Tuesday, March 21, 2023

REVIEW: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones


I've read other books by Tayari Jones - notably An AMerican Marriage (which I loved) and when I saw this I jumped because I like her as an author and this book is about the Atlanta Child Murders. It combined one of my favorite authors and a favorite topic - true crime - in a way that wasn't overwhelming in a way that some True Crime Podcasts are.  

When the book starts, it's the summer of 1979. It's been raining all summer and all of the children are upset because literally their whole summer break from school has been ruined by the weather. The weather is on the front of everyone's mind - not the young black boys that have gone missing at around the same time. Four boys are missing and found dead before anyone even thinks to connect them. There ends up being a total of 29 murders. An arrest is eventually made and the murders stop but Wayne Williams, the guy that seems to be blamed for these murders, never admitted to them or is convicted of them - he's convicted of killing two adults - so many believe the Atlanta Child Murderer is still at large, albeit dormant. This is the setting of this novel.

We meet three children at one school, all in the same grade. Tasha Baxter is sweet natured and tries to be smart, and she wants to fit in at school - and not be excluded by her peers. SHe spends the summer, for instance, practicing rope skipping only to find out that the popular girls think it's too childish. She eventually shows interest in an older boy named Jashante, from the projects, who is in her grade because he's been held back. Because she is worried about becoming a social pariah if she shows interest, she tells Jashanate she hopes he gets asphyxiated. Jashante then disappears and Tasha is left wondering about her words and their power. 

Rodney Green is a really intelligent and painfully shy boy who tries to keep himself as invisible as possible at school and at home (having an abusive parent will do that). Rodney's father even comes to school one day and whips him in front of the whole class as a form of discipline. Shamed, Rodney walks away from home and is asked into a car by a man with a (fake) police badge.  

Octavia Harrison is another social misfit  at the school - she's called "Watusi" because of how dark her skin is - but she's remarkably resilient and self confident.  Octavia is close with Rodney - they sit near each other in class becuase of their names - and she lives across the street from the projects with her mother, Yvoinne. Her father lives in South Carolina. WHen the murders start hitting really close to home, her father calls and asks that she be sent to him to live in South Carolina.  

I loved this book. THe narratives are told from the first person perspectives of the children, who are watching the news, and their parents' reactions, to the murders and learning about people that they know being taken.  This was amazing simple and yet so effective.  I learned that Tayari Jones was a fifth grader in Atlanta during this time period, so she actually lived through the incidents in question and was able to put this experience to a very good and effective use. It is a quiet, real time and devastating contemplation of serial killers, terror and the setting of such brutal acts.  I truly loved this short book so much and I'm glad that I purchased it for my library.  

Saturday, March 18, 2023

REVIEW: South to America by Imani Perry


This is also a part of the Southern Reading Challenge. I think that I wanted to learn more about the South after actually visiting there for the first time a number of years ago - I went to Atlanta and then again last year when I was in Birmingham, so this collection of stories about the region intrigued me. It's part travelogue - she travels to the places that she writes about - but also a philosophical exploration of the region that results from her travels. She even goes to Florida and Cuba!  (I honestly never thought of Florida as the "real South" but what do I know). 

The most interesting parts of the book for me were when she was describing her own interactions in the South - with the history, the people and her own history there.  I felt like I was right there with her in those moments experiencing what she was experiencing and seeing things through her own eyes.  I could hear her talking and watch things through her eyes.  But those moments were seemingly few and far between.  They were overwhelmed by her sometimes heavy handed stream of consciousness delivery, which made it difficult for me to get through the book.  I sometimes had to take breaks at the ends of chapters to read something else and then come back because it wasn't easy or fun to get through those parts. I often felt that I was watching a closing argument in a trial that wasn't very organized. 

Having said that, I'm glad that I read the book.  I feel like I learned a bit more about a place in my country that I'm not from and haven't really immersed myself in or visited as much.  Perhaps a go from the library instead of a purchase!

Friday, March 10, 2023

REVIEW: Memphis by Tara Stringfellow and some news


I picked up this book as part of the Southern Reading Challenge - it's the second book that I've read for the challenge - the third will be reviewed shortly!  Strangefellow, is was trained as a lawyer, tells the story of a family - the Norths - through three generations of the women in the family. We are told the stories through the matriarch, Hazel, August and Miriam - sisters, and Miriams daughter, Joan. The book starts in 1995 when Miriam, Joan and Joan's sister, Mya arrive at August's home in Memphis, which August is sharing with her son Derek.  We meet them at the middle of the family's story, as Miriam is fleeing a violent marriage. As the book progresses, not only do we learn more about the complex characters, but we see approximately 7 decades of Memphis history and life as the backdrop to their stories. 

