Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Review: "When She Woke"

Imagine a world where abortion is illegal and women who have an abortion are arrested, convicted and their skin dyed red so that everyone knows the crime they committed.  This is the story in "When She Woke" by Hillary Jordan.  Roe v. Wade is overturned and Sanctity of Life laws are passed by the Trinity Party to criminalize abortion.  People who commit crimes are "melachromed" -- their skin is dyed a color that corresponds with their crime: red - abortion; yellow and green - misdemeanor; blue - child sex abuse; and purple - violent crime.  Melachroming is the government's response to decreasing federal and state revenues and increasing budgets that must pay for feeding the hungry, educating students, fixing crumbling roads and bridges and rebuilding cities destroyed by disasters. Tax payers no longer want to waste money on housing criminals in prisons so instead they are melachromed and released back into society, but the government monitors them similar to present day "home arrest." Criminals become a new group referred to as "Chromes."

The book's protagonist is Hannah who is a young woman who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home in Texas.  Hannah is seduced by her pastor and has an affair with him, which leads to her becoming pregnant.  She decides she cannot have the baby and destroy her pastor's life so instead she has an abortion, but is arrested. At her trial she refused to name the man who got her pregnant, or the doctor who performed the illegal abortion.  She is convicted and chromed "red."  After serving 30 days in jail she is released back into society to live out her 16 year sentence as a Chrome.  Jordan's book is a futuristic "Scarlet Letter."

It's a fascinating story because it explores what could happen in light of today's political, social and economic climate that is becoming increasing intolerant and severly biased against anyone who it considers to be "different" from the mainstream dominate culture.  The line between separation of church and state is becoming blurred as evidenced by the Tea Party's influence in politics and its far right views, and the acceptance of society to force candidates for president to proclaim whether they are Christian (even though that is not a qualification criteria outlined by the Constitution).  In addition, many states are passing laws seeking to limit the reproductive rights of women and their right to choose to have an abortion, defunding clinics that perform abortions, and challenging the legitimacy to Roe v. Wade.

There is also the ridiculous notion asserted by some that to be educated is to be an "elitist."  In the book, Hannah could not engage in a simple conversation about literature because she was forbidden to go to the library for fear that she would read something "corrupt."  Hannah thought about her upbringing and mused  "why had they [her parents] kept her life so small? Why had they never asked her what she wanted? At every possible turn, she saw, they'd chosen the path that would keep her weak and dependent."

This is an enlightening passage from the book which all of us should ask ourselves.  For if we do not start challenging and speaking out against things that we know are wrong, unjust or unequal, then we will give our voice to a select few to make decisions for the many.  And when we "wake," it may be a world which we no longer recognize, but should have forseen coming and could have taken action to stop the disastrous transformation.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: "If Sons, Then Heirs"

"If Sons, Then Heirs" by Lorene Cary is an interesting novel which explores complicated issues of love, family and property.  The story focuses on Alonzo Rayne who was abandoned as a child by his mother Jewel who sent him to live with his grandmother Selma in South Carolina, and she never returned to get him. The book opens with Jewel observing Rayne (whom she calls Lonnie) from a distance on the street outside his home in Philadelphia where he now lives as an adult as he prepares to travel back to South Carolina to visit Selma. Rayne, persuaded by his girlfriend Lillie, wrote a letter to Jewel hoping to reconnect with his mother.

The book journeys north from Philadelphia to rural South Carolina where Selma thrusts upon Rayne the responsibility of saving the "heir property" that her husband, King - the family partriarch, worked so hard to obtain for his family. In fact, as the story unfolds it is discovered that King died trying to preserve the land for his heirs, the Needham family. The book is well written and the characters are engaging, however, the author sometimes doesn't dig deep enough to address the complex issues raised in the book. For example, when Rayne reunites with his mother, it lacks the emotion that you would expect to surface -- issues of guilt, abandonment, loss, anger, uncertainty, insecurity, love -- and they seem to put it all behind them with his mother simply stating she did not leave him because he was bad, but because she was a bad mother and Rayne accepting it. I agree it was great that he was able to forgive and move forward in rebuilding the relationship, but I think more time could have been devoted to flushing out this important detail to the story. The book has a happy ending where Rayne is able to reunite the Needham family, start his own family, and save the land for heirs to come.

