Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamaraI'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara, Gillian Flynn, Patton Oswalt
Published by Harper ISBN: 0062319787
on February 27, 2018
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 328
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

"You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark."

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called "the Golden State Killer." McNamara pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by McNamara's lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not the kind of book I would normally read, but I picked it up for several reasons: 1) my husband said it was good*; 2) this month’s Monthly Motif Challenge is “Crack the Case: Mysteries, True Crime, Who Dunnit’s,” so reading it offered and opportunity to keep my streak going with that challenge; 3) I was curious because the elusive Golden State Killer (as Michelle named him) has recently been found through DNA technology—40 years after he committed his first rapes; and 4) my husband and I went to Boston to see Michelle’s widower, Patton Oswalt, talk about this book and his wife’s work (this was before the killer had been apprehended), and his discussion of both the book and Michelle’s work intrigued me.

One of the things I appreciated the most about this book was Michelle’s own story—she explains where her fascination for crime came from and also describes her methodical detective work. Stephen King, who blurbs the book on the back cover put it this way: “What readers need to know—what makes this book so special—is that it deals with two obsessions, one light and one dark. The Golden State Killer is the dark half; Michelle McNamara’s is the light half. It’s a journey into two minds, one sick and disordered, the other intelligent and determined.”

I have a hard time with the concept of dwelling too much in the darkest recesses of the human psyche. I have occasionally watched and read true crime (hard not to when you are married to Steve Huff*), but by and large, I find it hard to inhabit that world. I vividly recall having a difficult time coping with it when my husband was researching a horrific child killer named Joseph Edward Duncan about a decade ago. I knew too many details about his crimes that I didn’t want to know, and as much as I admire my husband’s writing and his brain, I found it hard to continue to read his writing in this area. I don’t think he blames me for that.

One thing I think Michelle does really well is walk a fine line between giving necessary information while avoiding lurid details. Not to say you won’t be creeped out if you read this, and fair warning: true crime writers inevitably have to share some of the details. I am really glad I read it knowing that the Golden State Killer had been caught. My husband was out of town this weekend while I was reading the book, and I was having trouble sleeping a couple of nights in a row after we went to a U2 concert—I guess I was keyed up still—and the cat made a noise, and I nearly jumped out of my skin before remembering the guy was in jail and I live on the third floor anyway. He’s not likely to be creeping in my window. I could relate to Michelle’s story of nearly braining her husband with a lamp when he startled her awake one night. She said, and this line stood out to me, “There is a permanent scream lodged in my throat.” That sentence fascinates me because even after reading the book and understanding how she was really interested in getting to the bottom of mysteries, it is terrifying work. I can’t understand engaging in work that puts you in that position when you don’t have to be. My husband and I were talking about it, and he tried to explain it, and I guess it’s never something I will understand.

I was also fascinated to learn how much Michelle was able to coax law enforcement to share with her. I told my husband that if I were a cop, I am not too sure I’d want to work with any armchair detectives, but he says he thinks it depends on the cop, and also, many are grateful for any help they can get on cold cases and recognize that sometimes, people outside the situation connect dots that law enforcement doesn’t. For instance, my husband was one of the first people to find suspects’ social media accounts at a time when it seemed like law enforcement didn’t know how to do it.

Michelle accurately guessed that the Golden State Killer would eventually be found using DNA. With 12 (possibly 13) murders and over 50 rapes, the GSK left behind a lot of DNA, and he had some rare genetic markers in his profile. Michelle also posits in the book that he may have been in the Air Force (he had been in the Navy) and possibly even a police officer. He was (the frickin’ creep—in Auburn, CA, a suburb of Sacramento). He was actually fired as a police officer after shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer. Michelle was also correct that the GSK was also the criminal known as the Visalia Ransacker, who broke into homes in Visalia, CA and basically moved things around, stole things, and probably killed Claude Snelling, who caught the Ransacker attempting to rape his daughter. Michelle also guessed that he lived pretty close to where he was eventually found: Citrus Heights, CA. Most chillingly, Michelle accurately guessed the way it would go down.

