Jonny Appleseed

Jonny AppleseedJonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead (Twitter, Insta)

Genre: contemporary/literary fiction

Setting: Manitoba/Peguis First Nation

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Arsenal Press (15 May 2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Jonny Appleseed is about a First Nations boy who is gay and trying to figure out how to be his best self. His mother wants him to come back to the Reservation for his stepfather’s funeral. Getting there requires more cash than he has on hand and so he works extra at his job, which is as an online sex worker. During the few days it takes him to save enough cash to get home, Jonny reflects on the experiences from his past that have helped to make him who he is right now, with a fever-dream kind of feel to the memories.

I am honestly not sure how to write a review of this book that really encompasses my thoughts without making me sound like either an idiot or an asshole. I loved this book, though, and loved learning more about the Cree Nation, where Jonny as well as author Joshua Whitehead are from. Truly, it isn’t possible for me to have known less about the Cree before beginning this book, so it was an interesting reading and learning experience. 

I enjoyed learning some Cree words, though I absolutely have no idea how to say them. At first, I wanted a glossary because not all of the words used in the book were explained by context (or maybe I just didn’t get it), but then I decided that I liked that there was no glossary. It felt more real for the words just to be there, slipped into the narrative as they probably would be in normal conversation, and it is my job as a reader to figure them out. I always like learning about a culture that isn’t familiar to me and I appreciated the richness that was imparted through this story.

Many parts of this were heartbreaking. Not just because of how people treated Jonny as a Two-Spirit indigiqueer person, as he calls himself. But also because of how poor he and most of his acquaintances are, how hard they have to work to scrape together enough to buy something like a six-pack, or that they work hard just SO they can buy a six-pack or spirits. 

I think this is a book everyone should read. It will make you laugh, cry, and most importantly, think and empathise. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Home isn’t a space, it’s a feeling. … And it isn’t always comfortable – at least, not an NDN home. In fact, quite often, it’s uncomfortable. But it’s home because the bannock is still browning in the oven and your kokum is still making tea and eating Arrowroot biscuits. … And, given time, it becomes mobile – you can take those rituals with you, uproot your home as if it were a flower.
  • But I just laughed and I think he got mad – I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they’re applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.
  • Don’t be thinking I don’t know who this is for – you like that Walker boy. I’m fine with that, son, Creator, he made you for a reason – you girl and you boy and that’s fine with me, but what’s not fine is you selling yourself short. You gotta leave if you wanna survive, and when you do you’re gonna need the steadiness of those hands, m’boy. You’re gonna need a rock and a whole lotta medicine. 
  • I am my own best medicine.
  • But the way he told stories was so sincere that I couldn’t help but become enamoured. That was when I learned just how much power there is in stories …
  • “Howa, he’s just snapped,” someone said, which made Jordan laugh. “Oh heck, that guy’s feeling no pain,” she said. That saying is weird, “feeling no pain.” I used to laugh at it too, but nowadays I think that they’re drunk because they’re feeling all kinds of pain.
  • My kokum had always told me that sleep was not a waste of time, that it was a time for healing, so I slept long and hard, waiting for my blood to leech out its memories and for my body to rejuvenate.
  • “But you – you my everything, m’boy, all this time you been my rock.”  “No, Momma,” I replied, “you’re my rock. I’m just the one who broke you.”  “Maybe,” she said, biting her lip. “But then you also the one who ground me. Ground me up into a medicine.”
  • …a good story is always a healing ceremony, we recuperate, re-member, and rejuvenate those we storytell into the world…

 

On the Come Up

On the Come UpOn the Come Up by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Genre: YA/contemporary literature

Setting: Garden Heights, a fictional neighborhood

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Bahni Turpin

Source: my own collection

Length: 11:43:00

Published by: HarperAudio (5 Feb 2019)

Her Grace’s rating:  out of 5 stars

Bri Jackson is a 16 year old who wants nothing more than to be a rapper like her father was before he died. People call her Lil Law, an homage to her father’s stage name Lawless. But Bri is very much her own person with her own style and ideas, not a copy of her father. When she wins a rap battle in the ring, Bri finds herself suddenly in the spotlight, and not always in a good way. Navigating her way through a fledgling career in the music industry and helping/worrying about her mother’s unexpected job loss, Bri has to figure out how to be on the come up in a way that is true to herself.

