Review: Standing Tall by C. Vivian Stringer with Laura Tucker

It’s October 31st, and in my family, that means more than just Halloween. It’s my mom’s birthday. So while I’ve spent most of October celebrating the spookiest month of the year, today I’m reserving space for something more important.

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That’s how I ended up reading Standing Tall, a choice I never would have picked for myself, simply because I’m not usually interested in sports. My mom, however, has always loved them, and she has oodles of school spirit for her alma mater, Rutgers University. Therefore, she decided to challenge me with a book close to her heart: the autobiography of C. Vivian Stringer, the head coach of Rutgers women’s basketball. As of the publication of this post, she is only three victories away from coaching her thousandth win. (“Make sure to mention that,” said Mom.)

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After reading this book, I understand more why my mom is so passionate about Rutgers basketball, and I especially see why she admires Coach Stringer so much. Coach Stringer rose from poverty, became the first in her family to graduate from college, and became one of the most respected coaches in the country, even as she has dealt with a devastating string of personal losses and difficulties. She has also been an advocate for women, and especially black women, in the athletic world.

While I self-identify as “not athletic,” I actually was co-captain of my high school fencing team, and there was a time I dedicated two hours a day, six days a week to that sport. With that in mind, I have a lot of respect for my former coach, Coach Amy Lawless, who I thought of a lot while reading this book. They’re both unmistakably coach-y. Coach Stringer tells the story of her life, but throughout the narrative, she expounds on individual anecdotes to teach lessons useful both on and off the basketball court. She describes moments where she had to be tough on her teams, but also shows herself to have a deep well of love in her heart for her players.

Having played on a team myself and done a certain amount of coaching as a captain, I can empathize with a lot of the struggles she has had that are related to her work. As she relates pushing her good players to do better, being exasperated with players who refused to put in the work, and dealing with obnoxious parents, I find that much of it consists of things I’ve heard, said, or done before. When I think of all the times my teammates tried to weasel their way out of harder drills or longer practices… oof, I’m with you, Coach Stringer, Coach Lawless, and all the coaches in the world. Building others up to work hard and do better for themselves is itself hard work!

There is also a lot in this book, though, that I cannot personally relate to and indeed can barely imagine. Coach Stringer has been dealt difficult cards in her personal life: the disability and early death of her father, the disability of her daughter, the early death of her husband, frightening near misses with both of her sons, and her own fight with breast cancer. Through all of these struggles, Coach Stringer makes no secret of the suffering she endured and how hard it was for her to handle everything. Thanks to the support of the people around her, though, she has been able to pull through, and she believes that she has endured so much so that she can be a better comfort to others.

I found this book to be genuinely inspiring. This is not a glossy, self-promoting autobiography, but rather a meaty and personal memoir that shares in order to teach. If you’re looking for a new hero, especially one who is a successful black woman, I recommend checking out Standing Tall.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

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Review: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

I picked this book as a Halloween horror read. What I got wasn’t quite what I expected. While I knew that Shirley Jackson also wrote about everyday and domestic life, her reputation for horror writing far eclipses the rest of her work. In this collection, most stories lean toward the everyday with twists that range from mysterious to creepy.

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It’s important to note that while this book is now known as The Lottery and Other Stories, it originally had a different title: The Lottery or, The Adventures of James Harris. The recurring character of James Harris is sprinkled throughout the book, and he lives a mysterious life. He is always at the peripheral of the lives of other characters, and only very loose connections allow us to form some kind of portrait of him and his life.

He is first named in the second story of the collection, “The Daemon Lover,” having jilted a young woman on their wedding day. Convinced that there is some mistake, she is determined to track him down, but never finds him. This sets the tone for his role in the collection. Whether he is truly supernatural or merely a fantastic conman is left unclear, and even the possible glimpses into his origin are opaque.

A notable aspect of Jackson’s writing is her addressing of racism. She writes of “benevolent” racism from white people who assume all black people are poor, and of neighbors who suddenly drop friends for getting too cozy with a mixed family. She depicts white middle-class “respectable” families with an unflattering eye, exposing the attitudes of those who think that not looking racist is more important than not being racist.

There is a solid mixture of short and long stories in this collection, the longest being “Elizabeth,” which begins around the halfway mark. Elizabeth is a worn-down literary agent having trouble with her business partner, and possibly the most fleshed-out character of the collection. Like many other characters we meet, she is ordinary, understandable, but not the sort of person one would call good. Her story meanders, leaving the reader with neither a positive or negative impression, only curiosity as to what will happen next. This is emblematic of Jackson’s style, which rarely calls on us to like the characters, only to be interested in their doings.

