Review: If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin, narrated by Bahni Turpin

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin, narrated by Bahni TurpinIf Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, Bahni Turpin
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Published by Blackstone Audio on February 1, 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 8
Length: 7 hours and 7 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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four-stars

In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions—affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

There aren’t many writers like James Baldwin. He wrote with facility whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. I mean, just listen to him speak.

Much of what Baldwin says here is centered in his novel, as his characters wrestle with being cut out of their opportunities to find happiness and achieve their dreams. In fact, one in the novel struck me particularly hard. Fonny refers to a man who assaults Tish as a “white American,” implying that the police officer who wanted to arrest Fonny for beating the man did not see Fonny as an American. He saw a Black man, and his guilt or innocence did not matter. I realize that police brutality against Black people has a long history, but it’s hard not to see Baldwin as prescient in writing this novel in the early 1970s. He is not speaking only to the moment in which he wrote the novel, but also to our current moment.

My favorite character was Tish’s mother, Sharon. I absolutely loved Tish’s family. They were so supportive of Tish and Fonny, and Sharon set the tone when she told Tish that she would tell the family about her pregnancy. So many families have not supported their daughters when they became pregnant, let alone when the baby’s father is in jail awaiting a trial for a crime he didn’t commit. Even before I watched the movie, I understood why Regina King’s performance was lauded. Sharon is a gift of a character.

I found the ending a bit confusing, so I listened to it again, and then I still had to read a summary online because I couldn’t figure out if what I thought happened at the end was what happened. Ambiguous endings do not trouble me, but this book didn’t feel like it ended. It felt like it stopped. I suppose a good comparison would be the fade to black at the end of the last episode of The Sopranos. The book also moves backward and forward in time, and it was sometimes a bit difficult to follow. Admittedly, this could have been my fault for listening to it rather than reading it. However, there are some beautiful moments in the book as well, and Baldwin’s characterization is realistic and engaging. His characters just seem like people you might know—they are intensely human.

I was able to find the film on Hulu and watched it so I could add my thoughts about the film to this review. The acting is incredible. Stephan Jones and Kiki Layne are perfect as Fonny and Tish. As I mentioned before, Regina King deserves all the praise for her performance, too. The entire ensemble cast was great. The film’s ending is a bit different, and I might argue that the film’s ending is an improvement. For one thing, it was a bit clearer, and it also ended on a note of hope. I understand Baldwin wanted to communicate something with the ending he wrote, and it’s such a beautiful love story that as a reader, I really wanted to have a little bit of hope at the end for the characters. One touch I really appreciated was a simple dedication to “Jimmy”—James Baldwin’s nickname among friends. The movie also helped me understand the book’s title. My audiobook didn’t have the explanation, but the film had some text at the beginning, and since I don’t have a paper copy of the book, I can’t verify this, but I think it was James Baldwin’s introduction to the story, explaining the name. I expected it to be set in Memphis rather than New York and was initially confused. I also loved the film’s score. It’s haunting and perfect. I definitely want to see other films by this director after watching If Beale Street Could Talk.

Bahni Turpin is an excellent narrator. I have listened to her read other books, and I appreciate her approach to the material. I highly recommend the audio version of this book, but you might want to read along to better keep track of the story.

One last treat before I close: Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, a Hammer Museum curator, created the ultimate James Baldwin playlist. You just might find some blues in there.

 

four-stars

Review: Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review: Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Published by Anchor ISBN: 0307455920
on March 4th 2014
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 589
Format: Audio, E-Book
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five-stars

From the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a powerful story of love, race and identity.

As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?

Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

Third time’s a charm. I have tried to finish this book twice before, and I stalled out in about the same place both times. I decided to try to finish it this time because Carol Jago is leading a book club discussion of the book on Facebook for the National Council of Teachers of English members. I knew the problem with not being able to finish the book was me. Everyone I know who has read this book loved it, and I love Adichie, too, and I knew I should love this book. For some reason, I was just getting stuck right around the first part that focuses on Obinze. For what it’s worth, I do think the Obinze sections drag a bit, and I’m not sure why because his story is interesting, especially his sojourn as an undocumented immigrant in the UK.

When I was at lunch at work a couple of weeks ago, I complained about getting stuck with this book. One of the people listening to me complain asked me if I’d tried the audiobook. I listen to audio books all the time, but I had this one Kindle, so no, I hadn’t tried the audiobook, but I decided it might be just the thing to get me past being stuck. Once I got past that part, I admit I was riveted by the book. I was puttering around the house the last week or so, listening whenever I could.

One quibble I think I have with the book is the notion that Ifemelu’s blogs take off so quickly in popularity. I suppose some people get lucky in that regard, and yes, I’ve been approached for advertising on my education blog (which I don’t feel comfortable doing), but it seemed a bit unrealistic to me that her blogs both became so popular so fast. However, in the grand scheme of the book, this issue is so minor as to be nearly nonexistent. Adichie offers a thoughtful critique of race and class America, the UK, and Nigeria, as her characters explore their identities and struggle to make it as immigrants.

I understand a movie is in the offing, and that Lupita Nyong’o has been cast as Ifemelu and David Oyelowo as Obinze. The book could certainly make a good film, though I wonder how it will capture all the complexity of the novel. I could see teaching this novel at the college level, though I think it might be a bit too long for high school students, even in AP classes. However, it would offer wonderful opportunities for discussion with a class novel study. I would recommend this book to everyone, but I think white liberals especially have something to learn from this book.

five-stars

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

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: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey RatnerIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
ISBN: 1451657714
on September 1st 2012
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 322
Format: Paperback
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four-half-stars

A beautiful celebration of the power of hope, this New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of a girl who comes of age during the Cambodian genocide.

You are about to read an extraordinary story, a PEN Hemingway Award finalist "rich with history, mythology, folklore, language and emotion." It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Cambodian killing fields between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a moving debut. Ratner is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s and later came to America. She says in her author’s note that this novel is her own story with some details compressed or changed. It’s quite a lyrical and moving account of the horrific story of the Cambodian Killing Fields from the viewpoint of a child.

Where the novel suffers, if it does, is the focus. Ratner explains she wanted to show us Cambodia as it was before its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but as a result, the novel takes a while to get going. The bulk of the first half is devoted to the first few days and weeks after the Khmer Rouge sends citizens of Phnom Penh into the countryside, and the last several years are compressed. For example, in an interview in the back of the book, Ratner says her journey escaping to Thailand was more fraught and would rate a book in itself. While I wasn’t looking for the worst of the story at the expense of fonder memories, it felt a bit of a cheat to magnify some events at the expense of others that might have been more compelling. As a result, the novel feels uneven; however, as a debut, it’s quite powerful with some poetic moments and beautiful storytelling as well as an emphasis on the importance of living and telling your story.

I read this book for several reading challenges:

Due to its late 1970’s setting in Cambodia, this novel counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge. It’s also my third country stop for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. As I enjoyed several cups of tea, mostly Bigelow’s Constant Comment and at least one cup of Simpson & Vail’s Jane Austen Black Tea Blend, it also qualifies for the Share-a-Tea Challenge.

four-half-stars

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