Review: There There, Tommy Orange

Review: There There, Tommy OrangeThere There by Tommy Orange
Published by Knopf ISBN: 0525520376
on June 5, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 294
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

Fierce, angry, funny, heartbreaking—Tommy Orange’s first novel is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few of us have ever seen, and it introduces a brilliant new author at the start of a major career.

There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom have private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.

Here is a voice we have never heard—a voice full of poetry and rage, exploding onto the page with stunning urgency and force. Tommy Orange writes of the urban Native American, the Native American in the city, in a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide. An unforgettable debut, destined to become required reading in schools and universities across the country.

This book is a stunner. I checked into it after hearing so many teacher friends talking about it on Twitter, and I’m so glad I did. I plan to incorporate it into my curriculum for a new Social Justice in Literature and History course I will be proposing.

Not only is the language masterful, but Tommy Orange created memorable characters, connected in some ways to other characters. All their paths will converge at the Big Oakland Powwow. I haven’t quite read anything like it from a Native American writer, in part because Orange focuses on the “urban Indian.” I learned quite a few things I didn’t know from this book as well. For example, I had no idea Native Americans “occupied” Alcatraz in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The book raises many issues worthy of discussion, from the treatment of Native Americans in the United States, to spousal abuse, to child neglect, to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, to the importance of storytelling, to recapturing lost culture, to OCD. Yet, it never feels like a novel stacking as many issues as society confronts as it can all at once. It just feels like it’s telling it like it is.

By the end, I was invested in the characters and hoped they might each find some closure. It’s a beautiful, poignant novel, and if I hadn’t read Homegoing this year, it would run away with the title of the best book of the year for me. As it is, it’s a tough call. I might have to have two favorites.

I am calling it a wrap on the Monthly Motif Challenge for 2018 and electing to classify this as a repeat of the “Diversify Your Reading” theme from January. I never did a Vacation Read in July. Perhaps I’ll try to squeeze that last book in during my winter break.

five-stars

November Reading Update

It’s been a long time since I last posted. I started grad school, which hasn’t allowed much time for independent reading or for writing. I am trying to find a balance because reading is really important to me.

I am taking a breather to post some quick reviews of some things I’ve read since my last post.

Remarkably, given how little reading I’ve been able to do over the last two months, I’m just two books behind in achieving my goal of reading 50 books this year. I might still pull out meeting this goal.

The last book I reviewed was Blind Spot in August. Since then, I’ve read four more books.

Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage is an interesting exploration of the effects of incarceration. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when they travel to his hometown to visit his parents. They make the fateful decision to stay in a hotel for some additional privacy. Roy helps a fellow hotel guest with the ice machine, and later, she accuses him of raping her. Celestial knows Roy can’t have done it because he was with her at the time, but he is sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones explores the effects of Roy’s imprisonment to both Celestial and Roy as well as their marriage and the broader repercussions of mass incarceration in the African-American community.

Rating: ★★★★½

 

My husband and I listened to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology as read by Gaiman himself. I always recommend Neil Gaiman’s audio books because he is an excellent reader.

Gaiman draws inspiration for this collection from a variety of sources in Norse mythology. His stories retain the humor of the myths, but they feel re-invigorated in his hands. This collection is a must-read for anyone who enjoys mythology, or Neil Gaiman, or good stories in general.

Loki, in particular, is a nuanced, complex, and interesting character. Tom Hiddleston would be proud.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the RIP Challenge (more on that later in the post). This novel is the story of Mary Catherine “Merricat” Blackwood and her sister Constance, the town recluses who live in a large empty house with their Uncle Julian, who is compiling his memoirs about the poisoning murders of the rest of the Blackwood family some years earlier.

Eh. I finished it. It was okay; not great, not horrible. I understand a lot of people find the character Merricat Blackwood interesting. I guess I am not among their number. I guessed what was supposed to be a big surprise ending pretty early on; I’m not bragging because I’m usually terrible at guessing the surprise ending in thrillers. I also didn’t like The Haunting of Hill House, which a lot of people love. I think I’m just not into Shirley Jackson. I do love “The Lottery.”