What I found fascinating about the book was the issue of "heir property" which is what property is called when the property owner dies without having a will, and the law mandates that the property is divided among all his or her heirs. The property is passed down from one generation to the next without a will. I also thought the book did not deal realistically with the major problems that can occur with heir property. It touched upon them, but the characters were able to resolve it with a few phone calls and a family meeting with select members designated as the family council. In most cases, matters involving property are not so easily resolved.  Some of the problems with heir property are that family members do not live on the land; heirs do not know each other; they do not know how to locate each other; many heirs have no connection to the land; and some want to keep it while others want to sell it. However, heir property cannot be sold unless there is unanimous consent.

Another interesting fact about heir property which many articles have cited is that it is the leading cause of loss of black land ownership in the United States.  According to US Agriculture Census data, black farmland ownership has declined from15 million acres in 1910 to 2.4 million acres in 1997. Blacks have lost land because it is heir property, and with each generation there are more heirs to share the land, the land is not managed or cared for, it may become lost by failure to pay taxes, or simply no one has an interest in preserving the land as a family legacy.

Land ownership has always been important to Americans. It equates a sense of pride, importance and belonging. Historically it has been important to blacks as we had to struggle, fight and sometimes die (as the patriarch in the book did) to maintain the land and a home for our families.  Today, there are several organizations working to combat the rapid decline of black land ownership. To name a few: Heir's Property Retention Coalition; Black Family Land Trust; and the Center for Heir's Property Preservation.

While the Needham's story ends, the book leaves readers with the curiosity to explore their own family's legacy and maybe embark on a journey to discover or recover their own heir property.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Book Review: "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot was a fascinating book. It focused on the woman, Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have been used for decades in medical research including the development of the polio vaccine, advances in cancer research, in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.  Her cells were even sent into space so researchers could study the effects of space travel and how cancerous and noncancerous cells responded to zero gravity.

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman raised in Clover, Virginia where her family was tobacco farmers. She married David Lacks at a young age and the family later migrated north to Baltimore for work at a steel mill. Henrietta had five children: Lawrence, Elise, David "Sonny" Jr., Deborah and Joseph. In the 1950s she developed cervical cancer. During her treatment for cancer at John Hopkins Hospital, a doctor took two tissue samples from her cervix: one from her tumor and one from the healthy cervical tissue. As the author explains, "no one had told Henrietta that [the doctor] was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor ... ."  These samples were sent to John Hopkins lab where they grew with "mythological intensity."  Henrietta's cells, unlike others that usually died within a few days, multiplied and continue to grow to this day.  Scientist called them "immortal human cells" because they never died.  As a result, the cells named "HeLa" after Henrietta's initials of her first and last name, were sent all over the world to scientists, hospitals and laboratories for medical research.

While her cells continued to thrive, unfortunately Henrietta died from cancer on October 4, 1951. Neither Henrietta nor her family knew about the cells that were taken during her treatment or the widespread use of her cells in research. A "HeLa factory" was created at Tuskegee Institute which produced trillions of HeLa cells each week. As the demand for the cells grew, the production of HeLa cells became a for-profit industry with the creation of corporations now growing and distributing the cells to scientists. In the past, the cells were given away for free, but now they were being "bought and sold for research."

For years, Henrietta's name had been kept a secret by the doctors at John Hopkins. Early news articles misidentified her as Henrietta Lakes, Helen Lane or Helen Larson. It wasn't until 1971 in an article in a medical journal that her real name was published along with a picture of Henrietta. However, it wasn't until 1973 that the Lacks family learned about Henrietta's cells being used in science research around the world. Through a casual conversation with a friend's brother-in-law who worked at the National Cancer Institute, Bobbette Lacks (wife of Henrietta's son Lawrence) learned that her mother-in-laws cells were still alive and were being bought and sold for research.

