Book Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

 The cover. I cannot with it even. 

The cover. I cannot with it even. 

Tyler Johnson Was Here
by Jay Coles 
Goodreads | Amazon | Audible
Series: no
Published: March 20th, 2018
Rating: What am I doing to change things?

This is again one of my most anticipated reads of 2018. I have been impatient to get my hands on this for more than a year from when the deal was first announced. I preordered this book the moment that it was available for the following reasons:
1. The cover- holy crap
2. I follow the Jay Coles on twitter and like him.
3. It seems like a great follow up to THUG, Dear Martin, What Went Down, and All American Boys
4. Kind of embarrassing but true: This is a book about a brother named Tyler. I have a brother named Tyler. #relate

Yeah. I had expectations.

Tyler Johnson Was Here is an #ownvoices story of Marvin Johnson, a high school student in Alabama, who is dealing with the disappearance of his twin brother Tyler. 

I have said it before, and I will say it again. If you write your character as a geek of any kind or a lover of books and I am INSTANTLY going to relate to them. I can't help it. I am cheap like that. Marvin is not only a geek he also has this touching vulnerability that made me want to find my way into the book so that I could protect him. One thing that I appreciated was Marvin as a "soft" black boy. Black men and boys are so often portrayed as tough that Marvin's sensitivity and determination seems that much more extraordinary.

Twins are like synonyms that know each other through and through, like the moon complements the stars through a life sentence, like a set of infinite entities who’ve seen the world together, experienced its pain and oppression, but I can’t help but feel, in this moment, like my world is ending over and over again, like time moves backward, like the world flashes between black and white and grainy and clear.

Marvin is growing up in a difficult situation. There are gunshots on the first page of the book. It would be understandable if he became tough and numbed to his experiences. The world tells these people over and over that they are criminals and unable to fit into "real" society and at some point, they start to believe it. The character of Johntae in many ways encapsulates this.  There is a moving passage about the difference between a strong man and a good man.

Marvin is clearly a gifted student. Unfortunately, he is surrounded by terrible teachers and administrators at his school. Which, as a teacher, is rage inducing. THAT IS NOT HOW YOU PEDAGOGY!!! Deep breath. Not taking it personally as unfortunately, Marvin is living the same reality as millions of other students.  Over the course of the book, he comes in contact with so many people, most significantly police officers, who don't see him or his brother as a people but as a problem. It illustrated over and over how frightening and dangerous every encounter with the police has the potential to be especially to a young black man. It also made me think about the strength that is must take black boys and girls to swim against those tides of expectations and hopelessness in order to reach their potential.

Just to clarify that I am not black, a man, or living in the United States (and when I lived in the US I lived in a very white suburb and very white rural areas).  This is where I read from.  It also why it took me a few pages in to adjust to the use of AAVE in the narration. The book is in the first person, so it makes complete sense that that is how it is written. It is hardly noticeable (it is phrasing rather than spelling or adding an "accent" to words) aside from more fully grounding Marvin in reality. I own the audiobook as well, and when the book is performed, there is no awkwardness at all which tells me that my noticing in the first pages was due to the narrator in my head rather than the book.

Reading this book did make me realize that as much as I am trying to pay attention to who I am reading, I still read very few books by black men.  I am having a hard time thinking of an author who is a black man that I have read in the last year aside from Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers. I am not displeased with my choices but really?  I read more than 300 books a year, and that is all I have?  I need to make more of an effort because I know I am missing out.

I sometimes feel as if my love for a book can best be measured by how quickly after reading it I send a copy to my mother. If that is true, then it should be telling that I bought her a copy halfway through page three. Anyway, all of this to say, Tyler Johnson was Here is a great follow up to THUG, All American Boys, Dear Martin, What Went Down, and others. It also stands out on its own with a gripping story, three-dimensional characters, and writing that can make you laugh, cry, and most of all feel. I am glad this book is in the world.

From Goodreads:

When Marvin Johnson's twin, Tyler, goes to a party, Marvin decides to tag along to keep an eye on his brother. But what starts as harmless fun turns into a shooting, followed by a police raid.

The next day, Tyler has gone missing, and it's up to Marvin to find him. But when Tyler is found dead, a video leaked online tells an even more chilling story: Tyler has been shot and killed by a police officer. Terrified as his mother unravels and mourning a brother who is now a hashtag, Marvin must learn what justice and freedom really mean.

Mini Reviews: Echo Company Series by Ellen Emerson White

Facebook Mini Reviews_ Echo Company By Ellen Emerson White.png

These were part of my "Trip to Vietnam" reading. It is a series from the 90's. It is very well researched but pretty one sided and I think that if it was written today more attention would be paid to nuance.  That being said the first four books are quite short and very fast reads. The Road Home is a much more complex book that I didn't speed through. This was a reread for me as I have read them several time before in middle and high school. 

