Rick’s Recent Reads for August

I’m not sure what compelled me to pick up this book, but that’s true of many books I read. I simply felt like it was something I needed to read at that moment, and I’m very glad I did.

Between the World and Me is written as a letter/essay from Coates to his fifteen-year-old son, trying to come to terms with what it means to grow up as an African American male in 2015. I almost said “make sense of what it means,” but Coates’ story is not so much about making sense as it is about finding one’s place in a nonsensical context. He does not believe there is an answer to race relations. He believes (as I interpret it) that racial conflict is in itself an artificial construct and part of the Dream that keeps one group in power over another.

This is not a book written to explain the African American experience to white people (or as Coates likes to say, people who believe they are white.) As a middle-aged white guy, I am in no way the intended audience for this book. Perhaps that’s what made it such an enlightening read for me. There was no sugar-coating, no careful racial diplomacy, no worry about mediating opinions to cater to what white people might be able to hear. It was just a heartfelt, raw, painful and honest letter from a father to a son, laying plain Coates’ worry, anger, frustration, and fear for his son’s future in light of Coates’ own past and the world his son will grow up in. (There again: I almost said ‘the world he will inherit,’ but Coates would be quick to point out that this is white thinking. We grow up believing we can inherit the future of our country, whereas African Americans grow up hearing a very different message.)

Coates’ most powerful assertion: doing violence to the African American body is an American legacy and tradition. It is not a failure of the system. It is part of the system. As much as may have changed in the past decades, the past centuries, the basic fear of African American parents remains: that their children can be snatched away, brutalized, killed for the smallest of reasons or no reason at all, and too often this violence is never addressed as anything more than an unavoidable force of nature like a hurricane.

We all tend to gravitate toward books that reflect our own experience, toward characters who look and act the way we do. I believe many white readers, if they are honest with themselves, will think, If I’m a white person, why should I read a book about African Americans? That doesn’t have anything to do with me. Whites have the privilege of not thinking about race until some violence flares up on the news, and then we think of the issue as a fire to put out, not a sign of some endemic problem. This was true when I was growing up in Texas in the 70s and 80s. It was true when I taught in San Francisco in the 90s. It’s still true here in Boston in the 2010s. African Americans don’t have the luxury of thinking about race only when it suits them. It is an omnipresent fact of life and death. It makes their experience of American society fundamentally different and exponentially more complicated. That’s exactly why I’d recommend this book to white readers. Our bubble can be pretty thick. It is important for us to step outside ourselves.

Coates offers no answers, easy or otherwise. He believes in no grand vision. But he offers his son an honest assessment of his own experience and his own evolving thoughts on America. That’s what rang true to me: a father talking candidly and caringly with his son.  That’s common ground I share with the author, as different as our experiences may be. This is a short book, easily finished in a couple of sittings, but it packs a punch. These issues aren’t going away. They are only going to become more pressing. Read the book!

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin.

I picked up this book after reading a thought-provoking article about the author in The Guardian. I really liked what she said about coming to fantasy with no interest in maintaining the status quo. She’s right that so many fantasy books are about restoring order to a kingdom, returning a rightful heir to the throne, or getting back to the good old days by defeating some dark power that threatens to unbalance society. Jemisin, as an African American female writer, says this simply doesn’t resonate with her or interest her, and why should it? Instead, she writes science fiction which challenges those in power, threatens the ordered society, and questions whether the good old days ever existed. I like books that force me to rethink paradigms, so I decided to check out her work.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a wonderful read. The first book of a trilogy, it introduces us to Yeine Darr, an outcast from the ruling family of Sky and the product of an unsanctioned biracial marriage, who is summoned home to the palace and suddenly made one of three heirs to the throne for reasons unclear. Soon she is locked in a cold war with her two cousins, both of whom have much more power and understanding of politics. But Yeine gains some powerful if unstable allies: the Enefadah, gods who were enslaved by the ruling family after those deities lost a war against the Lord of Light, the patron god of Sky.

You know me. I can’t resist a good book with gods knocking around, causing chaos among mortals. I loved the mythology Jemisin created, and how she turned the bright shiny castle with the glorious white king and the heavenly patron god into just about the most horrible place you can image. I’m looking forward to the next two books, though after that ending (NO SPOILERS, BUT WOW) I have no idea where she will go with the story!

My other favorite read this month was Shadows of Sherwood by Kekla Magoon. I reviewed it for the New York Times Book Review, so I’ll let you read the whole story there: . Suffice to say the book was a fantastic middle grade adventure that breathes new life into the myth of Robin Hood. If you’re looking for a page-turner for young readers, check it out!

Rick Riordan