#Review: ON THE COME UP, by Angie Thomas

I shouldn’t write this tonight. I am tired, y’all; there was no school on Monday because of Presidents’ Day and this week has still been at least six years long. I don’t even have to go to work on Friday because I have a training all day and I still don’t know how the hell I’m going to make it through the rest of the week. It’s just been bullshit on top of bullshit on top of bullshit on top of bullshit, and that’s just been within the walls of my building. It’s not like there hasn’t been substantial bullshit going on in the real world, too. There’s been plenty. I am as tired of white men and our bullshit as I have ever been in my life and the notion that I am almost by definition guaranteed to be less tired of white men than damn near every person of color and damn near every woman on earth is practically incomprehensible. I don’t know how any of y’all make it through a day without killing any of us. I really don’t.

You may remember that I liked Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give quite a lot. In fact, it was my second favorite book of the year. I ordered her follow-up novel On the Come Up a few weeks before it released and was up far too late last night because I couldn’t put it down. (Note: “follow-up” is a decent way to describe the book, which alludes to the events of THUG and is set a year later and in the same neighborhood, but does not share any major characters. There are a couple of shop owners and neighborhood figures and the like who I think appear in both, but I’d need to reread THUG to be sure.)

On the Come Up is not as important a book as THUG, but I think I might have liked it more anyway. Bri, the main character, is a neophyte rapper and the daughter of a local hiphop legend who was shot and killed when she was very young. Hiphop was a big part of THUG, but this book is utterly drenched in it, and honestly I’d love to hear some of the raps she performs in this book actually recorded. My understanding is that Angie Thomas at least dabbled in rap herself, and I can absolutely hear this kid performing the lyrics she writes throughout the book. Let’s be real here; given my previous experience with this author and the subject matter, there was no chance I was going to dislike this book. The only question was how much I was going to love it. Will it end up at #2 on my year-end list? Perhaps not, because, again, this book doesn’t feel as important as THUG— which is less a criticism of Come Up and more of a statement that if you haven’t goddamned read THUG yet you should get off your ass and do it.

I look back over this and realize I haven’t really discussed the plot of the damn book at all; chalk that up to being tired. In lieu of me rewriting it, let me just post the blurb from the back of the book, which is a perfectly fair description:

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least win her first battle. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.

But it’s hard to get your come up when you’re labeled a hoodlum at school, and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. So Bri pours her anger and frustration into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons. 

Bri soon finds herself at the center of a controversy, portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. But with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri doesn’t just want to make it—she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.  

Insightful, unflinching, and full of heart, On the Come Up is an ode to hip hop from one of the most influential literary voices of a generation. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; and about how, especially for young black people, freedom of speech isn’t always free.

Give it a read, y’all. Angie Thomas is a goddamn national treasure; you should be appreciating her while we’ve got her.

#REVIEW: The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

32075671One of our local radio stations does a bit called Group Therapy in the morning, which is usually airing just as I’m driving the boy to school.  The general pattern is this: they pose a problem, submitted by a listener, that should generally be easily dealt with by anyone with an average middle schooler’s level of sophistication and emotional intelligence.  They do not provide enough information about the problem to allow listeners to give useful advice, and people who like hearing their voices or names on the radio submit useless advice on Facebook or on the air so that the person involved can do whatever they were going to do anyway.

I’m going to start listening to Pandora more in the morning, is what I’m saying.

This morning’s problem was as follows: a parent’s 11-year-old has stolen their credit card, for the second time.  It wasn’t made perfectly clear, but it seems that as of the time of the advice-asking, the boy still had the card.  He had used it to buy $50 worth of drinks and snacks from a local convenience store and not to, say, order hundreds of dollars worth of electronics from somewhere, which is what you’d think most kids would do with a credit card they’d stolen.  Anyway, this parent had reported the card stolen, and apparently under the (incorrect) idea that the police would show up if the kid attempted to use the card again– which, yeah, right— was wondering if he/she should just talk to his/her kid or let the police “scare him straight.”

And all I could think of, listening to this, was that the person asking for advice and every single one of the dumb motherfuckers providing (generally approving) advice for the latter piece of advice had to be white.  Because every black parent in America knows that you do not let the police anywhere near your child unless someone is guaranteed to die if you don’t.  There are no optional encounters with the police.  Fuck, I’m white and I live in a nice neighborhood and I’m never calling the police again unless somebody is under serious immediate physical threat.  And you’re gonna call the police on your baby because of a $50 credit card bill?  Your privilege is not only showing, it’s leaking out of the dashboard of my car, and I ought to be able to charge somebody to clean that shit up.

(Leave aside the ridiculous notions that 1) the police care about a $50 fraudulent credit card charge because they have nothing else to do and 2) they have time to help you with relatively routine parenting decisions.)

Which brings me to Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, or THUG for short.  The title of the book is a Tupac reference; Pac was fond of the backronym, explaining, for example, that “nigga” stood for “Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished.”  “Thug Life,” to Tupac, meant “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” and the meaning of that phrase is discussed throughout the book.

The story is told through the eyes of Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old black girl.  Starr is the sole witness when a policeman murders one of her oldest friends during a traffic stop.  Her friend, Khalil, was unarmed and unresisting when he was shot.  The rest of the book spins out from that one moment; the different sections are even dated by it: “Three Weeks After It Happens,” and such.

You can probably predict the overall story beats from the premise, right?  America knows this story pretty Goddamn well by now, and the tension here is less from what happens (anybody want to put money down on whether the cop is exonerated by the grand jury or not?) than how the people in the book react to it.  Starr herself is a fascinating character; she lives in a rough neighborhood but her parents scrape and save to send her to a private school 45 minutes away, so many of her best friends aren’t black and she thinks of herself as being two different people, one at school and one at home.    Her uncle is a police officer, her father a former gang member.  Khalil himself has a complicated backstory, and the book dives into the inevitable attempt by the media and the police to slander him and make him responsible for his own murder.  For a large portion of the story Starr’s school friends and her (white) boyfriend aren’t aware that she’s the anonymous witness the news keeps referring to, and the way she reacts to their treatment of Khalil’s death is complex and fascinating.  Her navigation through the web of relationships and identities she’s struggling with throughout the book is a pleasure to read.

I recommend books here all the time; I rarely bother to review anything I didn’t love unless I think I can hate it in an entertaining way, but it’s not terribly often that I use the word important to describe a book that I’ve read.  You need to read THUG, and you need to get THUG into the hands of as many other people as you can, particularly young people.  Angie Thomas’ writing is crisp and clear, Starr herself is a wonderful character, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more work by this author.  Go read this book.  Do it right now.

Pre-review: THE HATE U GIVE, by Angie Thomas

I hav32075671.jpgen’t been around much lately– I’ve had a distinct lack of things to say, to be honest– and this post isn’t going to change things all that much, but at the moment I’m halfway through Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and I figure I may as well start right now: this book is a big fucking deal, and a whole goddamn lot of people who aren’t reading it need to be.   This book is fucking important in a way that nothing I’ve read in a while really has been, and I know I’m frequently all sorts of ebullient whenever I write about a book around here, but take this seriously.

Full post incoming once I finish it, of course.  I can imagine a world where the back half goes pear-shaped, but I don’t know that it even matters.  I can’t imagine it going sour enough that I wouldn’t be recommending this to everyone I could find when I was done with it.