Archive for the ‘racism’ Tag

An Appetite for More Than Murder   Leave a comment

Bruno, Chief of Police

Author Martin Walker introduces readers to Bruno in the first of the Chief of Police series. The title character, whose formal name is Benoit Courreges, is a former soldier who’s drawn to the peaceful existence surrounding the small village of St. Denis in Southern France. This doesn’t mean his life is boring.

The brutal murder of an elderly North African, a veteran who fought with the French army, draws national attention. The novel addresses racism, victims of war, Nazis and more.

 Although Bruno is not the point man in a murder investigation he contributes a lot when it comes to solving the case.  Initially, two young people, including the son of the town doctor, are arrested as suspects. Bruno is certain their only crime involves drugs.

While working behind the scenes with the national police, Bruno enjoys his pastoral lifestyle living in a restored cottage in the country with his hunting dog, playing tennis and helping the locals stay one step ahead of the EU inspectors. He’s respected, intelligent and knows good wine when it crosses his lips.

Walker’s descriptions of the landscape, townspeople, French food and wine are enticing on their own. The murder investigation is almost secondary.  Three women attract his attention, which creates another mystery wondering which one will ultimately win his affections.

 The narrative is sweet, at times humorous and engaging without being saccharine. Bruno is a likeable, credible character full of common sense and a sharp mind. Identifying the murderer was logical without being predictable.

Bruno: Chief of Police

Four Bookmarks

Vintage Books, 2008

273 pages

Getting Past Racism   Leave a comment

Book Review: 'The Sum of Us,' by Heather McGhee - The New York Times

Heather McGhee is an economist and social policy advocate. As former president of Demos, a think tank, she helped draft legislation, was a regular on news programs, has a law degree and chairs the board of Color of Change, an online racial justice organization. To say she was the right person to write The Sum of Us is an understatement.

McGhee’s premise is racism doesn’t only impact people of color, but also affects (financially and emotionally) whites. She traveled across the country interviewing people who have lost their homes, opportunities for better jobs, health care and been denied better education. Not everyone she interviewed was Black.

The issues are rooted in politics, greed and perception. She writes of a once-booming mill town in Maine, where Somali and other African nation immigrants now live. Local politicians claim their arrival accounts for lost jobs; yet, this occurred long before. Rather, they contribute to the economy and culture of the community. Through their experiences, McGhee tells of individuals of different races reaching out to one another and benefitting from the effort.

The chapters address a range of topics: Racism Drained the Pool; The Same Sky and The Solidarity Dividend, among others. The latter is an example of one of the many beauties of this work; McGhee not only identifies the issues; she offers solutions. If only people were willing to apply them. Her strong belief is based on people working together rather than at odds. Of course, she acknowledges this can’t/won’t happen overnight.

The Sum of Us: What Racism costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

One World, 2021

415 pages (includes Notes and Index)

Cast as Stereotypes   2 comments

Clever, timely and important are what come to mind after reading Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu.

Written as a script for a fictional television show, along with some background about the characters/actors, the novel follows Willie Wu in his quest for the prime part of Kung Fu Guy in the police show “Black and White.” He, and his Chinatown neighbors, family and friends have been relegated to roles such as Generic Asian Man, Young Asian Man, Delivery Guy, Pretty Oriental Flower and Old Asian Woman, among other stereotypes.

The setting is mostly the Golden Palace, where the show is in constant production. Willie lives in an SRO, as do the other Asian cast members, viewed as interchangeable, above the restaurant/set. His parents live one floor below him in the unit where he grew up. They, too, have had various roles throughout the years.

Yu establishes the scene, the characters involved and provides production notes. Even his acknowledgements adhere to the theme. It doesn’t take long to realize the name of the television show is another example of racism with the main characters reflecting a hierarchy based on the “Black and White” title.

The script-like approach takes some getting used, but ultimately works well. The Wu family’s past isn’t part of the TV show, but is a major element of the narrative. Although the theme is serious, Yu injects humor and romance as Willie faces the dilemma faced by many regardless of race: attaining a dream but at what sacrifice?

Interior Chinatown

Four Bookmarks

Pantheon Books, 2020

270 pages

In Plain View   Leave a comment

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The lies we tell ourselves, and others, to create new lives is the theme of The Vanishing HalfBrit Bennett’s novel addresses several timely issues including racism, sexism, privilege and gender identity. These are daunting points to undertake, but Bennett, without diminishing their importance, imbues the narrative with compassion and wonder.