Initially, I was hesitant to read this because how could it possibly be as good as The Hate U Give? I went ahead and bought it when it was an Audible daily deal, but I didn’t work up the nerve to listen until now. Am I ever glad I did! This was a fantastic novel! Thomas does such a good job of bringing readers inside the heads of her characters. You can really feel the anger, disillusionment, disappointment, and fear of the characters. Frankly, anyone who reads a book like this and doesn’t feel rage at all the injustice must have something wrong with them. Bri is angry, yes. She’s got an attitude and can be rude. But she was doing nothing wrong and got thrown to the ground by two grown male security guards at her school. That’s a whole lot of bullshit. I’d be furious if that happened to me, too. I’m furious just reading about it happening to a fictional character. 

I felt Bri’s pain and worry when she saw her mother and older brother trying to scrape together enough money to pay the utility bill AND also buy food; her shame when her shoes fell apart and she couldn’t afford new ones; her embarrassment at having to go with her mother to the food bank. Children shouldn’t have to worry about things like this, and it hurts and is shameful that children anywhere, let alone one of the richest countries in the world, deal with food insecurity and poverty daily. 

The references to various rap and hip-hop artists throughout the book made me want to listen. I’ve never been much of a fan of rap, but I know that some artists use it to highlight social injustice. This story made me want to educate myself better. 

I listened to this on audio and Bahni Turpin’s performance is fire. She is one of my favorite narrators anyway, but she really went above and beyond in bringing these characters to life, especially Bri and her music. Also, here is Angie Thomas rapping one of Bri’s songs. 

I can’t wait to see what Angie Thomas writes next, and I hope Bahni Turpin narrates it. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Jay’s a people person. I’m more of a “yes, people exist, but that doesn’t mean I need to talk to them” person.
  • There’s only so much you can take being described as somebody you’re not.
  • That’s when I learned that when people die, they sometimes take the living with them.
  • But it’s kinda like saying one side of the Death Star is safer than the other. It’s still the goddamn Death Star.
  • Not everything deserves your energy.
  • All these flavors out here, and you choose to be salty.

 

Boy, Snow, Bird

Boy Snow BirdBoy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Website)

Genre: literary fiction/ magical realism

Setting: Flax Hill, CT (fictional)

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 308 pp

Published by: Riverhead Books (27 Aug 2013)

Her Grace’s rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

 

**Major spoilers below**

In mid-century Massachusetts, Boy Novak marries Arturo Whitman, a widower with a young daughter, Snow. Eventually, Boy has a daughter of her own, which is when it becomes clear that Arturo and Snow are light-skinned Blacks and they are ‘passing’ as white. 

Boy, Snow, Bird is touted as a Snow White retelling, but if that is true, I fucking missed the point. Yes, there was a bit of an obsession with mirrors throughout and a sense of competitiveness about ‘who is the fairest’ between Boy and Snow. Beyond that, I guess I missed the similarities to the fairy tale. This isn’t a real problem for me because I generally felt this novel was more a discussion on race relations and racism than anything else. 

I thought the first part of the book worked well, told from Boy’s point of view. She was raised in an abusive household by a single father and traumatized by his penchant for rat catching. When she turns 20, Boy flees from her father’s home in NYC to the small town of Flax Hill, MA, outside Boston. There, she begins her new life, finds new friends, and marries Arturo. She feels there is something weird or not trustworthy about Snow, which is about all I could suss out regarding the Snow White plot. The ‘evil stepmother’ sends away the child everyone loves and fawns over. This confused me because I wanted to know why Arturo didn’t object to his new wife sending his first daughter away. As a parent, I would never stand for someone wanting to send my kid somewhere else. 