It’s understandable that this book is marketed under the name The Lottery, as the final story of the collection is her best-known short work, but the assumption that the other stories would be very much like it does a disservice to the versatility of Jackson’s writing. Personally, I’m more a reader of novels than of short stories, but I could nonetheless appreciate the quality of each story, and especially how they are curated to create a cohesive, representative body of work. I will definitely be checking out her novels, but I also wouldn’t be opposed to reading her other short story collections.

The Lottery and Other Stories is not what I would label a horror collection, although there are certainly a few horror stories tucked into it–“The Renegade” certainly threw me for a loop. More so than horror, though, it has an air of mystery and of the slightly off-kilter.

I recommend this book for anyone with an appreciation for short stories. With its balance between the normal and the abnormal, it holds something for everyone.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

What burdens we lay on the dying … seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel–something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.

What do you expect from a book about grieving? It’s probably not what you get from The Optimist’s Daughter, which strikes a light and philosophical tone as it follows Laurel through the death of her father. Beleaguered by well-meaning mourners and her too-young stepmother, Fay, Laurel tries to make sense of her father’s life and actions, especially his taking a second wife after the passing of her mother, Becky.

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Laurel, although she is the central character, often fades into the background as she observes other characters. While others make her father’s death about themselves, fluttering around and making a spectacle, Laurel is determined to remember her father as he was. She wants nothing more than to arrange the aftermath of her father’s passing the way he would have wanted it, but Fay’s self-centered plans get in the way.

Funerals. The chaos of trying to plan an event in the midst of deep sadness. Reminiscing. The odd moments of joy and laughter that follow. The empty silence when it’s over. Sorting through your loved one’s belongings. Welty takes us through the entire process. It’s just realistic enough to not feel so sad. Thankfully, I haven’t been through the loss of a parent, but I related intensely to the sheer strangeness that permeates the loss of a loved one. Funeral receptions feel surreal to me, and the distribution of a family member’s belongings can be a difficult process.

There are also the questions. Who was Judge McKelva? Was he who Laurel thinks he was? Why did he remarry? Do those left behind deserve to impose on the privacy he held in life?

This book is easy to read until it isn’t. The very ending brought tears to my eyes, although I hadn’t felt particularly sad up until that point.

Usually when I read a book, I have some meter going in the back of my mind measuring how much I like it, where the strengths are, where the flaws are. That didn’t happen with this book. I just read it. It’s a short read, so if you get the chance to get through it in one or two sittings, you should absolutely do it. With a colorful cast of characters and simple poignancy, there’s nothing not to love about The Optimist’s Daughter.

I recommend this as a thoughtful, relaxed read to enjoy when you have the time and the focus to absorb it fully.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

You made a fool of us– what right do you have? Not everything is your plaything. Not everything belongs to you.

This novel takes places in the simmering political environment of South Korea in 1978, a year before the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee. Its opening scene takes place at a factory workers’ protest, unarmed women facing a government crackdown. With this kind of setting, you might expect the plot to be political in nature.

It is and it isn’t. The central dilemma of Everything Belongs to Us concerns three students at Seoul National University, the country’s most prestigious school. Jisun is a poor little rich girl turned labor activist, the heiress of a chaebol, an elite, massive conglomerate with fingers in every pie. Namin, her foil, claws her way up from poverty, determined to succeed in life. Caught between the two of them is Sunam, a male student among thousands, neither rich nor poor, ambitious but lacking in drive. The politics here are personal, a microcosm of three different strata of society meeting.

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While their story is totally different from the book, Wuertz was inspired by her parents’ college years.

In short: everything belongs to Jisun, but she doesn’t want it. Namin has nothing and wants everything, but not if she has to eat it from Jisun’s hand. Sunam has something, but he’s opportunistic. He could always have more.

The entanglements of these three students, rather than resolving themselves, become nastier and more complex throughout the novel. Like so many tragic heroes, fate binds them ever stronger in its hold as they try to struggle against it. Rather than ending with a violent fall from grace, though, the story twists into an unsatisfying anticlimax that mirrors the protagonists’ dissatisfaction with their own lives. All of them get what they want in life, more or less, but with a tinge of bitterness to it. “Everything belongs to us,” claims the title, but what did they sacrifice to get it?

