‘Navigate Your Stars’ by Jesmyn Ward

navigate-your-stars-wardJesmyn Ward, two-time winner of the National Book Award, is releasing a print version of a commencement speech she gave at Tulane University in 2018. Illustrated by Gina Triplett, Navigate Your Stars is a lush and moving piece of work.

The speech, now in book form, traces Ward’s own life back to her roots in a rural, black community. Ward shares the judgements she passed on, what she saw as, her apathetic family and begins to unravel the narrative of her history. Leading readers through her own struggles with what it means to be someone who does their best and still doesn’t get anywhere, Ward sets up a situation with which many will be familiar.

If you grew up anywhere in the Gen X to Millennial generation, you’ve probably been given the spiel of how important it is to go to college. Like many, Ward believed college to be the end all and be all of her life. If only she could go to college, then…she would be a success, she would have a good job, she would be happy. As many postgraduates can attest, this is not the reality that is experienced first-hand.

Ward takes the time in Navigate Your Stars to remind readers that life is about more than making a single good choice. It’s about hard work, perseverance, and doing the best you can with what you have. In the end, Ward reflects back on her previous judgements of her family and realizes how unfair they were. As people of color living within the confines of systemic poverty and institutionalized racism, she realizes they did the best they could with what they had, and really that’s all anyone can do.

A deeply poignant work, Navigate Your Stars is both comforting and rousing. Ward reveals the most vulnerable parts of herself, admitting failure and showing readers that even (most) famous writers don’t get to where they end up easily.

Navigate Your Stars by Jesmyn Ward is slated for release from Scribner in April 2020. Preorder a copy from your local independent bookstore today.

Please remember during these tough times for our economy to still order your books from your local independent bookstore! Help support local businesses during covid-19!

Read more non-fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Relief by Execution’ by Gint Aras

relief-by-execution-arasGint Aras’ newest release, Relief by Execution, is an essay about cultural community, universal calamity, and the power of transformation.

Aras begins his long-form essay with an introduction to himself: the son of Lithuanian refugees living in a segregated neighborhood in Chicago. We learn of the unsurprising racism in Aras’ neighborhood and his family’s equally racist attitudes. We learn of Aras’ own brushes with brutality by the hands of his father, and we learn that Aras is interested in the complicated relationship between Christian and Jewish Lithuanians.’

At first the story seems jumbled, a mix of interesting and horrifying events that don’t quite piece together. That is until, Aras embarks on his own adventure to his homeland and feels at odds with visiting the concentration camps in Europe, but why? Aras admits that it’s not because he’s afraid of being emotionally affected by the atrocities committed against humanity; instead, he’s afraid of being excited by them. His family’s racist past, his own firsthand experiences with abuse, and eventually his post-traumatic stress disorder involving those experiences haunts him into believing he might be as bad as those he judges from afar.

Aras’ story is one of healing and acceptance but not of giving in, of forgiving, or of letting go. Aras’ does none of those things as he draws the story full circle from the Holocaust to his own experiences. Instead, he provides an inspiring reinterpretation of what it means to be both a victim and an abuser. The issues of nature versus nurture battle hard in Relief by Executionas Aras’ struggles with both pulls. Is it his nature to feel violent and maladaptive thoughts, or was it his upbringing that instilled these values?

A beautifully crafted and poetic essay that deals with multiple big-ticket issues in a cohesive and fluent way, Gint Aras’ Relief by Execution is a pocket-sized must-read.

Slated for release by Homebound Publications on October 9, 2019, you can preorder a copy of the book from your local bookstore today.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Renia’s Diary: A Holocaust Journal’

renia's-diary-spiegelAs we near a world where survivors of the Holocaust are soon to be figures of the past, the stories, memories, and mementos of those who are still among us start to hold an even greater weight than they already did. Elizabeth Bellak is one such survivor who decided, after decades of hiding away her sister’s diary, to share it with the world.

Renia Spiegel was a young Jewish girl living in Poland when Hitler came to power. Her diary chronicles the time before Hitler and the war all the way to her experiences living and hiding in a ghetto before being killed by the Nazis. Renia’s Diary is exactly what its title betrays: a diary. Renia shares with us her feelings about school, her friends, boys, her complicated relationship with her mother who is not with her, as well as poetry to encapsulate it all.

The historical importance of a document like this makes readers wonder what historians will glean from the text through close and continued reading over the years.

Full of interesting details and facts about the time, as well as melodramatic, teenage angst, Renia’s Diary is a diary in every way, sharing the inner most thoughts and feelings of a young girl living through the hardest time of her life.

Slated for publication by St. Martin’s Press in September 2019, you can preorder a copy of Renia’s Diaryfrom your local independent bookstore.

Read more non-fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘At the Narrow Waist of the World’ by Marlena Maduro Baraf

at-the-narrow-waist-Baraf.jpgAt the Narrow Waist of the World by Marlena Maduro Baraf is a narrative that investigates mental illness, issues of belonging, and the influence of family and generational past.

Told as a memoir that focuses on Baraf’s own mother, At the Narrow Waist of the World centers most of its conversation on mental health and how sanity is a complicated aspect of the human condition. Throughout Baraf’s life, her mother suffered from a number of psychotic breakdowns and spent years in psychiatric facilities. Through her memoir, Baraf attempts to both capture the memory of her mother and form a greater understanding of her mother’s influence in her own life.

In tandem with Baraf’s struggle with her mother and their nuanced relationship is Baraf’s internal battle with the notion of belonging. Growing up Jewish in Panama while attending a Catholic school, Baraf was at a constant loss as to how she fit in to the world around her.

