Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published January 2nd 2018 by Random House

A novel of race and privilege in America that you haven’t seen before: a coming-of-age story about a life-changing friendship, propelled by an exuberant, unforgettable voice.

“This isn’t some Jedi bull****; the force I’m talking about is real, and its energies are everywhere, working on everyone.”

Boston, 1992. David Greenfeld is one of the few white kids at the Martin Luther King Middle School. Everybody clowns him, girls ignore him, and his hippie parents won’t even buy him a pair of Nikes, let alone transfer him to a private school. Unless he tests into the city’s best public high school–which, if practice tests are any indication, isn’t likely–he’ll be friendless for the foreseeable future.

Nobody’s more surprised than Dave when Marlon Wellings sticks up for him in the school cafeteria. Mar’s a loner from the public housing project on the corner of Dave’s own gentrifying block, and he confounds Dave’s assumptions about black culture: He’s nerdy and neurotic, a Celtics obsessive whose favorite player is the gawky, white Larry Bird. Together, the two boys are able to resist the contradictory personas forced on them by the outside world, and before long, Mar’s coming over to Dave’s house every afternoon to watch vintage basketball tapes and plot their hustle to Harvard. But as Dave welcomes his new best friend into his world, he realizes how little he knows about Mar’s. Cracks gradually form in their relationship, and Dave starts to become aware of the breaks he’s been given–and that Mar has not.

Infectiously funny about the highs and lows of adolescence, and sharply honest in the face of injustice, Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut is a wildly original take on the struggle to rise in America.

 

I will be surrounded by dudes like this for the rest of my life. White boys and white girls who grew up behind whitewashed fences, who grew up with no idea, for the rest of my life. The force preordained it: Not only will I be surrounded by them, I will become one of them, the thing I hate and can’t escape. Not a white boy or a whitey or a white b*tch, but a white person.

If you’re looking for a way to start your new year out right, Green is absolutely the way to go. Prepare yourself to be transported by a distinctive voice and a story line that screams with authenticity. More than authentic—it was one that mirrored what middle school was like for me in the 90s: the same cliques, the same typecasts, the same social rules. This novel transported me back to those days, back to those vibrations in the air, to that slang on our tongues, to those priorities in our pre-teen minds and to those questions that plagued our thoughts night and day about the world around us and our place in it.

Picture it (in my Estelle Getty voice): Boston, 1992.

David Greenfeld is one of the only white sixth graders at Martin Luther King Middle School—the “ghetto” school—with no friends, no cool points, and no chance at getting a girl. His Harvard-educated, politically correct, granola parents don’t understand his pleas to be removed from the school, and there seems to be no end to the social torture in sight. Until. He meets Marlon Wellings, an ultra-smart, Boston Celtics-obsessed, black kid from the projects across the street whose street smarts start to rub off on Dave and who’s life in the hood and drive to get out of it spark questions in Dave’s mind he’s never contemplated before.

In Green, Sam Graham-Felsen gives us a fresh look at the merging of two cultures, literally painting it is a physical intersection of neighborhoods as well as of cultural mores and rules. I couldn’t help but remember another book I’ve reviewed recently that was also a coming-of-age story with a jumping off point from the ’92 L.A. riots—and all the while, I marveled at how much better this story was told, at how much more the voice and experiences rang true. Graham-Felsen brought these characters to life on the page. He gave them hopes and made them my hopes. He made them fall, and I felt the blow myself. And he made them fail, as we all do in life sometimes. It is in those moments that this novel’s heart is most evident and that its impact slammed into me the hardest.

Through Dave and Marlon, Graham-Felsen explores the color line through the eyes of adolescents still finding themselves amidst the chaos of race relations. What really set this novel apart for me is that he gave us the perspective of the white side of the fence, while still being true to both stories, to both cultures.

In school the next day, Ms. Ansley shows us another installment of this long, made-for-TV movie we’ve been watching called Roots. When she introduced it, she said we needed to know our history, especially after what happened in L.A…I hear people shifting in their chairs. The violence is one thing: We all know the wounds are just makeup, the whip’s just a prop, the loud crack’s only a sound effect. But the n-word is different. Even if it’s just acting, it’s still the real n-word. I’ve heard it ten thousand times…but always with the soft ending. Hearing it with the hard er …makes my face muscles clench up even thinking about it. All that evil, all that power, packed into two tiny syllables.