At its heart, this is about twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who, as teenagers, ran away from home: a small, rural community of fair-skinned Blacks. The story tracks their lives as they eventually take separate paths, both figuratively and literally. Desiree returns home with Jude, her  young, very dark daughter in tow;  Stella passes herself as white, marries, moves to an exclusive area in Los Angeles and constantly worries she’ll be exposed.

The emphasis on Jude’s blackness drives the uncommon, perhaps unpopular, notion racism is only something whites project to nonwhites. Within her own, albeit pale, Black town, Jude’s been shunned since the day she arrived. Despite this, she doesn’t see herself as a victim and hers is the most engaging subplot within the novel thanks to those she interacts with most.

Although some stereotypes exist, most of Bennett’s characters are well-defined.  This goes beyond physical descriptions, but includes their joys, heartbreaks and deep emotions.

The settings change but the most important action occurs in the rural south and Los Angeles. Incorporating different locales makes it easy to see problems aren’t restricted to geographic regions. And, lies travel easily from one place to another.

The Vanishing Half

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Riverhead Books, 2020

343 pages

While We’re on the Subject   Leave a comment

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The life phase Kiley Reid refers to in her debut novel Such a Fun Age could be one of several: mid-20s, high school, early 30s, preschool or all of the above. Each contributes to the plot. Yet this work is far more important than time frames. It’s opportune as we examine our perceptions of race and racism.

Emira Tucker is soon to be 26 and no longer eligible for coverage under her parents’ health insurance. College-educated without a clue what to do with her life, she has two part-time gigs: babysitter and typist. It’s the former that drives much of the narrative. She’s African American; Alix Chamberlain, the woman whose child she watches, isn’t. Late one Friday night, Emira is with Alix’s daughter in an upscale market when confronted by a security guard. He questions why the black woman is with a young, white a child. The exchange is recorded on a bystander’s phone. The incident has the potential to go viral, but Emira’s not interested in taking the situation further and Alix is mortified it happened at all.

Reid’s characters are smart, funny and credible. Even with her lack of ambition, Emira is likable. It’s obvious she enjoys the toddler she babysits, but as a reader I found myself wanting more her. I don’t like admitting it, this is what Alix wants, too. Alix is a character I otherwise don’t want to identify with: she’s clueless and privileged. Yet …

This is an important story told with a surprisingly light touch.

Such a Fun Age
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019
310 pages

Riches and Losses   Leave a comment

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C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold can be read as either a question or an exclamation. It depends as much on the characters’ perspectives as the reader’s, which frequently changes but isn’t distracting.

Two siblings, Lucy age 12 and Sam age 11, of Chinese descent are left as orphans. Lucy’s pragmatic whereas Sam, their father’s favorite, is stubborn. Both are intelligent, but in different ways. The first thing they need to do is bury their Ba, something they must do with some semblance of tradition. Memories of him and their Ma, who is already gone, provide the family history: life as outcasts; how Ba and Ma met; Lucy’s passion for education; Sam’s disdain of the status quo; and more. So much more.

The plot unfolds as the Gold Rush has passed its heyday and railroad lines are being set across the west. Zhang’s writing is beautifully descriptive, not only of the northern California inland but the people inhabiting the harsh environment.

Lucy’s the focus of most of the story, although Sam, Ba and Ma are vividly brought to life. Yet, Zhang has crafted a family portrait full of flaws, loyalty, tradition and equal parts optimism and pessimism. Ba was born in California and was abandoned as a child. He’s Chinese, but doesn’t know the language – something he eventually learns from his wife.

Within this poignant adventure of Lucy and Sam on their own are issues of racism, sexual identity and the meaning of family.

How Much of These Hills is Gold
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2020
272 pages

Little Fires Everywhere: Read the Book First   Leave a comment

*This review was written in 2018. I thought I’d posted it, but turns out it’d been languishing in my Documents folder all this time. At least I remembered I’d read the book before watching the first episode on Hulu….

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The way families communicate with each other and the rest of the world is at the heart of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This novel falls into the can’t-put-it-down category. The characters are haunting in their embodiment of what they believe is right and wrong. When those lines are blurred, they become even more real – like people we know, or like the people we are.

Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl arrive in the upscale, planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. They rent an apartment owned by Elena Richardson, the mother four high school-aged children. Elena, who’s mostly referred to by the author as Mrs. Richardson, has lived her life as if following a recipe: step-by-step never considering substitutions or variations. Mia is an artist. She and Pearl move from place to place with the regularity of seasons. Mia promises Pearl this time, they’ll settle down.