You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk…

The doorbell rings.

No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.

This is how it ends for you.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark, you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light.

Reports say that the Golden State Killer was shocked when he was finally caught. I believe the timing of the book’s release and the GSK’s capture in the same year—within months—is no coincidence. Michelle’s writing about the case brought renewed attention to unmasking criminal behind the decades-old cold cases. For all I know, Michelle shared some of her ideas with law enforcement, who then acted upon them. She may be the real-life Sherlock Holmes, solving the mystery and allowing Lestrade and Scotland Yard to take the credit. Obviously, this is just conjecture on my part, and the folks in a position to say probably never will. That’s way it works.

Michelle died in her sleep on April 21, 2016. She hadn’t finished this book yet when she passed away, but her husband was determined that it be finished. It appeared in print a scant few months before the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, was finally unmasked. His DNA matched that of a distant cousin who uploaded DNA to GEDMatch, and a forensic genealogist pieced together his family tree. To be sure they had the right guy, police swabbed DeAngelo’s car door handle while he shopped in a Hobby Lobby store and swabbed a tissue from his trash to confirm the match. DNA doesn’t lie. It’s potentially problematic from a fourth amendment point of view that we can now conduct these kinds of investigations, but I can’t deny I feel good they caught this particular guy. It’s chilling to think he was probably within a decade or so of getting away with a rape and murder spree that’s truly horrifying. I am glad his surviving victims will have that closure and that he will have to pay in some measure for the crimes he has committed.

This book might interest other folks, like me, who are not invested in true crime, but folks who like reading about true crime will probably really like this book. Michelle is a good writer in an oeuvre in which good writing is regrettably rare. You can still read her blog, True Crime Diary. You can hear Michelle and Steve talking true crime here if you like. You can read a guest post he wrote for Michelle’s blog here, or this one about JonBenet Ramsey.

*Full disclosure: my husband writes often about true crime and knew this book’s author, Michelle McNamara. They never met in person, but I know they frequently corresponded and that they read each other’s work. That said, I never knew her or spoke with her. However, I couldn’t stop myself from using her first name throughout this review, something I avoid doing when I write about authors, because that’s who she is around this house—just Michelle.

 

four-stars

Review: I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin

Review: I Am Not Your Negro, James BaldwinI Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin, Raoul Peck
Published by Vintage ISBN: 0525434690
on February 7th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 144
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

To compose his stunning documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, acclaimed filmmaker Raoul Peck mined James Baldwin's published and unpublished oeuvre, selecting passages from his books, essays, letters, notes, and interviews that are every bit as incisive and pertinent now as they have ever been. Weaving these texts together, Peck brilliantly imagines the book that Baldwin never wrote. In his final years, Baldwin had envisioned a book about his three assassinated friends, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. His deeply personal notes for the project have never been published before. Peck's film uses them to jump through time, juxtaposing Baldwin's private words with his public statements, in a blazing examination of the tragic history of race in America.

We need James Baldwin right now. It’s strange to read words he wrote in the 1960’s and 1970’s and find so much around you that you recognize. He is maddening, frustratingly incisive about America.

To look around the United States today
is enough to make prophets and angels weep.
This is not the land of the free;
it is only very unwillingly and sporadically
the home of the brave. (97)

Reading this book and watching Raoul Peck’s accompanying film brings to mind this poem by Claude McKay:

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

Baldwin’s relationship with America is equally complex. He left for France to escape. As he explains in an excerpt from Dick Cavett Show in answer to philosopher Paul Weiss, brought on the show to rebut Baldwin:

You talk about making it as a writer by yourself, you have to be able then to turn off all the antennae with which you live, because once you turn your back on this society you may die. You may die. And it’s very hard to sit at a typewriter and concentrate on that if you are afraid of the world around you. The years I lived in Paris did one thing for me: they released me from that particular social terror, which was not the paranoia of my own mind, but a real social danger in the face of every cop, every boss, everybody. (88)

But Baldwin returned to America. As Baldwin says,

But I had missed my brothers and sisters
and my mother.
They made a difference.
I wanted to be able to see them,
and to see their children.
I hoped that they wouldn’t forget me.

