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

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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

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Review: Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

Review: Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth StroutOlive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Published by Random House Trade ISBN: 0812971833
on September 30th 2008
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 286
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four-stars

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life—sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition—its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

I can’t remember anymore why I decided to read Olive Kitteridge. I had it in my head somehow that I wouldn’t like it. I do think it’s a bit uneven in that the stories that don’t feature Olive herself seem tangential. In a few cases, Olive is mentioned in a way that seems forced as though Strout was attempting to tie together stories that weren’t tied together. She explains this in the interview in the back: “I chose this form primarily because I envisioned the power of Olive’s character as best told in an episodic manner. I thought the reader might need a little break from her at times, as well” (276). The episodic manner works very well for revealing Olive’s character, as Strout suspected it would.

The best stories told from an alternative point of view are “Pharmacy,” told from Henry Kitteridge’s point of view and “Incoming Tide,” told from Olive’s former student Kevin Coulson’s point of view. The other stories were fine, but in terms of belonging in a collection of stories about Olive, they didn’t quite fit for me. Olive was easily the most intriguing character in the book. It was her personality—at once completely recognizable and by turns compelling and repellent—that kept me turning the pages in this book.

We all know an Olive. She’s hard to like, but I quibble when she’s described as “abrasive.” If she were a man, I’d lay odds that’s not a word anyone would use to describe her. That adjective seems to be applied almost universally to women, who are supposed to be nice and are supposed to be easy to like. Olive would not approve of my saying this, but fuck that. It’s more important to have character. For example, in “A Little Burst,” when Olive draws on her new daughter-in-law’s sweater and steals one of her shoes and a bra after hearing the young woman make fun of the dress Olive had worn to the wedding, all I could think was good for Olive. No, I wouldn’t have liked it if my mother-in-law had done that to me, but I also wouldn’t have been mocking my mother-in-law behind her back at my wedding. Christopher, Olive’s son, seems to have a great deal of difficulty with his mother, and she might not see her parenting in the most accurate light, but he’s a difficult son as well. Henry, the character who suffers most from Olive’s personality, emerges as genuine and caring, and his fate is perhaps most tragic.

Of the stories in the collection, my favorites were “A Little Burst”—which reminds me in the best way of Flannery O’Connor’s writing—and “River,” the final story in the collection. There were moments when I put this book down for a long period of time, but I picked it up thinking I’d like to cross one more unfinished book off my list before the end of the year. Truthfully, the moments when I put the book down were the times when Olive was offstage. She drives the entire book, and I enjoyed the ride very much when she was behind the wheel.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I lied. I thought Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters would be the last book I’d finish for the Backlist Reader ChallengeOlive Kitteridge probably is.

four-stars

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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

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Review: How It Went Down, Kekla Magoon

Review: How It Went Down, Kekla MagoonHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Published by Square Fish ISBN: 1250068231
on December 15, 2015
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 336
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three-stars

The known facts surrounding the shooting death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson are few. On the evening of June 17, between 5:22 and 5:35 p.m., Johnson sustained two nine millimeter gunshot wounds to the torso. Police officers arrived on the scene at 5:39 p.m. Johnson was pronounced dead at 6:22 p.m. by EMTs at the scene. Police pursued and apprehended a suspect, Jack Franklin, who allegedly shot Johnson before leaving the scene in a borrowed vehicle. Franklin was pulled over nearly four miles away from the site of the shooting, at 5:56 p.m. A nine millimeter handgun, recently fired, was found in the backseat. Additional unsubstantiated allegations relating to the case are many. Police took statements from seven eyewitnesses at the scene. The result was seven different versions of what happened. No two individual accounts of the June 17 events line up. The hard evidence itself is not clear cut. By the day, it seems, new twists and turns emerge that add further shadows to obscure the truth.This is the story of how it went down.

This book has been on my to-read list for two years, but I finally picked it up because it is being considered for a summer reading selection. One thing those of us on the summer reading selection committee at my school do is read around so we are more familiar with the selections.

I definitely went into this book wanting to like it. I liked Magoon’s The Rock and the River, and the subject matter of How It Went Down interests me a great deal. Ultimately, however, I didn’t enjoy this book a great deal. I found excuses not to pick it up and had to make myself finish. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t compelling either, and given the important subject matter, it should have been.

