nonfiction

Book Review: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

What do you know about Chicago? The Sears Tower (it’ll never be the Willis Tower, dammit!), the Magnificent Mile, Lake Shore Drive, our sports teams, corrupt politicians…and violence. Maybe Chicago’s violence was the first thing to come to your mind. But whatever you think you know, the story most likely goes deeper, and one of the very best people out there telling the story of the devastation suffered by Chicago’s Black and brown communities is journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz. He’s probably best know for There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (if you haven’t read that, I highly recommend it). I’ve admired him for years, and I was excited to read his latest, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Nan A. Talese, 2019). There aren’t a whole lot of people out there writing books about Chicago, but Alex Kotlowitz’s masterful writing and storytelling is the equivalent of a thousand lesser authors.

An American Summer begins with Pharoah (not a misspelling), one of the boys profiled in There Are No Children Here, giving an update on his tumultuous life. Mr. Kotlowitz then delves deeply into Chicago’s most violent communities, expanding upon the stories that make headlines, the ones people blow off because they read ‘gang member’ and immediately dismiss the victim/s as unworthy of sympathy. The story, as always, goes far deeper than that. These are real people, loved by their family, friends, and community; they’re parents, friends, employees, students. They’re people who have spent the vast majority of their lives being traumatized over and over again by the violent deaths of their loved ones and community members, and being dismissed by the world around them as not worth caring about. The phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ comes to mind often when reading their stories, and while it’s difficult to grasp this level of violence, this book illuminates what daily life looks like for the people who live it.

Alex Kotlowitz paints pictures of bleak, isolated neighborhoods full of run-down homes, often abandoned, full of bullet holes and grieving families. These communities aren’t without hope, though it’s occasionally difficult to find. There are high schoolers who have witnessed multiple deaths by gunshot- of friends, of family members, of strangers, often right in front of them. These are entire neighborhoods of people with the worst forms of PTSD and no hope for treatment, because unemployment- and thus lack of health insurance and an income high enough to pay for regular therapy and medicine- is so high that comprehensive treatment is often out of reach.

An American Summer is nonfiction that reads like a heartbreaking novel, but this is all tragically real. I could get into my car and be in some of these neighborhoods in less than half an hour. The massive difference between their lives, their neighborhoods, and mine is unfathomable, and it should never, ever have become like this. These people deserve so much better than what racist America has afforded them. They need jobs, fully funded education, healthcare (including comprehensive medical care)- the same thing the rest of America needs, but the situation is desperate here, and no one makes this clearer than Alex Kotlowitz.

If you think you know Chicago, read Alex Kotlowitz’s work. He’ll show you another side, the people behind the headlines, the trauma lived there every day. It’ll break your heart in a thousand different ways.

Visit Alex Kotlowitz’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017) has been on my radar for years, but I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. And it made its way into my home and onto my bookshelf last summer (thank you again, awesome used book sale), but I still hadn’t gotten to it- see the importance of reading the books you own? Those books don’t do us any good if they just sit there serving as décor. I picked it up as my third book of the year and finished it on the third day of the year. It’s a fast read that packs a major emotional wallop.

Justyce is one of the few Black kids at his private prep school. He’s been watching as more and more Black men and teenagers are shot by police officers around the country, and things are tense at his own school, where his white classmates insist that racism died out long ago. Justyce, who knows that’s not true after his own brush with police, begins writing a series of letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trying to work out his feelings and figure out how to be like him.

But things escalate faster than Justyce could have ever imagined, and suddenly his best friend is dead in an incident that mirrors those he’s seen splashed across the headlines. The spotlights are on him, blaming him, digging up everything in his past that could possibly be construed as thug-like, and Justyce needs to figure out who he is, what he believes in, and who he wants to be, in a world that seems determined to decide all of that for him.