I missed Harlem Sunday mornings
and fried chicken and biscuits,
I missed the music,
I missed the style—
that style possessed by no other people in the world.
I missed the way the dark face closes,
the way dark eyes watch,
and the way, when a dark face opens, a light seems to go everywhere.
I missed, in short, my connections,
missed the life which had produced me
and nourished me and paid for me.
Now, though I was a stranger,
I was home. (13-14)

Of course, he returned to France and lived there until his death. Baldwin was clearly frustrated by America’s inability to change. I wonder what he would make out of America today. I guess I don’t need to wonder. I know. What he said to Dick Cavett in 1968 still holds true:

I can’t say it’s a Christian nation, that your brothers will never do that [kill you] to you, because the record is too long and too bloody. That’s all we have done. All your buried corpses now begin to speak… [W]hen… any white man in the world says, “give me liberty, or give me death,” the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger, so there won’t be any more like him. (81-82)

That was 50 years ago.

As Baldwin so aptly and succinctly concludes, “The story of the Negro in America / is the story of America. / It is not a pretty story” (95). So what do we do? Even Baldwin is not without hope. As he says near the end of the book, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; / but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (103). We do need to face who we are and who we have been. Baldwin makes this request:

What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a “nigger” in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him… If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question. (109)

This book should definitely be paired with Raoul Peck’s film. The book is a loose collection of notes and snippets of transcriptions. What it offers that the film doesn’t is a chance to slow down and savor Baldwin’s language. He was truly a gifted writer and thinker. However, it is when the word is paired with image and film (as well as music) that Baldwin’s words truly come alive. Samuel L. Jackson narrates Baldwin beautifully (I admit I wasn’t sure about how that was going to be until I listened). I viewed the film through my Amazon Prime subscription as it is unavailable on Netflix, but here is a trailer:

For the Author Love Challenge, I am reading the work of James Baldwin.
This month’s motif is Book to Screen.

five-stars

Review: Stonewall, Martin Duberman

Review: Stonewall, Martin DubermanStonewall by Martin Duberman
ISBN: 0525936025
on May 1st 1993
Genres: Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
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four-stars

On June 28th, 1969, the Stonewall, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, was raided. But instead of the routine compliance expected by the police, patrons and a growing crowd decided to fight back. The five days of rioting that ensued changed forever the face of gay and lesbian life. This book tells the story of what happened at Stonewall, recreating those nights in detail through the lives of six people who were drawn into the struggle for gay and lesbian rights. Their stories combine into a portrait of the repression that led up to the riots, which culminates when they triumphantly participate in the first gay rights march of 1970.

I wanted to read this book after watching the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha’s longtime friend and a fellow Stonewall veteran, is one of the six gay rights pioneers profiled in Stonewall, alongside Jim Fouratt, Yvonne Flowers, Karla Jay, Craig Rodwell, and Foster Gunnison, Jr. While not all six were present at Stonewall the night of June 28, 1969, each contributed in their way to the burgeoning Gay Rights Movement in the wake of Stonewall. The book is structured as a profile of each of these six people’s lives leading up to Stonewall, their participation (if any) in the events at Stonewall, and their lives post-Stonewall.

If you watch The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, it’s difficult not to become fascinated by Sylvia Rivera. As a trans woman of color, she landed on the streets of New York at the age of eleven and had a difficult life, often homeless and combatting drug and alcohol problems along with the dangers of living on the street and hustling for money. And yet, her commitment to the Gay Rights Movement is real and heartfelt. Jim Fouratt has claimed that Sylvia was not at Stonewall the first night, but other participants (including Sylvia herself) claim she was. Some have even claimed that Sylvia threw the first bottle or Molotov cocktail, though Sylvia herself denies these accounts. I imagine the scene was chaotic enough that it’s hard to tell who exactly did what and where they were. In any case, Sylvia threw herself into the work of the Gay Rights Movement, founding STAR House (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with her friend Marsha. STAR House took in transgender kids, offering them food and shelter. Sylvia advocated for the poor and marginalized in society. At the time of her death, she was directing a food pantry at her church.