The author describes the discovery as "a nightmare" for the family. "[H]opkins had part of Henrietta alive and scientists everywhere were doing research on her and the family had no idea." The family's fear was based on long-standing rumors of "night doctors" from Hopkins and other hospitals who abducted black people to conduct research.  These rumors were kept alive by real tragedies such as the Tuskegee syphilis study. Bobbette told Lawrence who called Hopkins stating "I'm calling about my mother, Henrietta Lacks -- you got some of her alive in there." When the hospital couldn't provide him any information, he didn't know who else to call.

The book explores the journey of the Lacks family, lead by Henrietta's daughter Deborah, to find out what happened to their mother, what is being done with her cells, and why no one bothered to tell the family. As Deborah wrote in her journal "But I always thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can't afford to see no doctors? Don't make no sense. People got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we don't get a dime."  Deborah wrote at first she was mad, but now "I just want to know who my mother was."

The book examines two major issues of consent and money. As the author explains, storing blood and tissues for research does not legally require informed consent because existing laws do not apply to tissue research.  While most institutions still choose to get permission, there's no uniformity of the practice. This has raised ethical, moral and legal questions. Some argue there should be laws granting people the right to control their tissues. However, courts that have tried the issue ruled that when tissues are removed from a person's body, with or without consent, any claim the person has to ownership vanishes. Thus, when an individual leaves blood or tissue in a doctor's office or lab, it is considered abandoned waste and anyone can use them or sell them.  Those against giving "tissue rights" argue that doing so would hinder medical research by "restricting access to the necessary raw materials."  While there are no "tissue rights" laws, other laws that have developed include the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects that requires informed consent for research on humans; the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) which prohibits the use of genetic tests to discriminate against person in employment; and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which protects a person's private confidential medical information.

As for the issue of money, tissue research is already commercialized. The debate centers on who should profit -- companies or the individuals who are supplying the tissue.  Currently, it appears only the corporations are receiving money.  The Lacks family never sued anyone. It appears what they really desired was recognition for their mother's contribution to science. As her son Sonny stated "I'm proud of my mother and what she done for science. I just hope Hopkins and some of the other folks who benefited off her cells will do something to honor her and make right with the family."

This book does a great job at informing the public about Henrietta's contribution to science, and hopefully others will read it and discover her remarkable story.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: "Perfect Peace"

I was looking forward to reading this novel, "Perfect Peace" by Daniel Black. The storyline is intriguing - a mother who already has six boys gives birth to a seventh son but desperately wants a daughter so she raises the boy as a girl and names him Perfect. The mother, Emma Jean, adores Perfect and dotes on him to the exclusion of her other sons: James Earl, Authorly, King Solomon, Woody, Bartimaeus and Mister. To carry out her deceitful plan of transforming Perfect from a boy to a girl, she dresses him in dresses and ribbons, gives him a doll for Christmas, forbids him from playing with his brothers, and teaches him how to be a girl complete with learning to urinate sitting down as opposed to standing up like his brothers. Meanwhile, the father, Gus and the six brothers have no clue that Perfect is a boy because he is isolated from the others and told never to let his brothers see him naked.

However, when Perfect turns 8 years old, Emma Jean's plan comes to a violent end as she decides that she can no longer keep Perfect's gender a secret and is afraid his friend, Eva Mae (who Perfect has been playing "house" with), may discover her secret. Thus, Emma Jean rather crudely marches Perfect down to the river Jordan, tells him he is a boy, shows him her genitalia to prove that he is not a girl, cuts his hair and forces him to change out of his dress and put on overalls like his brothers. The two proceed back to the house where Emma Jean announces to the family that Perfect is not a girl, but a boy. The declaration sends Gus, a gentle man who cries whenever it rains, into a violent rage where he nearly kills Emma Jean. The story proceeds as Perfect, who Gus has now renamed Paul, must accept and adopt his new life as a boy.

