“Ann also had a certain Javanese sense of propriety, which Holloway went so far as to describe as prudery. It surprised him, because most of the Americans he knew were the opposite.” page 210
A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother by Janny Scott. Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2011, my edition 2012. Biography, 386 pages. Not leveled.
A biography of Barack Obama’s mother.
Barack Obama led a unique and fascinating life long before he ever went into politics. A great deal has been made of his father, including his now famous first book, Dreams from My Father, but much less has been said about his mother, a white woman from Kansas. After Barack’s father returned to Kenya, she married a man named Lolo and moved to Indonesia, where Maya was born. Eventually they split up too, and Barack then lived with his grandparents.
There might be other details depending on which book you’re reading, but little insight into who she was or why she made the choices she did, although those choices were so formative for a man so many have opinions about. Janny Scott was different – she saw Stanley Ann Dunham* from the beginning and wanted to know what her life was like.
The result is this fascinating biography which will probably be little read and even less appreciated. Yet the story of Dunham’s life holds merit alone, even though it probably never would have been written without her famous son’s accomplishments drawing intense public scrutiny to their family. She was surprisingly countercultural yet drew from certain deeply conservative attitudes.
“Better to be brought up on charges for excessive force – or worse- than give someone the benefit of the doubt and be carried out in a coffin. I began waking up in the middle of the night, second-guessing everything I did on the job.” page 125
The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate by Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Singh Kaleka with Robin Gaby Fisher. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018. Adult nonfiction, 222 pages. Not leveled. NOTE: This book, and therefore the discussion of it in this review, contain numerous triggers. Please be aware and skip this review if needed. 2nd NOTE: Also this review is longer than usual because my own mental and emotional health made it difficult to edit.
The story of a former white supremacist whose words inspired the Sikh temple shooter and a man whose father was murdered in that shooting spree.
The book begins with acknowledgements and a prologue, followed by a chapter detailing the co-authors’ first meeting. The second chapter onward follow a more linear progression, starting with their childhoods, their high school and early adult life. At one point these two men lived only a short drive from each other, yet it took national headline level violence for their lives to converge.
Michaelis is very clear that his life was not especially full of hardships, that he was a normal, if somewhat wild, suburban boy. The stories about his recruitment to white supremacy through the punk rock scene (after an unfortunate incident turning him off of his earlier love of breakdancing) are almost as upsetting as his descriptions of acts of violence.
Then he attends a white supremacy “leadership camp” and is literally indoctrinated into the beliefs and recruitment system. He sees himself as doing good in the world even when literally beating someone. It’s stomach turning – this is not a book that can be read during lunch breaks or before bed.
“But in the quiet beneath the noise, I would wager that we are probably the most discreet, still, and discerning population on the face of the earth. And we keep many, many things on the low. Especially when it comes to motherhood.” page 43
Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself by Ylonda Gault Caviness. Jeremy P. Tarchen, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015. Adult memoir, 302 pages. Not leveled.
One mother’s journey to reconcile her own upbringing with modern parenting article advice.
As mentioned, I’ve been on a major nonfiction slump. Although reading required for classes and work has gotten done, I havn’t read any adult nonfiction for personal enjoyment in over a year. That’s longer than the break I took after graduating! A lot of that was Covid, blogging and other non-essential activities falling by the wayside, and since I strongly prefer fiction, what freedom I had went towards what was most fun.
I tried joining a challenge and buying new books but I still was just reading a chapter here and there, so looked back to my interests. Diverse of course. Biography/memoir. Parenting. Other areas I like to read about normally, like history, but lately just… couldn’t. Luckily, Caviness’ Child, Please was just right to remind me of the joys of a well-crafted true story.
“My studies had taught me that there were many ways to create change. Protests and activism were important and meaningful ways of applying social pressure. But I also felt that when we began to fear our ability to bring people to some truth, there was a problem.” page 234
Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America by Zachary R. Wood. Dutton imprint, Penguin Random House, New York, 2018. Adult memoir, 238 pages. Lexile: 1040L . AR Level: not yet leveled.
The story of a young man who moved between abusive and loving but impoverished home life and mostly-white educational institutions that gave him access to another world but rejected or exceptionalized his race.
I picked up this book with only the vaguest idea of who Zachary Wood was, perhaps having read one of his articles but not yet having cemented the name and the ideas together in my mind. After all, in 2020 most of us are focusing on hate speech rather than free speech, when we aren’t simply trying to stay alive.
