BlacKKKlansman – Ron Stallworth (2018)

Continuing on with my focused reading for Black History Month (and also continuing my focus on my own TBR), I selected “BlackkKlansman: A Memoir” by Ron Stallworth (2018) since it met both of those criteria. My curiosity was also piqued by the movie (directed by Spike Lee) on the book’s events, so the title seemed to tick a lot of boxes for me.

I wasn’t that well-versed in what the book actually covered (apart from an African-American man infiltrating the KKK – a true story), and so I entered the read with a mostly-open mind about it. It turned out that it was both a better AND a worse read than I had originally expected.

To the narrative: Ron Stallworth was a young detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, at a time when he was the very first POC to hold that coveted law enforcement position. At the same time as having to prove his worth to his colleagues, he also applied (as a lark) for membership to Colorado Springs branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, Stallworth is black. Yes, to the Ku Klux Klan. So, how did this actually work?

Before I read the book, I had the idea in my head of Stallworth attending the meetings in person but being hidden by wearing the stupid bedsheet uniform of the KKK, but it turns out that he didn’t actually attend the meetings but sent in a (white) surrogate, which in retrospect was the safest and most sensible thing to do. (I just had it different in my head.)

So the Colorado Springs KKK accept his application (without knowing that Stallworth was black) and the detective continues to develop his relationship with the leadership of the pretty small group by only having telephone conversations and sending this other guy to the actual F2F encounters. It’s actually quite funny to think about this African-American law officer having detailed phone conversations with a local leader of the KKK. (I was also rather glad that the KKK leader is also portrayed as being highly incompetent and badly organized but with high goals for increasing membership.)

The actual campaign of undercover KKK membership only continues for a few months, but in these weeks, Stallworth manages quite a lot of contact with various KKK officials, including David Duke, the Grand Wizard (dumb name). However, as the book continues and I turned the pages, I started to become pretty distracted by several things which detracted from the narrative plot.

One was that the book was really terribly written. I understand that Stallworth is not a professional writer, but that’s what editors are for. However, in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, the author goes out of his way to thank an editor for his work on the writing, so it may have been that the writing had been even worse than before it had been edited. (Hard to imagine – repetition galore. Poorly organized points. More repetition. Holding grudges longer than 20 years for former work colleagues and supervisors. Leaving out important points that make it hard to follow. More repetition… The readerly cringing never ended.)

And, after all this (and after more than 200 pages), as Stallworth is summarizing up the operation, he admits that it didn’t actually achieve anything of note re: the KKK. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t really add important previously-unknown knowledge to the files. He’d also “lost” the only photo that proved he did what he did with David Duke (and he bragged about this to no end – but come on. Show me the money! ;-)) This actually became endlessly irritating for me as the reader and when I turned that final page (because I stubbornly refused to DNF this one), I was pretty annoyed at having wasted my time (and money) on this.

I think that Stallworth was brave to attempt to infiltrate a group such as the KKK (that’s the good thing about the book), but in the end, it seemed like a lot of fuss for not much result, so I’m not sure how good the associated movie is going to be (unless they take some creative leaps in how things turned out).

This could have been such a good read – it’s a brave project but the courage is rather covered up in the author insisting on airing his personal slights to former colleagues (repeatedly) and professing to having lost some of the evidence (apart from a notebook and a few files). To add to this, Stallworth reports that the Colorado Springs Police Chief made the whole case “disappear” from official records and so there is no trace of it actually happening.

Hmm. It all makes me rather wonder about the whole situation. I’m pretty disappointed in this read as it could have been sooooo much better and I’m very surprised that the publisher actually went ahead and published it as it was written. It was a shame in the end.

Good story but so spoiled by the other factors that you just couldn’t appreciate it in the end. Probably not going to see the movie (even though I like Jordan Peele).

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (1952)

As part of this year’s JOMP recognition and celebration of the U.S. Black History Month (BHM) which occurs every February, I pulled this title off my BHM TBR which I had pulled together here. I had bought this a while ago at one of our trusty FoL Book Sales, and, as part of the aforementioned Black History Month and also as part of my TBR focus, I thought that this book, although a little intimidating in some ways, would do the job as my next read.

It’s a little like what I had expected, but then also nothing like I expected but overall was a significant read. Did I enjoy it? Umm. Let me say this: I think it’s an important part of the American canon; I think it’s a valuable contribution to African-American literature and it’s an on-the-boots look at life for one African-American character in mid-twentieth century American society.

