Such a Fun Age

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kiley Reid
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Dec. 2019 (read May 2020 on Audible)

Such a Fun Age was totally not what I was expecting, but it was so good! A great look at race, the white saviour narrative, and that no matter how “woke” you are, you still can’t speak for someone else.

Such a Fun Age is about Emira Tucker, a black 25 year old who recently completed her university degree, but has been struggling to find a job in her field. To make ends meet, she takes a part time job as a babysitter for the wealthy Chamberlain family. She develops a great relationship with the child she babysits, Briar, but then one night when she’s at the grocery store, another customer and security guard accuse her of having kidnapped Briar and wont let her leave the store.

Though it was embarrassing, Emira would prefer to move on from the incident without making waves. Here we’re introduced to two other characters, Alix Chamberlain, Emira’s wealthy boss who has made her career as a lifestyle blogger who promotes “letting women speak”, and Kelly Copeland, a guy who witnesses what happens to Emira in the grocery store and speaks up for her – they eventually start dating.

I thought the dynamics of this book were fascinating. Alix is a well meaning white woman who does her best to be an ally to all women and applauds herself on her openness and acceptance, but has a lot of blind spots when it comes to class, race, and privilege. She has a tendency to play the victim and is more than happy to write whatever narrative best suits her purposes. She’s controlling and entitled and fails to see how her money and upbringing have blinded her to others experiences.

Similarly, Kelly also believes himself to be a great ally to black people. She sticks up for Emira when she’s accused in the grocery store and is kind and charming to her. He’s more familiar with the stereotypes and injustices that Black people have to fight against every day, but also has a blind spot in how he might appropriate black culture and fetishize black people. He acts like he knows what Emira is going through and how she should respond, but gets so caught up in “justice” that he loses sight of what’s actually in Emira’s best interest.

As the book goes on we learn more and more about Emira, and more and more about the history of these two white people who have taken over a large part of her life. Alix and Kelly are both extremely critical of the other – seeing only each other’s flaws, without being able to recognize that they are both painted from the same brush. Their perspectives are different, but they both have the same confused notions about race. What I loved is that as the story is revealed to you, you go back and forth questioning both Alix and Kelly – who is right and who is wrong. But there’s no easy answer. In some ways they are both allies, while in other ways they are both trying to be saviours to someone who doesn’t need saving – at least not in the way they think.

I love books that are not clear cut. So many narratives are dichotomic, you can’t help but side with one of the characters, but I was both intrigued and disgusted by both of these characters. There were times when I understood where Alix was coming from and thought she was unfairly judged by Kelly, but she was also so manipulative and used any situation to try and make herself look good. Then there were times when I thought Kelly was a stand up guy, but got frustrated with how little he really tried to understand Emira. They were both so caught up in trying to be allies, that they completely missed the point that black people don’t need white people to speak for them.

I’m sure there’s a lot of context in this book that I missed as a white person, but I really enjoyed coming along for the ride. It’s an interesting kind of story because I couldn’t tell whether it was the plot or the characters that carried the book. The character development was as much about the ways in which the characters grew as it was about the ways that they didn’t. In many ways, Emira doesn’t grow that much throughout the story, but she becomes okay with that. The acknowledgement that life is hard and sometimes just surviving is enough.

Then there’s Alix and Kelly. You would think that they would both come out of the experience having learned something, but neither really did. They both maintained their messed up views about race without stopping to think for one minute that maybe there was something they were missing. Both saw themselves as heroes and failed to recognized the same flaw in themselves that they condemned in each other.

Anyways, I feel like I’m getting a bit repetitive. There’s a lot more social commentary to unpack from this book and I liked how organic the writing was. I felt like I was living Emira’s life with her. There’s a lot of avenues that went unexplored throughout the novel, but that’s okay because its too exhausting for one person to address every single injustice in their life. A subtle, but powerful story and an impressive debut.

Born a Crime

Rating:
Author: Trevor Noah
Genres: Memoir, Non Fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2016 (re-read Jul. 2019 on Audible)

I read Born a Crime several weeks ago as an Audiobook. I first read Born a Crime as an e-book with my Book Club in 2017 and absolutely loved it. But I was feeling like a re-read and decided to go with the audiobook this time since it’s narrator by Trevor Noah. Either way, you definitely can’t go wrong with this book, but I’d say the audiobook definitely has an edge over the e-book.

I wasn’t planning to write a review for this book because I thought I’d already written one, but when I went back and checked my goodreads, I’d only written a little blurb that was never posted to my blog, so I’ve decided to write a proper review since I love this book so much.