Honestly, the main reason I grabbed this was because I assumed the subtitle indicated a biracial author. Wood is African American or Black, not biracial – he has spent much of his short life moving between black and white environments though.
“Walter didn’t say anything as I explained the situation, but he had a strange, despairing look on his face.” page 120
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
My edition Spiel & Grau, Random House, New York, 2019; originally published 2014.
Adult nonfiction, 354 pages.
Lexile: 1130L .
AR Level: not leveled
NOTE: The 2019 edition has a movie tie-in cover and extra postscript, otherwise I assume it’s the same as the previous version.
The story of Bryan Stevenson’s work with prisoners condemned to death, in particular the story of Walter McMillian – a man on death row for a murder he could not possibly have committed.
Several years ago, I read a report from Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative team that was insightful and searing. His personal book, Just Mercy, was already on my wishlist, but I wanted to prioritize reading it. Well, time went by, I even checked it out from the library and read a few chapters but had to return it due to another hold, and I had read so much about Just Mercy that I kept assuming that I’d read the actual book, until the new cover made me pick it up and realize somehow I’d missed it.
That happens in life sometimes, and luckily books are usually still around to find later. This time I purchased the book, and with a weekend mostly free, breathlessly read through the entire book. If I thought EJI report was well done, it was only because I had yet to experience Stevenson’s impressive narrative style.
“There is a whole series of events, along with some poor choices, that lead a person to Sing Sing. In some cases they never had a chance at a normal life from day one.” page 3
Refuge in Hell: Finding God in Sing Sing by Ronald D. Lemmert.
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2018.
Nonfiction/memoir, 186 pages.
The story of a chaplain at Sing Sing, New York’s infamous prison, over the 16 years he worked there.
I debated quite a bit over whether to review this one. Our church library has been getting quite a few of these Orbis books with the little red dots. They’re Christian, but cover a lot of social justice topics, which it’s nice to see people getting interested in locally.
Lemmert himself is not diverse within his own context. But the people he works with definitely are, and can be counted among the most disenfranchised in America. So in the end that tipped the scales in favor of reviewing this book, especially since I had several other books on imprisonment to read and review. Continue reading “Review: Refuge in Hell”
The life story of noted American folk artist Clementine Hunter, 1886/7-1988.
This book is part of our picture book artist biography series of reviews. Descended from slaves, Clementine Hunter was a folk artist who was a manual laborer on a Louisiana plantation known for attracting writers and artists. From the 1940s when she attracted the attention of patrons at the plantation until the late 1980s, she gained in popularity until she was able, at the end of her life, to live independently from the sale of her artworks.
“I read somewhere in an anthropology book that we Sioux ‘thrive on a culture of excitement.’ During the years from 1973 to 1975 we had more than enough excitement for even the most macho warrior, more than we could handle.” p. 192
Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog and Richard Erdoes.
HarperPerennial, Harper Collins, New York, 1990. Originally published by Grove Weidenfeld.
Adult autobiography, 264 pages.
Lexile: 970L .
AR Level: not leveled.
The life story of Mary Crow Dog, especially her time with the American Indian Movement and at Wounded Knee.
Every so often I stumble into a book with no expectations. I wasn’t familiar with this title when I got it and started reading with only the basic knowledge that it was a Native American woman’s autobiography. However, instead it was an education!
“I didn’t feel safe in crowds near my home because the person ringing up my groceries could be the person who shot my son.” page 140
A Better Place: A Memoir of Peace in the Face of Tragedy by Pati Navalta Poblete.
Nothing But the Truth, LLC, San Francisco, California.
Memoir, 255 pages.
NOTE: I received a free copy of this book. See review for more details.
The story of one mother’s life after her son was a victim of gun violence.
When I get interested in a topic, one of the things I like to do is to read a variety of books that talk about the same subject from different angles. This past winter I wanted to look at incarceration, gun violence, and forgiveness (as well as several other topics that aren’t related). Among the books I’d purchased or put on hold at the library there were several friends gave to me or recommended.
However, this was mailed to me and I originally thought my prison volunteer friend sent it, but it came with a mug and he knew nothing about it. Looking back through my emails I didn’t find any that mentioned this book either, so if I’ve accidentally deleted or missed one then my apologies!
I took some time before reading, since it seemed pretty intense emotionally. Indeed, this title walks you through Poblete’s experiences, starting at the joyous moment when she and her fiance of several years finally booked a venue for their wedding… only to receive the call her son was murdered.