Welcome to Vietnam by Zack Emerson/ Ellen Emerson White

Welcome to Vietnam
by Zack EmersonEllen Emerson White

Goodreads | Amazon
Series: (Echo Company #1)
Published: May 1, 1991
Rating: I am not cut out for the military
Times read: 7 maybe?

"But, he was responsible for other people now, not just himself. He didn’t know them, but — truth was, he had never been much of a one for teams. More than one coach had pointed this out to him over the years. ...Hell, he couldn’t even manage the ski team. Practices, and rules, and buses to catch all the time. Who needed it. So, here he was in the Army. The Army must be what teams were like in Hell. But, he still felt responsible. If he screwed up this time, they weren’t just going to lose some stupid game — someone was going to get hurt. Killed."

I think that I first read this book when I was about thirteen. It was in the turning display in the YA section of my library, and it was the first of a series. Nothing worse than starting a book and realizing that it is the fourth or fifth book.  Just no. The book really gets the fear and minutia of being a military grunt spot on as far as I can tell. It is, however, very one-sided. The Vietnamese cause nor the Vietnamese people are more than sarcastically acknowledged. Michael has NO idea who he is fighting or what he is fighting for so neither does the reader.  There are a couple of racial epithets, and once Michael even thinks one although he sort of catches himself. He is more hostile towards the army than the Vietnamese people, though. My favorite part of the book was his friendship with Snoopy, who is one of the most adorable characters ever, the vivid description of what it was like to be a soldier to in the Vietnam War, and Emerson sense of humor. I would not recommend this book on it's own. I paired it with Inside Out and Back Again and Listen Slowly both by Thanhha Lai. Middle School Tara learned two major lessons from this book:
1.) I never wanted to be any kind of a soldier.
2.) My country needs to not invade others.
I haven't changed my position on either point.

Hill 568 by Zack Emerson/ Ellen Emerson White

Hill 568
by Zack EmersonEllen Emerson White

Goodreads | Amazon
Series: (Echo Company #2)
Published: September 1st 1991
Rating: What the Hell were we even doing there?
Times read: 4

"So, he was either building character, or else he had fallen so deep into the group mentality that he was incapable of making any sort of decision for himself."

The second book of the series. Michael is asked to walk the point by his Sargent. If my calculations are correct, he maybe has been in Vietnam three weeks. There is little to no Vietnamese presence in this book.  This is interesting because the fighting significantly ratchets up here. One them explored was whether or not to get close to the people you are fighting with to save yourself the pain of their death. Is that even possible? Snoopy again steals the show If only it were only possible to hug fictional characters. The book is well researched and gives a crystal clear picture of a US grunts life in Vietnam.

"Tis the Season by Zack Emerson/ Ellen Emerson White

"Tis the Season
by Zack EmersonEllen Emerson White

Goodreads | Amazon
Series: (Echo Company #3)
Published: December 1, 1991
Rating: Plausible? Not really. Don't care.
Times read: 3

"Vietnam, and the usual trying to do the least wrong thing."

I relate to Rebecca more than is reasonable. I am not a nurse, an extrovert(ish), a party girl, nor do I make terrible snap decisions. And yet I recognized her.The research and accuracy of a Vietnam hospital are notable for such a short book and for how seamless they blend into the narrative. Rebecca encounters Vietnamese people, but because of the language barrier, she is still very much disconnected. She does question her own internalized racism but ultimately lacks the energy and motivation needed to change. Her man conflict is fairly unrealistic (or at least I am pretty sure that it is), but it reads as probable.

Stand Down by Zack Emerson/ Ellen Emerson White

Stand Down
by Zack EmersonEllen Emerson White

Goodreads | Amazon
Series: (Echo Company #5)
Published: March 1st 1992
Rating: I ship it
Times read: 4

“It was nice to know that no matter what he said, she would probably get it instantly” 

Yes, this is a well-researched sequel and feels very much like a time capsule. I am going to admit it: I am here for Rebecca and Michael. Can you form a connection with someone over a single conversation? When are you having the worst day of your life? When were you just shot? Will they write one another and figure out what the reader already know which is that they need to be a couple. And will they ever physically see one another? In between these questions, Michael is a jerk to a new guy to distract himself and because he is in a bad mood.  He notices it and stops himself from bullying and apologizes. Which we don't see enough of. "Hey, I was a jerk for no good reason. I'm sorry and I a going to do better." Way to adult there, Michael.

The Road Home by Zack Emerson/ Ellen Emerson White

The Road Home
by Zack EmersonEllen Emerson White

Goodreads | Amazon
Series: (Echo Company #5)
Published: 1995
Rating: I am stressed now
Times read: 4

“On Christmas morning, Rebecca lost her moral virginity, her sense of humor - and her two best friends. But, other than that, it was a hell of a holiday.”