What a devastating book. There’s a lot in here that should enrage you- racism, both casual and blatant; massive miscarriages of justice, murder- and the rest will leave you feeling…sad. Depressed. Hopeful that change is still possible, but incredulous that there are still so many people out there who don’t get it, don’t want to get it, and who are actively opposed to anyone else getting it. I see this every day in the comments sections of social media pages in my very white hometown, populated by people who have never lived anywhere other than blindingly white areas and who haven’t bothered to expand their worldview beyond that one tiny midwestern town. These people scare the crap out of me and I know it’s on me to reach them, but I don’t know how to reach people so determined to hate. I’ll keep trying.

Ms. Stone raises a lot of excellent questions in this book, questions to live by that came up in Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: if nothing were to change, what kind of person would you want to be? We don’t have to be in perfect circumstances to still live in a way that brings honor to ourselves and the world around us- even to a world that doesn’t deserve it, because we still do. Heavy questions here with answers that will be different for everyone and that will probably change throughout our lives.

I feel like this is a book I’ll be processing for a long time, that I’ll return to in my mind when yet another Black person’s life becomes a hashtag and a headline. When the pandemic is over, there’s a local group I’m planning on getting involved with that is working to address these issues, and this novel has only furthered my commitment to that. Would that one day, these books that tell the stories of tragedies that didn’t have to be will no longer be necessary.

If you’ve been on the fence about reading Dear Martin, this is your sign to pick the book up. It’s painful and deeply upsetting, but that’s the reality of where we are as a society in the US, and it’s not something any of us should look away from. Read it, feel every last bit of it, and then do what you can to be part of the solution every day of your life.

Visit Nic Stone’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson

As soon as I read the Goodreads blurb for Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson (Katherine Tegen Books, 2020) this past summer, I. Was. In. I smashed the want-to-read button so fast, I nearly slammed a hole in my computer. The storyline, that cover…it all called to me. I knew it would be a tough read, emotionally speaking, and it was. The content warning right at the beginning- sexual abuse, rape, assault, child abuse, kidnapping, and addiction- lets you know that. But what a masterpiece and a multifaceted social commentary Ms. Jackson has written.

Enchanted Jones is an aspiring singer, struggling to find her place in the world as one of the few non-white students at her private school in the suburbs. Her family’s financial situation has been tight ever since they moved from the city and she’s needed at home when she’s not busting her butt at school, making waves in the pool for swim team, or struggling to fit in with the other upper-class Black kids in Will and Willow, the social group her parents made her and her younger sister join.  When she gets the chance to audition for a singing competition, Enchanted jumps at it, even if it means fibbing a little to her mother, and she catches the eye of Korey Fields, world-famous singer, who immediately takes her under his wing and promises to make her famous.

What he promises and what he delivers are two very, very different things. Before long, Enchanted’s starry-eyed devotion has turned to fear, and she’s increasingly more desperate to navigate Korey’s moods and fists. She’s trapped, addicted, and being used, and unsure of how to escape when Korey’s entire world is built to ensure that he gets what he wants, whenever he wants, in order to continue making powerful people a whole lot of money. And it only gets darker from there…

While there are parallels with R. Kelly’s story, Ms. Jackson is clear to state that this isn’t about him. This is about a society we’ve created that disbelieves women, and in particular, Black women, whenever they use their voice to speak of how they’ve been harmed. This is a story about how multiple industries will turn a blind eye to abuse, pain, and crime in order to ensure that their bank accounts continue to fill. It’s a scathing story and one that I hope is read and discussed widely. Things need to change, and talking about it, shouting about it the way this book does, is how it starts.

