Arts & Culture

Book Reviews: September 2015

The latest from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Laura Amy Schlitz, and D. Watkins.

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)

It was as a child that Coates began to live in fear. He realized his body could be taken from him at any time: by the boys in West Baltimore whose own fear prompted them to carry guns or by a police force and society with no value for black lives. Meanwhile, Coates grew aware of another world, “suburban and endless,” of manicured lawns and blueberry pies, which he could never be a part of. “I felt in this a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty, which infused an abiding, irrepressible desire to . . . achieve the velocity of escape,” Coates writes in this searing, polemic memoir framed as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori. Watching his son learn what it means to be black in America, Coates mines his own rage and grief—his interview with the mother of a deceased friend shot by police is particularly poignant—both for the sake of catharsis and as a doleful warning from father to son. Between the World and Me is a wake-up call, a mind-altering analysis of why our country has failed to provide equality for all, regardless of color.

See our Q&A with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The Hired Girl
Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick Press)

Young adult literature has had a bit of a moment recently, with grown-ups crossing genres—and generations—to read titles such as The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series. Baltimore has its own doyenne of this genre in Schlitz, who won the prestigious Newbery Medal in 2008 and looks poised to bridge the age gap with her latest book as well. In The Hired Girl, we’re introduced, via her diary, to Joan Skraggs, a 14-year-old in 1900s Pennsylvania who longs for a life of love and adventure beyond her farm, where she has been ordered to forgo school to care for her father and older brothers. She accepts work as a hired girl, which brings her to Baltimore, where society life stands in stark contrast to cow pastures and chicken coops. The diary format gives Schlitz, who is a librarian at The Park School of Baltimore, the ability to transport you to a different time with page-turning ease. Following a young woman’s desire to transform her life is not a new premise, but Schlitz’s talent for identifying a theme that crosses generations will keep readers of all ages hooked.

The Beast Side
D. Watkins (Skyhorse Publishing)

To Watkins, there are two Baltimores—one white, the other black. This is something he continues to realize as an adult in his home city, through dinners with community leaders in a Hampden restaurant and his appearance at The Stoop Storytelling Series (see page 136) in March 2014. That night, he joked to a supportive, albeit mostly white, crowd at Center Stage, “This ain’t the stoop I’m used to. There’s no pit bulls, red cups, or blue flashing lights.” With his unsentimental prose and sharp eye for detail, Watkins takes you to his stoop in East Baltimore, the so-called beast side. He recounts his own drug-dealing past, police brutality, systemic inequality, and the murders of friends and family. What helps the arguments in Watkins’s essays hit home are the sobering and enlightening slices of life and characters he weaves throughout—resurrected drug users, hard-working grandmothers, the ex-con friend who asks Watkins to tell him what his daughter said in a letter because he can’t read. By the end, you’re left with an advanced understanding of this man’s love for the community that formed him, and how neighborhoods such as East Baltimore fit into the national debate for social change.