One problem with the book is there are too many points of view. I had difficulty keeping the narrators straight, and many of them had very little to do, if anything, with Tariq’s death. It felt unwieldy and gimmicky. A second issue I had was just the writing in general. The characters were a mixed bag of believable and convoluted. Perhaps if Magoon had used fewer narrators, it would have been less noticeable, but some characters’ voices were inconsistent. I would never argue that they don’t fit a stereotype—it’s more that Magoon decided they talked a certain way, then changed her mind and decided they talked another way. Naturally, this inconsistency made it even more difficult to discern among the characters.

The weighty subject matter of race-based violence in our country deserved a better book. This book was one of the first to tackle the issue, but as for better, read The Hate U Give or even Magoon’s other books.

Beat the BacklistThis might be the last book I read this year that I can count toward the Beat the Backlist reading challenge, which I have no hope of completing.

three-stars

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Review: 1984, George Orwell

Review: 1984, George Orwell1984 by George Orwell, George Orwell, Erich Fromm
Published by New American Library ISBN: 0451524934
on July 1st 1950
Genres: Classic
Pages: 328
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four-stars

Among the seminal texts of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a rare work that grows more haunting as its futuristic purgatory becomes more real. Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell's nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff's attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell's prescience of modern life—the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language—and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell. Required reading for students since it was published, it ranks among the most terrifying novels ever written.

1984 is one of those books I’d been meaning to get to for a long time, and I didn’t for one reason and another—partly perhaps because I didn’t much like Brave New World; partly because I knew it was pretty depressing; and partly because as an English teacher, I knew the plot and pretty knew much how it would end. It’s an occupational hazard. At any rate, the story is depressingly relevant in ways I’m not sure it was even ten years ago when I read Brave New World. I am glad to be able to cross it off my list. It’s one of those books people are surprised to learn I haven’t read. I guess most people read this novel in school, but I was never assigned many class texts to read until junior year when I moved to Georgia. I can’t even remember reading a book in English class at all in the tenth grade. I don’t feel there is any such thing as a required text that everyone should read. If we want to read classics, we will get to them when we get to them. On the other hand, I also see the value of books that show us who we are and help us understand ourselves and others.

I struggled with how to rate this book because while I can’t say I truly liked it—and it is possible, I think, to like dystopian fiction. I didn’t like the characters or really care too much about them. However, I can also admire it from a philosophical standpoint as a precursor to dystopian fiction that—in my opinion—is both more compelling and better written, such as The Handmaid’s Tale. I can also admire Orwell’s prescience in predicting the ubiquity of television and the creepy surveillance culture, though I’m not sure it existed in 1984 the way it does today. It’s hard to deny the book’s influence on our culture. Most distressing, perhaps, is the way in which our current president’s lies and the “doublespeak” presentation of “alternative facts” makes the book too alarmingly close to reality. Ultimately, I want to have too much faith in the people to prevent a vision like Orwell’s from happening in our time. Yet, Suzanne Collins has said about her series The Hunger Games that there isn’t anything in her books that hasn’t happened in history in one form or other. The same can be said of 1984. I am hoping we all stay vigilant.

Beat the BacklistI’m not sure if I’ll count any additional books for the Beat the Backlist Challenge this year, as 2017 is drawing to a close. This is only the sixth book out of twenty that I had planned to read, but I’ll save my reading challenge progress reflection for another day.

four-stars

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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

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Review: Long Way Down, Jason Reynolds

Review: Long Way Down, Jason ReynoldsLong Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books ISBN: 1481438255
on October 24th 2017
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 320
Buy on Amazon
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five-stars

A cannon. A strap.
A piece. A biscuit.
A burner. A heater.
A chopper. A gat.
A hammer.
A tool
for RULE