Then, we have ‘the force.’

As their school year progresses and confrontations are had, as Dave’s belief in religion is explored and his cross into cultures and upbringings other than his own changes his outlook on his surroundings, he begins to ponder the idea of ‘the force,’ his interpretation of race relations around him. He sees it everywhere. It peppers his every interaction with the world around him, and jolts him out of adolescence and into a more adult mindset:

It seemed like the smoke of those riots spread all across the continent, all the way to Boston, like they were looking for their own Reginald Denny, because as far as I could tell they stepped for no other reason than the fact that I was white. But as I ran away…I began to wonder if maybe I was looking at them the wrong way, the same way I must have stared at the TV screen when those dudes bundled Denny—a shook and boggled look that said, You are predators—and maybe that made them want to treat me like prey. All summer, I tried to deny the force, but I felt it every time I got checked on my way past the Shaw Homes…And I felt ashamed of that…and yeah, I’ve been feeling ashamed that the force has been with me, pretty much nonstop…

Green was an entertaining read and one that provoked thought. There were moments when I laughed out loud and, yes, even a moment when I cried. There’s something for everyone within these pages, because we all know at least one of these characters, from the granola do-gooders to that kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Here’s your chance now to get glimpse into their world. I wouldn’t be saying enough to say that I highly recommend this book for readers of all sizes, colors and creeds who are ready to open their minds and their outlooks. I even recommend it for all ages, because the cultural boundaries explored within Green are real and not to be ignored. The tragedies of everyday life surrounding us are real and not to be downplayed. And the line between the haves and the have nots, the clueless and the culturally aware, the predators and the prey is real and should never, ever be doubted. 4.5 stars. *****

 

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Sam Graham-Felsen Writer based in Brooklyn. Author of the novel, GREEN (Random House, Jan 2018). Former chief blogger for Barack Obama.

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The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 5th 2017 by Random House

When powerful real-estate tycoon Nero Golden immigrates to the States under mysterious circumstances, he and his three adult children assume new identities, taking ‘Roman’ names, and move into a grand mansion in downtown Manhattan. Arriving shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, he and his sons, each extraordinary in his own right, quickly establish themselves at the apex of New York society.

The story of the powerful Golden family is told from the point of view of their Manhattanite neighbour and confidant, René, an aspiring filmmaker who finds in the Goldens the perfect subject. René chronicles the undoing of the house of Golden: the high life of money, of art and fashion, a sibling quarrel, an unexpected metamorphosis, the arrival of a beautiful woman, betrayal and murder, and far away, in their abandoned homeland, some decent intelligence work.

Invoking literature, pop culture, and the cinema, Rushdie spins the story of the American zeitgeist over the last eight years, hitting every beat: the rise of the birther movement, the Tea Party, Gamergate and identity politics; the backlash against political correctness; the ascendency of the superhero movie, and, of course, the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair.

In a new world order of alternative truths, Salman Rushdie has written the ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies. A brilliant, heartbreaking realist novel that is not only uncannily prescient but shows one of the world’s greatest storytellers working at the height of his powers.

Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House, plays out as a Shakespearean drama re-imagined in the eyes of a postmodernist and set in the Obama era of ultra-riche Manhattan. (There, how’s that for an elevator pitch?) This novel is full of nostalgic references, ornate erudite descriptions and high-brow prose, as you would expect from the man who brought us Midnight’s Children and holds an esteemed Booker Prize. I was first introduced to Salman Rushdie by Hanif Kureishi, who wrote one of my favorite college reads, The Black Album, in response to the fatwah issued by Islamic fundamentalists intent on killing Salman Rushdie for writing his 4th novel, The Satanic Verses. So, you can imagine the anticipation I felt to finally meet this great novelist and essayist up close and in person for myself—or as up close and in person as one’s words on a page will allow us to get to the true author themselves.

