experienced and lived through from the life-changing to the mundane, from tales of growing up in unusual families to recountings of world travels and religious experiences, I’m here for it all. That’s why When I Was White: A Memoir by Sarah Valentine (St. Martin’s Press, 2019) leaped out at me from the New Books shelf last week. ‘What a provocative title,’ I thought, and after reading the inside flap, the book went into my stack.

Sarah Valentine (née Dunn; she explains her name change later on in the book, and it’s not due to marriage) was born the oldest of three children in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Growing up, her darker skin and frizzy hair were often the subject of questions or half-kidding jokes about the milkman, but Sarah accepted her family’s insistence that she was white, no matter what that nagging feeling in her gut told her. It’s only in her late twenties that she learns that she’s not, in fact, entirely white, that her family has been lying to her all these years, and that in doing so, they’ve denied her a huge portion of her identity. Sarah must then learn to carve out a place for herself as a black woman after having thought of herself as white from birth and restructure her relationship with the family who withheld- and is still withholding- the truth from her for so long.

(Content warnings exist in this book for racism, including racist remarks, and multiple stories of rape and sexual assault.)

Whoa. What an entire bombshell to have dropped on you- even if it’s something you had maybe-sort-of-somewhat suspected, having your racial identity and sense of self upended like that is huge. Finding out that half of you, genetically, has a history and a story that you’ve been denied is obviously life-changing in so many ways, and reading how Ms. Valentine navigated this rupture in her life was deeply intriguing. While this isn’t as immediately shocking as Tara Westover’s Educated, it’s still in the same category of memoirs whose central stories include abrupt realizations about one’s family of origin. Yet despite the book centering on racial issues, readers of every race need only to have undergone major life changes or a betrayal by a loved one in order to be able to relate to her family’s- in particular, her mother’s- duplicity. How deeply painful this must have been; my heart broke over and over for Sarah and what she missed out on as a child: the celebration of who she was in her entirety. Instead, her family, even her extended family, was complicit in suppressing a huge part of her, insisting that she was something else completely, and that what she- and others- were seeing was wrong. A famiy gaslighting, if you will.

Her mother’s outright racism, on display multiple times through the book, was stomach-turning to read, especially her casual dismissal of racism as “something that affects so few people,” so thus it’s not really a problem. (This is basically the theme song of casual racists everywhere, isn’t it? *sigh*) I’m not unaware of racism as a major, major problem- I’ve encountered it in my own family of origin and do my best to counter it when I do- but there’s something so very stark seeing it right there on the page and knowing that this came from the mouth of a parent who knew exactly what made up half of their child. I’m by no means a perfect parent (FAR, FAAAAAAAAAAR from it!), but we owe it to our children to move past our own crap attitudes and personal problems in order to bring them our best, instead of weighing them down with everything we refuse to deal with, and Ms. Dunn’s mother very obviously hadn’t done that, which may have been a product of her time (she may have had other issues; the phrase ‘personality disorder’ is tossed around multiple times, although there’s never a formal diagnosis). Her parents were mostly decent, however, and gave her and her brothers a good (for the most part) childhood, giving her a strong foundation on which to build her adult life.

Despite the trauma she’s been through, Ms. Dunn has emerged a compelling, interesting person with an incredible drive and dedication. She graduated with a PhD in Russian literature (yes, she speaks Russian, along with multiple other Slavic languages; she mentions she gets asked this all the time, although no one asks this from her white colleagues. I’d be the nerd asking anyone who mentioned studying Russian literature, because I’m so fascinated by foreign-to-me languages and so deeply impressed by those who speak them, especially those who didn’t grow up speaking them. I KNOW exactly how much work that is!), translates poetry, teaches language classes, she’s a writer, she’s lived multiple places and traveled widely. How lucky her students are, to learn from such an impressive woman!

If you’re looking for a memoir in which everything is tied up nicely with a pretty bow at the end, this isn’t the book for you. While Ms. Dunn does write of the journey of attempting to discover her biological father, When I Was White is more about her discovering her sense of self as a woman of mixed race, when the knowledge of being both black and white- instead of just white- had been denied to her her entire life. If you’re interested in books of self-discovery and growth, however, you’ll find satisfaction in these pages.

Visit Sarah Valentine’s page at MacMillan Publishers.