28 March 2018

Book Review: ILLEGAL by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano

Oh, graphic novels. Why don’t I read more of you?  I know the studies that tell me that reading you stimulates both hemispheres of my brain.  What’s more, I know from my own experience how rich and rewarding reading them can be, whether it’s a book that retroactively informs my own childhood (see: Roller Girl) or something that renders the unspeakable down to a distilled form so the reader can grasp at understanding the unimaginable (see: Maus). I can’t answer my own question, but every time I encounter a great graphic novel, I remind myself anew that I should read more of them, and the one that has done that most recently for me is Illegal. This is the same writing team that brought us the Artemis Fowl series, which I have not read, and if I should ever stop being a bookseller (god forbid!) and have more time to read books already published, their efforts here would certainly prompt me to pick up those books.

 When I was in Memphis for Winter Institute in January earlier this year, I picked up an advance reading copy of this graphic novel in the galley room, that mystical, magical place where books are piled high on tables and booksellers walk through, helping themselves to all the free books they want. The cover was compelling, and what’s more, the advance reading copy was complete, not just a blad, and rendered in full color, so I tucked a copy away into my book bag for future reading.

Illegal is told by Ebo, a young boy from Ghana, who follows his older brother Kwame across the Sahara, who in turn has set off on a journey to find their older sister, who left Ghana years ago for Europe to try to make a better living for the family. Whether it’s the menacing human beings they encounter on their way, or the peril of survival at sea, Ibo and Kwame face danger after danger as they make their way to Tripoli across the desert, only to be launched onto a small boat little better than a life raft and set adrift in the Mediterranean.

The story is poignant and Rigano brings the story evocatively to life with his illustrations that are often bleak, but not without tenderness. Ebo intersperses his present day narrative, which begins on an overcrowded dinghy at sea, with stories of how he came to be floating on the open ocean with his brother and a group of desperate strangers.  Rigano differentiates the stories to great effect using cooler tones for the present day and a neutral palette for the past:

Authors Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin don’t pull many punches with the narrative. Young Ebo’s life is defined by constant struggle and haunted by tremendous loss, and yet there is still something indomitable in his spirit that keeps him going. The ending is more bitter than bittersweet, but it’s also not without hope, and I would love to know more about Ebo’s story. 

Jabberwocky, a division of Sourcebooks, will publish this book in August 2018. I can’t recommend this graphic novel enough.  The book says that it’s rated for ages 10 and up, but I’d suggest for readers that young that an adult read in tandem to answer the inevitable questions this book raises.  If you’re looking for a book that will build readerly empathy in your child, though, this can’t be beat. 

21 March 2018

Book Review: Only Child

Rhiannon Navin’s debut novel, Only Child, broke my heart.  I read an advance reading copy of it in November 2017, but the book didn’t publish until February 6, 2018. It takes as its subject the wake of a school shooting, following one family through their grief, loss, anger, and inability to cope with the enormity of their feelings. While the author seemed to use circumstances from the Sandy Hook shooting as a jumping off point for exploring the emotional aftermath, this book immediately took on new immediacy when the Parkland, FL, school shooting took place less than one week after it was published. 

Zach Taylor is the young narrator of our book, and he’s in first grade when his teacher rounds up his class to hide in the cloakroom. POP POP POP. He doesn’t understand what is happening, but he’s scared every time he hears POP POP POP. Once the police arrive, things get really chaotic for young Zach and his classmates; they’re herded out of the school to a small church to wait for their families, but now the police officers are yelling at them, barking orders for them not to turn around and look at anything, and in general making the situation even scarier. 

When Zach learns that his older brother Andy died in the shooting, his first thought is one of relief.  You see, Andy was always loud and mean to Zach, so Zach thinks that finally he can be happy, that family meals will be peaceful, that mommy and daddy won’t yell at each other so much either, now that Andy’s uncontrollable mood swings won’t be disrupting the family. He’s still trying to process the happy potential of being an only child while his parents fall apart, clearly incapable of taking care of Zach in the face of their overwhelming grief. 