And here you have it. Sit back and imagine this:

The Golden House trots along the Obama era years, from his inauguration on January 20, 2009, through the election that gave us our 45th president. This political period is the mirror against which these characters see their lives unfolding, crumbling and transforming. Nero Golden and his household of three sons, of which he is the god-like patriarch, are expatriates of an unnamed country (which is eventually named) after a terrorist tragedy takes the life of their matriarch and shady financial deals finish them off in their homeland, sending the family to New York to rebuild their lives with the help of their obscene and conspicuous wealth by way of the American Dream. They move into a mega-mansion in an affluent neighborhood in Manhattan, where all 22 homes of the community back into a luxurious garden oasis that the families all communally enjoy. It is in this near-utopian communal setting where lives begin to cross and our narrator, René, meets the leading family. We follow him on his journey to infiltrate, observe and ultimately document the Golden lives in a film he’s been longing to make but isn’t really sure of how to go about doing. Along the way, characters come and go. As the modern-day “Julio-Claudian” drama unfolds, death occurs. Birth occurs. Marriage occurs. The saga of their lives unfolds, shatters, melts down and repairs—never in that order.

If you’re looking for a single word to describe this novel, a good starting place would be dense though I cannot argue that it is unnecessarily so, and the read certainly wouldn’t have been the same without this aspect. Literary allusions—call me Ishmael— abound on every page here and, quite honestly, you might want to have a digital encyclopedia on hand for quick reference through some of these passages— Chinese hexagrams of divination, for example? But I loved that, reveled in it for the most part, in fact, because this enlightened display of narrative talent played with so many forms of storytelling, from conventional narrative formatting to scenes written as screenplays, from the use of quotation marks to the use of not-a-one, and back again. It was a journey, but at least it was a ride too, crossing the lines of contemporary fiction, post-modernism and metafiction.

Here you’ll find wry social commentary that crackles and pops with dry irony, heaped on in healthy doses so that no culture—past or present, Eastern or Western—is safe from the scrutinizing eye—though, with the backdrop of this novel being set specifically against the Obama era, much of the commentary hits hard on American culture, smashing up against it forcefully and knocking down our perception of it, knocking down the barriers around talking about it, from Black Lives Matter to the collapse of the housing market to transgender transformation and everywhere in between:

“Once upon a time…if a boy liked pink and dolls his parents would be afraid he was homosexual and try to interest him in boy stuff…they might have doubts about his orientation but it wouldn’t occur to them to question his gender. Now it seems you go to the other extreme. Instead of saying the kid’s a pansy you start trying to persuade him he’s a girl.”

“What is American culture?” This novel dares to seriously ask—often pokes fun at—and ultimately explores—no, turns inside out—this beloved cliché we and the world over cling to called the American Dream, from the viewpoint of the transplant, from the viewpoint of those ultimately in search of themselves in the whirlwind that is our lives in our culture today.

“…I could feel it, the anger of the unjustly dead, the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black, the young child shot for playing with a plastic gun in a playground while black, all the daily black death of America, screaming out that they deserved to live, and I could feel, too, the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in a white house, and the frothing hatred of the homophobes…the blue-collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d and Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity, all the discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing they were right…”

Rushdie’s insightful narrative is at times chilling it its acute accuracy about our cultural climate and our 45th president—“…the Joker shrieked…in that bubble…gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American…mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers…”— and made The Golden House a complete package, which managed to be both entertaining and at times mildly surreal, with the help of a wink toward a more avant-garde formatting technique and a nod toward the “magically real.”

I navigated this novel with the sense of one at their grandfather’s knee, he with brandy and cigar in hand, hearing a tale that was often fascinating in its baroqueness. The Golden House is chocked full of so many things we love in reads—solid plotting, whimsy and intellectual stimuli—which made the ornate density of this novel worth persevering through in the end—and that both stirred and excited my reader soul, like a hearty helping of literary gumbo you have to close your eyes and smile to enjoy, adding depth to the layers of the pages, of these words. And, that was easily enough for 4.5 stars. ****

**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Salman RushdieSir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is a novelist and essayist. Much of his early fiction is set at least partly on the Indian subcontinent. His style is often classified as magical realism, while a dominant theme of his work is the story of the many connections, disruptions and migrations between the Eastern and Western world.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, led to protests from Muslims in several countries, some of which were violent. Faced with death threats and a fatwa (religious edict) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, which called for him to be killed, he spent nearly a decade largely underground, appearing in public only sporadically. In June 2007, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor for “services to literature”, which “thrilled and humbled” him. In 2007, he began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University.