Transgender people have been sidelined in the Gay Rights Movement. In 1973, Sylvia left the movement after leaders in the movement attempted to silence her at the annual celebration of gay pride that grew out of Stonewall and has become the annual Pride Parade.

I learned a great deal from this book. I didn’t know anything at all about the Mattachine Society, and none of the figures, aside from Sylvia Rivera, was familiar to me before reading the book. Jim Fouratt was not only an early leader of the Gay Liberation Front but also a friend of Abbie Hoffman’s and one of the Yippies. He later became a music journalist. Karla Jay is a writer and college professor emerita. Craig Rodwell founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (which finally closed its doors in 2009, unable to compete (like so many bookstores) with online outfits. Two figures who are still somewhat enigmatic to me are Foster Gunnison and Yvonne Flowers. Gunnison was a founding member of NACHO (North American Conference of Homophile Organizations) and died shortly after Stonewall was published. He was more conservative than the others profiled and wasn’t involved in Stonewall, though (uncharacteristically for him) approved of what happened there. Yvonne Flowers participated in the first Christopher Street Liberation Day parade (which I think later became the annual Pride Parade) and was friends with Audre Lorde. Neither she nor Gunnison has a Wikipedia entry, and I couldn’t find much available information without doing some real digging online, though it’s there. I also didn’t realize how difficult it was for lesbians and transgender individuals to be involved in the early movement. I’m not sure why I thought it would be otherwise, but one might think if you are marginalized in some way yourself, it makes you more open to empathy for other marginalized groups. Not so much. White males dominated the early movement to the extent that many women and transgender people felt shut out.

Stonewall was published in 1993, and the information may be quite dated. Jim Fouratt and Harry Beard, a Stonewall waiter, both claimed that the catalyst for the uprising came when a lesbian dressed in men’s clothing was cuffed, complained the handcuffs were too tight and was then hit with a nightstick. Craig Rodwell insisted that “There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group—of mass—anger” (197). Duberman quotes collective eyewitnesses who “skeptically ask why, if [the lesbian] did exist, she has never stepped forward to claim the credit” (197). However, Stormé DeLarverie has, in fact, claimed to be that person, and several other witnesses have supported her claim. I’m not sure when DeLarverie identified herself, but Duberman didn’t identify her at all in the book, so it stands to reason he didn’t know about her claims when he wrote the book.

I liked the structure of following the six individuals, and the six chosen represent a diversity of experiences and backgrounds, so it’s nice to see that balance. As much as I appreciate the balance of perspectives, it comes at the cost of focusing on individuals who were not involved at Stonewall itself, though it’s hard to deny their importance in the Gay Rights Movement.

The February motif for the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge is to read a book with one word in the title, which is one of the reasons I read Stonewall this month. I obtained this book from my local library.

four-stars

Review: Salt Fat Acid Heat, Samin Nosrat

Review: Salt Fat Acid Heat, Samin NosratSalt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat, Wendy MacNaughton
Published by Simon & Schuster ISBN: 1476753830
on April 25th 2017
Genres: Cooking, Nonfiction
Format: Hardcover
Goodreads
five-stars

A visionary new master class in cooking that distills decades of professional experience into just four simple elements, from the woman declared “America’s next great cooking teacher” by Alice Waters.

In the tradition of The Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything comes Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, an ambitious new approach to cooking by a major new culinary voice. Chef and writer Samin Nosrat has taught everyone from professional chefs to middle school kids to author Michael Pollan to cook using her revolutionary, yet simple, philosophy. Master the use of just four elements—Salt, which enhances flavor; Fat, which delivers flavor and generates texture; Acid, which balances flavor; and Heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food—and anything you cook will be delicious. By explaining the hows and whys of good cooking, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will teach and inspire a new generation of cooks how to confidently make better decisions in the kitchen and cook delicious meals with any ingredients, anywhere, at any time.