This is a tough read. Rebecca has some dramatic PTSD. Not only is it untreated but it is exacerbated by the fact that she is still working in a war zone. She is hyperalert, apathetic, and exhausted. The support system of people she has around her crumbles and Rebecca is left to deal with the war on her own. She is almost completely broken down to basic instincts, duty, and alcoholism when the war ends for her. She is sent back to the world and has to figure out how to deal with the guilt, nightmares, and the people around her (Most of whom don't understand what she has gone through) to figure out who is has become and who she wants to be.


Wanderlust Wednesday: Vietnam

Wanderlust Wednesday

I don't often go to places more than once. There is so much of the world to see that the idea that I might miss out prevents repeats. But this year we were not prepared. Which is stupid because it isn't as if Spring Festival can up on you. We have had the dates from the school since last January. I guess we just blocked out that 400 million people traveled in a two-day block and didn't pick up tickets soon enough (i.e., Last June) So here we are in Vietnam... again. But it is a new city, Ho Chi Minh City. We love Southeast Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, so I am not disappointed.  

Actual travel was weirdly smooth. I was expecting there to be horrific crowds at the airport and all kinds of delays.  But although we did have to wait a bit to check into our flight (I have yet to be allowed to check in online for Air China) because there was no one working our counter, we passed the time watching a group of people performing some kind of song/chant/cheer.  They all had on the same t-shirt, and everyone was happy to watch and applauded when they finished.  Was it a spring festival carol? A motivational chant about dealing with lines? A commercial?  What? There are the times when my terrible/nonexistent Chines is both a hindrance and an embarrassment.

Everything seems to be closed. We arrived on the eve of Tet, so most of the country is off doing holiday family things. Which is understandable. It makes lazily hanging around the apartment watching the traffic go by from the balcony less guilt-inducing. We aren't missing anything because there is nothing open to miss. #winning There was a funeral parade this morning which I thought was part of Tet because it has the same ragged drumming as the Dragon Dance. I was probably smiling like an idiot before I saw the casket. At least I didn't take a picture. That would have been the height of insensitivity. There is a guy sorting trash (or maybe recyclables) in front of our building. A pile of cardboard large than him. A dozen gallon bottles of water. Seven large trash bags a human could fit into. He patiently ties everything together and for it to the back of his motorcycle. I'm not sure I could get all that in a car if challenged. A pale green tarp goes over the load, and he rides off as if unimpressed with his feat.

Dragon Dance

We went to the War Remnants Museum earlier. We were a bit surprised, as we had been to the military museum in Hanoi, how well done this museum is. It is slightly one-sided, but that is easy to overlook because:
1. They kind of aren't wrong (nothing false just some kind of significant stuff omitted)
2. It is their museum
The collection of photos put together from the works of various war photographers particularly moved me. Altogether it was a powerful statement about the cost of war. There were a couple of other exhibits that focused on war crimes and the effects of Agent Orange, but I found these too painful to process really. There are only so many dead bodies you can see before your brain stops make sense of them. Outside there was a bunch of military equipment (tanks, planes, helicopters, and the like) where were interesting enough but not my thing.

Just sitting and watching people go by on scooters is one of the best Parts of a visit to Vietnam. We took a Vespa tour of the city which is truly the way that Vietnam was meant to be experienced. Scooters are a tiny little microcosm of lives.  It is never quiet here. Motors roar by in a ceaseless flow, horns constantly blare as we weave in and out of one another's vehicle. Tourist's pause, indecisive and anxious, trying to figure out how the hell to cross the street. An alarm blares in the background. A car alarm? Is some large vehicle reversing? Ancient buses lumber by like whiles surrounded by motorbikes playing the part of attendant fish. It is raining which relieves some of the stifling humidity of the last few days. It is also fairly inconvenient as we are taking a boat to the Mekong Delta Region today. Shops are slowly starting to open again after Tet. I can look across and see the smoothie shop across the street raising the door for the first time. This early in the morning is mostly single people driving by, and I imagine they are on their way to work, but occasionally whole families will drive by on a cycle. You might not think that a family of seven including an infant could fit on one, but you would be wrong.  Style points for managing to breastfeed at the same time. I wasn't tall enough to put my feet down, so a good portion of the day was dedicated to trying to keep my sandals on. #shoechoiceregret We went to the intersection wherein 1963 a Buddhist monk famously set himself on fire to protest the anti-Buddist policies of the US-backed South Vietnamese governments. If you look at the pictures, you can see that his face is entirely composed even though his entire body is engulfed in flames. Is a powerful example of strength in faith. It was a significant turning point in the conflict in Vietnam. There are a tiny park and a monument on that corner but aside from that the street is identical to a 1000 others in Ho Cho Minh City, and it would be easy to pass by every day without knowing what happened. I guess that is the way history goes. A thousand ghosts in any spot we also went to the Unification Palace a Vietnamese designed French influenced structure built on the bones of a twice bombed building that had housed puppet governments.