Ellison was awarded the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, but pieces of an earlier draft were published as short stories across the literary landscape as far back as 1947. (Thus, there can be some debate as to when this story was actually published.)

I found it to be a very powerful read – full of passion and anger (rage, really) of the protagonist as he (justifiably) rails at the unfairness of his life and times. It’s also an intellectual journey into one African-American person’s experience and journey through life before the Civil Rights Movement, and as such, it was a tough read – not just from the intellectual/philosophical approach, but also because daily living was so hard for people of color at that time in the U.S.

However, don’t let this mention of high-falutin’ intellectualism make you turn from this novel. It’s also a strong narrative and bildungsroman of a young man’s experiences in the South and what happens when he ventures north to NYC.  I’d also argue that it meets the definition of a Kunstlerroman (which is a subcategory of bildungsroman but recounts the coming-of-age of an artist figure. I just learned that the other day, so thought I’d share.)

Ralph Ellison.

So – to the story itself. The narrator, an unnamed man, is introduced at the start as living in a cellar below-ground in a large city, his home lit by hundreds of light bulbs powered by energy that he has pilfered from the municipal electric company, payback (he feels) for society and those around him who do not see him as a human or as a valid member of society. It’s this idea of invisibility which is the dominant theme throughout the novel and it’s this idea of being uncounted and ignored that is the motivation for most of the protagonist’s actions throughout the narrative.

Since this novel is a coming-of-age project, the action flashes back to the narrator’s childhood in the South and his early educational years. As a college student, he attends a black institution and while there, is tasked with escorting a campus VIP around the grounds and the college’s environs. It’s here where things rather go off the rails for this poor protagonist as he tries to please the VIP guest while also exposing the visitor (as requested) to more unsavory aspects of African-American life in the area.

The ramifications of this visit lead to the protagonist moving up north to a large city in hopes of a better life, and he gets heavily involved with the Brotherhood, an organization of other black men with the expressed goal of improving conditions for African-Americans in the city. Our hero becomes rather a local celebrity, giving speeches for the group, but it’s not without its problems, including his own doubts about the true goals of the group.

Things turn to a head in the city, for both the narrator himself and for those African-Americans not affiliated with the group. Riots ensue, looting happens and by the end of the novel, the narrator is back by himself, completely isolated from others and back to being invisible. The final piece of the conclusion is where you, as the reader, can see the growth of the narrator.

It’s not an easy novel to read. The plot is linear for the most part, but the last third is composed of a stream-of-consciousness internal conversation for the narrator. Reading about this part I’ve learned that it’s reflective of jazz music (very loose and free structurally speaking), but from my own reading perspective, it was pretty confusing. Now I’ve read it, I can go back and see what the narrator was explaining but when I was actually reading it, there were several times when I needed to reread different passages to try to keep up with what was going on.

One of my own problems in appreciating this read is that Ellison hearkens back to lit influences with which I’m not familiar (or don’t really appreciate): T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (bleugh), William Faulkner (yuck) and Ernest Hemingway (double yuck),

Again, don’t let this stop you from reading this book. It’s a powerful read and an important title to experience. Just know that it’s got this non-linear tendency in places and good luck at the end…! 🙂

I am very glad that I’ve finally read this now I’ve finished the novel. It plays an influential part in African-American literature and political thought. It’s also highly unlikely that I’ll read this again though. :-}

Note and FYI: There are two different “Invisible Man” books out there: this one (called Invisible Man – no “The”) is the Ellison one. The other one is very different and titled “The Invisible Man” a scifi novel by H.G. Wells published in 1897. (Haven’t got to the Victorian one yet.)

Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975)

I’m not entirely sure where I first heard of this title (someone out there in Blogland), but whoever you are/were – thank you! This was a surprisingly good emotive read – and ended up being much more than I had initially thought it was going to be. 

Written as an epistolary novel (be still my heart), this wry but thoughtful narrative features alternating diary entries from two middle-aged Londoners, one divorced, one who “looks like the sort of spinster who doesn’t keep cats and is not a vegetarian”, but both leading pretty lonely lives. (It’s rather Muriel Spark-like in some ways.)

The overlap between these two characters occurs at the aquarium at London Zoo with the turtle enclosure. Although visiting at different times, William G. (the divorced person) and Neaera both have the same idea of freeing the trapped turtles in their too-small cage and it’s this, along with other overlaps, that leads them to come into contact with each other. 