The second part was from Bird’s POV. This didn’t work as well, partly because of the epistolary element. Why not just give Snow her own section if you want her voice to be heard? Also, this was the section that seemed to have the most magical realism, such as how Bird says she doesn’t always appear in mirrors. These elements were later dropped entirely in the third part and we never got a resolution to them. 

In the third part, which goes back to Boy’s POV, the novel just loses the plot. There is a lot of discovery and revelation but it felt contrived and not that connected to the story. It is here where it becomes the most apparent that the characters are also really flat and have been throughout. It was in this last part, about 25 or so pages from the end, where Boy learns that her father, Frank, was actually her mother. Frank had been Frances and she was a lesbian, but began living as a man after she was sexually assaulted in grad school. There was a really gross implication that transpeople become trans because of sexual assault and that they then proceed to become abusive sociopaths. Um, no. Just no. I am sure that’s not what Oyeyemi meant to imply, but the message is there nonetheless. I know that there are plenty of examples of people, especially women, living as men in the earlier parts of the 20th century (for example, Trenton Makes) and passing as men, similar to how some Black people passed as white. However, WHY? Why was the transgender thing even here? I don’t  understand what it was supposed to add to the story; the story wouldn’t have changed one bit if Frank really was Boy’s father and her mother really had died in childbirth. Unless it is just to highlight to Boy that Arturo and Snow passing as white shouldn’t be the shock it was since her own mother had passed as something she wasn’t for Boy’s whole life, whether she knew it or not. 

This was the first novel by Helen Oyeyemi that I’ve read and I do plan to read more by her. I liked her writing and the hidden bits of humor. Some of it was pure poetry on the page. I just didn’t care for this story or the way she handled trans issues. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The first coffee of the morning is never, ever, ready quickly enough. You die before it’s ready and then your ghost pours the resurrection potion out of the moka pot.
  • For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they’re around mirrors.
  • The general advice is always be yourself, be yourself, which only makes sense if you haven’t got an attitude problem.
  • If you wish to be truly free, you must love no one.
  • I told her that magic spells only work until the person under the spell is really and honestly tired of it. It ends when continuing becomes simply too ghastly a prospect.
  • She was only fifteen. At that age embarrassment is something you can actually die of.
  • People underestimate the freckled.
  • I’d have liked for him to say my name again, though. You know how it is when someone says your name really well, like it means something that makes the world a better place.
  • Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away in them, setting two mirrors to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton.

 

Such a Fun Age

Such a Fun AgeSuch a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 310 pp

Published by: Putnam (pub date)

 

Emira Tucker is a 25 year old black woman who is struggling to find her path in life. She’s about to get kicked off her parents’ insurance and is juggling two jobs, having a hard time paying rent, and really wants to find a full time job with benefits. In the meantime, she is a part-time babysitter to Alix Chamberlain’s eldest daughter, Briar. Alix is a blogger and something of a social media influencer, and she thinks she knows what is best for Emira. When an incident occurs at a local fancypants grocery store and Emira is accused of kidnapping Briar, events transpire to alter the course Emira thought she was on. The confrontation at the grocery is caught on video and the man who filmed it, called Kelley, also thinks he knows what is best for Emira. Eventually, the various relationships and power dynamics shift and Emira does what is best for herself.

This was a really fast and easy read, though I think it fell apart at the end. It was too easy and wrapped up all the loose threads too neatly. The characters, except for Emira and Briar, seemed kind of like they were being pushed into a stereotype. But this was a novel making a social commentary about ‘woke’ culture and how so many people are trying so hard to be woke and not racist that they end up being racist for lack of self-awareness. It was a commentary on the white savior mentality and how what one person thinks is best may not actually be best for another person. 