Rating: ★★★☆☆

 

José Olivarez’s poetry collection Citizen Illegal was a hit with my students. I bought it on the recommendation of some teacher friends on Twitter. The collection explores Latinx identities, including the tension of being a first-generation American of Mexican parents who came to America as undocumented immigrants. He explores issues of language, culture, race, gender, class, and immigration with a fresh, engaging voice. Many of the poems stand out, particularly the series called “Mexican Heaven.” The opening poem “(Citizen) (Illegal)” might be my favorite.

I participated in a Twitter chat about the book with some of the teacher friends who recommended the book, and the poet himself chimed in. I love reading living poets!

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

I didn’t make it through the RIP Challenge. RIP the RIP Challenge, I guess! Grad school interrupted my flow. I still have time to complete the other challenges that run until the end of December, but some of them are not looking likely at the moment.

I’m going to try to carve out more time to read and reflect on my reading here. I can tell a difference when I don’t sit down and write about a book right after finishing it. I had to look up the names of the characters in An American Marriage because I had read it so long ago. Unsatisfactory!

Review: Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

Review: Homegoing, Yaa GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Vintage ISBN: 1101971061
on April 7, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 305
Format: Paperback
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Ghana, eighteenth century: two half-sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Englishman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

Homegoing took my breath away. At times, I had to put it down for a little bit just to think about what I had read, and other times, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in about three giant gulps over a couple of days. While Gyasi’s prose isn’t flashy, the story she tells pierced me right through the heart. I think it’s changed my life. Ernest Hemingway said once, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” That’s how I feel after reading this book. That it’s truer than if the stories it told really happened and that those stories now belong to me in some way. I can’t find it now, but I swear I’ve read a quote by some famous smart person that said something along the lines of this: every once in a while, you encounter a book, and it becomes such an important book to you and leaves such an impression, that you can mark your life before you read it and after.

The book is drawing inevitable comparisons to Roots, and for good reason. One criticism I’ve read of Gyasi’s writing in several reviews is that many of the experiences of the African-American branch of the book’s family seem sort of “shoehorned” into African-American history. In a sense, I can see it, but to me, it never felt inauthentic. I mean, it wasn’t like Forrest Gump. In a way, I saw some of these passages as connections to African-American literature, such as James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” or the American legend of John Henry. Isabel Wilkerson criticized Gyasi for perpetuating a stereotype:

And there is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

I totally understand Wilkerson’s pain at encountering this stereotype. Yet, the incident as described in the book smacks of something that really happened to Gyasi. One has the feeling that as a Ghanaian immigrant, she did feel different and was treated differently. I certainly don’t mean to discount Wilkerson’s criticism. When I read the scene, I felt the same way as Wilkerson, and yet, I also sensed it was possible an uncomfortable true story was fictionalized for Gyasi’s character.

Gyasi is at her most brilliant in describing the relationships between parents and children. It’s maddening and frustrating that the reader knows the stories of the ancestors unknown especially to the African-American family, but also to the African family as well, and in their case, because of choices made by the characters. So much loss. It’s difficult to comprehend. Some studies suggest that trauma leaves an intergenerational impact. And when you have a situation in which trauma is re-inflicted, for generation after generation, recovery seems almost hopeless. But empathy—telling our stories, and especially listening to the stories of others—is one path forward.

I had a feeling about the way the story might end up, and it was gratifying and redemptive. While parts of this book are difficult and grueling—Gyasi does not flinch from the realism of the characters’ experiences, and she forces us to look, too—there is also much joy and love, and it’s hard not to feel hopeful after reading the end. This is one I think I’ll be recommending to everybody.

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn WardSing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Published by Scribner ISBN: 1501126075
on May 8, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

I think everyone has been recommending this book to me. It’s been on my TBR list for a while. Sing, Unburied, Sing is drawing comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which Ward acknowledges she was “thinking about” when she wrote, in addition to Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Odyssey, though she didn’t re-read any of these books as part of her process. Rather, she turned to histories of Mississippi, particularly of Parchman Farm, now known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary.