I recommend this book to people a lot. They always look at me kind of like “really? Trevor Noah? The comedian?”, but I totally stand by my recommendation because this book has so much going for it! It’s hilarious, interesting, and it damn matters. Sure there’s a lot of comedic memoirs out there, but Trevor Noah’s memoir is all about growing up ‘coloured’ in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa.

South Africa’s have been broken down into factions for many years: white, black, and coloured, which is everyone in between. In Trevor’s case, he was considered coloured because he was mixed race – his mom was a black South African and his dad a white Swiss. Trevor was literally “born a crime” and had the interesting experience in his childhood of never really being allowed to be seen with either of his parents. Whites and blacks weren’t allowed to date or marry, but Trevor’s mom wanted to have a baby anyways and largely kept their relationship a secret.

In post-apartheid South Africa (when Trevor was around 10 I believe), they could finally be seen together, but Trevor struggled for years with his identity. He had a decent relationship with his Dad, but they eventually drifted apart, so everyone else in Trevor’s life was black. He is pushed to identify as coloured and for a while tries to access all the different sides of his identity, but eventually comes to the conclusion that while he looks coloured, he is black.

Trevor crams a lot of hilarious stories into this short memoir and it is definitely one of the few books that had me laughing out loud throughout. Even when he gets serious about South African politics and all the shit his mother went through, he still infuses a lot of humour into the story, which makes it a joy to read. His childhood was fascinating, as were his formative years growing up and trying to make it in Johannesburg. If you’re looking for an account of how he became a successful comedian, you won’t find it in this book, but you will find a lot of anecdotes about South African culture and oppression.

But the real hero of this story is Trevor’s mom. I talked about her briefly in my first review, but she is really what made this book for me. It’s hard to believe a poor, coloured boy who was literally born a crime could become so successful, but after learning about his mom, I know exactly how it happened. She is an independent and headstrong woman who is not afraid to go after what she wants, even when the deck is stacked against her. She acts as a wonderful foil to Trevor’s childhood antics, but you can tell everything she does is grounded in a deep love for her children and a deep love for God.

Say what you want about religion. But I absolutely believe in the God that Trevor’s Mom believe’s in. She is a zealous woman, but her faith is inspiring. The final chapter of this book is pretty much the most insane thing I’ve ever read, but it can’t help but make you believe that Patricia Noah knows something that the rest of us don’t about faith and religion.

Ultimately, this is a series of stories from Trevor’s childhood and young adult life. Every story offers a different insight into South African culture, but they all weave together a story of a remarkable mother and son.

Home Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Aug. 2017 (read July 2019)

While Home Fire was already on my TBR, it was a bit of an impulse purchase on Audible for me because I liked the narrator (so important!). I’m not sure what I was expecting from it, but I ended up being really impressed by this book.

Home Fire tells the story of an immigrant family that struggles to overcome the heartbreak of the past and be accepted as immigrants in the current political climate in the UK. After the death of her parents, Isma is forced to put her dreams on hold to take care of her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. But now that the twins are grown, she decides to pursue greater education in America, where she meets Eamonn, son of Britain’s home secretary.

The narrative follows Isma, Eamonn, and each of the other family members in turn. Isma is detained at the airport on her way to America, thanks to the tight security standards of the home secretary and her status as the daughter of a known jihadi. She befriends Eamonn and is confused by her feelings for him knowing the impact of his father’s policies on her and her family. But when Eamonn returns to the UK and is introduced to the rest of Isma’s family, the lives of these two very different immigrant families becomes further entwined.

Home Fire was a lot more political than I was expecting and super relevant with what is happening under Donald Trump’s policies in America and in the UK, post Brexit. But it also had a lot of heart and despite it being a relatively short book, Shamsie writes some deep and nuanced characters. I liked that this examined both sides of immigration policies, looking at a really controversial topic like jihad and the far-reaching impacts. I definitely didn’t go into this expecting to feel empathy for someone who leaves the UK to join ISIS.

What made this such a strong read for me was the characters (I live for character driven stories, so no surprise there). Initially I was frustrated when the perspectives kept switching, because I wasn’t expecting it and wanted to return to earlier characters, but looking at this one family and their story from so many perspectives is what gave the book such depth. They had a richly imagined history and each character already felt like a fully formed individual by the time I first met them. They are all extremely flawed, but it’s really what made them so believable as individuals.

To add another level to the story, Home Fire is parroted as a “modern day Antigone”. Now I read Antigone in high school, but I’m pretty foggy on the details so I had to do a bit of googling to remind myself. It is pretty loosely related, but does raise some relevant points from this ancient play. To what level will our xenophobia and othering go so that we can’t even see those who are different as human anymore? Can we not grant someone their humanity even in death, having no empathy for the people the dead leave behind?