Or, you can call it a gun. That’s what fifteen-year-old Will has shoved in the back waistband of his jeans. See, his brother Shawn was just murdered. And Will knows the rules. No crying. No snitching. Revenge. That’s where Will’s now heading, with that gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, the gun that was his brother’s gun. He gets on the elevator, seventh floor, stoked. He knows who he’s after. Or does he? As the elevator stops on the sixth floor, on comes Buck. Buck, Will finds out, is who gave Shawn the gun before Will took the gun. Buck tells Will to check that the gun is even loaded. And that’s when Will sees that one bullet is missing. And the only one who could have fired Shawn’s gun was Shawn. Huh. Will didn’t know that Shawn had ever actually USED his gun. Bigger huh. BUCK IS DEAD. But Buck’s in the elevator? Just as Will’s trying to think this through, the door to the next floor opens. A teenage girl gets on, waves away the smoke from Dead Buck’s cigarette. Will doesn’t know her, but she knew him. Knew. When they were eight. And stray bullets had cut through the playground, and Will had tried to cover her, but she was hit anyway, and so what she wants to know, on that fifth floor elevator stop, is, what if Will, Will with the gun shoved in the back waistband of his jeans, MISSES.

And so it goes, the whole long way down, as the elevator stops on each floor, and at each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows. A story that might never know an END…if WILL gets off that elevator.

Long Way Down was all the talk of the recent National Council of Teachers of English Conference I attended right before Thanksgiving, and for good reason. Written entirely in verse, the whole book takes place in the course of 60 seconds as Will rides down the elevator with his brother Shawn’s gun tucked into his waistband and revenge on his mind. Reynolds captures the voice of his character with clarity and honesty.

The only thing I can say about this book is read it. It’s an experience. You won’t be able to put it down until you finish. Maybe not even then. Not a word feels out of place in this compelling story about the “rules” we force others to follow. I didn’t come up with this line, but a fellow reviewer on Goodreads remarked that Reynolds “doesn’t use the device of verse as a crutch; he wields it like a weapon.” It’s incredible what Reynolds can do with his spare free verse poetry. This is definitely one elevator ride you will not want to miss.

Jason Reynolds is an author to watch. Full disclosure: I met Jason Reynolds in 2016 at the NCTE conference. I was at a roundtable discussion, and he discussed rewriting Shakespeare’s sonnets in other idioms as a fun way to engage students. He demonstrated with his rendition of Sonnet 138, and it was incredible. He often discusses not being a reader when he was a teenager, which is one reason he has been moved to write the books he wanted to read when he was young.

five-stars

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Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas HardyTess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Narrator: Simon Vance
Published by Public Domain Books on December 31st 1969
Genres: Classic
Pages: 411
Format: Audio
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-stars

The chance discovery by a young peasant woman that she is a descendant of the noble family of d'Urbervilles is to change the course of her life. Tess Durbeyfield leaves home on the first of her fateful journeys and meets the ruthless Alec d'Urberville. Thomas Hardy's impassioned story tells of hope and disappointment, rejection and enduring love.

I have had this book on my TBR pile for a long time, but I was finally moved to pick it up by a recent post on my friend Robin’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf. In this post, Robin, who is a college English professor, writes that Tess is “more relevant than ever” as more and more accusations of sexual harassment and rape come to light, and, as Robin suggests, “certain defenders of Roy Moore, Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton have avoided examining too closely what transpired.” Robin’s particular genius is in applying literature to the current moment. He’s a master at seeing literature as a mirror that reflects our world today, no matter when it was written. I’d love to be a student in his class.

Tess is often painted as spineless, lacking any ability to stand up for herself whatsoever. I don’t see her that way. She actually stands up for herself quite a lot. But she is also a lower-class woman in the late nineteenth century, so no one listens to her, and indeed, most people seem to feel they can abuse her however they like. I find it odd that most of the reviews and analyses about Tess that I have read refer to Alec D’Urberville’s rape of Tess as “ambiguous.” I suppose it could be ambiguous if you think her repeated attempts to push him away, her repeated refusals of his advances, and the fact that he came upon her while she was asleep and attacked her “ambiguous.” Seriously? People read it and think it might not have been a rape? That’s precisely why this book matters. As a victim, Tess is even hoodwinked into thinking she is at fault, that she is somehow to blame for being raped. That she is a fallen woman. And due to the Victorian notions of piety, everyone from her family to her rapist to the man she ultimately marries treats her that way. It’s maddening. I definitely don’t see her as someone who doesn’t stand up for herself so much as she is mowed over by a great big tank.