It’s not a simple love story though (although at first blush, it might read as though it’s being set up like that). It’s also not completely filled with middle-aged glumness and angst. (It has some good humor in places.) It’s actually much more complex and layered so what, at first, reads like a fairly straightforward read actually ends up giving you lots to think about. Kudos to Hoban to not taking the easy route with this plot. 

William, now divorced (although why remains a mystery), works in a bookshop and lives in a slightly rundown boarding house. The divorce has meant he has lost his house, his mortgage, daily access to his children, and now he is forced to share a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with his irksome (but distant) housemates. Neaera, OTOH, is a successful children’s book author and illustrator although faced with a serious writer’s block at the moment. Both can be a little prickly and difficult, but there’s enough cheer to make it believable. 

The free-the-turtle plan, although hatched independently from each other, is the point at which these two people interact but through Hoban’s use of diary entries, the reader can see how each person has his/her own reasons for this idea. Generally, both feel trapped in their own lives as well, so it’s a metaphorical idea of freedom at the same time. 

The writing itself is reflective of its times (the mid-1970s) so there was a patch in the middle when I thought I was going to stop reading the book (Gendered expectations. Hippy groups that simulate your own birth! Gaaah.) However, soldier on and you’ll find that the remainder of the narrative picks up again and maintains its pace until you turn that last page with a sigh of satisfaction at both a solidly good read and a big unexpected twist which saves the plot from stereotype. 

Overall, this ended up being a really thoughtful read and I’m glad that I tracked it down. Thanks again to whoever it was who first mentioned it. I’d never heard of it but it was a worthwhile use of time. (It’s been republished by the NYRB back in 2013 so it might be easier to find for you. I found an earlier edition at a book sale.) And interestingly, it’s also come out as a 1985 British film of the same name.

January 2020 – Reading Review

January has come and January has gone, and what do I have to show for it? Not a bad turnout for reading, as it happens. I’m particularly chuffed about the number of titles that have been picked from the TBR, a trend I am planning on continuing since I’m on a book-buying ban until May. (We’ll see how that goes, yes?) Additionally, five titles meet the criteria for being POC-related. Here are the deets:

  • The Stationery Shop – Marjan Kamali (F) POC
  • Me – Elton John (NF) (TBR)
  • Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjej-Brenyah (F-short stories) (TBR) – no blog post
  • English Country House Murders – Thomas Godfrey (ed.) – F anthology (TBR) – no blog post
  • Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo (F) (TBR) POC
  • Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (F) (TBR)
  • Home – Ellen Degeneres (NF) (TBR) – no blog post
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Mark Stalvey (NF-auto)
  • Living Earth – DK Eyewitness Books – Miranda Smith (ed.) (TBR) – no blog post
  • Bop – Maxine Chernoff (F- short stories) (TBR) – this was a DNF. – no blog post
  • 101 Things I Learned in Culinary School – Louis Eguaras and Matthew Frederick (NF) (TBR) – no blog post

A slight lack of blog posts about a lot of these reads, but this was a combination of being busy, going on vacation, going back to school and procrastination/not that much to say, so it’s all good.

Moving on to February, it’s one of my favorite celebratory occasions – Black History Month – so expect some focused reading on that. Right now, I’m fully immersed in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1947) which is an amazing read. It’s a large book (Scary Big Book in terms of page numbers) – 580 pp – so it’s taking a little while. But whoo-whee — it’s good.

February 2020: Black History Month TBR Pile

Some of the reading suggestions for BHM…

As I’ve done for the past few years, I’m choosing to recognize and celebrate the U.S. Black History Month for February, which means that I step up my ongoing focus on reading POC authors and related topics. (It’s become more of a year-long focus now, but I specifically make an effort to bring attention to POC authors/topics during these weeks.)

I’ve pulled the pile (above) as a collection of titles which fit the bill from my own TBR (plus a couple from the library), and I’m excited to see which ones appeal to me as I go on to read some of them. What’s in the pile? Let’s take a looksie.