Echoing Samin’s own journey from culinary novice to award-winning chef, Salt, Fat Acid, Heat immediately bridges the gap between home and professional kitchens. With charming narrative, illustrated walkthroughs, and a lighthearted approach to kitchen science, Samin demystifies the four elements of good cooking for everyone. Refer to the canon of 100 essential recipes—and dozens of variations—to put the lessons into practice and make bright, balanced vinaigrettes, perfectly caramelized roast vegetables, tender braised meats, and light, flaky pastry doughs.

Featuring 150 illustrations and infographics that reveal an atlas to the world of flavor by renowned illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will be your compass in the kitchen. Destined to be a classic, it just might be the last cookbook you’ll ever need.

With a foreword by Michael Pollan.

I picked up this cookbook after hearing about it on NPR during a segment with Corby Kummer about his Atlantic article featuring the best cookbooks of 2017. It might be one of the few cookbooks that I read cover-to-cover because even more than recipes suggesting what to cook, Samin Nosrat’s book teaches you how to cook. Her contention is that if you learn how to work with salt, fat, acid, and heat, you can cook anything. I haven’t tried many of the recipes the book yet, but I have tried her techniques, and honestly, I only wish I’d had this book many years ago. Where has this book been all my life?

One caveat for people who buy cookbooks for pretty pictures of food. This book doesn’t have any photographs—just Wendy McNaughton’s artwork. When asked why no photographs, author Samin Nosrat said:

This book and this message is about teaching you to be loose in the kitchen. And I didn’t want you to feel bound to my one image of a perfect dish in a perfect moment and feel like that was what you had to make. So I didn’t want you to feel like you had to live up to my version of perfection.

I have to admit that the perfect photos on food blogs and cookbooks can sometimes be intimidating. Even though what I make might taste good, it rarely matches the photographs for aesthetic appeal, so Nosrat’s reasoning makes sense to me.

This book is perfect for beginning cooks or even more experienced cooks who want to expand their understanding of how cooking works. It’s also great for cooks who need a bit more confidence.

My biggest takeaway from the book is to taste as I’m cooking. I know that seems pretty obvious, but tasting as you cook is the best way to know if you are balancing flavors properly. Tiny little case in point: I made macaroni and cheese for dinner tonight (the real stuff, not the box kind). I thought maybe my macaroni wasn’t done, but I wasn’t sure, so I scooped a noodle out of the pot and tasted it. Nope, done. Just a small example. I’ve also tried her tips for macerating shallots for salad and used her technique for dicing onions. I had my own technique for dicing onions, but hers works better. These sorts of techniques are hard to come by in most cookbooks, which by and large assume a level of knowledge that not all cooks have.

Nosrat also has a likable and charming voice that most cookbooks lack. For example, here is part of her instruction for fixing a broken mayonnaise emulsion:

Using your oily, eggy whisk, start whisking the hot water maniacally, until it starts to foam. Then, treating the broken mayonnaise as if it were oil, add it drop by drop, continuing to whisk with the urgency of a swimmer escaping a shark. (84)

This is one cookbook I would recommend to just about anyone as I think there is something for everyone in its pages.

five-stars

Review: The Cooking Gene, Michael Twitty

Review: The Cooking Gene, Michael TwittyThe Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
Published by Amistad ISBN: 0062379291
on August 1st 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 464
Format: E-Book
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five-stars

A renowned culinary historian offers a fresh perspective on our most divisive cultural issue, race, in this illuminating memoir of Southern cuisine and food culture that traces his ancestry—both black and white—through food, from Africa to America and slavery to freedom.

Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who "owns" it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.

From the tobacco and rice farms of colonial times to plantation kitchens and backbreaking cotton fields, Twitty tells his family story through the foods that enabled his ancestors’ survival across three centuries. He sifts through stories, recipes, genetic tests, and historical documents, and travels from Civil War battlefields in Virginia to synagogues in Alabama to Black-owned organic farms in Georgia.

As he takes us through his ancestral culinary history, Twitty suggests that healing may come from embracing the discomfort of the Southern past. Along the way, he reveals a truth that is more than skin deep—the power that food has to bring the kin of the enslaved and their former slaveholders to the table, where they can discover the real America together.

