Homegoing

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 rounded up because I think it is an “important” book. Important to realize that slavery and colonization didn’t just affect the United States, nor is slavery just a white man’s crime, and that there are no easy answers for the lingering effects of war, slavery, poverty, drug use, and discrimination. Also, that the whole notion of race is very artificial. White and black become mixed into both lines of descent. This book is told in alternating short stories following the descendants of two sisters – two sisters who never knew each other – and yet, the sense of family is strong on both sides. I especially liked the character called “Crazy Woman” – crazy because of her dreams where her ancestors spoke to her. She provided the needed link between all the stories, reminding us that whether we know them or not, we are the product of those who have gone before us.

The TV show “Finding Your Roots” has much the same message. We will never know everything about the people in our past, but we can learn bits and pieces, and tell the story of who we are. No matter what tragedies and hardships they went through, they survived. The evidence is that we are here. It may be uncomfortable to read about, it may make us cry, but there’s also a powerful message that there is always the hope of redemption and reconciliation and healing.

The writing itself is beautiful. Hard to believe that this is a debut novel. I predict a great career for Ms. Gyasi. I think it could be read by teens as well as adults, and ought to be required reading in high schools across the country. This will be a classic some day.

Book description: Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

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The Invention of Wings

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating and true story told in alternating voices. Well researched and the author made only minor historical adjustments to tell her story. Sarah’s stammer got a little tedious in the audio version. That was an addition by the author, and I’m not really sure what the purpose of it was, except to reinforce the idea that Sarah was also “enslaved,” in a way, by a culture that profited from slavery and did not support the advancement of women. The first half of the book rambled and went on a bit too long. The second half was riveting, but the ending left things up in the air. Perhaps there is more to be told that could become a sequel. Certainly we are still a nation shaped by slavery, and we have still not achieved a world without racism and sexism. If nothing else, our current “President” has shown us just how far we still have to go.

Book description: Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women. On Sarah’s eleventh birthday, she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

Small Great Things

Small Great ThingsSmall Great Things by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Is this really a 5 star book? It had some flaws, and the ending was really not up to Picoult’s usual twist. Everything was tied up a little too neatly. BUT. Reading this while the events at Charlottesville unfolded (white supremacists came looking for trouble at the taking down of a Confederate statue, and one of them ran down the non-violent counter-protestors with his car) proved to be eerily timely. We read this for book club and every single person remarked that it really opened their eyes to the fact of white privilege and made them think and they felt their perspective had changed significantly because of this book. For that reason alone, I’ll give this 5 stars, or 6 or 7…. I had difficulty listening to this book at first. The parts narrated by Turk, the white supremacist father, made me physically ill. But please do persevere! As Ruth and Kennedy wrestle with the issues of race and racial equity, so will you.

Book description: Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

Audiobook read by Audra McDonald with Cassandra Campbell and Ari Fliakos.

The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit I was underwhelmed by this book after all the hoopla and press and a Pulitzer Prize. It’s not exactly fantasy, and it’s not exactly magical realism. So I’ve settled on alternate history. The Underground Railroad is imagined as an actual underground railroad, built in some mysterious past by unknown builders but in a time period before the railroad even existed in the United States. Likewise other events, like the section set in South Carolina with white doctors encouraging black women to have tubal ligations long before such a thing was historically available. So the “railroad” is something of a time machine as well. Those things didn’t bother me. I give it 4 stars because this movement through time and space made the plot feel disjointed at times. Or it has no plot in the traditional sense. There was also no character development. What makes this a compelling book, though, is the way it removes the “black experience” from time and place, making the reader a vicarious traveler on this same journey regardless of race. In that sense, perhaps the reader is actually the main character – hopefully a character that has learned something and gained in understanding of that experience.

Book description: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted. In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully written and a quick read, this is a childhood memoir written in free verse. The audiobook was read by the author. I never felt like I was listening to “poetry” but it all had a kind of flow that worked for each short snippet of memory. I am not sure how this would appeal to children, but to a white woman who also grew up in the 60s, this was a trip down memory lane. It made me think about my own childhood and the part that family, religion, and school teachers played. She describes a life both extraordinary and ordinary, both different and familiar to my own. I never felt distanced by her experiences as a black person growing up during the Civil Rights movement, or her memories of racism. I was more struck by how universal her experiences and memories were, and I think anyone reading this, young or old, black or white, will find much to relate to.

Book description: Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.