Jojo and his mother Leonie narrate most of the book. Jojo is easy to empathize with: he’s known such suffering, and he will know more, but he also is capable of great love. It would be easy to reject Leonie entirely, given her abusive parenting and drug addiction, but Ward doesn’t let the reader off the hook so easily. She shows us Leonie’s pain and humanity, too, and even if we can’t forgive her, like we know Jojo will also not be able to do, we can’t dismiss her entirely, either.

The imagery at the end of this book will stay with me for a long time. When Jesmyn Ward places herself as part of a “long line” and says she feels “like all of those writers—from William Faulkner, to Richard Wright, to Eudora Welty, to Margaret Walker,” insisting that these writers have “affected [her] writing,” one can hardly argue (interview excerpts in paperback edition). She evokes the same Mississippi, from the Delta to the clay to the ghosts. Ward centers those stories in our present day, but her novel is also tethered to the past and explores the ways in which we are our histories, our present, and our future all wrapped in one.

In trying to put language to my thoughts, I found myself reading Tracy K. Smith’s review in The New York Times, and she captures my thoughts so well:

Maybe that’s the miracle here: that ordinary people whose lives have become so easy to classify into categories like rural poor, drug-dependent, products of the criminal justice system, possess the weight and the value of the mythic—and not only after death; that 13-year-olds like Jojo might be worthy of our rapt attention while their lives are just beginning.

That’s the magic of this book. Characters that many readers might be tempted to dismiss as unworthy of our attention become mythically important. At the same time, the characters are very real. I feel like I have known them, especially as I lived in the South and have Southern roots. Faulkner famously said once that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Nowhere else does that claim feel truer to me than in the South, even though the area of the country where I live now has more “history,” if one measures in the number of years since it’s been colonized. There is a passage from the viewpoint of Richie, the ghost of a boy who died at Parchman Farm, that captures the way history seems to hang onto the land in the South and also captures something of the lyricism of Ward’s writing:

I didn’t understand time, either, when I was young. How could I know that after I died, Parchman would pull me into it and refuse to let go? And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?

I was trapped, as trapped as I’d been in the room of the pines where I woke up… Parchman had imprisoned me again. I wandered the new prison night after night. It was a place bound by cinder blocks and cement… I spent so many turns of the earth at the new Parchman… I despaired, burrowed into the dirt, slept, and rose to witness the newborn Parchman. I watched chained men clear the land and lay the first logs for the first barracks for gunmen and trusty shooters. I thought I was in a bad dream. I thought that if I burrowed and slept and woke again, I would be back in the new Parchman, but instead, when I slept and woke, I was in the Delta before the prison, and Native men were ranging over that rich earth, hunting and taking breaks to play stickball and smoke. Bewildered, I burrowed and slept and woke to the new Parchman again, to men who wore their hair long and braided to the scalps, who sat for hours in small windowless rooms, staring at big black boxes that streamed dreams. Their faces in the blue light were stiff as corpses. I burrowed and slept and woke many times before I realized this was the nature of time. (186-187)

If you hover over the Mississippi State Penitentiary, previously known as Parchman Farm, in Google Maps, you can’t help but notice how blighted the landscape looks. I am especially struck by the roundness of the landscape. It definitely looks like it holds history.

Mississippi State Penitentiary
Mississippi State Penitentiary via Google Maps

Here’s a classic song about Parchman Farm, one of my favorite old Delta blues songs, by Bukka White.

five-stars

Review: The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Review: The New Jim Crow, Michelle AlexanderThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Cornel West
Published by The New Press ISBN: 1595586431
on January 5, 2010
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 312
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

"Jarvious Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."

As the United States celebrates the nation's "triumph over race" with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status—much like their grandparents before them.

In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us--to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.