I first heard about The Cooking Gene on the Gastropod podcast some months back. I have embedded the episode below. Gastropod is an interesting podcast that focuses on food and science (and sometimes history).

I preordered Twitty’s book for my Kindle app, but I didn’t start reading it in earnest until December. It’s an unusual combination of genealogy research, personal memoir, and food history. Twitty has been able to travel to Africa since he finished the book—something I know from following him on Twitter. The pages of this book make clear how much Twitty honors his ancestors and the food and folkways they developed as slaves in the American South. Twitty re-enacts historical cooking at Colonial Williamsburg and came to the national forefront when he offered Paula Deen a chance at redemption through cooking a meal together with him and his subsequent Southern Discomfort Tour. What a shame Ms. Deen ignored his invitation. She would have learned something from him, judging by this book.

I recognized many of the folkways and foodways in my own family in the pages of this book, which is no surprise given my family on my mother’s side is Southern and migrated from Virginia through the South to Texas by the 2oth century. One image particularly resonated with me:

I grew up with a grandmother who would make cornbread several times a week and take any that was left over the next day, crumble it into a glass of buttermilk, and eat it out with a spoon. The glass streaked with lines of buttermilk and crumbs grossed me out. But when I asked my grandmother why she did it that way, she replied, without explanation, “At least I didn’t have to eat it from a trough” (199).

As Twitty later explains, enslaved children ate a cornmeal mush out of a trough at midday. The image of Twitty’s grandmother at the kitchen table eating cornbread and buttermilk reminded me of my own image of my grandmother doing the same thing. My reaction when I was a child was similar to Twitty’s. I don’t think I asked her why she ate it that way, but I’m confident it had been passed down in her family, probably originating from slaves her family owned.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about American history, particularly Southern history and African-American history, as well as anyone interested in the history of food in America. Twitty says late in the book that “Culinary justice is the idea that people should be recognized for the gastronomic contributions and have a right to their inherent value, including the opportunity to derive empowerment from them” (409).

Finishing this book was a great way to start the year and to kick off my participation in the Foodies Read Challenge and the Monthly Motif Challenge, though truthfully, Michael Twitty’s family history stories are firmly bonded with my own in that my family was on the other side of the institution of slavery. The stories of white and black Southerners are inextricably linked. He even mentioned a friend named Tambra Raye Stevenson, a nutritionist from Washington DC, whose “‘furthest back person’ was a woman in the white family named ‘Mammy,” Henrietta Burkhalter, born a slave in Baltimore. Sold as a young girl to the Burkhalter family in Georgia, ‘Mammy’ trekked with the white family and her sons to Mississippi, then Texas, and finally rested her soul in McIntosh County, Oklahoma” (277). The Burkhalters are my cousins. My great-great-grandfather’s sister married into the family, and I have been to several family reunions with the Burkhalter bunch in Georgia, and yes, some of them went west to Texas, as did their Cunningham kin. What a small world. The goal of this month’s “motif” is to diversify my reading through reading an author of a “race, religion, or sexual orientation” than mine. Michael Twitty is all three as a black, Jewish, gay man, but he feels like family to me. And given his history, it’s entirely possible that he is a cousin. Be sure to check out his blog in addition to this book.

five-stars

Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. Johnson

Review: Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, ed. Thomas H. JohnsonSelected Letters by Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson
Published by Belknap Press ISBN: 0674250702
on March 15th 1986
Genres: Nonfiction
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five-stars

When the complete Letters of Emily Dickinson appeared in three volumes in 1958, Robert Kirsch welcomed them in the Los Angeles Times, saying "The missives offer access to the mind and heart of one of America's most intriguing literary personalities." This one-volume selection is at last available in paper-back. It provides crucial texts for the appreciation of America literature, women's experience in the nineteenth century, and literature in general.

When I studied the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson this summer in Amherst, this collection of Emily Dickinson’s letters was one of my required reads. I didn’t finish it before the course began, so I decided it pick it up again to finish before the year closed. Consider it a way to pick up a few loose threads.

