3 Mini Reviews

February is Black History Month in the United States, and while the current administration claims they are going to be commemorating it, well…

Oh! It wasn’t until I pasted that tweet that I realized it was from Brit Bennett. How fortuitous, as I was planning on including her book “The Mothers” in this mini review roundup. Basically, I want to share some of the best books by black authors that I read in 2016.

The Mothers, Britt Bennett. I listened to this book on audio in December, and it is really well done. The themes of motherhood are explored in diverse and interesting ways. Some of the Mothers referenced are church mothers, who converge like hens when there is a crisis. There was a moment when I could imagine them as the chorus, both in the church choir sense and in the “preaching to” sense. There are some flashes of pure brilliance here that make me want to pick up whatever Bennet does next.

Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I checked this out as an e-book from my local library. I live in a pretty conservative area, and I was worried that this book would be some type of master-slave apologist BS, since it deals with white men who bring their black slave mistresses with them on holiday. I googled the author before committing, and what I saw was incredibly encouraging. Perkins-Valdez is a respected academic and a serious thinker. The novel bore that out. Each of the women were drawn as distinct, fully fleshed out characters, each with their own motivations and concerns. Highly recommended.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. This one has had plenty written about it, and with good reason. I’ll admit – as a child, learning about the Underground Railroad, I thought it was an actual railroad. Nice to know it seems I wasn’t the only one. This alternative history is even more chilling considering the current state of affairs in this country. Cora’s plight reminded me of the true life horrors of Harriet Jacobs, as recounted in her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (which you should also read).

Dragonwings

Dragonwings
Laurence Yep

Book cover for Dragonwings, showing young Chinese boy holding a kite, standing next to his father, who is looking up towards a plane

This is my second review for #Diversiverse

I originally picked up this book intending it as a gift for my BBBS “little.” I figured I’d read it before I gave it to her so that we could talk about it if she wanted to. I finally got around to reading it recently, but now I’m debating whether or not to give it to her.

One one hand, the book is written in a very simplistic, almost childish tone. On the other, it seems like it might be a bit longer than a ten or twelve year old might want to read, especially since it took a good while for it to start capturing my attention.

Dragonwings  did capture some of the violence and resistance that many Chinese immigrants faced from whites. It also showed a fleshed out Chinese immigrant community, complete with family businesses, codes of conduct, a system of justice, and more. The characters help readers see the community as made up of more than flat characters with funny accents and an odd way of wearing their hair.

Overall I found the book too slow to get started and too choppy feeling with too abrupt an ending to be to my taste. But to each their own!

Want more like this? Try:

  • Hiroshima, Laurence Yep. I preferred this book to Dragonwings. Short, easy to read novella explores the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II from the perspective of some of the city’s young inhabitants. I appreciated that it also talked about the aftermath, and introduced me to the Hiroshima Maidens.
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luan Yang. Graphic novel in three parts, focusing on the modern day Chinese American youngster.
  • Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende. A Chilean woman immigrates to California in the midst of the Gold Rush.

Code Name Mariposa

In the Time of the Butterflies

In the Time of the Butterflies
Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictional recounting of the Maribel family of the Dominican Republic. The family is notable for having three of four sisters run afoul of dictator Rafael Trujillo, or “El Jefe,” paying for their actions with their lives.

Julia Alvarez, who spent much of her childhood in the Dominican Republic, wrote the book to bring the story of these courageous women to a wider audience. In her postscript she writes:

“To Dominicans separated by language from the world I have created, I hope this book deepens North Americans’ understanding of the nightmare you endured and the heavy losses you suffered – of which this story tells only a few.”

The novel is framed by the only living sister, Dedé. She is the caretaker of her sisters’ memories, and the one interviewed about their lives, by journalists and curious tourists. It is one such casual visitor that calls her up and asks if she can come over for a visit to ask about the sisters, setting up the novel.

The story itself is told by each of the four sisters in alternating chapters. It covers their early lives, when as young girls even the thought that someone might overhear a comment that could be interpreted as anti-Trujillo interrupts family time on the porch and sends everyone scurrying inside for safety.

Minerva is the most focused activist of the sisters. She was the first to speak out against Trujillo, and the one to never waver in what she knew to be right. However, Alvarez does a good job in showing that she’s still human, not a mythological hero. She gets scared and discouraged at times, but she knows what has to be done.

All of the women have strong, identifiable personalities. They may have been involved to varying degrees, and for varying reasons, but they all are drawn realistically. Alvarez has certainly succeeded in making these celebrated sisters easy to relate to but still more than capable of inspiring others to action. When they were assassinated, the country was in an uproar. Their deaths were one of many events that led to the downfall of Trujillo’s regime. The United Nations chose the date of their deaths, November 25, as the day of the  International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Fortunately, most of us in the US are relatively safe from violent government reprisal when we engage in protest (mostly). So in the spirit of the Maribel sisters, tell me: How do you speak out against injustice?

Want more like this? Try:

  • Junot Díaz, The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. Very different style, but it also covers the Dominican Republic under Trujillo.
  • Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. Set in Haiti, the DR’s neighbor on Hispaniola, around the same time as In the Time of the Butterflies. This time the dictator is Duvalier. This novel is more like a series of interconnected short stories. 

The Cousins’ War, #1

The White Queen

The White Queen
Philippa Gregory

This is the third Philippa Gregory books I’ve read, and the second in 2011. Several years ago I read The Queen’s Fool. It was a gift, and not anything I’d usually pick out for myself. I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would. Then back in April I read A Respectable Trade and thought it was one of the worst books EVER. I thought that I might giver her another try, but only when she was writing about old dead English people. I couldn’t deal with her talking about Africans.

Hence, The White Queen, aka Elizabeth Woodville/Rivers/etc. For a book that talks about more battles than I could try to count, wow is it boring. It’s all husband goes to war, comes home, goes to war, comes home, goes to war. All while the Queen sits around, twiddling  her thumbs and having babies (she had ten children by this guy!). If you’re going to have the Queen hanging out in the castle all the time, at least tell me what she’s doing. She can’t just be sitting around, breathlessly waiting for news all the time. Her husband had time to bed half the women in London, so at least one of them had leisure time.

Elizabeth was the mother of the infamous princes in the Tower of London, who mysteriously disappeared without a trace. Gregory has her own theory about what may have happened to them, and shares it here. It’s kinda interesting, but it doesn’t make it worth reading the whole book.

Well, whatever. I won’t be reading any more Philippa Gregory anytime soon. I don’t feel the need to pick up the next book in the series. The one thing I do like about historical fiction is learning more about the real stories and people involved. Somehow I can keep all the players straighter in my head if I read about them in novel form. The when I read nonfiction, it makes more sense to me. So that’s something, I guess.