PUSH by Sapphire

Push by SapphireTitle:  Push

Author:  Sapphire

Paperback:  192 pages

Published:  1996

Acquired:  bought new from Walmart

Challenges: New Author Challenge 2010, We Didn’t Start the Fire 2010 (AIDS), POC Reading Challenge

I don’t have nothing to write today – maybe never.  Hammer in my heart now, beating me, I feel like my blood a giant river swell up inside me and I’m drwoning.  My head all dark inside.  Feel like giant river I never cross in front me now.  Ms Rain say, You not writing Precious.  I say I drownin’ in river.  She don’t look me like I’m crazy but say, If you just sit there the river gonna rise up drown you!  Writing could be the boat carry you to the other side.  One time in your journal you told me you had never really told your story.  I think telling your story git you over that river Precious.

I still don’t move.  She say, “Write.”  I tell her, “I am tired.  Fuck you!”  I scream, “You don’t know nuffin’ what I been through!”  I scream at Ms Rain.  I never do that before.  Class look shock.  I feel embarrass, stupid; sit down, I’m made a fool of myself on top of everthing else.  “Open your notebook Precious.”  “I’m tired,” I says.  She says, “I know you are but you can’t stop now Preciuos, you gotta push.”  And I do.

Push by Sapphire, pages 96-97

wow.  I mean really, WOW.

Push by Sapphire is a book of truth.  It is raw, heart-breaking, and hard.  It is inspiring, hope-filled, naked and honest.  It is not the kind of book that will appeal to everyone, not that happy beach book many want, it is stark and dark and real and beautiful.  It could’ve been exploitative, could’ve been depressing and hopeless, could’ve so easily become an anti-white, anti-men rant, but Sapphire managed to weave the story together, as told by the main character, Precious Jones, into an emotional tale of how education can give hope for a chance at freedom and a better life.

I knew a bit about the story from the movie based on the book, Precious.  I haven’t yet seen the movie (are you kidding?  There’s no way the theater owner of our little 2-screener would’ve had THAT movie in HIS place!  Heck, he wouldn’t bring in a Tyler Perry movie, and they’re funny with a little “let’s get real” on the side), so I have to way until it comes out on DVD next month (already in my Netflix queue), but I have seen the trailers and watched the interviews and heard the awards buzz about it.  From the few scenes I’ve seen, and after reading the book, the movie should win every award it could qualify for, and if it doesn’t, I’ll be irate.  I also knew about this book from seeing it being checked out… always out and never in… at the library, and from reading Kathy at Bermudaonion’s review back in December.

So when I wandered (drifted mindlessly, to be more accurate) to the book section at Walmart the day before yesterday and saw it on the shelf, it was in my cart before Maggie could say, “No more books, MOM!”  Now, my policy for buying new books at full price is that it HAS to be a book I will read immediately.  Not next month or next year, but this week or sooner.  I was already several pages into Push before I left the store, and finished a little more than 24 hours after buying it.  Push is the kind of book that, as soon as you put it down, you pick it back up and start reading again, forgetting why you’d put it down in the first place.  The kind of book you forget to eat because it’s so engrossing.  I could barely go to the bathroom, and would worry and wonder what was going on with Precious while I was gone from her.  It will, without a doubt, be one of my top 10 books of 2010, and on my favorites list forever.

Okay, so enough gushing….  Let’s deal with the book itself.

One of the first things I got out of Push, was the realization of what it was, exactly, that I’d hated about The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine.  Both Precious and Batuk narrate their respective stories through writing in a journal.  Both books deal with the loss of innocence, sexual abuse, the sacrifice of the child by a parent, animosity between mother and daughter, and that education is the only hope and chance of escape.  But where they differ greatly is in the voice of the narrator.  Precious is pissed.  She’s upset, emotional, and expresses her sense of injustice at the terrible hand life has dealt her.  WHY? is her question over and over.  And understandably so; you expect these feelings.  Batuk, on the other hand, falls flat.  She’s accepting of her situation, barely registers emotion, occassionally expresses that she misses her father (the same man who sold her) and waxes nostalgic for the past.  Aarti of B O O K L U S T tweeted that she felt Batuk was a strong character, but I never saw any strength in her.  I do, however, agree that the overall voice of The Blue Notebook was despair and hoplessness, as Batuk knew she could never escape the situation.

Another thing I can tell you, with personal authority, is that the feelings and experiences Precious expresses from the standpoint of being an incest survivor is very real and very true.  There are things that Precious says about the sex with her father that are difficult for a child to wrap their own head around, let alone have the courage to say outloud, even in a journal.  Things like the shame you feel at feeling physical pleasure during this situation that you know in every fiber of your being is WRONG.  It’s one of the things that totally screws up the person’s ability to relate sexually for the rest of their life.  Also, Precious’s reference to genitals, hers as well as others, reflects how deeply incest survivors view their own objectification as a sex object.  “I am of no value nor worthy of love except through sex.”  is the personal worth statement of many, no matter how long it’s been since the last occurance (it’s been over 10 years for me, and he’s now dead, and yet it still that thought pervades), and the longer the abuse went on, the more pervasive and rooted that feeling becomes.