Once Zach finally does grasp what it will actually mean to be an only child, the reader’s heart breaks all over again for him.  He doesn’t have the language skills or emotional intelligence to understand the feelings of guilt to which his family abandons him; his mother has been hospitalized for hysteria and his father is so incapacitated that he barely notices that Zach is in desperate need of attention. Even Zach’s grandmother, who comes to stay with them, doesn’t know how to be there for Zach, so he tries to cope in his own limited way: he builds a hideout in Andy’s closet, draws pictures, and models his behavior on what he imagines his heroes Jack and Annie from The Magic Treehouse series would do. 

While there were times when reading this book last fall that I felt the author was verging on being emotionally manipulative, in retrospect I don’t see it that way at all.  Like the young narrator of Emma Donoghue’s amazing novel, Room, the author uses a childish perspective to great effect, casting light on the emotional horrors of a situation without ever being graphic. One could argue that the limited perspective is even more successful for building readerly empathy, as we are required to fill in more blanks on our own with what Zach leaves unsaid and unobserved. 

It’s difficult to imagine that a book depicting a school shooting and the effects it has on both family and community can end with hope or forgiveness; Navin doesn’t push the envelope that far, but she lays the groundwork for redemption and understanding, which is more realistic, and she lets a little child lead them. Navin’s accomplishment in creating Zach as narrator stands shoulder to shoulder with Room, as I mentioned before, and with the narrator from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, creating an indelible voice poised perfectly to direct the story, allowing the reader to see life from a distinctly different perspective. I recommend this book highly.

14 March 2018

Book Review: Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

Talk about provocative titles, right?  I picked this book up in January when attending Winter Institute, an independent booksellers convention, in Memphis, TN. There’s a magical place there called The Galley Room, where tables groan under the stacks of books piled thereon. All the booksellers have to do is wander around the room and help themselves to complimentary copies of anything that looks good. Like many readers and booksellers, I actively try to diversify my reading (which for me also means intentionally choosing some non-fiction sometimes amidst the literary fiction that comprises my main reading interest AND making sure that I read works from small publishers), so this book ticked all the boxes.

It turns out that Michael Bennett is an important player in the NFL, a fact that no doubt many readers would know, but which took me completely by surprise.  I have since asked myself whether I would have picked this up to read if I had known that, as I have zero interest in footfall, despite having grown up in Mississippi, where football is less a sport and more a religion. As of my reading of this book, he was a player for the Seattle Seahawks, but as of this writing, he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

At any rate, I’m glad I picked this book up to read because first of all, Michael Bennett is talking about things that make white people uncomfortable, and second of all, he’s doing it in a very accessible and conversational tone.

If you know football, then you quite likely know some of the things that Bennett has been involved with, starting with the support of Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling during the national anthem, but moving beyond that to his participation in the Black Lives Matter movement.  So far, so awesome.  But what I really loved about this book was Bennett’s passion for intersectionality and the many ways he’s become involved with his community and speaking out against (or in some cases, FOR) various things: the institutionalized racism of the NFL and the NCAA, the importance of providing affordable and wholesome foods in the poorest urban centers, the marginality of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people in every aspect of our society -- really, the list goes on.

In one case, Bennett had been invited to Israel to play an All-Stars exhibition game, which he was really excited about because he loves to travel and meet new people. But not long before departure, he took a closer look at the itinerary and realized that it was a very sheltered trip, he would not be allowed to visit Palestine, and that the trip was not just a goodwill trip, but a political one. He canceled, voiced his reasons publicly, and spent months researching Israel and Palestine, and then booked his own trip there.

On the subject of becoming an activist: “It’s so much easier to talk shit than to do shit, because once you are out there representing what you believe, people see the real you. Most everybody in the world wears a mask, and very rarely do people unveil who they really are...So I’m going to be judged by strangers on the core of who I am, and yes, that makes me vulnerable and it can even feel terrifying. Nobody wants to lose his job like Kaepernick...but if the price of employment is silence, I just can’t do it anymore.”

