Book Review: The Sacrifice

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How alone this was going to be. How she’d been shunted into it as a farm-creature–cow, calf, hog–is shunted along a chute into the slaughter-house. Because the mother Ednetta Frye had requested a black police officer. A black woman police officer. Black had always seemed harsh to her. African-American was a preferable term. And there was Negro,  no longer fashionable. If she was anything, she was Hispanic. In crude mouths, spic. Yet among Hispanic Americans she was “too “white”–not just her appearance but also her way of speaking, her manner. Her life had been, since adolescence, an effort to overcome the crude perimeters of identity. Her skin-color, ethnic background, gender. I am so much more than the person you see. Give me a chance!

The Sacrifice, by Joyce Carol Oates

One of my reading goals for 2017 was to read more books by authors I hadn’t yet read from. So when I visited my local library and saw The Sacrifice prominently featured on a shelf, I decided to pick it up. Joyce Carol Oates is one of those names I’d heard countless times, but never really pursued.

The Sacrifice revolves around Sybilla Frye, a black teenager living in the fictional inner-city neighborhood of Red Rock in Pascayne, New Jersey, who is discovered hog-tied, beaten, and presumably raped, with racist slurs written in dog feces on her body. After a hospital visit during which Sybilla and her mother, Ednetta, refuse to have a rape kit administered, Sybilla claims that her abusers were white cops. For a while, little seems to change in the Fryes’ world, until Sybilla’s cause is adopted by Marus and Byron Mudrick, a reverend and attorney duo (who also happen to be twin brothers).

I was interested in this book for a number of reasons. For one thing, I learned that the plot of the book is based on the real-life case of Tawana Brawley, who was discovered in a similar state as Sybilla, accused white men of the crime, and was subsequently sued for defamation by one of her alleged assailants. In the past few years, as my interest in social justice has grown, I’ve followed (and been outraged by) many similar cases, so I was intrigued in the book’s discussion of rape culture and of race.

It’s intriguing when a book whose topic sounds fascinating ends up boring you. What didn’t I like about this book? Theoretically, I should have sympathized with all of the characters: with Sybilla and Ednetta, living under the abusive thumb of Ednetta’s common-law husband, Anis; with Officer Iglesias and Ada Furth, discriminated against by seemingly everyone for their race and their aspirations; even with Anis, whose abusive behavior is directly linked to his troubled background. Yet, for some reason, I felt nothing when I read this book. It was honestly difficult for me to finish, even though, at 309 pages, it isn’t exactly a long read.

I believe that had more time been given to develop the characters, the themes would have resonated more. The novel is told from the perspectives of different characters, including the ones mentioned above, spanning a wide range of races and ages. Yet I didn’t feel that I got to know any character beyond the surface. Each character was imbued with some kind of superficial motivation, but felt like little more than a stereotype. There were also some characters who were only described in passing. These characters were then used to evoke an emotional response from the reader later in the novel, which simply didn’t work. I could  not muster up an emotional response to a character I didn’t feel like I knew, let alone cared about. I wished the novel had focused more on the central characters of Sybilla, Ednetta, Anis, and perhaps even Ada, to delve into their reactions to the crazy happenings around them, but instead, there was a stronger focus on driving the plot forward, especially in the second half.

YES OR NO?: NO. Despite my interest in the subject matter, I found this book unengaging. To be honest, I felt more engaged when reading the Wikipedia page on the Tawana Brawley case than reading this fictionalization. I’m willing to try reading more of Oates’s work in the future, but this novel failed to capture my interest.

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A Love Note to the Library

Looking back on my childhood, I realized my dad began training me, early on, to be the type of person he wanted me to be, which was suspiciously close to the person he already was. We had weekly room inspections where I was awarded my allowance if my room was neatly organized with everything in its place, and I carefully recorded said allowance and any of my expenses in a tiny notepad he’d given me for that purpose. Although I somewhat begrudgingly accepted these rules as a child, I recognize that my dad was successful. There’s a saying in Korean that habits you form at three follow you until you’re eighty, and to this day I find comfort in spending ten minutes organizing my room before bed, and I still obsessively track my spending and find joy in my own frugality.

One of our other, less restrictive rituals was going to the public library on Saturday mornings. One of my earliest memories of the library is my mother, in her limited English, earnestly asking a librarian to find me a copy of A Christmas Carol. My mom always encouraged me to read classics.

As I grew older, I found myself seeking out the library less and less. It became a place to study with friends, to browse my laptop, or to pop in if I was in the area, but it was no longer somewhere to simply spend time. I still found time to read regularly, but I usually bought crisp new editions from the chain bookstore at the mall. And with the advent of my beloved Kindle, I stopped interacting with physical books, preferring the convenience and simplicity of my Kindle.

But recently, I’ve returned to my old friend, the library. Dishearteningly, I found that the majority of library patrons (at least at my local branch) were there to browse the Internet (endlessly scrolling Facebook from the looks of it), silently contemplate their smartphones, or browse magazines beneath protective plastic covers. While there’s nothing wrong with this, to me the library has always been a place inherently, by definition, for books, and a place I’ve recently begun to properly appreciate again.

My reading habits have changed as I’ve begun to visit the library again. For one thing, I’m more likely to pick up an unfamiliar book simply by being attracted to its cover. As convenient as it is to download e-books off Amazon, there’s a smaller likelihood of me discovering something new. The organic feeling of pulling something new off a bookshelf out of curiosity is gone. On Amazon or at the bookstore, investing in a book comes with a loss of money, and I am always acutely aware of other ways to spend my time. When I’m online, I tend to open other tabs, reply messages, and play music, and bookstores nowadays are filled with plenty of distractions: journals, candles, headphones, desk toys, and other miscellaneous crap.

But at the library, time stands still. Libraries generally look the same to me now than they did then. And, in some ways, I prefer libraries that haven’t been renovated recently and have speckled fuzzy carpets, books with yellowed pages, and uncomfortable plastic chairs. Because while the outdated decor is unattractive, it reminds me that libraries have been a constant throughout my life, and the yellowed pages show me that a book has been read and loved. And for some reason, I find it much more easier to focus on a book for long periods of time in one of those plastic chairs than somewhere else. There’s something sacred to me about a place dedicated specifically to reading.