Every once in a while, you read a book, and you think to yourself, this book is one that everyone, no I mean it, everyone should read. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow helped me understand race relations in a way no other book I’ve ever read has ever been able to do. In clear, lucid, and at times even poetic prose, Alexander lays out her argument that our War on Drugs has led to a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately punishes black and brown men—in essence, our prison system functions like Jim Crow segregation.

As I read this book, which was published in the middle of Barack Obama’s first term, I kept wondering how Alexander would respond to the unrest that has followed the election of Donald Trump. Does she see a nation picking off the scab and dealing with its racial inequality in response to a morally bankrupt government? Or is is it even worse than Alexander thought? It’s hard to tell when you’re living in the middle of it. In some respects, I see more white people who are willing to take on the role of activist. But white people also voted for Trump in large numbers.

The racial caste system that is mass incarceration will be difficult to dismantle, and I admit to a feeling of defeat as I closed the book. But we can’t give in to despair, no matter how bleak changing the landscape of race relations in America looks right now.

This book changed my mind about a couple of things by making me think about them from a new angle. One: the legalization of marijuana. A couple of years ago, Massachusetts had a ballot referendum on whether or not to legalize marijuana. It’s already decriminalized, as in, it’s legal to have a small amount of marijuana. I confess I voted against legalizing the sale of pot for one reason: I really didn’t think it was at all a good idea for people to use cannabis. I still don’t, really. I am not sure I subscribe to the notion that it’s harmless. However, I am swayed by Alexander’s argument that using cannabis is probably less harmful, especially to others, than drinking and driving. Should cannabis users take to the roads, I’m not sure what the results would be, but I’d prefer it if being sober remains a requirement for keeping your license to drive. I also think some people, not all, do start using other drugs after trying cannabis. Same with alcohol. Not everyone, of course. I have never tried cannabis myself, and I don’t have plans to do so, so I recognize in some ways, I am not really affected by the issue. However, what I now understand is that we have disproportionately thrown the book at African Americans for using the drug (or at least being caught with it) at the same rates as white people, who generally get the slap on the wrist. If decriminalizing marijuana or even making it completely legal and selling it in smoke shops, as Massachusetts is beginning to do, will prevent black and brown people from being incarcerated for minor drug offenses, I’m all for it. Now.

Another issue Alexander raised that gave me pause is the unhelpfulness of colorblindness. I would never say “I don’t see color,” but I am guilty of trying to pretend like race matters less than it does. I am learning. I wasn’t able to see it. I also wasn’t listening to people, and in part, I wasn’t putting myself in the path of the people to whom I needed to listen. I really thought we’d fixed a lot of problems with Obama’s election, and the depressing election of Donald Trump helped me understand we definitely had not. Alexander’s book explains why colorblindness is harmful.

This book has been out for a while, so you’ve probably already read it. However, if you haven’t, you really should. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

five-stars

Review: U2 by U2, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr.

Review: U2 by U2, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen, Jr.U2 by U2 by U2, U2
Published by It Books ISBN: 006190385X
on December 1, 2009
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 460
Format: Paperback
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five-stars

U2 by U2 is the only definitive, official history of one of the most famous bands in the world, by the members of the band themselves. Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen offer a unique, insightful account of everything fans want to know, from U2's birth 25 years ago and its evolution to become the biggest band in the world to their personal dramas and successes to the politics and emotions that drive them and their music. As cool, elegant, and exciting as the band itself, U2 by U2 is a must-have for any music fan's collection.

It’s pretty cool right now, at least from what I can tell online, to dislike U2. Anytime I read comments on any articles about them, it seems like people really can’t stand them—Bono, in particular, is referred to quite often by the sobriquet “wanker.” I can’t figure out why, nor does it square with my experience of going to two U2 concerts, both sold out. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and they were excellent performances. As far as I can tell, there are several reasons why people seem sour on U2: 1) they’re successful and have been for a really long time, 2) they are politically involved (though, to be fair, they always have been, so to be mad about it now seems disingenuous), and 3) they gave their album Songs of Innocence away for free to all iTunes users (I mean really, you don’t want it, just delete it). Maybe I’m missing some reasons, but these seem to be either the entire text or the subtext of all of the negative comments I have read.