Loner: A Novel by Teddy Wayne

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 224 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

Loner: A Novel turned out to be an unexpected gift, a surprise wolf wrapped in sheep’s clothing. This, of course, is always the best kind of surprise because—let’s face it—who wants to read through shocking revelations that never shock and humdrum plot lines that fail to thrill?

David Alan Federman is entering his freshman year at Harvard in much the same way that he’s lived his pre-college life: introverted, awkward enough to make a habit of spelling large words and sentences backward in his head for kicks (his college entry essay was entitled “SDRAWKCAB”) and perpetually uncomfortable in social settings of pretty much any kind. The middle child of attorney parents who remind him to take his Lactaid before going down to the freshman ice cream party, he meets—rather, instantly becomes enamored with from quite afar—a fellow freshman who’s too-cool-for-school attitude and socially elite entourage easily draw his attention. But the social caste system of high school still exists, even on the prestigious campus of Harvard, and we all know how that goes. Hence this novel takes off at a trot and never really slows, as one occurrence builds upon the tension of the next. What you end up with is a delicious university-setting tautness and social hierarchies traversed with alarming repercussions.

One of the many things that this novel had going for it was setting. No, not just the fact that everyone knows Harvard, one of America’s darling Ivys, but that everything from the physical landscape of the campus to the “baroque” vocab used by its overachieving matriculates immersed the reader in the scene from the very start, both physically and socially. Immersion is a true key to a great read, as we all know, and Loner offered that in spades in a way that was so unique that it struck me as off-putting at first, offering SAT-vocab-laden narration and interior thoughts that practically oozed with a telling social awkwardness—the kind that could only be the result of years of practiced introversion and prolonged interior conversations with oneself. While at first it struck me as a tick, I soon realized that it was, contrarily, a brilliantly executed mood of the novel that all came together delightfully or maybe disturbingly in the end.

But it is with the unique POV shift that the reader first begins to realize something’s wrong.

The blurb for this one left out one key detail that would probably grab it even more readers: that this is a psychological ride as much as anything else. It pushed the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with. Because, you’ll first notice David’s obsession with Veronica the first time the switch to 2nd person happens. You may run across a passage like, “And then I saw you walk in…” in the middle of a 1st person narration, and you’ll know. Oh, you’ll know. It succeeds in creating a hazily unsettling atmosphere, like at any minute you might find that you’ve entered the mind of a young sociopath…

That kept me on my toes.

I’ll resist stepping up to the podium to deliver a monologue on the pros and cons of 2nd person writing and how it’s increased usage in contemporary writing effects the reader—gosh, sounds like a class I wouldn’t mind taking!—and instead side-step that well-beaten path to say that I genuinely enjoyed this work far more than I would have had that literary tactic not been employed, because it created a charged atmosphere of voyeurism.

What I most applaud the author for, however—and trust me, there’s plenty to applaud here—was the author’s clear use of restraint. Restraint, restraint, RESTRAINT! It’s easy to fill a novel with superfluous passages that go nowhere and superfluous characters who do nothing but it’s a skillful author indeed who can cut away the nonsense and tell a truly streamlined tale that still manages to leave no detail unexplored, without inflating the word count with unnecessary prose. That is what Teddy Wayne did here in Loner, hence the short page count and the knock-out punch ending that landed the hardest blow, unsoftened by uncut fat. This novel was a sure ride toward the dénouement with steadily escalating subtle cues that piqued my reader Spidey senses like a dog’s ears perking in the wind. Put your ear to the ground. Can you hear that? For something wicked this way comes…