I really disliked Tess’s family, who seem to use her and unfairly depend on her financially. I disliked her husband, who is a hypocritical prig (and Tess should have told him to shove it when he finally showed up, but sometimes we do stupid things when we’re in love). And Alec D’Urberville is the ultimate dastardly villain, even twirling a mustache, for crying out loud.

I’m glad I finally read the book. I have been wanting to for a long time, and though the characterization in the novel suffers because Hardy was trying to make a POINT, the beautiful descriptions of the landscape redeemed the book for me.

As usual, Simon Vance is a brilliant narrator. I highly recommend him if you are looking for audio books and are not sure which narrators to pick.

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I can’t remember when this book first went on my TBR pile, but it was probably years ago, so I’m counting it for the Backlist Reader Challenge.

Unrelated: I have a new plugin that allows me to pull some automated data about books I review, but it also changes the layout of posts a bit. If you have opinions about it, please share.

four-stars

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Review: We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest book We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of essays written over the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Most were published in The Atlantic, where Coates has been making waves as “America’s best writer on race,” an assessment he admits makes him “retch” (117). He doesn’t explicitly say so, but I suppose it’s partly the fact that so many white people turn to him as the authority, the purveyor of “the black perspective.” I wonder if he feels like, as a character in The Freedom Writers claims, “the Rosetta Stone of black people.” He asks, “Why do white people like what I write?” (118). He admits that this “voice inside” him, this question, would “eventually overshadow the work, or maybe it would just feel like it did” (118). I would argue he is one of the most lucid and persuasive writers of his generation, and perhaps because of it, he has attracted an audience he didn’t necessarily believe he would attract. It’s clear he is confused by this attention, but one need only read the pages of We Were Eight Years in Power to understand why the attention confuses him. He is accustomed to a white America that does not listen to the complete story of itself. It believes its own myths. He has a gift for laying those myths bare and reminding us to consider what we would prefer to forget.

Coates writes a preface to each essay, except for the last, “The First White President,” which serves as an epilogue. In his prefaces, he discusses where his mind was at the time of writing the essay, what his process was like, and how he views the work now. It’s as much about writing as it is about issues of race in the time of America’s first black president.

The title comes from Thomas Miller, an African American congressman who served South Carolina during the South’s period of Reconstruction:

We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity. (xiii)

Coates saw parallels between Miller’s disbelieving appeal and Barack Obama’s legacy as the first black president. Certainly, Coates seems to capture our times in ways that few writers can. The prefaces to each essay are the writer at the height of his critical powers, both of his own work and of the current historical moment.

Of the collected essays, I agree with Coates’s assessment regarding “The Case for Reparations”: “I thought I was at my best when I could combine the reporting and the essay. ‘The Case for Reparations’ is, for that reason, the best piece in this volume to my mind” (288). I had been meaning to read that essay for years and even carried a printout of the article as it appeared in The Atlantic in my school bag for a long time, but I did not actually read it until I read this book. It’s a powerhouse of research and writing. However, all of the essays made me think and challenged what I understood to be true from my perspective as a white woman. If I have one quibble with the book, it’s that I think Coates does not consider sexism at all when he deconstructs Donald Trump’s election win in “The First White President.” He seems to ascribe Hillary Clinton’s defeat entirely to racist backlash against Barack Obama, as she would have cemented his legacy. While it’s true that Obama supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and it’s probably true that racism played a large part in her defeat as voters heard Trump’s promises to undo all that Obama had done, it’s impossible to say that racism is entirely to blame. Had Hillary Clinton been a man with all the same qualifications she possesses, I think she’d be president now. She did win the popular vote, and I believe that she would also have won the electoral vote if she were a man. None of that is to say that Coates’s analysis doesn’t bear thinking about. Perhaps many people haven’t thought hard enough about just how much of a role racism played in that election since the two major party candidates are both white. This quibble does not mean I felt the book needed to lose any stars in my rating, however. Coates has a brilliant mind.

I found it interesting to read about Coates’s struggles as a writer, and I want to share this selection from an interview he gave about writing and the writing process.

via ytCropper

As a writer myself, I found it incredibly heartening to hear such a gifted writer discuss his struggles with the craft.

If you are concerned about social justice issues and racism in our current moment and across the broad swathe of American history, you need to read this book. It’s a book I wish all Americans would read and think about.

Rating: ★★★★★

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