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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Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma

Hardcover, 240 pages
Published February 23rd 2017 by Viking

Brazilian-born doctor André Cabral is living in London when one day he receives a letter from his home country, which he left nearly thirty years ago. A letter he keeps in his pocket for weeks, but tells no one about.

The letter prompts André to remember the days of his youth – torrid afternoons on Ipanema beach with his listless teenage friends, parties in elegant Rio apartments, his after-school job at his father’s plastic surgery practice – and, above all, his secret infatuation with the daughter of his family’s maid, the intoxicating Luana. Unable to resist the pull of the letter, André embarks on a journey back to Brazil to rediscover his past.

Luiza Sauma’s Flesh and Bone and Water read like a primitive high school essay that could possibly have be entitled: “My Memories of Growing Up and How I Ended Up Here.” Honestly, that title makes it sound a bit more interesting than it was for most of the novel. While there were a few glimmering moments of promise, this horse never truly broke out into a run for me—there were times when it never even left the stable.

While this novel is, at its core, a novel about race in class—the line between the rich and the poor, the light-skinned and the dark-skinned in Brazil—it didn’t come with a lot of depth. The storyline was basic; Andre is the quintessential rich boy who’s bored of the parties around him and is surprised that his maid has a life of her own outside of washing his clothes and cooking his meals. He’s the kind of teenager who’s spoiled and curious and sheltered, the kind who plans to raise his children the same way he was raised: by a black woman who sleeps in a small room behind the kitchen. In short, he was pretty annoying and flat for pretty much all of the novel. (view spoiler)

The dialogue was so basic and one-dimensional that it was practically elementary and definitely added nothing whatsoever to the plot, tension or emotion of the novel as a whole. In fact, I found myself thinking more times than is even acceptable, “Is this a novel in translation?” because at least that would explain the lack of…anything present here. Perhaps it was, quite literally, just lost in translation. (Because I can find no evidence to the contrary, I’ve come to believe that this is not, actually, a translation.) Flesh and Bone and Water instead was delivered like a pretty lackluster, definitely watered-down version of a Hanif Kureishi novel, and I was ready to put it down before I got one-fifth of the way through it. Really, nothing truly happened in this novel until over halfway through it. The storyline from there could have been truly heartwarming if handled differently. Instead, it read as rushed at times and stale pretty much throughout, aside from a few more-polished moments.

Luiza Sauma’s Flesh and Bone and Water was tangible proof that a great idea does not a great novel make. It takes more than that; it takes finesse and heart and skill, which this novel didn’t display an extraordinary level of dexterity with. If you’re looking for a simple novel—the kind to make you say aaawwww when two teenagers kiss behind hanging laundry, then this may very well be a novel of interest for you. However, if you’re a reader who is looking to sink their teeth into something—to follow and love and root for your characters with the same passion for them that they exude as characters on the pages—then I bid you think twice about this one. It’s about as bare bones (no pun intended) as a burlap sack. 2 stars **

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Viking, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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Luiza Sauma was born in Rio de Janeiro and raised in London. She has an MA in Creative & Life Writing from Goldsmiths, University of London, where she was awarded the Pat Kavanagh Award in 2014, and she has also been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Flesh and Bone and Water is her first novel.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Paperback, 216 pages
Published September 6th 2005 by Plume (first published June 1st 1970)

…his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud…The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

While I was not the biggest fan of Morrison’s style in this novel, I did fully appreciate the dagger-sharp insight that she brought to the color caste system that is so prevalent in African-American culture, even today. Her dialogue rang so true, I could hear it coming directly out of my mother’s mouth, my grandmother’s mouth, and those of all of the women who’ve ever filled our kitchens with raucous communal fun and glum communal tragedy alike. Her use of the Dick & Jane children’s books, used for decades to teach children to read (SEEMOTHERMOTHERISVERYNICEMOTHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANEMOTHERLAUGHS  LAUGHMOTHERLAUGHLA) created a chilling, ironic and staggering contrast between the lives of the whites and those of the blacks in this novel. Shirley Temple, Mary Jane candies, and Jean Harlow hairstyles – you’ll find the delicacy of all of them here, both in these characters’ reality and in metaphor. While the truth and injustices here were often sobering to read, they were filled with too much truth to rightfully deny or turn away from.

I could spend hours discussing this novel. I could quote from it all day, but I won’t do that, because the entire read was poignant and so crisply aware of the color line – the how and the why – that there is no one point that can overshadow another in the message that these words aimed to send. This novel is older than I am, and yet it still rings with such verity, with such biting truth and reality. With The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison cut open the existence of both internalized and externalized racism in America and laid it bare and exposed at our feet. For that, she deserves nothing but reverence and applause, so she will always have that from me.

Anyone who’s ever been in doubt of a color line in Black America should read this book. Anyone who’s ever questioned, “But why can’t I say those words when you say them all the time? But why do you still believe that racism exists? Why can’t you just get over it – the past is the past?” should read this book. In fact, just read this book anyway – how about that? 🙂 *****

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @Navidad Thelamour.

Brothers and Sisters by Bebe Moore Campbell

Paperback, 480 pages
Published January 6th 2009 by Berkley (first published 1994)

Bebe Moore Campbell’s Brothers and Sisters, originally published by Putnam in 1994* in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, is a true testament to what I wish we could see more of on bestseller lists today. Published during an era of growing racial tensions (though what era doesn’t have that?) and political outspokenness through hip-hop music, this novel brought to life the realities of being an educated and successful modern-day African American woman. Stereotypes were debunked and explored, and here Campbell helped to set new standards in literature for femininity and “blackness,” while also probing such sensitive topics as the church, the pros and troubles of racial solidarity and reaching across the racial line to find friendship. The characters that the late Campbell portrayed here were realistic and 3-dimensional; the tension that she painted in the air was palpable with the turn of every page, like a heartbeat pulsing throughout the chapters.

Brothers and Sisters was a read that featured relatable dialogue that easily flowed off the tip of the tongue; Campbell’s use of vernacular outside of the workplace and in the “mean streets” of LA beautifully contrasted with dialogue that went on within the walls of the workplace to create a masterful portrayal of what it is like to live in two worlds at the same time, from dealing with stress from the professional expectations of peers in a racist and sexist environment to simultaneously surviving in a world equally hostile outside of the workplace doors. Deceit, mistrust, racism, sexism, accusations of rape, love, dating, social and corporate ladders, competition and banding together to survive in hostile waters all play a role in this novel.

The trouble that many novels have in this genre is that they do not come off as authentic. The dialogue is stilted or unfittingly formal in areas where authenticity is needed or ragged in situations where a sophisticated touch is being attempted by the author. There is a finesse to portraying this double consciousness (for those W.E.B. DuBois followers), this world of African Americanism that is honestly a world within itself, and it is difficult to find an author who depicts this lifestyle—this social setting—accurately and with the tautness and stress that it carries with in real, everyday life. The beauty in which Campbell offered that to her readers here is to be applauded. Following Esther Jackson through a day in her world will bring you out the other side more conscious of societal pressures at play if you weren’t already, deeply entertained and honestly tickled by the thoughts that these characters think but don’t always say. This one is a read for anyone, because there’s something for everyone here if your mind is open.

Make no mistake: I love a good thriller, a thought-provoking character piece or the occasional humor-filled antics of chick lit with a verve and vigor that you can see in this blog, but it’s novels like this that I wish we could see more of in the spotlight today.  5 stars *****

 

*The cover used here is from the 2009 reprint publication of this novel by Berkley.