Reid did a good job making Alix and Kelley into unreliable narrators. I really didn’t know who was telling the truth and who wasn’t, or what their motives were for a while. Emira’s voice is strong throughout and she develops a lot as a woman throughout the story. Everyone thinks people who have finished college and are in their mid-20s must know what they want to do in life, but so often that is not the case. I thought it was nicely done to show some of the real life struggles new adults face in their daily lives. 

The part that I felt was the most well written was the actual event at the grocery store. Yes, I know things like this happen all the time and it is awful. But Reid is adept at making readers feel the anger, fear, and humiliation that goes along with someone else assuming you are breaking the law simply because of the color of your skin or what you are wearing. That’s a bunch of racist fuckery and it should have no place in civilized society. It infuriates me when I see news reports of incidents like this, and books like Reid’s that make you more strongly empathize with victims of racism are vitally important. I am not a black woman; I will never know what it feels like to have someone assume I’m breaking the law just by being there. But hopefully, one day soon, racism won’t happen and it will be viewed with the disgust and contempt it deserves from everyone. 

Though I thought there were some plot holes and structural flaws, Such a Fun Age was a terrific read and I strongly recommend it. 

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the BonesSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (Website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as an: hardback

Source: library

Length: 261 pp

Published by: Bloomsbury (30 Aug 2011)

Salvage the Bones is technically a story about Hurricane Katrina. Really, though, it is about one family, the Batistes, living in extreme poverty in southern Mississippi. Narrated by Esch, the pregnant 15 year old only daughter in a family of boys, the 12 days of the story leading up to Katrina making landfall explore the family dynamics and dramas of Esch’s life. 

****All the spoilers below!****Read More »

Who Fears Death

16064625Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy/ Afrofuturism

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 420 pp

Published by: Daw (1 June 2010)

In a future post-apocalyptic Sudan, genocide between different tribes still occurs. When a woman is raped by the military leader of another tribe, she wanders into the desert, hoping to die. When she discovers she is pregnant, she lives in the desert for years and raises her daughter to be strong and fierce. They eventually move into a town so the girl, Onyesonwu, can attend school. There, Onye learns that she has strange and frightening abilities, able to turn herself into animals or travel a spirit realm. Convincing the town’s shaman to train her, Onye soon learns that a powerful sorcerer is trying to kill her in order to prevent a prophecy from coming true, a prophecy that says Onye is the person who will change the fabric of her society. 

There is so much to unpack in this novel. On the surface, it can be read just as a fantasy/ post-apocalyptic story. But if you pay attention, you can see the seamless manner in which traditional legends, stories, and customs are woven in with technology like computers, capture stations, and GPS. The blending of the traditional and the technological is, I think, a commentary on contemporary Africa. I have never been to any country in Africa, but I know several people who have and from what they say, it seems reflective of various societies. I wonder if the connection to the traditional is simply too strong to abandon, despite the advances in technology available. 

***SPOILERS BELOW***Read More »

Whale Rider

949043Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (no author websites found)

Her Grace’s rating:  2 out of 5 stars

Genre: fiction

I read it as an: audiobooks

Narrator: Jay Laga’aia

Source: library

Length: 03:39:00

Published by: Bolinda (8 July 2005)

This is the story of Kahu, a young Maori girl who badly wants to be loved by her great-grandfather, her tribe’s chief. He has no time for any girl children and is absorbed in his duties and responsibilities as the chief. Their tribe, which claims descent from the legendary whale rider of myth,  always has a male chief but now there is no male heir. To gain her great-grandad’s approval, Kahu struggles to learn the stories and roles of her tribe and show everyone that she is worthy. Among her allies is the spirit of the whale rider himself. 

This is, apparently, a very well known legend in New Zealand. I confess I had no knowledge of it other than a vague recollection from the film, which I saw years ago. It was interesting to learn about Maori culture and language in modern times. The struggles indigenous peoples around the world still face are incredible. Why are we so awful to each other? 