I remember seeing their video for “Sunday Bloody Sunday” when it was on heavy rotation on MTV, soon after the single came out. I was intrigued because I knew this band was playing at Red Rocks, which is a natural amphitheater near Denver. I lived near Denver at the time and had been to Red Rocks, albeit not for a concert. It’s a really cool place, and as I lived in a “flyover” state (or that’s how it seemed to me at the time) and didn’t see my home reflected in media, this band playing at a venue I knew, a place I had been, intrigued me. It was a way of saying that my home existed apart from New York or California, which seemed to be all I ever heard about.

So I started paying attention.

And I noticed that I liked them, but this was before I was really buying my own music. When The Joshua Tree came out, I was fascinated. I loved their videos for that album. MTV was always on because I was in high school by then, and I loved that album. But I still didn’t own it yet because I was sort of running with the heavy metal kids, and I was sure it wouldn’t be considered cool. I know now how stupid that was, obviously, and I wish I could say I was the sort of person who never cared what people thought, but a judicious rejection of what others think is a relatively late development for me.

My French teacher used to play U2 music for us over the language lab headphones. I remember her saying “I don’t care if it’s your taste, it’s mine.” I loved those days. I probably never told her I appreciated it.

And then they released Achtung Baby, which was great, but they were acting kind of weird after that, and I wasn’t sure what had happened. As the 90’s rolled on, and a lot of what I heard them releasing didn’t appeal to me, I admit I didn’t pay as much attention, but my tape of The Joshua Tree was on heavy rotation during commutes in the late 1990’s. I was glad they sort of outgrew that “techno” phase and decided to play more to their strengths. To this day, I own all their entire albums except for Zooropa and Pop. Every once in a while, I will look on iTunes and see if I want the rest, and nope, still don’t. That’s not to say I don’t go back and give some songs a second chance. I have done that and discovered I actually like them. There are some gems on those albums, but there are also a lot of forgettable and plain, well, bad songs on them, too. I can appreciate they were trying to experiment, but I personally think they forgot what people liked about them.

The reason for this long introduction is to explain why I read this book. I was curious as to what made this band tick, how they came up with some of their ideas, how they managed to stay together so long (an apparently still seemed to like each other), and what exactly happened to them in the 90’s. The book is really written by music journalist Neil McCormick, whose interviewed the band and collected snippets from the band members’ own voices, starting at the very beginning and ending around 2006. If you’re thinking of reading, be prepared for the fact that there are a good twelve years not covered (to date), including three albums and the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree tour as well as the tribute album Ahk-toong Bay-bi Covered, which features the entire Achtung Baby album covered by artists like Jack White, Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, Depeche Mode, and Garbage. (I would have liked to have heard what the band thought of that tribute album.) In addition, their longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, has since passed away, and his voice contributes much of the story in this book. Their reflections on his passing, therefore, are also missing.

One big thing I learned is that the band should listen to Larry Mullen, Jr. more. He seems to have the most solid instincts about what will work, and it seems pretty clear to me that they didn’t listen to him as much as they should have in the 90’s.

If you’re a fan, you will learn pretty much whatever you’d like to know from this book. If you’re not a fan, I wouldn’t recommend this book. It won’t necessarily convert you if you’re among the group of people I mentioned at the beginning of my review. However, if you do love the band as much as I do, you will enjoy reading about how their albums came to be, and their reflections and recollections will make for an enjoyable excursion, especially if you were with them part of most of the way on their journey.

five-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: My Bread, Jim Lahey with Rick Flaste

Review: My Bread, Jim Lahey with Rick FlasteMy Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method by Jim Lahey, Rick Flaste
ISBN: 0393066304
on October 5th 2009
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

When he wrote about Jim Lahey’s bread in the New York Times, Mark Bittman's excitement was palpable: "The loaf is incredible, a fine-bakery quality, European-style boule that is produced more easily than by any other technique I’ve used, and it will blow your mind." Here, thanks to Jim Lahey, New York’s premier baker, is a way to make bread at home that doesn't rely on a fancy bread machine or complicated kneading techniques. Witnessing the excitement that Bittman's initial piece unleashed worldwide among bakers experienced and beginner alike, Jim grew convinced that home cooks were eager for a no-fuss way to make bread, and so now, in this eagerly anticipated collection of recipes, Jim shares his one-of-a-kind method for baking rustic, deep-flavored bread in your own oven.