Intriguing plot. However, the book was a disappointment. The author was unable to take a challenging subject and explore the numerous complex issues in a thought provoking manner. The premise of the book is whether a person's sexuality - heterosexual or homosexual - is determined by birth, choice or socialization. This controversial issue was glossed over in a superficial manner that relied on stereotypes and cliches. There is no examination of the question of whether a boy who is socialized as a girl for the first 8 years of his life will be homosexual. Nor is there exploration of the perspective that sexuality is something a person is born with, therefore, a hetersexual boy will be sexually attracted to girls even if he wore dresses and played with dolls. The author did not develop the character, Perfect/Paul, in a way which the reader could gain insight into these questions. Instead, the character development was confusing. Perfect was playing house with Eva Mae and appeared to be attracted to girls. He was also attracted to Christine. Thus, the reader would think he was heterosexual. But then the author keeps saying Paul gets a "tingly" feeling when he sees Johnny Ray who by both male and female opinions is attractive. The ending is oversimplified - Paul grows up to be a fashion designer in New York. There is no indication in the entire book that Paul is creative and desires to be a designer.

Another major problem with the book is the writing. It was not clear, but confusing. The dialect at times did not fit the time period of the 1940s and 1950s. It was not clear which character's point of view the story was being told from: Emma Jean, Paul, Gus, or one of the brothers. Also the author contantly "told" the story to the reader instead of "showing" the story through the characters, the relationships of the characters to each other, events and dialogue.

Other problems included the author trying to tackle too many stories within one book. He would often diverge into a story about one of the other characters such as Authorly, Sol, Bartimaeus or Mister, and quickly summarize what happened with their lives. The background story of Emma Jean and her abusive relationship with her mother was distracting as it was not developed enough to serve as a justification as to why she chose to raise her son as a girl. Emma Jean's and Henrietta's relationship at the end of the book was unbelievable - that Emma Jean would enter involuntary servitude and become insane just to provide Paul a suit for a dance. The secret of Paul's gender was already exposed so the entire "agreement" between Emma Jean and Henrietta was not plausible. Woody and Mister were caricatures representing the conservative religious perspective on homosexuality (Woody) and the rejection of the notion that all homosexual men are effeminate (Mister).

The potential of the book is never realized and it leaves the reader unfulfilled. Unfortunately "Perfect Peace" is imperfect.    

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Summer Reading Part I

Summer is here! Time for "light" reading by the pool, at the beach, in the backyard or wherever you may relax this summer whether its a va-cation or a stay-cation.  Here's a glimpse at some of the books I have read so far this summer. There have been some hits and misses.

"Holy Rollers" by ReShonda Tate Billingsley. I decided to kick off the summer with the latest novel by Billingsley, a christian writer, whose books are hilarious and have a message delivered by well-developed characters.  The book has a familiar theme of women looking for love. The twist is that the three main characters, Coco, Nita and Audra, decide to trade chasing professional athletes for chasing after "religious" men. They embark on their quest at a conference for young ministers. The encounters along the way are funny. The only criticism I would give is that Billingsley deals superficially with the problem of domestic violence which one of the characters experiences.  Overall, it is a good read which I would recommend. Other books by Billingsley include "Let the Church Say Amen," "I know I've Been Changed" and "My Brother's Keeper."

"Bitch is the New Black" by Helena Andrews. I was intrigued by the title and had heard a lot of hype about the book when it first came out.  As the saying goes, "don't believe the hype." I was extremely disappointed. First, it is suppose to be a memoir, but it is really a collection of essays. Second, the essays are not interesting, thought-provoking or well written. Instead the book is simply the mindless ramblings of a 28-year-old woman. The fall out from the book proved to be more interesting in the case where Interior Designer Sheila Bridges threatened to sue Andrews for a chapter in the book that appears to be about Bridges for whom Andrews once worked and was fired.  As a result, Andrews issued a public apology to Bridges. I would not recommend this book.