The types of these characters seem obvious, easily cast as leads in a drama. However, sometimes a character that can be painted in broad brushstrokes is exactly what a story needs. Simple on their own, they become fuller versions of themselves through the ways they interact with one another. The fact that they end up more or less where they began only makes it more intriguing.

The prose of this book is like a pinball machine, each sentence bouncing from the one before it. Sometimes the angle is expected, and other times it ricochets to a completely different direction. Wuertz has the chops to skillfully paint pictures with words, but she resists the temptation to over-describe. We learn just enough about the scene to set the tone before diving into the action.

The plot develops so quickly that saying much about the contents of the book would spoil it, so suffice it to say that I was seriously impressed with this book. It’s almost hard to believe that this is Wuertz’s debut novel. It makes you think more deeply about the meanings of words like money, love, and success. I recommend it to anyone looking for a fast-paced but thoughtful read steeped in interpersonal drama.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: Ramya’s Treasure by Pratap Reddy

I was provided with a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Ramya has just been laid off from her office job. Approaching fifty, she reflects on the steps that have taken her from a privileged childhood in India to scraping by in Canada, depressed and alone. Sounds bleak, doesn’t it? While Ramya’s life’s journey has its low points, she also takes us through her joys and adventures, and the novel ends on a cautiously optimistic note.

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Ramya tells her story through a box of mementos, each one representing an important person or memory in her life. While this premise seems promising at first, I found that the objects in the box act as scaffolding, helpful for providing structure while writing, but unnecessary in the final draft. This book could easily have told the same story without relying on the “treasure” idea. Additionally, the title Ramya’s Treasure, while apt, is not very compelling.

Parts of the story are told in the present tense, while others are in the past tense. This does have a functional purpose for the narrative, but the execution comes across as a bit stilted. Writing in present tense can be a tricky business, and Reddy doesn’t always pull it off.

The book has a slow start, but gains steam quickly and maintains momentum through the end. This is in part due to how the structure loosens up as it goes along, not quite as restricted to the object-story premise as in the beginning. The exposition at the beginning snowballs and reading becomes easier as more puzzle pieces connect.

Reddy’s characterization of Ramya is a strong point in his writing. Authors of a different gender from the characters they write can sometimes make mistakes, but Ramya is a believable woman, and beyond that, a complex, well-rounded character. The depiction of depression is realistic and her background perfectly establishes how she has arrived to this point in her life.

On the other hand, there is a bit too much of “write what you know” in this novel. To a certain extent, I think that writing characters similar to oneself can be a good thing. Reddy’s portrayal of the immigrant experience clearly draws on his own life in a way that enriches the story. However, I’m always skeptical of a writer writing a writer character. It can be done well, but very often, including here, it comes across as navel-gazing.

As an editorial aside, I think that some sentences in this book have more commas in them than necessary.

Ramya’s Treasure has good bones. Still, it’s apparent that this is a debut novel, and Reddy’s previous publications have been short stories. There is an echo of the short story in the way this book is structured, and I wish that Reddy had reworked it a bit more to fit the novel format. I think that he has a lot of potential as a writer. Certain passages sucked me in. Still, he also has room for improvement. If he publishes another novel, I will keep an eye out for it because I want to see where he goes from here.

Ramya’s Treasure will be released on September 1st. If this review intrigued you, check it out! You can buy or pre-order it here.

Rating: 3/5 stars.

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Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.

If I had to describe Another Brooklyn in terms of other books, I would say it lies somewhere between The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Jacqueline Woodson’s writing takes the outward shape of prose, but it is imbued with poetry.

It’s a short, quick read. In the first place, it’s less than two hundred pages, but it’s also made up of short paragraphs that are separated by spacing rather than indentation. Even the writing style is a bit “easy come, easy go” — it’s easy to get into, but also easy to put down. For that reason, I would recommend swallowing it whole, if possible. You can easily finish it in one or two afternoons, then go back and reread to soak it in more. I read this book pretty slowly, and that did me a disservice because it was harder for me to remember what happened when I picked it up again.

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August moves to Brooklyn with her father and brother at eight years old in 1973. The story encompasses her girlhood, flush with the affection of her three best friends, Angela, Sylvia, and Gigi. Their bond keeps them afloat through their various personal trials — in August’s case, coming to terms with what happened to her mother. August’s memories of her childhood are bittersweet, though. “What is tragic isn’t the moment,” she narrates. “It is the memory.”

