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Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and…

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx

by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

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978318,803 ()26

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i have some mixed feelings about this actually pretty amazing story and its host of people and information in its pages. i'm tempted to give it both more and fewer stars (more tempted to dock a half or whole star, though). this tells me that there are a lot of things to take from this book, and a lot of things i wish she'd done differently. but overall, this is an incredible display of reportage, a hugely important story that people of even remote privilege have no concept of, and a description of both hope and tragedy living together and battling to come out ahead.

the utter poverty and how people are forced to live is a world apart even from the people who are tasked to help the people chronicled in this book. (best example: an 11 year old is told by a social worker that she needs to help out her mom around the home, that she's old enough to do things like set the table for dinner. this kid's mom is about 26 and has never had a table to eat on in her life.) this book's greatest accomplishment, to me, is that it makes this life more relatable for those of us that (even reading this book) didn't really understand that all meals are taken on their laps. it makes the reader think that when these people have what we might consider chances (always living hand to mouth, on emergency food stamps, etc and suddenly coming into - through a court settlement - $17,000) and then they "waste" them (by spending all that money in only a couple of months, on a few material items that don't help them or improve their lives a bit) that they are living in a different world than the reader is. that they don't have bank accounts or credit cards, and that $17,000 is a good reason to get killed or robbed, so you might as well spend it on clubbing and cabbing while you can.

i feel like this is a really important book for all that it holds. i very very much wish it was written differently - that there was, if nothing else, an introduction in the book that lets the reader know that these are real people and their real experiences. that the author lived with them, or at least stayed with them, for over 10 years. that there isn't sugar coating or inferences, but that's why it sometimes reads a little choppily, or why we're sometimes missing a little information. but the information this book contains is truly astounding. the author had to live it with the people in the book. but for all that, and probably because of it, the people are so known without truly being known. the author cares about these people, especially (it seems from articles i've read) coco, but we actually aren't given a terribly sympathetic view of almost anyone in this book. we aren't made to root for them all that much, other than how you'd root for someone who is oppressed by the system in general. i'd like for this to have been a more personal writing - if the author didn't want to insert herself into the book itself, than an introduction which explained her award-worthy decade of immersion reporting and maybe a reason why it mattered to her, and a more personal writing of the few characters she documents. (this sounds weird because the details she writes are incredible, but i wanted more about the inner motivation, not just a reading of what happened without analysis.)

that is really my only complaint about this book; that and how long it takes to read it. but it's been on my mind a lot since opening to the first page and i suspect i'll be talking about it for a while. all good signs, so maybe it deserves more stars after all. ( )
  elisa.saphier | Sep 1, 2013 |
Riveting portrait of a family in the Bronx ghetto where they live. The author became part of this family for 10 years, and her immersion gives this book a verisimilitude that is often lacking in less well-researched books I've read. It was a difficult read but a fascinating one. ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
I read this right after The Warmth of Other Suns, and so I found the voice to be less personal and warm and out-front than in that book. ( )
  allison.sivak | Mar 21, 2013 |
A true story of poverty, addiction, babies having babies, and the vicious cycle that all of this perpetuated for a couple of families in the Bronx during the ‘80s. Although the book focused on two families, this was basically an ethnographic study that could have been dissected from any project in North America, at any time in the last five or six decades.
  PamelaReads | Aug 5, 2011 |
How do you approach reading a book that you expect to be really depressing? Let me give you an example: this book, Random Family, was pitched to me as a non-fiction tale following two women over the course of a generation, from when they're teenagers through when their kids are teenagers, living in the Bronx and then in upstate New York, in poverty, and shows their attempts and ultimate failures to break out of the situation they find themselves in.

I know, this sounds like the sort of book you want to just run out and read, right? And it really is. It's not that the description there is wrong. It's that it's too reductive. This book was engrossing, interesting, thought-provoking, and humanizing - even despite the overlay of desperation and depression that is certainly a part of it.

The story does indeed follow two women, Jessica and Coco, who live in the same neighborhood in the Bronx. The book starts out following Jessica more, and focuses more on Coco as she becomes interested in Jessica's brother, Cesar. Each of them is the product of a broken home, gets involved with criminals, has multiple kids by multiple parents, etc. That side of the story is pretty depressing, sure.

There's a lot of hope to the story, and a lot of attempt to struggle to improve, though. To make things happier for their kids, to provide a better life, to work some way out - these are the goals. Jessica and Coco, and really, everyone around them, make good choices some small amount of the time, and bad choices the rest of it, and unfortunately, it seems like you really need to make the right choice every time and have good luck to get out of the situation, and even if they know approaches - how to go homeless for a while to get better housing, how to move around to maximize your chances, etc. - the luck isn't perfect, and the ties to family are too strong to really escape.

There's a ton more to say about this book, all sorts of points to think from, about a kind of life that I've never had or probably never really could have imagined. LeBlanc's prose is clean and non-judgmental, and she had all the access she needed to tell the story properly. Not judging these people gives the book the impact it has; you can see their hopes and you can see their problems presented in an even-handed light. In the end, you feel worst for the kids, of which there are quite a lot, but then, at the outset of the story, Jessica, Coco, Jessica's brother and Coco's boyfriend Cesar, etc. were mostly kids, too.