That the families become intertwined is no surprise. The narrative opens with the Richardson’s manor-like home burning to the ground. Like bookends, this is where things wrap up.

Pearl and Moody Richardson become best friends. These are like-minded, intelligent kids who don’t quite fit in with the popular crowd like Moody’s older brother and sister. There’s also his troubled sister, Izzy, adding to the dynamics.

Little Fires Everywhere
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
Penguin Press, 2017
338 pages

Racism Has No Boundaries   Leave a comment

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Sandwiched between race riots in 1991 and 2019 is the story of two families, one Korean and one African American, connected through violence. Loosely based on the shooting of Latasha Harlins, author Steph Cha has crafted an important, engaging novel illustrating the prevalence of racism in the form of a who-dun-it in Your House Will Pay.

In 1991 teenager Ava Matthews is shot and killed in a neighborhood convenience store in South Central Los Angeles by the owner Jung-ja Han. Ava had gone with her younger brother, Shawn, to buy milk. Although Jun-ja Han is convicted, she served no jail time.

Fast forward to 2019, Korean immigrant Yvonne Park is shot outside the pharmacy where she works with her husband and daughter, Grace. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll only say the shooting attracts Shawn’s attention.

Shawn’s cousin Ray has just been released from prison. Shawn, has a decent job and is a father-figure to Ray’s teenage children. The family no longer lives in South Central, but gang activity is never far away.

Cha primarily focuses on Grace Park, a twenty-something living with her parents. Although she’s in touch with her older sister, Miriam is estranged from the family. Grace is the more naïve of the two, while Miriam has a wider life view.

Suspects for Yvonne’s shooting are sought, including Shawn, who has an alibi, and Ray, who doesn’t. It’s impossible for Shawn not to reflect on his sister’s murder and the lack of justice in her death.

Your House Will Pay
Four Bookmarks
Harper Collins, 2019
304 pages

Love and Espionage   Leave a comment

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American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson addresses a shopping list of timely topics: sexism, racism, politics and the meaning of family.

The story begins with a bang: the attempted murder of Marie Mitchell, an intelligence officer with the FBI. Marie’s story is told via a journal she writes to her young twin sons. She addresses them frequently, which reminds readers they’re privy to what a mother wants her children to know. As the novel progresses, the phrase in case anything happens could be added to most sentences.

Marie kills the would-be assassin who invades her Connecticut home, takes her kids and family dog to Martinique to hide in her estranged mother’s home. Marie’s narrative recounts her youth, including that she, her older sister and their father were left in New York City by their mother who returned to her island country.

Marie is intelligent and likeable, but her sister, Helene, has more personality as portrayed through Marie’s memories. The sisters are close. Helene decides she wants to be an FBI agent when she grows up; Marie follows suit after Helene mysteriously dies. However, because of gender and race, Marie’s given little opportunity for advancement.

Then, she’s approached to help undermine the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso Thomas Sankara.

Wilkinson takes the reader back to the 1960s, mid-1980s and early 1992 when the novel begins. At times fast-paced, at others more deliberate, Marie wonders about the role she’s assigned as she gets to know Sankara. Why she’s a target is the over-riding question.

American Spy
Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2018
292 pages

Not So Neighborly   Leave a comment

The Woman Next Door

The title of Yewande Omotoso’s novel The Woman Next Door is pleasantly ambiguous. There are actually two women living next door to one another with much more than a property line separating them.

Both women are older widows, had impressive careers; one is white and the other black. The setting is suburban Cape Town, South Africa. Neither is happy and each covets something the other has. Despite these similarities they are barely civil to one another.

Of the two, Hortensia is the most acerbic, although Marion is only slightly less prickly. The interactions between them are exercises in seeing who can sling the deepest barb. Marion is not Hortensia’s only victim; her caustic manner assumes an equal opportunity approach. Hortensia might as well wear a t-short with a warning label: stay out of my way.

In a well-paced style, the author reveals the women’s past which helps explain their attitudes toward each other and the world. An accident forces the pair together, but the situation is far from amicable. Even though it is Hortensia who offers the first semblance of a peace offering, it’s evident the gesture has ulterior motives. Meanwhile, Marion’s efforts to extend an olive branch appear more genuine.

Omotoso’s writing is vivid and engaging. The story begs an answer to the questions of Hortensia’s universal dislike of people and Marion’s general unhappiness.

At the risk of needing a spoiler alert, the ending is the weakest element of the narrative. However, overall it’s poignant on many levels.

The Woman Next Door
Four Bookmarks
Picador, 2016
278 pages