I didn’t care for the narrator too much. He made his voice sound really, badly high when he was speaking a woman’s lines. No. Don’t do that. He was fine for the various men’s voices, though, and said Maori words with what appeared to be fluency. Not knowing a single word of the Maori language, I wouldn’t know if they were pronounced incorrectly anyway. I enjoyed how the native language was spread throughout the book. 

I found the writing style to be rather simple, or simplified perhaps, which was sort of a turnoff. I also found it an odd choice for the story to be told from Kahu’s uncle’s point of view. Why not from Kahu’s herself? Or even her great-grandad? It just seemed a weird person to act as the narrator. 

Overall, I’m glad I listened to it, always like learning more about a culture, but I didn’t realllllly care for this one too much. 

Trail of Lightning

36373298Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World) by Rebecca Roanhorse

I read it as a: paperback

Source: library

Length: 287 pp

Publisher: Saga Press

Year: 2018

The ice caps have melted, causing the Big Water. The continents are completely reshaped and billions globally have died. On what’s left of the American continent, the Dine nation has survived, and the gods have returned to the land and walk among humans again. Someone is also creating monsters who are roaming the land, killing innocent people and wreaking havoc and terror. Enter Maggie Hoskie, monsterslayer. She is able to draw on ancient, powerful skills of her tribe, a rare gift, or curse, depending on who you ask. Maggie’s particular skills make her very good at killing, which she uses to kill monsters and Bad Men alike. She soon gets swept up in a job for the trickster Coyote to find a tool that is being used to create the monsters, destroy the person who has it, and prevent the tool from being used to make any more monsters. Maggie is aided by Kai, a young medicine man who has powers far beyond anything she can understand. Maggie has to decide if her skills are the gift Kai says they are or the curse she’s been taught, and whether she is destined to roam the world alone or if perhaps there is room for someone to love a monsterslayer.

NATIVE AMERICAN SCI-FI, you guys!!

This was such a fun book! More than that, it was terrific to see such a rich mythology woven into science fiction. The creation myth of the Dine tribe has been completely reimagined so that the world we live in, the fifth world, is being destroyed and recreated into the sixth world. I loved that Roanhorse used Native mythology in this way. I am somewhat familiar with the Navajo creation story because I teach world mythology, but even if I hadn’t known it, reading this book would have given at least a very brief overview of it, which is great. Various characters from mythology make appearances, most notably the trickster Coyote.

Maggie is an interesting character. She is damaged and uncertain because of her past. She is confident in her skills, but she hates having them. She feels unworthy of being loved, whether as a lover or just as a friend, yet she makes an excellent and loyal friend. Kai is, in many ways, a stereotypical pretty boy – confident, manipulative, and kind when it serves his purpose. Yet he is also complex because his kindness is actually genuine, his confidence is a bit of a disguise, and his manipulation comes at a price. Throughout the novel, the question arises – who are the real monsters? The ones Maggie hunts or is she one of them?

A couple things I do wish the book had are a map with the new continent borders. We get descriptions, but it’s always nice to see it as well. A glossary of the Navajo words would also be super helpful. Mostly, you can figure out the word based on context, but there were a couple that I couldn’t get. Having a glossary is nice to be able to flip back to. A pronunciation guide, if possible, would be even cooler.

I loved this book and can’t wait to read the second one in the series!

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

32075853Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 295 pp

Publisher: William Morrow

Year: 2017

London-born Nikki utterly rejects her Punjabi culture’s traditional views, especially arranged marriage. So she is naturally horrified when her older sister, Mindi, actually decides she wants an arranged marriage and asks Nikki to post a marriage profile on the temple’s announcements board for her. Nikki does, grudgingly, and while there, discovers a notice for a job teaching writing at the local Punjabi community center. She takes the job and quickly learns it is not a creative writing class, as the flier had implied, but a basic adult literacy class given to mostly older widows who had never been educated in their native language, let alone in English. Understandably, they are uninterested in learning to read and write using the texts for kindergarteners, which is all that is available to them. What they are interested in is storytelling. Specifically, telling romantic and generally filthy dirty erotic stories. So Nikki uses that to help empower the women, many of whom had never been encouraged to speak up or felt loved in their marriages, going against her culture and customs to do so. At the same time, she inadvertently stumbles across some evidence from the death of a young woman that may prove she hadn’t died in the way everyone had been told, placing Nikki and the widows in danger with the local gang of self-appointed “morality police.”