"Before You Suffocate Your Own Foolself" by Danielle Evans.  This is a short story collection. There are eight stories featuring teens and young adults coming of age and grappling with life's problems of sex, race, acceptance and love. Half of the stories are very good, the best being "Snakes" and "Robert E. Lee is Dead." The other half are not so good. All of the stories have an underlying theme of people's personal battle with how people perceive them and who they really are.  The writing is good.  Some of the characters are flat and some of the stories evoke no emotion so you forget them as soon as you finish reading. However, overall it is a good read and I would recommend it.  Another short story collection is "A Taste of Honey" by Jabari Asim. While the book is suppose to be short stories, it reads more like a novel because the characters and storyline continue throughout the entire book. Nevertheless, the stories take place in 1968 and focus on how the civil rights movement and other events of that era affected the characters and their community. It is well written, but slow moving despite the interesting setting.  If you are interested in short stories, I would recommend books by J. California Cooper who is the master of short stories. Check out "Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns," "Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime," "Homemade Love" and "Some Soul to Keep."  It looks like short stories are making a comeback!

Finally, "The One Who Gained Possession After the Struggle" by Cynthia Moody Collins (my friend and fellow author). The book focuses on a women's journey to self-discovery. Redissa, the main character, goes on a roller coaster ride through life as she struggles with having a baby when she is a teenager, drug addiction, abusive relationships and depression.  However, from a myriad of problems, Redissa emerges as a women who learns her true value and discovers peace within herself.  I would recommend this book as it is a motivational and uplifting story.

Check back for Summer Reading Part II. Enjoy!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Review: "The Other Wes Moore"

"The Other Wes Moore" by Wes Moore is about two black men who have the same name, lived in Baltimore, but whose lives took very different paths. The author, Wes Moore, graduated from college, became a Rhodes Scholar and delivered a speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The other Wes Moore became a drug dealer and later was sentenced to life in prison for his participation in the robbery and killing of a police officer.

What is intriguing about this real life story is the exploration of how both Wes Moore's grew up in similar circumstances: single mothers, poor neighborhoods, disinterest in school, and brushes with crime. But, their lives turned out very different.  The book raises the age old debate about whether individuals' lives are shaped by genetics or environment or both.

The book reflects on choices that both men faced growing up and how they dealt with these choices, second chances and expectations. Both Wes Moore's are faced with choices about education. The author Wes Moore's mother sends him to a private school to escape the crime-ridden and underachieving public schools in the Bronx where the family relocated after Moore's father dies. However, he does not like the school and doesn't fit in. "I was becoming to 'rich' for the kids from the neighborhood and too 'poor' for the kids at school. I had forgotten how to act naturally, thinking way too much in each situation and getting tangled in the contradictions between my two worlds." Eventually he is kicked out of the private school for poor grades and misconduct.  In a drastic move, his mother sends him away to a military school in Pennsylvania to save him from the streets.  Meanwhile, the other Wes Moore, drops out of school, becomes a teenage father and starts selling drugs -- following in his older brother's footsteps despite his brother's effort to keep him out of the "drug game." Wes rationalizes his decision to become a drug dealer, stating "This game didn't require studying or exams. It didn't require a degree or vocational skills. All he needed was ambition. And guts. ... And an ability to live with constant fear."

The story alternates between each man's life and the choices presented to them and the consequences each one experiences as a result of his decisions. Another major theme of the book is second chances. Wes decides that he wants to do something more with his life than sell drugs. He enters the Job Corps, gets his GED, and learns carpentry skills. However, when he returns to his old neighborhood and is unable to find a job as a carpenter and is forced to bounce from one low-paying job to another, Wes reverts back to selling drugs. Another choice -- bad decision.

At the military school, Wes eventually embraces his new environment and is mentored by others who expose him to opportunities he probably would not have encountered in his old neighborhood in the Bronx. He graduates from high school, interns with the Mayor of Baltimore, graduates college and becomes a Rhodes Scholar. The other Wes gets involved in a robbery with his brother and two other men, gets arrested, convicted and is sentenced to life in prison.

With each page, you wonder about the influence of a person's environment on his or her future. Would Wes have graduated from college and became successful if he stayed in the Bronx? How much of who we are is determined by our choices and personal responsibility. There are many people who grow up in poverty and experience traumatic events, but overcome those adversities to become "successful" and don't end up in prison. While the other Wes may not have had as many opportunities, he did have a choice to not engage in criminal activity.