As Dickinson says in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her mentor and friend as well as early editor, “What a Hazard a Letter is!” While this volume is not a comprehensive collection of Dickinson’s letters, it does include a broad selection dating from Dickinson’s preteen years to her final letter to her cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross right before she died. Many of her letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson as well as the mysterious “Master” are included. Emily Dickinson seems to be the kind of person about whom the more one learns, the more enigmatical she becomes. Her writing is often a riddle. I wonder what her correspondents made of her. She seems to have taken a great deal of care to write to loved ones, particularly when they were grieving, and toward the end of her life, her letters paint the picture of someone buffeted from too many losses, beginning with the loss of her father in 1874 to that of Helen Hunt Jackson, a friend and admirer of Dickinson’s who insisted that Dickinson publish her work:

You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud. When you are what men call dead, you will be sorry you were so stingy. (Letter 444a)

Dickinson writes beautiful letters, which should surprise no one familiar with her poetry, but it’s interesting that her letters are in some ways as impenetrable as her poetry can be. One that makes me scratch my head, to her sister-in-law (and some say her lover) Susan Gilbert Dickinson, includes the line, “Could I make you and Austin [Dickinson’s brother]—proud—sometime—a great way off—’twould give me taller feet—” (Letter 238). I mean, I think I know what she means by “taller feet,” but the expression is so odd that I am not sure.

Her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she wrote to out of the blue after he wrote an article of advice for writers for The Atlantic Monthly, includes similarly unusual diction:

Mr Higginson,

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask—

Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude—

If I make the mistake—that you dared to tell me—would give me sincerer honor—toward you—

I enclose my name—asking you, if you please—Sir—to tell me what is true?

That you will not betray me—it is needless to ask—since Honor is it’s [sic] own pawn— (Letter 260)

Dickinson sent that letter to Higginson while he lived in Worcester, MA, probably less than two miles from where I am sitting right now as I write this. Imagine receiving this letter from nowhere!

Dickinson could have chosen many words, but she asked if her “Verse is alive” (emphasis mine). Her second sentence is just a bold lie: she has plenty of people that she can and has asked to read her poetry and give her their opinions. She continues to play with the notion of “living” poetry through the wordplay of “breathed” and “quick” in the next sentence. Is she warning him not to publish her work in the final line? In any case, he didn’t know what he was looking at because he apparently told her she was not ready for publication. Her reply includes the deft line, “Thank you for the surgery—it was not so painful as I supposed” (Letter 261). She had to have been disappointed that he didn’t encourage her, but if so, she doesn’t betray it to anyone in her letters, and she didn’t seek to publish her work much in her lifetime, despite Helen Hunt Jackson’s encouragement.

In any case, it’s to Higginson’s credit that he recognized her genius enough before he died to edit several volumes of her poetry along with her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd. I do wish this collection had included Dickinson’s final letter to Higginson, from early May 1886 (the month she died):

Deity—does He live now?

My friend—does he breathe? (Letter 1045)

One of my instructors at the Emily Dickinson course suggests there is a circle closed with this final letter to Higginson. In her first letter to Higginson, she asks if her poetry is alive, if it breathes. Her final letter asks very similar questions. She had heard Higginson was sick and had to cancel a lecture he planned to give. The words are not accidental, not when you’re Emily Dickinson.

Perhaps most beautiful, and I dare you not to cry when you read it after reading this collection of letters, is the final letter Dickinson ever wrote. It is addressed to her Norcross cousins and reads simply:

Little Cousins,

Called back.

Emily (Letter 1046)

If you enjoy Dickinson’s poems, you will certainly delight in her letters.

I happen to have two copies of this collection, and it is a little bit hard to find nowadays. I’m not sure if it’s out of print, or what, but Amazon only sells it via third-party sellers. Stay tuned for a giveaway post since I do not need two copies.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This is probably the last book I’ll finish for the Backlist Reader Challenge, which means I fell pretty far short of finishing the challenge. However, this book has been on my TBR list since I first visited Emily Dickinson’s house.

five-stars

Review: The Fire This Time, Ed. Jesmyn Ward

Review: The Fire This Time, Ed. Jesmyn WardThe Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race by Jesmyn Ward
Published by Scribner ISBN: 1501126350
on June 20th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 240
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five-stars

A surprise New York Times bestseller, these groundbreaking essays and poems about race—collected by National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward and written by the most important voices of her generation—are “thoughtful, searing, and at times, hopeful. The Fire This Time is vivid proof that words are important, because of their power to both cleanse and to clarify” (USA TODAY).