Ms. Jackson portrays Enchanted as someone whose home life is good but who feels just enough of a squeeze to be looking for outside validation, and that provides a perfect entrance for Korey, an R. Kelly-like character who is well aware of what to look for when it comes to his latest victim. Enchanted is a hard worker and just enough of a people-pleaser to prove to be fertile ground for exploitation. Hers is so much of a story of wrong place, wrong time; it’s hard to imagine things not going the way they did, because Korey preyed on her so expertly. I’m obviously not the target audience, but reading this as an adult was just heartbreaking and devastating. Enchanted’s raw emotions are out there on every page- adoration, adulation, confusion, pain…fear. Guilt. Terror. It’s all here, presented in a way that the reader can’t and shouldn’t look away. Ms. Jackson’s writing style is just this side of sparse, no flourishes or excessive description (perfect for me!), which provides an even sharper edge to this story. I tore through this book in less than a day and I might’ve bitten anyone who tried to take it from me. It’s that compelling.

The difference between books about child trafficking and exploitation from when I was a teenager to now are remarkable. While there are, of course, people trying to pin Enchanted’s exploitation on her, instead of the grown man who exploited her (because what’s new), the message here is that she’s the victim in this, that this is something that was done to her by someone who knew better but chose to harm her anyway, and this is such a breath of fresh air in comparison to some of the books I grew up with. I’m remembering very distinctly a book called Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play by Fran Arrick, which I read when I was a young teenager and which details the story of a fourteen year-old who runs away from home and is immediately picked up by a pimp and turned out on the streets a few days later. Instead of showing Steffie as a victim, she’s portrayed more as someone who makes a single terrible decision and so of course bad things happen to her. “Don’t run away from home, kids, or you’ll be turning tricks out on the street within days!” seemed to be the takeaway message, but Grown and its contradictory title (or is it?) shows just how easy it is, even for girls from regular families, to get pulled into situations by master manipulators.

Such a heart wrenching, devastating novel that I hope spreads awareness, both of the issue of child and teen exploitation, and of Tiffany D. Jackson’s massive, massive writing talent. Read this, and for God’s sake, listen to and believe Black women.

Visit Tiffany D. Jackson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles

I don’t quite remember how Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (Quill Tree Books, 2020) came to be on my reading list (or at least where I found it), but I know WHY, because it ticks so many of my boxes:  

*YA

*diverse book

*characters grappling with religious and social issues

*contemporary as heck

*amazing voice

In fact, Lamar Giles is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books and serves on the Honorary Advisory Board! How cool is that?!?!? (Thank you to the founders and members for this group, for the work you do to keep our shelves stocked with books that represent everyone! It never ceases to amaze me how much better YA now is than when I was young.). By whatever means I discovered this book, I’m glad I did; this is some fabulous YA.

Del’s been in love with Kiera since their kindergarten production of The Wizard of Oz, but she’s always been attached to someone else. Now that she’s finally single, Del’s ready to swoop in and make his move, but he never expected to follow her into his church’s program for pledging purity. *record scratch* Kiera’s not thrilled with Del or his reputation (which he hasn’t exactly earned), but he’s determined to game the system with the help of Jameer, another student in the program with whom Del has made a bargain: he’ll get Jameer answers to his sex questions from the Healthy Living class at school that Jameer isn’t allowed to take, and Jameer will aid Del in his quest to finally get together with Kiera.

But things are always a little more complicated than they may seem. Del’s town has had a rash of teen pregnancies and the community is still reeling from that. His college-age sister has some mysterious new gig. His job stinks. But the friend’s he’s making at the Purity group are turning out to be solid. Del has a lot to learn: about life, about purity and sexual expectations, about what it means to be a good man and how to treat women. The Purity Pledge may not be what he expected, but getting involved leads to everything he needs to move forward in life.

Whew, this is a great book. It’s my first Lamar Giles novel, but already I can tell he’s a master of voice. Not one time during the reading of this book did I go, “Wow, this is absolutely an adult writing for teens;” Mr. Giles is right up there with Angie Thomas, nailing the voice of a Black teenager searching for answers, identity, and his place in the world. Del is a flawed but solid character, and his growth throughout the novel is admirable. He sometimes needs to be shoved there a little, but he readily absorbs the lessons he’s taught by the people who surround him, and he’s not afraid to admit when he was wrong, and to rewrite his life goals when he needs to.