**Minor spoiler alert** Following David’s descent into obsession** was thrilling, like the downward slope of a roller coaster that you expected—you saw it as you approached the top of the summit, but your heart still dropped to your stomach on the way down. But, then again, we all know that I’m partial to character pieces that peel back the layers, and this was definitely that.
Sharp and utterly disquieting, this novel is so much more than first meets the eye. Every word and action were deliberate. I loved seeing it all come together, seeing the author’s clever hand at work and realizing that those scattered nuances were all part of a larger, oh-so-deliberate whole. I’d gladly jump in bed with the Loner again, and I recommend you do too. 4.5 stars ****

Throwback Thursday: The Hip Hop Wars by Tricia Rose

Paperback, 320 pages
Published December 2nd 2008 by Basic Civitas Books (first published January 1st 2008)

          “Hip Hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill. The beauty and life force of hip hop have been squeezed out, wrung nearly dry by the compounding factors of commercialism, distorted racial and sexual fantasy, oppression, and alienation. It has been a sad thing to witness.”

Rose’s survey on the current state of the hip hop industry is a dazzling display of contemporary cultural probing and criticism. The Hip Hop Wars dissects the music industry, particularly the sphere of hip hop music, and puts it through a methodical and impassioned analysis from the inside out. Two-thirds of this work uses the framework of Critics vs. Defenders, exploring each side of the arguments presented, which allowed for an extremely dynamic and diverse examination of the subject. Simultaneously, Part Two: Progressive Futures offered solutions to the “problem” that hip hop and the African American diaspora, as the community and identity surrounding it, are confronted with. The format itself was refreshing, as it endeavored to offer as comprehensive a view of the industry’s landscape as possible, while also offering solutions to the problems, rather than simply proselytizing to the masses from a perch on a soap box. No, this was a down-to-earth work in that way, in that the author was clearly writing from the concerned standpoint of one entrenched in the soul of the very wounded creature that they seek to heal, rather than from an outsider’s view, hovering above the culture and taking stilled snapshots from their safe locale outside of the battle field, away from the dangers of getting their own hands dirty.

Rose reaches into the heart of the new technologies and music markets that now shape and affect this music, as well as the gaping mouth of the corporate Goliath poised to gobble up this once-expressive art form like the Cookie Monster. She examines the who, what, when, where, and, most importantly, the why of the disintegration of this form of artful story-telling and the complicit-ness of the artists and its consumers in the demise of their own culture, their own music, their own outlet and venue of true personal expression. Neither rappers, nor music moguls nor radio stations are spared in this introspective and insightful survey. Unemployment, the drug trade, and even affordable housing and white consumption, feminism, sexism (all the isms, really), even Shaft and Foxy Brown’s roles in the foundation, intent and culture of hip hop music are examined and explained to create an entire picture of the hip hop music industry and its players.

While I loved The Hip Hop Wars and the passion and thorough research with which Rose displayed her arguments, there were times where she managed to nearly push me off the bandwagon—well, maybe not off, but to the edge. Some of her arguments seemed a bit overwrought and exaggerative, and there are several places in my notes—believe me, this one was highlighted and marked up like schoolwork—where I wrote that I thought she was overdoing it a bit.

However, her overall argument really grabbed me, educated me and entertained me. I felt that I came away with something that I didn’t have before, when I finished the last page and closed the book, and that is what reading is all about; that is what a good argument should do. I would absolutely read this one again and suggest it to anyone considering giving it a whirl. This one proved why we can’t just sit by and watch an art form crumble, watch a culture be commercialized, packaged and sold with such deformities that it no longer represents the subject that it depicts at all—all for the sake of capitalism and mass exploitation:

          “The term ‘street’ became a euphemism for a monsoon of profanity, gratuitous violence, female and male hyper-promiscuity, the most vulgar materialism, and the total suppression of social consciousness.”

That is not what black culture is about, though it is the way that it is portrayed on the radio and in pop culture. The Hip Hop Wars brought to the forefront where it all went wrong, and how we can take it back again. True hip hop is not gentrified or yuppified; it isn’t Barbie-doll packaged and ready for shipping, complete with a thong and gold teeth. It isn’t the minstrel show that it’s become today, and Tricia Rose helps us to both remember and explore that. 4 ½ stars ****