A thoughtful and cleverly written book. I sped through it as an audiobook.

Great Small Things

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Jodi Picoult
Genres: Fiction
Pub. date: Oct. 2016 (read in May 2019)

Small Great Things has been on my TBR for a while, but I doubt I would have gotten to it if we hadn’t picked it for our May Book Club meeting. I have very mixed feelings on it – my book club meeting tonight may change that, but right now I’m feeling very middle of the road about the book. I didn’t like it, I didn’t dislike it. I’m probably firmly in the 2.5-3 star range.

Small Great Things is about labour & delivery nurse, Ruth Jefferson. She’s worked hard her entire life to overcome institutionalized racism and succeed as a black woman. She studied nursing at Yale and has been working in L&D for 20 years. She is well respected and has worked hard to give her son Edison the best start in life. For the most part, Ruth looks beyond race. It’s hard not to acknowledge the microaggressions she deals with on a daily basis, but she is not jaded by them. Until two white supremacists, who have just given birth to their first son, ask for Ruth to be removed from their son’s care due to personal prejudices, and the hospital acquiesces. A series of emergency events leave Ruth in an impossible position and before she knows it, she finds herself at the centre of a criminal investigation, making it harder to pretend that her race doesn’t matter.

Ruth is the protagonist of the story, but we also read from the perspective of Kennedy, Ruth’s white lawyer, and Turk, the white supremacist father. I was a little apprehensive going into this book because I’m never sure what to make of white author writing from the perspective of a black person and the last thing I wanted to read was a white saviour narrative. I’m glad the author included her note at the end, it provided an interesting perspective and I was glad to see her acknowledge her own personal shortcomings and privilege. I had questioned (while reading) whether she was the right person to write this book, which she also acknowledged, and I could appreciate that she decided to take the opportunity to target her white audience and get them thinking about racism.

The book has some interesting themes. I struggled with it at first because it’s an extremely heavy topic and I dreaded every time I would have to return to Turk’s chapter because I just hated reading from his perspective. This book is only 3 years old and it’s incredible how much more relatable (by which I mean, less shocking) Turk’s narrative has likely become since Trump came to power. I think this perspective may have shocked me a little more 3 years ago when neo-nazi’s and white supremacists were still mostly hiding in the shadows, but they’ve since become a lot more mainstream and it was exhausting and disgusting to read from Turk’s point of view, understanding there are people that think just like him in America right now.

My initial thought about Turk and Brit was that they were too much. I was sad to see the author take such a blatantly racist couple and make them the main antagonist. I was initially disappointed because I believe that white people need to read about subtle racism so they can better understand the ways in which they unknowingly perpetuate racism. Swinging too far in one direction makes it easy for people to condemn the racists and hide behind the “I’m not that bad” or “I’m not like them” narrative. But props to the author because it turns out she was trying to make the same point. I was really worried about Kennedy fitting into the white saviour narrative, which I think she still did to an extent, especially with her closing argument, but her character served the bigger purpose of drawing attention to the more subtle forms of racism and the way white people indirectly benefit from it.

So I do think the author did some small great things (see what I did there!) with this book, but it still had some shortcomings. Honestly, I just found the plot a little too basic, although maybe it fit just right for some of Picoult’s audience. I was looking for more from the plot and I wanted to challenge my thinking about race more than this book did. This is a great book if you’re just starting to think about race as a white person and you’ve never really questioned your privilege before. It was evident to me while reading that many of Picoult’s ideas came out of Peggy McIntosh’s essay on unpacking white privilege, which I think it a fantastic starting point, but I was hoping for something more thought-challenging. Personally, I’d recommend picking up Patrisse Khan-Cullors book When They Call You a Terrorist, or one of Phoebe Robinson’s books, Everything’s Trash, but It’s Okay or You Can’t Touch My Hair, to better understand what it’s like to be black. (other great memoirs include Trevor Noah’s, Born a Crime or Michelle Obama’s, Becoming)

Overall though, I just thought the book was too long. 500 pages is a lot and I do not feel like this plot warranted it. I wasn’t really impressed with the ending and thought some of the items were really overdone. So all of that leaves me firmly unsure of how to rate this. At the end of the day, I do hope this book challenges the perspective of Picoult’s audience, which is likely mostly white women who relate well with characters like Kennedy. I do applaud the author for taking on a topic like this, but given the choice, I would have preferred to spend my time reading a more thoughtful book written by a black author.