The supporting characters are fabulous; they’re all distinct characters with distinct personalities and goals and character arcs (have you ever read a book where the other characters are kind of interchangeable? Absolutely none of this going on here!). There’s religious and social commentary here, stated in a way that makes sense to teenagers (who will absolutely call you on your crap if it doesn’t add up, something that Mr. Giles seems to understand well!), but never, ever in a preachy way. This isn’t a faith-based novel whatsoever, but it’s a story set in a family whose members are searching for various things, and those things are occasionally conflicting, which adds extremely readable drama.

I’m looking forward to reading more from Lamar Giles, because this was just a super solid, thought-provoking, entertaining YA that deserves to be read far and wide.

Visit Lamar Giles’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

I first became aware of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf Publishing Group, 2020) when I was searching NetGalley for new books. My request for it wasn’t accepted (you win some, you lose some!), but I knew 100% that I had to read this. After reading their previous book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they’re an auto-read for me. So much eye-opening information, presented in a way that keeps me turning the pages.

The American Dream is increasingly unavailable to anyone but the very rich; hard work and a determined attitude don’t count for much when your brain is primed for addiction and chaos, and there are no resources to help pull you out. In Tightrope, Kristof and WuDunn shine a light on communities in America that, through poor choices aided or directly caused by policy failure, have fallen through the cracks and are barely surviving. Some aren’t surviving at all. The pain travels through the generations; when parents suffer, their children don’t thrive either, and when they’re raised in chaos, they pass that along to their own children, and the damage works its way down the line. Poverty, violence, drug addiction, dropping out of school, lack of jobs, lack of opportunity, prison records, these aren’t merely personal choices (although some of them start out as such); they’re systemic failures that our society and our government have failed to address and at times have purposefully made worse.

Kristof and WuDunn don’t just point out problems, they offer solutions (ones that will summarily be ignored by anyone with power in order to further their own short-term gains, as our country is wont to do). The US is chock-full of problems, but they’re solvable problems, if only we stop looking at things like hunger and lack of available jobs as a personal choice.

It’s a damning book, and I fear that the people who need to read it will ignore it. Look at this quote:

‘Children in America today are 55 percent more likely to die than kids in other affluent countries, according to a peer-reviewed study in Health Affairs. “The U.S. is the most dangerous of wealthy, democratic countries in the world for children,” said Dr. Ashish Thakrar of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the lead author of the study. If the United States had simply improved at the same rate as other advanced countries, 600,000 children’s lives would have been saved, Thakrar calculates. If America had the same mortality rates as the average in the rest of the rich world, 21,000 kids’ lives would be saved each year. Because we failed to modernize our health system the way our peer countries did, we lose fifty-eight children a day.’

Fifty-eight kids a day die because we’ve deemed them not worthy as saving. That’s over THREE of my daughter’s first grade classes. PER. DAY. We throw fifty-eight kids in the garbage every single day, and who knows how many adults, because it’s more important that insurance companies make money than those children get a chance to grow up. If you wouldn’t be okay with this for your own kids, or for yourself, you shouldn’t be okay with it for anyone else.

Why do some people thrive while others sink to the bottom? How do some folks escape difficult circumstances while others struggle for generations? The writing team covers this, as well as the resources necessary for everyone to thrive. In order for America to prosper, we can’t leave vast swathes of the population behind; America is only strong when Americans- ALL OF THEM- are strong, and the authors illustrate this well in heartbreaking example after example.

Kristof and WuDunn focus mainly on the community where Kristof grew up, in Yamhill, Oregon (famously the hometown of Beverly Cleary; she writes about it in her autobiography, A Girl from Yamhill), but they do expand their look to other states that have been hard-hit by the policies of the last fifty years. It’s a devastating look, a hard one that far too many aren’t interested in taking at the US, but one that absolutely needs to be taken. It’s not without hope, but it’s sobering, and if you’re in the US, you can’t afford to miss this book.

