Book Review: Dread Nation

dread nationDread Nation
by Justina Ireland
YA Fantasy (Alternate History)
454 pages
Published April 2018

So, as a general rule, I don’t read zombie stories. Zombies are the one monster that will almost invariably give me nightmares. This book, however, had such hype built up around it that I decided to bend my rule.

I should not have.

Before I start in on this, let me say it’s a good story. It’s well-written, the plot is paced nicely, and it’s entertaining. All that said, it’s quite problematic in many ways. I knew some of this before I read it; there was a Twitter thread about some of the issues, namely that in the Author’s Note she describes the Native American boarding schools (where the government forced Native American children to go, and tried to destroy their heritage and culture in the name of “civilizing” them) as “well-meaning.” The Twitter thread does an excellent job of dissecting that passage, and it’s worth reading.

There’s also the incredibly unrealistic scene where Jane gets flogged eleven times, walks back to where she’s staying, has a coherent conversation where she lays out a plan she has formed, and then puts a shirt on. That last part especially got me. Like, what? You’re going to be in more pain than that! Being flogged barely seems to slow Jane down. She asks for laudanum – for her plan. Not to take for the pain.

I don’t know. There’s a lot about the book that set my teeth on edge. There’s the absurd amount of racism, but the protagonist is a black woman and it’s civil war era, so that’s to be expected. And it’s coming from characters, not from narration. Jane lies. A lot. So it’s hard to trust that she’s even a reliable narrator.

I guess it’s okay. I didn’t care for it. I found it really hard to get past the author’s “well-meaning” comment about the Native American boarding schools. And the plot of “as soon as they’re old enough, black children get sent to combat schools.” Especially with what’s going on lately with the jailing of migrant children, it feels tone-deaf, ignorant, and genocidal.

One good point was the oh-so-casual mention of bisexuality (a female friend taught her “everything she knows about kissing”) but it was only two sentences and never mentioned again. Not nearly enough to make up for the rest of the book.

From the cover of Dread Nation:

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

Book Review: The Black Rose

black roseThe Black Rose
by Tananarive Due
Biography/Fiction
373 pages
Published 2001

The Black Rose is the lightly fictionalized story of the life of Madame C. J. Walker, America’s first black female millionaire. Tananarive Due seems to have taken over the project from Alex Haley, the acclaimed late co-author of Malcolm X’s autobiography. Due is a wonderful storyteller; many biographies I’ve read have been dry and uninteresting, but The Black Rose is technically a novel, and kept my attention through the entire book. Madame Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, is an incredibly charismatic figure. She was born to former slaves just after the Civil War – the only member of her family born free – and the book chronicles her entire life. From her parents’ deaths, to her early years working in a cotton field, to being a washerwoman, cook, then finally an entrepreneur. According to Wiki she had four brothers; the book only mentions one. Wiki also mentions a marriage in between her daughter’s father and CJ Walker; that one wasn’t mentioned in the book at all. So there are some differences.

The Black Rose is an engrossing look at an influential woman whose name seems to be largely forgotten. Or perhaps it’s only forgotten because we’re not taught nearly as much African-American history as we should be in this country. Madame Walker’s company was a path to economic freedom for thousands of black women in the early 20th century. Besides the jobs she created, she also made many charitable donations and was active in politics and civil rights, participating in marches and, once, visiting the White House to speak with the president. (According to the book, the president declined to speak with her group, though.)

This is a good example of why I’m trying to diversify my reading. I didn’t know the name C. J. Walker. I had no idea where she came from, or the scope of the company she built and the people she helped.

Excellent, educational book.

I actually really don’t like the cover, though, so this is my pick for “ugly cover” for the 2018 PopSugar Reading Challenge!

From the cover of The Black Rose:

Born to former slaves on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty and indignity to become America’s first black female millionaire, the head of a hugely successful beauty company, and a leading philanthropist in African American causes. Renowned author Alex Haley became fascinated by the story of this extraordinary heroine, and before his death in 1992, he embarked on the research and outline of a major novel based on her life. Now with The Black Rose, critically acclaimed writer Tananarive Due brings Haley’s work to an inspiring completion. 

Blending documented history, vivid dialogue, and a sweeping fictionalized narrative, Tananarive Due paints a vivid portrait of this passionate and tenacious pioneer and the unforgettable era in which she lived.