At the Narrow Waist of the World tells one woman’s story of navigating the struggles of her adolescent and young adult life and how she both overcame and still lives with those struggles. While none of Baraf’s burning questions are necessarily answered, she does seem to come to peace with and embrace some of the more difficult aspects of her life.

Mixing English and Spanish, text and photographs, letters and remembered dialogue, At the Narrow Waist of the World is an eclectic and quick read.

Published by She Writes Press in August 2019, At the Narrow Waist of the World is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more non-fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Naturally Tan’ by Tan France

naturally-tan-france

Television personality and fashionista Tan France of Netflix’s Queer Eye has written his first book, Naturally Tan.

France covers hot topics such as race, sexuality, and depression while also getting in-depth on some lighter topics like (unsurprisingly) fashion, dating, and shoes. What makes the book so unique and inspiring is France himself. His tone of voice, his compassion, and his blunt attitude make the reader feel like she’s a friend or at least an interviewee.

France, an Englishman with a heritage in Pakistan, is one of the first openly gay, Muslim men on television right now. Throughout Naturally Tan, he talks about his struggles with being himself in a society that looks down on a lot of what makes him who he is. Above and beyond his heritage and sexuality, though, France makes the book more about providing the inspiration to be who you are than about glorifying himself for being who he is.

The book, like its title and author, is full of smart and witty phrases, anecdotes, and advice (both fashion and life) from France. While it can often read like a stream of consciousness, or even a one-way conversation, Naturally Tan has the intrigue and momentum to keep you reading.

France is a voice we don’t often hear from, even in our more modern (and we hope) progressive age, but it’s one we need to hear more of.

Slated for release from St. Martin’s Press on May 14, 2019, you can preorder a copy of Naturally Tan by Tan France at your local bookstore.

Read more non-fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

The First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

the-first-conspiracy-meltzer-menschThe First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch tells the story of America’s first acts of criminal espionage against the government and the government’s first act of counter espionage.

Meltzer and Mensch follow the development of a plot against the Continental Army prior to the start of the Revolutionary War and follows this plot through to the independence of America from Great Britain. The plan involves bribery, treason, and potential plans for murder, and the plan it seems infiltrated the army itself involving people close to George Washington both professionally and personally. While following this plot, Meltzer and Mensch are also keen to point out the ways in which this first act of counter-espionage came to inform current institutions such as the Secret Service and FBI.

While the book is teeming with fun historical facts and interesting tidbits from America’s cultural past, it too often reads like a textbook. The characters are distant and unreachable, possibly in part because of their historical presence and also because of Meltzer and Mensch’s marriage to telling the truth. It’s arguably challenging to create a compelling character when you can only know that character through Congress notes and an odd journal entry. Similarly, the conflict in the book, while undeniability riveting in its content, is not as much so in its telling.

Throughout the course of the book though, Meltzer and Mensch achieve their goal of telling the history of American counterintelligence and sharing details of American history that might have been glossed over in our grade school textbooks.

Slated for release by Flatiron Books in January of 2019, you can preorder a copy of The First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch from your local bookstore.

Read more non-fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

 

 

‘Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir’ by Jean Guerrero

crux-guerreroWhat is it that determines definitions: defines something as one thing instead of another? What delimits fiction from reality, sanity from insanity? Borders: the lines that stand between; the lines that distinguish “different” from “same.” Borders that are rarely clear and often obfuscated by our own perceptions, by what we bring to the table, the baggage we carry.

Borders are what Jean Guerrero investigates in her narrative nonfiction release Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir. Guerrero sets out not only to tell her story, but to tell that of her father through both her memories and the investigative work it requires to unravel her family’s troubled, and often curricular, past.

Guerrero begins by setting the scene, by introducing the reader to her parents, to what life was like growing up as the child of her parents. Her mother, an acclaimed doctor with expectations that reach no lower that straight-A grades and flawless chastity, holds one end of the parenting tight rope. Her father, a potential schizophrenic who sees every action as sabotage or a symptom of being spoiled, holds the other. Guerrero finds herself trying to walk between them, seeking desperately to both please and thwart their expectations, wishes, and demands of her.

Most of Guerrero’s life is spent without her father, wondering where he is, thinking he’s dead. The other part of the time, Guerrero spends (at least her childhood) terrified of her father. Terrified of his mania, of his accusations, of feeling like a failure in his eyes. Her mother spends most of Guerrero’s childhood trying to forget her husband, arguing that he’s schizophrenic and telling Guerrero, whenever she acts out of line in her mother’s eyes, that she suffers from the same mental illness. Her father meanwhile, claims he is being targeted by the CIA for mind control experiments, and Guerrero experiences moments that make her question the dubiousness of his statements.

Guerrero finds her way through her troubled childhood to come out an investigative journalist constantly seeking for the truth that alluded her as a child. But the biggest mystery, the biggest truth she hopes to hold is that of her father’s life. Travelling through Mexico to piece together the mystery of her family and her father’s past, Guerrero uncovers a cycle of abuse that has perpetuated her family’s suffering. She learns of the terrors that the women who came before her suffered to give her father life and her. She learns of the terrors her own father suffered and that potentially led him to the depths of his current despair.

A beautifully moving and terrifying memoir, Crux is a book that attempts not to teach, but to learn and keep on learning beyond the pages of its covers. Guerrero brings to the table systemic issues that cannot be eradicated by a single story, but she suggests that maybe through constant inquiry, searching, and an attempt to do better we can break free of the demons of our past.

Slated for release by One World Press on July 17, 2018, you can preorder a copy of Crux: A Cross-Border at your local bookstore.

Read more nonfiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.