In addition to the debate of personal responsibility v. environment, there is also the question about expectations. Wes poses the question if they are "products of our expectations." Wes states "we will do what others expect of us. If they expect us to graduate, we will graduate. If they expect us to get a job, we will get a job. If they expect us to go to jail, then that's where we will end up too. At some point you lose control."

This is a very sad perspective on life which must be challenged and changed. Everyone should set high expectations for themselves and strive to be the best person they can be.  No one should be "controlled' by another person's low expectations for them. Sometimes, the only thing limiting a person's possibilities in life are his or her own expectations.

While the book takes a very limited view of these lofty social problems within the context of two men's lives, it sparks the reader to want to get involved to make a difference. The book is short on content (only 180 pages), but contains a vast resource guide of organizations aimed at working with youth.

I would recommend this book, particularly for young black males. Like another book, "The Pact" (by Drs. Sampson Davis, George Jenkins and Rameck Hunt), it is an inspiring and important book that may change a teen's life.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review -- "The Girl Who Fell From The Sky"

The debut novel by Heidi Durrow explores issues of race and culture as she tells the story of Rachel who goes to live with her paternal grandmother after her mother and two siblings tragically fall to their death from atop of the Chicago housing project where they lived.

Rachel is biracial and bi-cultural: her Danish mother is white and her American father is black. However, Rachel does not know she is black until she comes to live with her black grandmother in Portland, Oregon, and everyone around her defines who she should be. Rachel reflects on her first day at school: "I am light-skinned-ed. That's what the other kids say. And I talk white. I think new things when they say this," and "I learn that black people don't have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes. I put all of these facts into the new girl."

The book is written from the first person perspective of Rachel, but the story alternates with views from Brick, a boy who mistakenly thought Rachel's brother was a bird when he "fell from the sky."  Brick travels from Chicago to Portland to relay a message to Rachel from her father who has abandoned her after the tragedy. The reader gets a glimpse into the mind of Rachel's mother, Nella, through the writings in her diary, which shed some light on what drove her to the roof to commit an unspeakable act for a mother. There is also the perspective of Laronne, a black woman who is Nella's boss, who is notified about the family tragedy.  Durrow presents well developed perspectives from Rachel, Nella and Brick, however, Laronne's character is one-dimensional, flat and not developed.  In fact, it detracts more than it adds to the story. 

Rachel endures a painful journey as she struggles for self-identity. It is a journey that apparently neither her mother or father had prepared her for nor could they handle themselves. For example Rachel's mother Nella writes in her diary of Rachel's father Roger, "Roger was never black. He was charming and fun and handsome," "When he said but you cannot be pregnant, we cannot get maried, and when I said why not he said cause you are white and I am not. I did not know that was a problem."

However, Rachel learns that race is a problem, and the black girl with the blue eyes does not fit neatly into any group. She has no friends as the black girls don't like her and tell her she acts like she is white. The white kids see her as black. Boys see her as "exotic" including a white boyfriend who calls her his "mocha" girlfriend and states "you're different anyway, you know? It's like you're black but not really black." Her loneliness and isolation often leads her to confuse love with sex, and her grandmother warns her to leave the men alone as "they don't know what you're worth." She also tries to hang onto her Danish culture by remembering snippets of the language. However, she laments "I don't want being Danish to be something that I can put on and take off." Throughout the book, Rachel strives to be a "whole" person made up of her separate and distinct parts.

Durrow's writing is eloquent with great dialogue. The characters often speak in few words, but convey deep meaning and understanding of the issues they grapple with in their daily lives as they navigate the minefield of race in America.

Everyone seems to have a plan for her future, but as Rachel brilliantly states in those dreams, "there's a low sky." The book ends with Rachel's realization that "I'm not the color of my skin. I'm a story. One with a past and a future unwritten."

The message of the book transcends race, culture and gender.  The lesson for everyone is do not let others define you, but strive to be the person you want to be.