Book Review: The Notorious R.B.G.

notorious rbgNotorious R.B.G.
by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Biography
195 pages
Published 2015

This was EXCELLENT. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my feminist heroes (I have a long list, with biographies I should read!) and this book is great. It’s VERY easy to read, and was never less than fascinating. It includes some of her dissents, with commentary for the layperson written by various lawyers. There are photos of her at various points in her life; her face now is so familiar that seeing pictures of her as a young lawyer was really neat.

The only thing I didn’t like was that it’s not completely linear; there’s a chapter about her 56-year-long marriage to Marty Ginsburg, ending with his death, and then the next chapter starts talking about Marty’s reaction to something! So that was slightly odd and I had to flip back a few pages to find the actual dates for what I was reading about now.

Other than that, though, the book was really interesting, and talks about the cases she argued before the Supreme Court before becoming a justice, her nomination and senate confirmation to the Court, and the cases she’s seen since becoming a justice. It talks about how Ruth and Marty balanced their work and home lives, in a way that was definitely not normal at the time; Marty was a full partner in parenting and housework, taking over all of the cooking and the 2 am infant feedings because it was easier for him to get back to sleep!

Overall, this was a really neat look into the life of one of the U.S.’s most prominent female figures right now. Justice Ginsburg has been a tireless fighter for equality for her entire career, and this book reveals some of her motivations and thought processes. I loved it.

(This is also my PopSugar 2018 selection for “Book by two authors.”)

From the cover of Notorious RBG:

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame—she has only tried to make the world a little better and a little freer.

But nearly a half-century into her career, something funny happened to the octogenarian: she won the internet. Across America, people who weren’t even born when Ginsburg first made her name as a feminist pioneer are tattooing themselves with her face, setting her famously searing dissents to music, and making viral videos in tribute.

Notorious RBG, inspired by the Tumblr that amused the Justice herself and brought to you by its founder and an award-winning feminist journalist, is more than just a love letter. It draws on intimate access to Ginsburg’s family members, close friends, colleagues, and clerks, as well an interview with the Justice herself. An original hybrid of reported narrative, annotated dissents, rare archival photos and documents, and illustrations, the book tells a never-before-told story of an unusual and transformative woman who transcends generational divides. As the country struggles with the unfinished business of gender equality and civil rights, Ginsburg stands as a testament to how far we can come with a little chutzpah.

Book Review: The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Historical Fiction
369 pages
Published 2014

The Invention of Wings is one of my PopSugar Reading Challenge books, for the prompt “A Book from a Celebrity Book Club.” It was Oprah’s 3rd pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Oprah interviewed Sue Monk Kidd in the January 2014 issue of O Magazine.

I can definitely see why Oprah was so affected by this book; the two main characters are Sarah Grimké, an early abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and Hetty Handful, the slave gifted to her by her mother when she turned 11. In an afterword, Kidd explains that she did try to stay mostly historically accurate, and Handful was gifted to Sarah when she was 11, though she apparently died not long after. In Kidd’s book, however, Handful survives. Sarah and her younger sister, Angelina, were real people, and really did most of what is ascribed to them in the book, though Kidd passes a couple of their deeds from one sister to the other. The Grimkés were from Charleston, South Carolina, and born into an aristocratic, slave-owning family headed by a prestigious judge. Their abolitionist actions get them exiled from Charleston and from their church. Meanwhile, Hetty, her ownership having returned to Sarah’s mother, dreams of freedom and plots rebellions of her own.

I was a little wary going into this book; I’ve read a couple of Oprah’s picks before, and generally found them dry and uninteresting. This one, though, was very well written. The voices of both women came through clearly, as did some of the brutality of slavery. Kidd also wrote The Secret Life of Bees, which got a lot of attention. If it’s anything like this, I might have to finally read that as well.

(I know the author is white, but I thought, being about slavery and abolition, it would still qualify for Black History Month.)

From the cover of The Invention of Wings:

A triumphant story about the quest for freedom and empowerment, Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel presents the extraordinary journeys of two unforgettable women: Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early-nineteenth century Charleston, and Sarah, the Grimkés’ idealistic daughter. 

Inspired in part by the historic figure of abolitionist and suffragette Sarah Grimké, Kidd’s novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. The Invention of Wings follows these two women over the next thirty-five years as both strive for lives of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement, and the uneasy ways of love.