(Top to bottom in picture):

  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African – Olaudah Equiano/ Gustavus Vassa (NF/auto) 1789
  • The Free People of Color of New Orleans – Mary Gehman (NF/history)
  • Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo (F) 2014
  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (F) 1952 (?). (Read this. Wow.)
  • Colour Bar: A United Kingdom – Susan Williams (NF/bio) 2017
  • They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky – Benjamin Ajak, Benson Deng et al. (NF/auto) 2015
  • The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts – William Still (NF/history/bio) 2011
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne: The First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (NF/bio) 2015. In progress.
  • The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (F) 2008. Post to come.
  • BlackkKlansman: Race, Hate and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime – Ron Stallworth (NF/auto) 2018. Meh.
  • I was Born in Slavery: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas – Andrew Waters (ed.) (NF/history/auto)
  • Days of Grace: A Memoir – Arthur Ashe and Arnold Rampersad (NF/auto) (1993)

The side pile:

  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander (NF/history/socio)
  • Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America – Charisse Jones and Kumea Short-Gooden (NF/socio)
  • The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium – Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson (NF/socio) 2013
  • White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism – Robin Diangelo and Michael Eric Dyson (NF/socio/history) 2018
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Mark Stalvey (1970)

As always, it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to read ALL of these, but certainly a nice pile to start with. Any titles that you’d recommend?

Incoming Titles: Update

The lovely FoL group had a half-price book sale a weekend or two ago, and who am I to turn down such a kind invitation to see what new titles I could find? So, I went and I found. 🙂

I really tried to stay on target and not fill up my shopping bag (since the December FoL Book Sale was still so recent), but I did find one or two titles to fit my needs!

Bottom to Top:

  • The Not so Big House – Susanka (really good interior decorating/design book).
  • Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban (1975) – epistolary novel that I saw somewhere that looked good and the library didn’t have its own copy. ETA: Read. Post to come.
  • Olive Kitteredge – Elizabeth Strout (2008) – the first novel introducing an interesting character – there’s been a recent release of a follow-up title, but since I couldn’t remember the original story, thought I’d better reread this before picking up that new one!
  • Bettyville: A Memoir – George Hodgman (2015, NF/auto).

And then I had briefly mentioned that quick visit to the bookshop on Venice Beach but didn’t give the deets on the title that I bought there? Here it is: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019)… I’ve heard a lot about it from the British bloggers and I was waiting for it to come out in paperback. Very looking forward to that read!

ETA: I’m already reading the Evaristo book. Wow. It’s good. Here’s my review.

Me – Elton John (2019)

Whatever you might think about (Sir) Elton John, he’s not boring and this autobiography (written with help from Alexis Petridis, a British music critic) brings descriptions, one after the other, of how Elton’s life was so far from normal in so many ways. And yet, this well-written book also brings to the surface how pretty typical Elton is himself as a person. It’s fascinating. It’s intriguing. It’s utterly hilarious in places. (I adored Elton’s self-deprecating comments.)

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to buy some tickets to see Elton John on tour locally when he came through our particular city. I wasn’t that jazzed to see him: “…but come on – it’s SIR Elton John and I bet it’ll be a laugh” sort of thing. As it turned out, my mum was also in town for this so we took her for her first rock concert.

And I have to admit that Elton John was superb in his performance that night. He plays for a long time – much longer than others have – but you look forward to every song since he’s got such an impressive songwriting collection (along with Bernie Taupin) that the odds that you’ll hear the same song twice is remote – and he was an excellent performer. My mum was thrilled to this day.   

So, I was already predisposed to liking this autobiography since Elton had given us such a professional concert performance and thus, you may not be surprised that I loved this read.

I’m not an Elton John superfan. I don’t have every song on vinyl, I don’t know his music history particularly (outside the typical Top 40 stuff)… so the fact that I really enjoyed this read just underscores how interesting and superbly-written this autobiography was. There was no need for any grammatical nit-picking of any kind, so it was a well-crafted book.

I think what really pulled me into this read was my perception that Elton (in the voice/perspective used in this book) comes across as a pretty decent guy who is an experienced musician who has trodden down some (self-made, at times) hard roads and has learned something along the way. It’s an education that I trusted because, from his recollections in this book, his life has had such twists and turns that it would be impossible to continue being untouched by it all.

And there seems to be everything in this book, from his pretty awful parents and his mum’s (must be) mental illness to his search for love to addiction troubles to where he is now, and the logical and well-organized content flows from one incident to the next. It’s very well done. There’s a lot of content – it must have been exhausting to actually live it! – but it’s never overwhelming and although some of these situations are really negative, it’s presented in a manner by Elton so that you know he knows (and recognizes) how OTT some of this is and that’s how he is. (He’s not arrogant about it, but more as though he rolls his eyes and looks skyward with chagrin when he thinks about his earlier life.)