On the subject of politics and personal activism: “As much as I was into Bernie, I also believe that just electing someone and expecting them to make real change happen for us is a dead end. I believe in intersectionality because Bernie Sanders -- or anyone else - isn’t going to end racism or bring resources into underserved communities. We are going to need to connect with each other to bring about the shifts we need. I hope we have more political candidates who express the values Bernie was talking about, but we still have to do the work.”

On becoming woke to gender discrimination: “Knowing that sexism and gender violence and employment discrimination are going to be real obstacles in their [his daughters’] lives makes me want to fight for girls and women with all my heart.  I wish it didn’t take having daughters for men [and me] to realize that this is their struggle, too. It should be enough that we are all human and we should want equality. But the reality is we live in a world where women -- especially Black women -- aren’t valued, and that often means that until we are looking at the world through our daughters’ eyes, we just don’t get it like we should.”

Amen to all of that.  Whatever Michael Bennett has next in store, I look forward to it.  It’s not every day that somebody can get me to consider football, really consider it, and I’ll be the first reader in line for his next book.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable will be published by Haymarket Books on April 3.  Go out and get yourself a copy to read, why don’t you? 

01 March 2018

Last Month in Review: February 2018

For being such a short month, I got a good bit of reading done, and I’m maybe 10-30 pages away from finishing two other books I started in February. Did I consider fudging on those and including them here? Absolutely. But I was able to refrain and they will show up for next month’s stats instead. 

In reverse chronological order, then, here’s what I finished:

1. Hamilton: The Revolution. Dayum. I was slow to come to this musical, but that just makes me a fool. It’s just utterly brilliant, and I’ve been listening to the soundtrack while reading the book.  I have basically zero background in hip-hop, but that doesn’t matter one bit when it comes to how much I love and appreciate what Lin-Manuel Miranda has accomplished here.  I’ve rarely been as convinced of someone’s genius as I am with this guy.  

2. The Wicked King by Holly Black.  This is the sequel to The Cruel Prince, which came out in January, but this book won’t pub until January 2019. Holly’s books regularly make my year end best-of lists, and this likely will keep in line with that. Here she’s accomplished the improbable: she has written a sequel that is even better than the first book of the series. I pick up Holly’s books to read when I want an escape, since her world building is utterly immersive, but then I remember how sharp an eye she has for the politics that transcend the human realm and therefore how much reading her books can inform my current world.

3. Black Panther: World of Wakanda. This was the first comic I’ve read in years, certainly in my adult life.  Review here

4. A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker.  This book won’t be out until May, but since our store will be doing his book launch, we had access to the complete F&Gs.  This book is, in a word, gorgeous.  Becker’s illustrations are lush and thoughtful, full of layers that the reader can unpeel a bit more with each encounter.  Like his Journey trilogy, this book is also wordless, but oh! What stories the imagination can weave in the face of images like these. 

5. Florida by Lauren Groff.  This collection of short stories is just stunning.  I’ve read Groff’s novels before and have long considered her a master of language (you can see my review of Arcadia here), but this book also brings a powerful self-awareness to bear, particularly in the recurring character of The Mother.  The state of Florida is itself a sort of character here, too, its sights, sounds, and oppressive humidity lending flavor to the narrative. This book will pub in June, and I hope to get around to reviewing it. 

6. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is another story collection from a debut author.  The first story, from the which the book takes its title, is a real powerhouse. Subtitled "Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology," it plays with the fourth wall and and turns readerly expectations upside-down. While not all of the stories are as strong as the first one (frankly, I think that would be nigh-impossible, it's just SO DAMN GOOD), the collection taken as a whole is an important contribution to the narrative of race in America.

7. Last but not least, I finished the audio book of Code Girls by Liza Munday early in the month, and many of the stories she shares here have stuck with me since.  You can read my full review here.

How about y'all?  Was February a good reading month for you?  What did you love?