We definitely encounter things like Jim Crow and abuse - both sexual and physical - but also many moments that are absolutely beautiful, such as Joan's maturation into a successful artist.  We also experience MLK's death and the sanitation strike's impact on this family that seemingly idolized him.  There are many moments of joy too found in everyday life - the conversations that happen between women in August's hairdressing shop, conversations between black female radicals, the time spent on the porches just laughing. 

I loved this book.  So much.  I felt like I was immersed in the city of Memphis - that I could see the people that lived there and what the city was like. It was just as much a character as the actual people. For the most part, I felt that Ms. Stringfellow did a wonderful job immersing us in the life of this family with one exception that stays with me to this day:  Miriam knew that Derek had severely physically abused Joan and she decided to return to the home where he was living, knowing that he was still there. This implies to me that she had considered other options, or tried to (if there were no other options), but nothing else was there for her to go to - we never see her considering the places that she could go. Of course, that could be the point - there was nothing to consider because of course she would go back to the family home that August was in - but even if that was so, I would still have liked to see that contemplation.  Having said that, I loved this book. I loved how Stringfellow wrote and built this novel.  I look forward to her next one.


Now to my news.  When I was in NYC two weeks ago, I got engaged!  We were eating dinner in this little bistro near the UN and he asked me!  Of course I said yes.  No date set yet but yay!  I am excited to marry my best friend. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Review: Everybody's Son by Thrity Umrigar


For such a short book, coming in at less than 400 pages, it surely packs a punch.  The novel starts with Anton, a young black boy, breaking out of an oppressively hot apartment in the projects after his mother has left him to procure drugs and did not return after being drugged, held hostage and prostituted. Anton doesn't know who his white father is, except that he is a doctor.  Anton is placed into foster care with David and Delores Coleman, a prominent white family who lost their biological son in a car accident on their son's prom night. Wile the Colemans are very, very kind and loving to Anton, he definitely misses and yearns for his mother - who he calls "mam." Anton initially feels very out of place in the lily white neighborhood that the Colemans call home and feels that he is the main attraction at the circus when he goes to school. David, a judge, we learn cannot bear Anton returning to his mother when she is finally released from jail so he uses all of his privilege to ensure that this would not happen.  The Colemans eventually adopt Anton and this novel follows Anton through his early professional life.

I really enjoyed this novel. There is so much to unpack here as the novel probes issues related to exploitation and to privilege in the intersection of race, class and gender. Initially, I felt some sympathy to the Colemans, although not as much as I felt towards Anton and his mother.  Losing a child is horrific.  But then, I began to truly despise them and their moral failings. I felt moral outrage at the gross injustice done to Juanita, Anton's mam, by the very people who are supposed to be held to higher standards - David (who is a Judge) and his best friend (who is the prosecutor in charge of Juanita's case). I also was horrified that Anton had no idea that this had happened and was told that his mother had voluntarily relinquished him, when the explicit love she had for him was clear. The messages, throughout the novel, were clear.

That being said, the novel could be heavy handed in parts. While the novel moved quickly, it occasionally felt like I was being punched over and over and over again with the same tropes, which runs the risks that the reader becomes desensitized to what is an important message about our society. I felt that some of the characters became predictable and stereotypical - but perhaps that was the point.  They have to act stereotypically in order for the author to make her point. 

I do think that the book is worth the read for the themes it tries to tackle and raise awareness of, even with its drawbacks and I look forward to reading more of Umrigar's works in the future.

Friday, February 17, 2023

REVIEW: I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy


So Jennette McCurdy looked vaguely familiar to me and then I realized that it was because she was on iCarly and then Sam and Cat with Ariana Grande.  She had dropped off the face of the acting earth after those shows.  I had never really wondered why, honestly, but then this book started generating a lot of buzz.  There was a LONG waitlist for it at my library but I finally got my grubby hands on a copy and here we are.

I'm normally pretty hesitant to read a celebrity memoir but this one has been generating some buzz and I'm honestly glad that I read it.  It deals head on with the abusive relationship that Jennette had with her mother, Debra McCurdy and her coming to terms with her mother's death from cancer. We learn early on that Jennette grew up in a poor Mormon family in California and Debra forced Jennette into acting at the age of 6 in a painfully obvious play to live out her own failed ambitions through her youngest child - Jennette had two older brothers. Jennette felt that she had to keep her acting career up even though she didn't want to because that was, essentially, the only way to protect herself from her mother's abusive and sometimes neglectful behavior. 

The abuse that McCurdy suffered at the hands of her mother spilled over into other areas - notably her relationship with food and alcohol. McCurdy suffered from a number of different eating disorders throughout her life. Initially, she was anorexic, severely limiting her food intake to prevent the onsent of puberty (thereby enabling her to be cast in several roles where she was playing children that were younger in age than her). In fact, McCurdy did not get her first period until she was 16. Eventually, McCurdy would struggle with binge eating and bulimia. 

Most horrifically, McCurdy's mother would supervise her in the bathroom until she was 17, giving her vaginal and breast exams, causing her to feel so violated and yet unable to advocate for herself or tell someone about this. 