I loved every word of this novel. I thought it was so interesting to see the differences in the younger and older generations in this very traditional culture. I know next to nothing about Punjabi traditions, and so it was kind of shocking to me to know that arranged marriages are still a thing for many of them even living in Western countries. I am a bit confused by some things that I read when getting ready to write this review as compared to what was written in this book. For example, multiple sites indicate that Sikhs value gender equality, and yet it seems that some of them, at least the very traditional people, get bent if a girl is not a virgin when she gets married. Honor killings were a thing in this book. Of course, wayward sons didn’t seem to get anything worse than ignored/cut off from family, but girls get murdered. So I don’t get that at all. Not sure if that’s just typical religious hypocrisy or patriarchal bullshit or what, but there it is. Then there were The Brothers, the self-appointed bunch of moral police/thugs who try to reign in the widows from telling their stories. Word to the wise, little boys: don’t fuck with the grannies. It will not go well for you.

Aside from me being confused by religious contradictions and hypocrisy, which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who knows me even a little bit, I just loved this story. I think it was interesting that Nikki got so involved with the widows. At first, it could seem like it was self-serving on her part, that she simply wanted a job, but I think she quickly realized that she could make a difference to the women and to the community as a whole. Also, when she tells the widows that some people don’t even know about Southall, the London Punjabi community, and that they should change that, I do think it is because she sees a lot of potential in the women themselves, and has tapped into her own latent desire to do social justice, even if she herself wasn’t aware of it yet. The widows are able to help her, and themselves, accomplish something new and daring in part because of their almost invisible role in the community. As one of the women stated, no one ever listens to old women talking because it’s like white noise. They used their low position in society to effect change, because no one knew what they were up to until it was too late to stop them or contain it. That’s fucking phenomenal.

This invisibility also shows just how much younger generations disregard the lives and experiences of their elders. No one ever thinks about how our parents or grandparents have lives and individual identities that have nothing to do with us. They have and had desires and fantasies just the same as our own generation, whatever generation that may be. Sometimes, I suppose that realization comes as a surprise to people. Having the widows write their fantasies is such a delightful way to show the young’uns that they were not, in fact, the first ones to discover stuff to do in the bedroom, or anywhere else.

Overall, I just loved this book and definitely recommend it. It would make a great book club selection.

Born a Crime

33632445Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Trevor Noah

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:44:00

Publisher: Audible Audio

Year: 2016

Trevor Noah is known to most American audiences as the newest host and replacement for Jon Stewart on late night comedy. But this book chronicles his childhood in South Africa in the last few years of apartheid, through the years immediately after with their unrest and violence, and his own experiences with abuse. And yet, through it all, he kept his innate goodness and kind nature, despite seeing some horrific things. I don’t know that I could have come through as happily as he did.

I’m not generally a fan of memoirs, though I find that I’ve been reading more lately. So I don’t know, maybe I’m more of a fan of them than I thought. In any case, Noah managed to discuss some really heavy topics like apartheid, racism, domestic violence, and crushing poverty with genuine humor. I never thought I would have laughed out loud over eating “dog bones” because you’re too poor to buy better food, but goddamn the way he told it was hilarious. Maybe the best way to effect change is to make people laugh about a thing. I don’t know. But by turning it into something laughable, it kind of felt like it was a little disrespectful. But I am not the one who lived through it, so I also feel like I don’t really get a say in it. In any case, I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot about many things. I definitely recommend this whether you enjoy Trevor Noah as a comedian or not.