In this bestselling, widely lauded collection, Jesmyn Ward gathers our most original thinkers and writers to speak on contemporary racism and race, including Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Edwidge Danticat, Kevin Young, Claudia Rankine, and Honoree Jeffers. “An absolutely indispensable anthology” (Booklist, starred review), The Fire This Time shines a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestles with our current predicament, and imagines a better future.

Envisioned as a response to The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s groundbreaking 1963 essay collection, these contemporary writers reflect on the past, present, and future of race in America. We’ve made significant progress in the fifty-odd years since Baldwin’s essays were published, but America is a long and painful distance away from a “post-racial society”—a truth we must confront if we are to continue to work towards change. Baldwin’s “fire next time” is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about; The Fire This Time “seeks to place the shock of our own times into historical context and, most importantly, to move these times forward” (Vogue).

I have had this book on my to-read list for a while, but I wanted to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time first, thinking if the books were in dialogue with one another, it would be a good idea to read the conversation starter first. I’m so glad I read both of these books and so many other books in the closing weeks of this year. I am learning so much, and my eyes are opening up to a reality that has always run parallel to my existence, but which I never understood because it wasn’t my experience. I have had to contend with my own racism, and I’d like to think I have overcome it, but I know that I am a work in progress. At least I am trying to listen, though that’s not much and certainly isn’t enough.

As an educator, this reading has been essential to me because I see all how schooling is a social justice problem, and I have been a part of that problem. I’d like to be part of the solution going forward. I have ideas about how we might resolve some of the social justices issues inherent in our educational system.

This collection of essays pivots around the Black Lives Matter movement and two refrains run through many of the essays: Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, MO, and the murders of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In a particularly searing paragraph, contributor Daniel José Older says,

[T]he simple, resonating demand that black lives matter laid bare the twin lies of American equality and execeptionalism. Even on the left, even in this age of exposed racial rifts, politicians still say with a straight face that this country was founded on principles of equality. Words mean things, we say again and again, but actions mean much more, and still as a nation, we worship the very slave owners who gave legal precedence to the notion of percentages of human beings. We scream equality and freedom while unabashedly modeling our actions on the fathers of genocide. (200-201)

And this is the crux, to me, of what this book examines in contributions from luminaries such as Claudia Rankine, Edwidge Danticat, Clint Smith, Isabel Wilkerson, among many others. In some ways, it finds a partner in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. Both collections, as well as James Baldwin’s book, as America to hold a mirror up to its face and honestly examine what it sees. We just don’t want to do it. I suppose I am taking a hard look at America because I’m trying to figure out what went wrong. I think I have a deeper understanding of why we are in the political predicament in which we currently find ourselves. Making sense of it doesn’t make me feel better in any way. If anything, I feel worse. But I don’t know if I am yet hopeless. Maybe I am. Confronting these hard truths about who we are is not something the majority of Americans seem willing to do, but I hope people s in this collection, so it’s hard to pull out particular favorites. If I skim through the book, I noticed that I highlighted the contributions of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Wendy S. Walters, Carol Anderson, Kevin Young, Kiese Laymon, Garnette Cadogan, Claudia Rankine, Emily Raboteau, Daniel José Older, and Edwidge Danticat. My own city of Worcester plays a role in Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s essay “‘Dear Pledges of Our Love’: A Defense of Phillis Wheatley’s Husband.” Jeffers traveled to the American Antiquarian Society, located in Worcester, to research Wheatley. It’s shocking how little we know for certain about Wheatley, and it’s perhaps even more shocking we have probably relied on an erroneous source for what we do know.  You will definitely learn something if you pick up this book, but my hunch is you’ll learn a great deal.

five-stars