What I loved about this book is that McCurdy doesn't tell her story in a way that begs for pity or attention or to be treated as a victim. It's as if writing this book was a way for her to face the demons that she had and get them out of the dark - this was her therapy. She was very matter of fact about all the things that had happened to her at the hands of her mother and in relation to her mother. It's as if we're watching Ms. McCurdy grapple with what happened to her in real time and it's really, really good. It's also a story of redemption after many failed attempts - I felt that she was *real* in the sense that she described how she failed to deal with her issues in therapy initially but eventually went through a lot of hard work to get where she is now.  

Please do not read this book if you will get triggered by eating disorders, abuse or alcoholism or any of the things.  McCurdy is brutally candid about these things and it could cause some backsliding. That being said, it's a really good memoir of the celebrity kind!

Thursday, February 9, 2023

The Evil Within (previously published as Becky) by Darren Galsworthy and some literary tourism


A few weeks ago, I travelled to Alabama for work. I was going to a course on digital evidence and computer forensics.  The course I was taking was just outside of Birmingham in the city of Hoover. I got in really early on the day before the course started so I drove down to Montgomery, which is about and hour South and a straight shot down I-65.  I was hoping to get some pizza from one particular place called Can a Brotha Get a Slice, but they were unfortunately closed on Sundays - I really wanted to go there because honestly the name is great and the pizza looked good.  The trip wasn't completely wasted.  I got to see a number of things, including the Historical Archives (above) and the Fitzgerald's house (Scott and Zelda). That was cool.  When I was in Atlanta, I got to see the Margaret Mitchell house - going to these things is just one of my quirks I guess. 


I just finished this book last night.  I read it because one of the podcasts I listen to has a book club (the discussion is tonight so nothing like waiting until the last minute to finish a book) and this was the selection this month.  Becky Watts - the girl on the cover - was murdered by her stepbrother, Nathan, and his girlfriend, Shauna, in 2015 when Becky was only 16. She was then dismembered by him. When Becky's dad, Darren, found out about the facts of the case, it devastated him. This book is one of the ways that I think that he coped with the loss of his daughter.  He discusses his history and tells the story of Becky's short life from his perspective as well as what happened when she went missing, their discovery of what happened, the trial and the sentencing. 

I found the story itself to be really haunting and terrifying.  Any crime is particularly horrific when it's this nature but the circumstances of this one in particular stayed with me and I can't imagine what it would have been like to be Mr. Galsworthy, to have lost a child like this. While I found the chapters about Becky's life and the leadup to the trial to be more interesting then the court procedural part (insofar as a what happened and what drove Nathan to do this), on an intellectual level, I found the court procedural part was interesting as well.  The British criminal justice system is very different from the American justice system and I wanted to hear more about that.  

I found that the writing style made it somewhat difficult to get through the book though.  I could only take it in short snippets.  Respectfully, it is quite obvious that Mr. Galsworthy is not an author so for someone that likes to physically read and takes joy in a well crafted sentence that was difficult (if the book is in audiobook form that may be the better form to consume it in). There is also adult language which is understandable considering what the book is about.

I think that this is an important book on many levels and, in spite of the (minor) criticism that I had about writing style, I think it's well down. It draws attention to the impact that crime such as this has on families and highlights that crime is usually committed by people we know or are familiar with. Mr. Galsworthy was certainly brave to write this book and to put himself out there in such a powerfully vulnerable way.  I genuinely hope that writing this book helped him to find some degree of peace (knowing and understanding that the powerful feelings related to losing a child like this will not ever go away). 

Definitely a must read for any true crime fan. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides review


I read this book almost twenty years ago and remembered liking it but wanted  to read it again.  Eugenides also wrote The Virgin Suicides, which I read after this and after watching the movie. It's a story that you can really sink your teeth into - 500 pages of loveliness and wonder and so different from The Virgin Suicides that you'd never think that they were written by the same author. It tells the story of Calliope - who was born intersex and raised as a girl but who becomes a boy during adolescence. 

The story begins in the 1920's in war torn Turkey and Greece, where the Stephanides family has to flee across the Atlantic to America, where they end up in Detroit, through World War II and, eventually, to Grosse Pointe. We come across at least three distinct family generations and, through their story, Eugenides handles many diverse themes including incest, immigration, adolescence, gender and family secrets. I loved how Eugenides dealt with these complicated themes - he could have easily been heavy handed but he was not.  ANd his writing style was purely divinity, with a narrator (Ca/l/Calliope) who was absolutely engaging and memorable.  While I certainly don't mind books that are 500 pages long, I know that some people do - this book flew by. You would never believe that you were done reading it in as quickly a time as you finished.  

It is an endearing and smart story with unforgettable characters.  Loved it.

REVIEW: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

  I've read other books by Tayari Jones - notably An AMerican Marriage (which I loved) and when I saw this I jumped because I like her ...