Read Nicholas Kristof’s writing at the New York Times here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Follow Sheryl WuDunn on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

I had Nomandland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton Company, 2018) on my Goodreads TBR, but when I requested it from the library as an ebook, it was for a reading challenge. I ended up reading something different for that prompt, because this took about four months to come in, but my goodness, was it worth the wait. If you haven’t read this book and you’re American, put it on your TBR right this very second, because this is required reading for every single American. (And if you’re not American, well, it may be eye-opening about what we’re driving our elderly population towards.)

Jessica Bruder follows a group of Americans, mostly at or nearing retirement age, who no longer reside in homes or apartments. They live in cars, vans, campers, refurbished buses, because they can no longer afford a stable life. They live off of disability, Social Security, jobs that pay minimum wage or barely above it, working through illness, pain, chronic medical conditions with little-to-no treatment. They sleep in sleeping bags, covered in multiple blankets, in temperatures that dip down into the teens at night or remain in the 90’s, while snow and ice pile up around their tires, or the occupants in each vehicle swelter. They eat whatever they can cook in their mobile housing, over campfires, sourced from food pantries, given to them by friends. They do their best to survive and keep an optimistic attitude, but their lives are nothing to envy.

These seniors (or close to it) work managing park campsites and harvesting sugar beets and fulfilling orders at Amazon in punishing twelve-to-fifteen hour shifts and sometimes more, in jobs that hand out painkillers for free because their workforce isn’t able to keep up without them. They travel from job to job around the country, sleeping in store parking lots, moving on from campsites after their time has expired, doing whatever they can to stay alive. It’s not always enough.

God. This book is depressing, but it’s important. Take a good look around you the next time you see an RV or a large van or a car that seems a little overly full of stuff. There’s a good chance that there’s someone living in there full-time. (We’ve got one of these at our local library. It breaks my heart every time I see their vehicle parked there. It gets *cold* here in the winter…) And while some families hit the road full-time by choice, these people are forced into it. It seems like one of the main causes is divorce, which turn many people’s stable financial situation into something untenable, but job loss and medical bills are also a major culprit into forcing people into these nomadic situations. If you think you’re immune, you’re wrong. Plenty of the people in this book had worked at the same job for decades, only to be downsized and then discover that it’s impossible to get a new job that pays a livable wage at 59 years old.

Jessica Bruder shines a light on a community that lives in the shadows in the US. Its members don’t like to think of themselves as homeless- they prefer to think of themselves as free from the trappings of life that tie them down- but homeless is absolutely what they are, and at a time in their lives when they should be able to relax, spend time with their family and friends and gradchildren, and take care of their health problems. Instead, they’re shivering through cold nights, trading tips about how to cook on hotplates in a van, and working with broken limbs that they can’t afford to get treated. What on earth are we doing as a country? How is it that we’re so quick to dispose of people???

Nomadland is a shocking, eye-opening, terrifying exposé. It’s one that shows that no matter how safe we think we are, we’re one illness, one spouse’s affair, one job loss away from living in our car. Ms. Bruder must have some serious strength of character to follow the people she profiled in the story for so long; I’m not sure I could have held up emotionally through the end. This book is a page-turner; it’s one of the scariest books I’ve read in a very, very long time, and despite that, I can’t recommend it highly enough. We all need to be aware of what life is like for those who fall through the cracks, because it could be just about any one of us. (If you’re white, that is, and Ms. Bruder does go into explanations for the reasons why there aren’t that many people of color living like this. That doesn’t mean that life for people of color of these ages are necessarily any better or easier, just that living full-time vehicles hasn’t shown to be a solution for these groups in any large number.)

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts; if you haven’t yet read Nomadland, put it on your TBR and come back after you’ve read it, because your thoughts matter to me as well. Everyone should read this book.

Visit Jessica Bruder’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.