The nostalgia in this book tugged at my heartstrings. In some ways, I could see my young, girlish friendships in August’s little crew. I remember how important it was to have a clique growing up, not for the purpose of excluding others, but as a safe haven. The people you could trust no matter what. In other ways, though, August’s childhood is much darker and shorter than my own. The shadow of her mother’s death hangs over her, and in the streets of Brooklyn lie in wait hardships and experiences that force children to grow up too fast.

As an adult, August’s preoccupation with death has led her to become an anthropologist in study of funerary rituals. Throughout the novel, passages are punctuated with descriptions of death around the world, tinted with suggestions of what customs say about a culture’s attitudes toward life and death. This motif is clever and it certainly works within the context of the story, but for me, it is a touch too on the nose.

The one part of the story that I felt was a bit self-indulgent was toward the very end, when August discovers herself in jazz music. On a structural level, this has the function of closing one of the many circles that Woodson likes to draw in her writing, but in practice, we see August become a moody, artistic young adult who sleeps around and travels the world. Maybe I just don’t have any poetry in my soul, but I feel that the sort of person August becomes as an adult is doing things and liking things in place of having an actual personality. The closest thing we get to a glimpse of August as a settled, self-actualized adult is in a brief meeting with her brother at the beginning of the novel.

Another Brooklyn is a lyrical and neatly constructed story of a childhood in snapshots. In some places there is a flair for style over substance, but it still has a lot of heart. I recommend this if you’re looking for a book that is easy to read, but meaningful and poetic.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter, Josephine Brown

Most American students are familiar with the genre of slave narrative. We’ve all at some point been assigned autobiographies such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. These books are the product of a peculiar class of African-Americans, fugitive, yet often famous, risen from ashes to become leaders in the most pivotal movement in American history.

The contents of these books tend to follow similar structures: the horrors of slavery, the moment of enlightenment and desire for freedom, the failed attempt, the daring escape, the perilous journey, and the struggle to establish oneself afterward. Among the pages is usually chronicled the method by which the former slave learned to read, and pleas to the reader against slavery in the name of reason or religion punctuate it all.

There’s a disparity, though.

Writers like Frederick Douglass or the subject of this biography, William Wells Brown, became respected intellectuals in their time. Female authors like Harriet Jacobs or Harriet Wilson, who wrote Our Nig about her indentured servitude in the North, received no such accolades. The most prominent female abolitionist author was always Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman. Even famed poet Phillis Wheatley died in poverty. The pre-emancipation manuscripts we have that are written by black women have largely been dug up by historians over one hundred years later.

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Harriet Jacobs wasn’t confirmed as author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl until many years after her death.

The same problem exists for the writings of black men, of course. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave was also lost to history for a time. Still, the lives and work of black female authors have been systematically devalued to an even greater extent, and during the time of slavery, there was little hope for them to achieve similar literary success to their male counterparts.

Josephine Brown didn’t write in order to get credit for it, that much is clear. At the beginning of the books, she clearly states that the reason for her publishing this biography is that her father’s autobiography was out of print at the time. What follows is a staid, no-frills biography that one would scarcely believe was written by Mr. Brown’s daughter, were it not stated in the title. She takes excerpts from her father’s writings and from critics of his work, transcribing paragraphs at a time without hesitation. Her concern is not literary quality, but rather historical documentation.

Her most egregious fumbling with words takes place in the first chapter, where her hyperbole is particularly effusive. “A finer situation for a farm could scarcely have been selected in any part of the country,” she writes. “…Distinguished for her strength both of body and mind, and a woman of great courage, Elizabeth was considered one of the most valuable slaves on the place. Although Dr. Young was not thought to be the hardest of masters, he nevertheless employed, as an overseer, a man whose acts of atrocity could scarcely have been surpassed in any of the slave States.”

She does include occasional anecdotes, some more believable than others. The story of her father arguing his fare with a white train conductor, for example, seems like it ought to have gotten him arrested rather than a clean moral victory. The tales of his setting up shop as first a barber, then a banker, are similarly lively, but somewhat less outrageous. She also injects a certain amount of family pride into the narrative when she lists the various elites with whom her father hobnobbed in Europe as well as excerpts of glowing reviews of his books.

Brown is not the most engaging writer, but she knows this, and so she keeps her narrative short and to the point, sparing the reader most poor attempts at flourishes. This is a woman who wrote out of necessity, not wanting her father’s efforts to be forgotten, and for that, I admire her.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in African-American history or in slave narratives. It’s a dry but not terrible read that provides valuable historical information.

Rating: 2/5 Stars.

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