Saturday, January 6, 2018

Owning Your Team Colors

Green: A Novel by Sam Graham-Felsen

Everyone knows that middle school is the worst. Not only are these kids thrown into a new environment with new teachers and a bunch of new kids, they’re also dealing with the onset of puberty and all those hormones. Into this traumatic situation, Graham-Felsen places his protagonist, David Greenfeld. It is 1992 and David is starting sixth grade at the Martin Luther King Jr. School in Boston. The problem is, not only is David mostly on his own, but he’s also one of the few white kids there, and to make things worse, he’s also half Jewish. Somehow, David becomes friends with Marlon Wellings, a kid who lives in the “projects” and has the same ambitions to get out of King and into “Latin,” the comprehensive school that has more graduates getting into Harvard than any other.

It was interesting to note that the blurb on the publisher’s website for this book says this book is, “Infectiously funny about the highs and lows of adolescence, ...” Then further down the page I found that Publishers Weekly called this book “subtly humorous.” Okay, so, to start with, funny and humorous are probably the last adjectives I would ever use to describe this book. In fact, not only did I find this book to be extremely serious, this is probably one of the most difficult books to read I’ve ever experienced. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its quirks or lighthearted passages, but there are some very grim messages that Graham-Felsen is highlighting here, which should not be ignored or taken lightly.

To explain the part about why I found this a difficult book to read, I have two reasons for this. The first is the easy one, and that was the language that Graham-Felsen used here. What made it difficult for me was how much slang and jargon that Graham-Felsen included in the text. In fact, I found it to be so extreme in places, and in many instances found myself at a loss to understand what the author was trying to convey. This had a very jarring effect on the first half of the novel, making it feel like I was watching a home movie, filmed by someone with intermittent Parkinson’s. Just when I thought I was getting into the flow of the text, another slew of slang words would come up to shake that up. I initially found this unnerving, but as the book progressed, it just made me feel old. Ultimately, I did my best to ignore them, and succeeded in that some of the time, but I felt that in general Graham-Felsen over did it with the slang.

The other difficult thing about this book was the essential message I believe Graham-Felsen was trying to convey here. Aside from the usual problems of being a sixth-grader, one thing that Graham-Felson notes here is what his protagonist calls “the force.” This isn’t a Star Wars reference, per se, but rather that underlying feeling that David gets regarding being white in a mostly non-white environment. Graham-Felsen notes that his protagonist felt this “force” growing ever since the Rodney King/South Central riots that followed the acquittal of the police in the death of Rodney King. What this “force” is, then, is the incursion of racial fear, anger and hatred within both the white and the non-white populations, coupled with increased violence. It is as if Graham-Felsen is trying to point to the Rodney King ruling as the turning point that led to the very divisive atmosphere that the US is living through right now. It doesn’t matter if this theory is right or wrong, because watching David try to work through being at the center of this “force” – both internally and externally – is why this is rightfully called a coming-of-age story.

The question is, does David succeed? Of course, you’ll have to read the book to find out, and even then, you’ll probably need to decide for yourself, since Graham-Felsen doesn’t hand you the answers on a silver platter, and that’s a good thing. All of this is to say that while this isn’t an easy book to read, and while I didn’t find it at all humorous, that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. In fact, one of the cleverest things about this book is how Graham-Felsen uses the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Charlotte Hornets, and their team colors as a metaphor for racial identity and tensions. This is one reason why I found this a very powerfully effective story, which is highly relevant, particularly for today’s younger audiences, but also for adults. I’m certainly going to recommend it, but the language and style here is the main reason I can’t give it higher than four out of five stars.

Penguin Random House released "Green" by Sam Graham-Felsen on January 2, 2018. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo - eBooks and  audio books,, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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