Actually, in a sense, I feel worst for one of the secondary characters, Milagros, who was the best friend of Jessica's first baby's father. She decries relationships with men, doesn't want to have kids, and just wants to be independent, and because of the ties in the community she has, ends up with a life that she really couldn't have wanted, even if she makes a lot of the right choices for herself.

What it comes down to, then, is that this story speaks powerfully to the stickiness of poverty and its culture. There are no shortcuts out, and everything can drag you back in. The criminals have the flashy money and the easier life, it seems, but then they get sent to prison and are gone. Abuse is rampant, both physical and sexual, of children and adults, and then the victims have to live with that forever. The system set up to help them seems arbitrary, and has a hard time accommodating single mothers with multiple kids by different fathers, which almost all of these families are. Not having money means skimping on everything, but you need to look right to show poverty isn't grinding you down, so you buy the name brands and the pretty clothes and then flail for everything else. Whenever there is money, you have all sorts of ties to pay back to your family and friends - and there are all sorts of connections - and it seems gone within an instant.

This book really powerfully gets across to me the power of boredom, though. Good choices could be made more easily, but there's no access to a lot of the resources needed to fix that, and where there are, there's still awful, crushing boredom. So getting in fights is better than being bored, or hooking up with someone you shouldn't is better than just being bored, or getting high is better than just doing nothing. So many of the choices seem driven by just not having anything else apparent they can do, and that's what's ultimately the hardest to read.

So: yes, when you approach a book that seems this depressing, it can be hard, but something, there's a lot more there than the first description you hear. A lot more to make you think, and a lot more to life than just the hardships. These are real people, you can feel it, and there are real lessons to be learned. No wonder this got so many accolades. I very highly recommend this one. ( )
  Capfox | Apr 13, 2011 |
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...Some say that Happiness is not Good for mortals & they ought to be answerd that Sorrow is not fit for Immortals & is utterly useless to any one a blight never does good to a tree & if a blight kill not a tree but it still bear fruit let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.
William Blake, letter to William Hayley
London, October 7, 1803
For my parents,
Eve Mary Margaret Mazzaferro
and Adrian Leon LeBlanc
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Jessica lived on Tremont Avenue, on one of the poorer blocks in a very poor section of the Bronx.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743254430, Paperback)

In her extraordinary bestseller, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc immerses readers in the intricacies of the ghetto, revealing the true sagas lurking behind the headlines of gangsta glamour, gold-drenched drug dealers, and street-corner society. Focusing on two romances—Jessica’s dizzying infatuation with a hugely successful young heroin dealer, Boy George, and Coco’s first love with Jessica's little brother, Cesar—Random Family is the story of young people trying to outrun their destinies. Jessica and Boy George ride the wild adventure between riches and ruin, while Coco and Cesar stick closer to the street, all four caught in a precarious dance between survival and death. Friends get murdered; the DEA and FBI investigate Boy George; Cesar becomes a fugitive; Jessica and Coco endure homelessness, betrayal, the heartbreaking separation of prison, and, throughout it all, the insidious damage of poverty.

Charting the tumultuous cycle of the generations—as girls become mothers, boys become criminals, and hope struggles against deprivation—LeBlanc slips behind the cold statistics and sensationalism and comes back with a riveting, haunting, and true story.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:52:15 -0400)

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"Random Family tells the American outlaw saga lurking behind the headlines of gangsta glamour, gold-drenched drug dealers, and street-corner society. With an immediacy made possible only after ten years of reporting, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc immerses the reader in the mind-boggling intricacies of the little-known ghetto world. She charts the tumultuous cycle of the generations, as girls become mothers, mothers become grandmothers, boys become criminals, and hope struggles against deprivation." "Two romances thread through Random Family: the sexually charismatic nineteen-year-old Jessica's dizzying infatuation with a hugely successful young heroin dealer, Boy George, and fourteen-year-old Coco's first love with Jessica's little brother, Cesar, an aspiring thug. Fleeing from family problems, the young couples try to outrun their destinies. Chauffeurs whisk them to getaways in the Poconos and to nightclubs. They cruise the streets in Lamborghinis and customized James Bond cars. Jessica and Boy George ride the wild adventure between riches and ruin, while Coco and Cesar stick closer to the street, all four caught in a precarious dance between life and death. Friends get murdered; the DEA and FBI investigate Boy George's business activities; Cesar becomes a fugitive; Jessica and Coco endure homelessness, betrayal, the heartbreaking separation of prison, and throughout it all, the insidious damage of poverty. Together, then apart, the teenagers make family where they find it. Girls look for excitement and find trouble; boys, searching for adventure, join crews and prison gangs. Coco moves upstate to dodge the hazards of the Bronx; Jessica seeks solace in romance. Both find that love is the only place to go."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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