The secret to Jim Lahey’s bread is slow-rise fermentation. As Jim shows in My Bread, with step-by-step instructions followed by step-by-step pictures, the amount of labor you put in amounts to 5 minutes: mix water, flour, yeast, and salt, and then let time work its magic—no kneading necessary. Wait 12 to 18 hours for the bread to rise, developing structure and flavor; then, after another short rise, briefly bake the bread in a covered cast-iron pot.

The process couldn’t be more simple, or the results more inspiring. My Bread devotes chapters to Jim's variations on the basic loaf, including an olive loaf, pecorino cheese bread, pancetta rolls, the classic Italian baguette (stirato), and the stunning bread stick studded with tomatoes, olives, or garlic (stecca). He gets even more creative with loaves like Peanut Butter and Jelly Bread, others that use juice instead of water, and his Irish Brown Bread, which calls for Guinness stout. For any leftover loaves, Jim includes what to do with old bread (try bread soup or a chocolate torte) and how to make truly special sandwiches.

And no book by Jim Lahey would be complete without his Sullivan Street Bakery signature, pizza Bianca—light, crispy flatbread with olive oil and rosemary that Jim has made even better than that of Italy’s finest bakeries. Other pizza recipes, like a pomodoro (tomato), only require you to spread the risen dough across a baking sheet and add toppings before baking.

Here—finally—Jim Lahey gives us a cookbook that enables us to fit quality bread into our lives at home.

I ordered Jim Lahey’s first book My Bread after finishing his third, The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook (his second is My Pizza, which I guess I’ll need to read!). Lahey’s recipe for a perfect no-knead crusty loaf of bread apparently took the world by storm some time back, but I missed it. I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up had The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook not crossed my radar. I have long been too intimidated to make bread, primarily because I saw it as a fussy food: you had to knead it just so, but don’t handle it too much. You had to set it out to rise. I love bread, but it seemed like a lot of hassle. In actuality, the biggest hassle is the amount of time. Jim Lahey’s bread needs to rise pretty much overnight, so it’s a good idea to mix the dough before you go to bed on a weekend. The next day, you can shape the dough and allow it to rise again, and you will have a nice loaf of bread for weekend supper.

Unlike The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook, the recipes in this book call for yeast rather than the stiff sourdough starter Jim Lahey calls biga. There is not a huge difference in flavor between the bread made with yeast versus the bread made with biga, but I think I actually prefer the bread made with biga. It seemed to me like the “holes” in the loaf were bigger. However, following the baking directions as stated in The Sullivan Street Bakery Cookbook yielded a very dark loaf for me with the crust almost burned. Of course, I didn’t use parchment for that loaf as I did the yeast loaf I made using Lahey’s recipe in My Bread, and I think perhaps the fact that I used oil may have contributed to the issue I had. Still, it might be worth following the baking directions for the yeast loaf next time I try to bake the bread with biga.

Here is the loaf I made today using Lahey’s recipe for basic no-knead bread on pp. 50-52 of the book:

The crust turned out perfectly, and I think the parchment paper was the trick there. I noticed that I could hear it crackling as it cooled, but it didn’t “sing” like the biga loaf.

Both loaves are delicious. I think the idea of using a natural yeast I created has some appeal. Lahey talks about trying to do things the old-fashioned way, such as baking in fire ovens, and I understand that feeling. It is a way of connecting to the past, to the work our ancestors did with their hands. I felt the same way making my own soap.

I haven’t tried the other recipes, but the book is an entertaining read, and the basic bread recipe is one I can see returning to over and over again.