Vietnamese muffins

We took a boat to the Mekong Delta. I think that this is the third or fourth time that we have sailed on it. It is incredible how the personality of a river can change as it slows down on the way to the sea. For one think it is filthy. Filthy! It is disgusting, actually. I don't think that I have ever been to another body of water that has so much trash in it. Wads of plastic bags, packaging, coconuts, and I swear concrete. Can concrete float? Like, if it was mixed right? It doesn't seem as if it should, but there it was, and I am pretty sure I saw it more than once. We had to stop a couple of times because there was trash blocking our motors blades. Maybe I should have noticed something else, but the trash was pretty fucking dramatic. We passed by whole communities made up of shacks built up on stilts. They popped up here in about forty years ago. They aren't legal, and the government is trying to to get rid of them. You can see the ghost of where some of them have been torn down. All that is left is a trash pile. We stopped along the way downriver at a coconut farm (did you know that there was such a thing as a water coconut because I was for sure not) and walked though rive paddies. It is the first day of the new year, and nonoptional shots of several different kinds of homemade rice liqueur were foisted off on us. Just what you want at 11 in the morning. We were plied with a dozen different kinds of fruit including dragon fruit with actual taste, mango, and custard apples (which are much more delicious than you might anticipate from looking at them.)

The second weirdest thing that happened last night: we didn't make plans for dinner. That is almost always a mistake. We started wandering around our neighborhood but there wasn't any street food, and there weren't any restaurants open. Tet is cramping our style. We finally ended up at a fairly large, fairly emptyish Pho restaurant a block away. Pho is always a safe choice in Vietnam. Guaranteed decent food and since it is soup it is boiled, so there isn't that much chance of food poisoning (I have never had food poisoning in Southeast Asia).   As we were finishing up a rat, not a mouse, a rat came out from the wall behind me and ran halfway across the room where it hid in the statue of an elephant. I like to think that our reaction was one of cool sophistication tempered by our travels. If only because I am impressed that I managed not to gasp, shriek, or otherwise embarrass myself. We simply had one of the marriage moments where both of you are entirely aligned in purpose. We looked at one another and went to pay. The rat, as if to prove that it was not a figment of our imagination popped out again only to run back to its elephant hiding place. I don't think anyone saw it but us. I don't think that I have ever seen that before. A rat in a restaurant that is. On the street? Yes. In the Subway? Yes. But I  the restaurant is in an old colonial building with no glass on the windows and a kitchen with one wall completely open to the street. I can't imagine that pest control is east there.

Mekong Delta

The rats aren't afraid here. We have seen them twice running across the park and two dead ones in the gutter. Weirdly in the same place a couple of days apart. It is a little intense. I'm not really afraid of them that there is something about them running around that just doesn't sit right. Something primeval maybe leftover from when mice and rats directly competed with humans for food and spread disease, maybe.

We went to the Cu Chi tunnel network by boat. It is sometimes a very strange thing to come to southeast Asia as an American. Although the war ended a decade before I was born, it is still painful to see the physical reminders of my government's policy. I've taken several courses on the Cold War and and one specifically on the war in Vietnam. It isn't a secret that America wasn't in the right. And while imperialism, colonialism, and frankly a part it is important to remember that all events and especially armed conflicts are more nuances then can be fit into 280 characters. I guess I am think ing about this because so much of the experience was skewed and at one point was blatant propaganda. It is a little weird to me that they would bother doing that when the reality definitely favors the Vietnamese. They showed us some bamboo traps. Traps I had just been reading about an hour earlier explained from the Us soldiers perspective. Over and over we were told that the traps were meant to injure but not kill. Which obviously isn't true and such weird point to lie about. People were invading their homes and had dramatically better firepower. They did what they needed to. It's understandable. We get it. It sort of soured the experience and made me hypercritical of everything both said and not said. There was a shooting range with an AK 47 and M16s which given what is going on in my country made me kind of queasy. The tunnels themselves were awful. Dark, confined, hot, and smelly. It knocks your breath out to think that people lived there. That people had to live there because it was the safest place. Sometimes my prissiness just slaps me in the face. The tour ends with a 1967 documentary or propaganda film made to promote the North Vietnamese cause. Pretty uncomfortable and I think that might have had the record for the use of the phrase "Hero American Killer." If you go, make sure that you have done a little research beforehand to enhance the experience.

It is our last day here. My body is making it's objections to being in sight of having to go to work by having an allergy attack. We were going to have a scooter tour around the city again today, but we couldn't find one that was running. So our plans include a hike for beer, a stop at the post office reading and eventually dinner. I'm not sure if we will go to bed early or not. We need to pack, and our flight leaves at 5:30 meaning a 2 am wake up call,