Besides the sensitive subject of molestation and the emotional affectation of the book, there is also the racial side of things.  This is where my brain spent more time, because it’s the only part I don’t share with Precious (well, that and I didn’t have children by my abuser).  I would say, “I hope I don’t offend anyone,” but then would holding back in an attempt to be non-offensive honor my Flavor of the Week, Amy, or create dialogue?  No, it would not.  So let the offense commence!

Push by Sapphire – on Race and racism

This review may become my longest ever (except The Book Thief, and may surpass that and the companion post), but I don’t care.  It deserves the length and the discussion.  Let’s get real, as Dr. Phil says.

Precious has a poster on her wall of the famous leader of The Nation of Islam, and often refers to him as the only real man she knows.  One of his sentiments that she echos more than once is, “problem is not crack but the cracker” (page 83).  I will heartily admit there are far more white people who have put their feet on the back of the neck of blacks throughout history than have helped, but maybe I’m naive in hoping things are better now than before.  I grew up in with a racist father who told offensive jokes and used the N word often, though he was not as bad as a lot of my friends parents.  It’s the way things were then.  It should NOT have been, and it was wrong, but it was what it was.  I’ve done my best to free myself from all that biggotry and to unlearn the prejudice, but it’s still something I’m aware of.  My hope is that my children will never think multiculturalism an oddity, but that it comes as natural to them as sunshine and breathing.

As the story progresses, Ms Rain, Precious’s teacher, shows her that not ALL Farrakhan’s ideas are right, like his anti-semitism and anti-homosexual beliefs, and Precious understands and sees her point.  She still hangs on to him as an inspiration and hero, citing him in her poem at the end of the book “Get up off your knees, Farrakhan say”, which I think is maturity in anyone.  As I’ve gotten older, read more, and learned more, there’s one thing I’ve come to understand about people.  We want a quick and easy, singular answer.  Life is anything but that, though, and no one person has the answers to everything, nor is he or she right all the time.  You have to sift and take away what’s worthy and leave the rest.  Most of the people you glean from aren’t good or bad, but a mixture of the two, and we must see their humanity and avoid the temptation to adulation or hate.

Other moments in the book that show the sense of distrust and dislike of whites are things like Precious’s feelings in the school counselor’s office, or the social worker’s office in the halfway house.  Precious, as well as the others in her class, express distrust, fear, and blame the white people in charge of her case.  This, I think, is the sentiment that sticks in my heart and throat as I try to wrap my head around it and put myself in her shoes.  Everywhere Precious would turn, there is a white wall blocking her escape.  No one stepped in to take her out of the situation after her first baby was born.  Who stood up to help her learn to read?  Where was the teacher when Precious was having such emotional problems (other kids in the class, her mother’s abuse at home, and the main start of the sexual abuse) in the second grade that she was wetting her pants?  Ugh!  I can understand the blame and anger she feels toward whites, and it breaks my heart to know I myself, my kids included, are judged the same, though we would NOT be like that.

And maybe it’s that that makes the racism in this book painful.  I’m being judged by the color of my skin, too, and it isn’t fair – it is never fair.  And with that thought, I have to bump Push by Sapphire up another notch, because reading it has given me a glimpse at what it feels like for African-Americans all the time, and they can’t close their book at “The End”.  They live it all the time, while I get to go back to being white in a white world.

I really love this book and, but for the explicit language and the mature subject matter, think it should be read by everyone.  Okay, so it’s not likely to be a classroom read for a high school, but definitely a college study.  I wish I’d known about it when I was in college, I could’ve had another 13 years of mulling it over and letting it work through me.  Of course, obviously, I give Push by Sapphire 5 out of 5 stars.

Here is the author Sapphire in an interview with Katie Couric discussing the journey of the book Push to the movie Precious

And, I couldn’t resist a trailer for the movie.. k, now I’m weepy.

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The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine

The Blue Notebook by James A. LevineTitle:  The Blue Notebook

Author:  James A. Levine

Paperback: 210 pages (ARC)

Published:  2009

ISBN:  9780385528719

Acquired:  won through LibraryThing’s ER March 2009 batch

Challenges:  The ARC Reading Challenge 2010, New Author Challenge 2010, POC Reading Challenge

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine is a fictional novel told from the point of view of Batuk Ramasdeen, a 15-year-old prostitute living in a closet-sized “nest”, as she calls it.  It is written like a journal or diary and gives a graphic glimpse of the life of a child sex slave.  While it’s called “The Blue Notebook”, it is written in three separate collections of pages, the first being contained in the blue notebook for which the book is named, while the other two sections were written on hotel paper then later plain paper.  The reason I mention this is because, in a lot of ways, this book felt like two separate and distinct stories, falling in these different segments.