Foodies Read ChallengeI hadn’t planned on reading quite so many cookbooks for this challenge. I envisioned reading more food histories, which also interest me. Still, I think it says something about the entertaining readability of the cookbooks I’ve read that I was able to read them cover to cover and see the personality of the author shine through.

I also discovered this book was a Gourmet Cookbook Club selection, which had me Googling said book club. It looks like after Epicurious acquired Gourmet, they scrubbed all the book club material from the site, but their list is still out there.

five-stars

Review: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, narr. Kenneth Branagh

Review: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, narr. Kenneth BranaghMurder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Narrator: Kenneth Branagh
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0062847929
on October 24th 2017
Format: Audio
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five-stars

A new recording of the most widely read mystery of all time, performed by Kenneth Branagh.

Now a major motion picture from Twentieth Century Fox, releasing November 10, 2017 and directed by Kenneth Branagh.

"The murderer is with us - on the train now..."

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. One of his fellow passengers must be the murderer.

My husband and I decided to listen to this on audio as we cook dinner—listening to books while we cook has become a habit. I hadn’t read this one yet. In fact, I haven’t read anything else by Agatha Christie except And Then There Were None. I had the advantage of not having the mystery spoiled for me, so I will not spoil it for you, either (just in case). However, I will say it was quite a satisfying murder mystery, and I was guessing up until the end.

This was my first Hercule Poirot book, and I haven’t really watched any movies or television featuring the character, either. He definitely owes something of a debt to Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and I liked him. Kenneth Branagh is an excellent narrator. He does accents really well, which is something I noted when listening to his reading of Heart of Darkness. He even does a really good American accent. His reading of Mrs. Hubbard was fantastic.

I know the reason he read this book is that it’s a movie tie-in for the film he directed and starred in last year. I might want to watch it. It has a stellar cast, though reviews on IMDb are not awesome.

If you haven’t read this book, treat yourself to this audio version. You won’t be disappointed. Kenneth Branagh is a great reader.

This book counts towards the British Books Challenge, as Agatha Christie is a British writer, though the book is set in modern-day Croatia (Yugoslavia at the time). Because of its setting, I’m also counting it for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. I’m counting it as my selection for a classic crime story for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

five-stars

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret AtwoodAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Published by Doubleday Nan A. Talese ISBN: 0385475713
on November 2, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 468
Format: Audio
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five-stars

From the number one New York Times best-selling author of The Handmaid's Tale

Soon to be a Netflix Original series, Alias Grace takes listeners into the life of one of the most notorious women of the 19th century.

It's 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?

Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

The miniseries Alias Grace is a Halfire Entertainment Production made for CBC and Netflix.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband and I like to listen to audiobooks while we cook dinner, and I have picked most of them. We made a deal that I would pick one more, and I was supposed to surprise him and pick whatever I wanted, and then it would be his turn. We had tried to listen to Lincoln in the Bardo, but I just couldn’t follow the story in audio. That was the last book my husband picked, I think. I thought long and hard about which book to pick. I almost picked The Handmaid’s Tale because I don’t think he’s read it, but I have read it, and I had wanted to read Alias Grace. I thought maybe my husband would like it because it is based on a true crime story, and he is something of a true crime aficionado.

Both of us liked the novel quite a lot. I think we are planning to watch the Netflix series, too. My husband remarked several times about what an excellent writer Margaret Atwood is. I am not sure if we were meant to think about Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which was also based on a true crime. To my way of thinking, Alias Grace has more than a healthy dose of Naturalism as well. It explores themes of mental health, treatment of women, sexuality, and gender as well as social issues involving Irish immigrants. Grace emerges as a sympathetic character, but at the same time, it’s difficult to know who she really is, especially by the end. Atwood weaves the narrative together well through the frame device of Dr. Simon Jordan, an American interested in mental health issues, who visits Grace to learn more about her story and the infamous murders that resulted in her imprisonment as a teenage girl.

Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks in the Netflix adaptation of the novel, and she does a worthy job with the narration of this novel as well. This one is definitely worth a listen.

five-stars