The first part, the part written in the blue notebook, was inspired by Levine’s experiences when he traveled to Mumbai as part of a research trip for his work at the Mayo Clinic.  While there, he interviewed several street kids on the infamous Street of Cages, when he noticed a child prostitute writing in a notebook.  He talked with her for a long time and her story and what he saw there stuck with him and led him to writing this book in hopes of shining a light on the tragic events occurring to such young children, stealing their childhoods, their souls, and often their very lives.

“The Blue Notebook” section is hauntingly real and fairly true to the character of Batuk as a young girl who was sold into prostitution by her own father at the age of 9.  Now 15, Batuk is an adult woman, aware of her sexual allure, one second, then a playful, giggling, daydreaming child the next, writing stories and telling jokes to cheer up her friend.  She tells us from the beginning that she is prone to waxing dramatic, and, at times, her writing has a poetic beauty to it, with metaphors and stunning word pictures.  It does have some amount of stream of conciousness to it, as she may be talking about having sex with the men in one sentence and then write about some event back home before being brought to Mumbai in the next.

Batuk is unusual for a child of the streets, and even unusual for the men that she services, in that she can read and write.  She tells of having TB and spending 12 weeks in a missionary hospital where she had had the privilege of a tutor three times a week and was even sent away with a goodbye gift of a box full of books for her to keep.  As soon as they’re home, she has her father close his eyes as she reads a story to her father and then waits for his reaction.

Father did not say a word until I finished.  As I concluded the story, I peeked under his hat; his eyes were shiny and tears were streaming down his face.  He just stared at me.  “Father, there are happier stories, let me…”  “Batuk, that is not why I am crying.  I never imagined that any child of mine would ever learn to read… this is your ticket out of Dreepah-Jil.”  He caught his thoughts and continued to speak excitedly.  “We will have to find you a teacher… One day you will be a… doctor, a lawyer.”  I interrupted, “Or a teacher.”  “Yes, darling, or a great teacher, Batuk.  Come to me.”  I went to my father with another book tucked under my arm, the magical abhang poems of Namdev.  As I read words I barely understood and soaked them within me, my father held me.  That night we both created dreams for me.  Neither he nor I ever aspired to my becoming a prostitute.(embolden added)

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine, page 82 (ARC)

While “The Blue Notebook” section is stark and unvarnished glimpse into the lives of the street children, most all-too-short lives, at that, the remainder of the book is crap, to be honest.  I could really feel the children who had inspired Levine in the first segment, but in the second half of the book, it all felt sleazy.  It felt like I was reading snuff kiddie porn.  I’m not giving anything away, I don’t think, in telling you Batuk dies.  I knew it within the first 20 pages that it would not end well, and at the end of The Blue Notebook, there is blatant foreshadowing, and you know by then, if you didn’t already, that she was going to die a cruel and violent death.  So did she, sadly, and she was powerless to act on that prescience, because after six years of conditioning, it never occurred to her to run.

I understand what Levine was trying to do with The Blue Notebook, and I think it commendable, and according to the back of the book, all the profits from the book is being donated to organizations that help missing and exploited children, so the fact that Levine didn’t write this book for the money touches my heart.  This fact also makes me feel bad to give a frank and honest review, but the truth is, the second half of the book feels like a gorean child molesters erotica book.  Batuk is raped repeatedly, and basically answers, “Thank you, Master, for the pleasure.”  She’s kicked and beaten and starved, and all that is horrible and fits into where Levine wanted to go with the story, but the way in which it was written felt like a male fantasy. 

IDK, I’m not saying he enjoyed writing it, just that it felt creepy, like when you were a kid, the uncle at the family picnic that hugged you a little too long.  He didn’t do anything wrong, per se, he just hugged you, but it leaves you feeling like you’re crawling with cooties and need a scalding hot shower.  Yeah, the second half of this book is like the creepy uncle.

I’d say that if you’re inspired to buy this book because doing so helps out children, just donate directly to the International and National Centers for Missing and Exploited Children.  Don’t bother with the book, just donate the $10 straight to the cause.

For all that he wanted to do with this, and for the beautiful sections that the book does contain, I’m going to give The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine 2.5 out of 5 stars.  That represents a balance of what I loved and what I hated, I think.

Other links of interest

The Street of Cages:  In Mumbai the Sparrows — children of prostitutes — are being rescued and given an education, thanks to a remarkable project – A Times Online article also by James A. Levine

Other Reviews:

Lisa at Books On the Brain

Petunia at Educating Petunia

Nicole at Linus’s Blanket

Natasha at Maw Books

Jen at Devourer of Books

Rants and Reads at The Novel World

Rebecca at The Book Lady Blog

Swapna at S.Krishna’s Books (is there a book she hasn’t read?)

Meghan at Medieval Bookworm

Jennifer at The Literate Housewife

Jill at Rhapsody in Books

Laurie at In Laurie’s Mind

At this point, I’m just gonna stop adding links because, apparently, I’m the only person left in the blogosphere to read and review this book.  If you’d like to add you review to the list, link it in your comment 🙂