I just loved this read, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this, early days though it may be, on the Favorites List at the end of the year.

And I’m not the only one who enjoyed this. Here is the NYT’s book review columnist Janet Maslin’s review. And here’s Joe Lynch from the Guardian. Heady stuff.)

The Stationery Shop – Marjan Kamali (2019)

Wandering around the library stacks the other day, I ended up in K’s in Fiction and, in trying to find another book, came across this one and its really lovely book cover. (Gorgeous colors! It mentions stationery!) Not being familiar with either the title or the name of the author, I read the cover copy and was intrigued. It was a library book. It was by a person other than a white one. And I was in the mood for something from another country, regardless which country that was. So – with nowt to lose, I checked this copy out.

So what’s it about? It’s fiction set in Iran in both 1953 and present day (2013), and focuses on the lives of two characters in particular: two young people (in 1953) whose lives were impacted and interrupted by both Iran’s revolution and its cultural mores.

Kamali’s plot revolves around the stationery shop in the title and its bookseller owner as he comes into contact with his customers. It’s quite a clever structure to make the whole plot revolve around this handful of characters who overlap with this bookkeeper in some way, so it was an effective approach.

Two young Iranian lovers arrange to meet and get married at a certain time and at a certain place. To their dismay, their meeting location also turns out to be the same place as where a large political demonstration occurs at that very same time. Chaos ensues, the couple miss each other, wonder what happen but go on to live their lives apart anyway. Much regret of each about the lost opportunity but life sorts itself out – until…. Pivot. Then comes the twist.

Structurally, the book has some jumping around in it, flipping (as it does) from the chaos of the ongoing revolution in 1953 to modern-day Iran and the US, and at first, I had it fairly sorted out but, as the book continued (and I must admit, I let some days pass in between readings), the time jumps were a little disorienting for me. Linked with that, it seemed as though there were an inordinate number of intimately-related characters who kept popping up.

I admit. It could have been my fault for having a Monkey Mind and for letting a few days pass (and brain cells live and die) between the reading. It wasn’t that it wasn’t well written or anything bad like that because when I finished the read, it was as a satisfied reader. So no doubt it’s a good book, but I think I had to sort of gear myself up a bit to refocus on all the strands of the plot and to try and weave some unity out of it all.

Although this might sound like rather a lukewarm review, this was a book that I ended up enjoying after I’d read it all, as opposed to during the actual reading process. I would certainly pick up another of Kamali’s books if that tells you something! 🙂

Top Book Titles for 2019

Like so many others in the book-blog sphere, I enjoy taking a look back at what I’ve read over the past twelve months of 2019 – some have been complete winners and some not, but overall, I’ve been happy with what I’ve read.

Big trends in choosing my titles have been mostly in choosing POC titles and topics and preferably the combo of both titles/authors of color. This has been eye-opening for me, and is a trend that will definitely continue over the future. I’d like to get to the point where I don’t really have to search out names and topics… Until then, I’m going to carry on this special effort to continue that focus until it’s a habit. It’s up to me to educate me, after all.

To the Top Ten Reads of 2019 (in no particular order):

The Rotter’s Club – Jonathan Coe (2001) (F). A novel written around the time that I grew up in England so brought back many happy memories. Plus written in a very creative structure and approach. I have the sequel on the TBR. <rubs hands with anticipatory delight>

Barracoon: The Story of the “Last Cargo” – Zora Neale Hurston (1931) (NF/African-American/History). Just an amazing piece of historical lit… Should be required reading.

There, There – Tommy Orange (2018) (F). An excellent fictional read written about Native Americans in the modern world by a young Native American writer.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – David Grann (2017) (NF/history/Native American). True tale of a series of early 20th century murders in a First Peoples tribe which happened to own large swathes of land with oil reserves on it…

Greengates – R.C. Sheriff (1936) (F). A lovely straightforward mid-century British novel.

Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women – Nina Burleigh (2018) (NF/biography). Very useful in trying to understand (if I can) our perplexing president. If this is how he treats his spouse(s)… <smh>.

The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddartha Muhkerjee (2010) (NF/Science/Medical). Fascinating history and biography of cancer.

Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003) (NF/sociology/African-American/race). (No blog post [only due to job busy] but you might check out this list of related AfAm NF titles I’ve read…) A timely NF that looks at race and how it plays out in the country today. Valuable on so many levels. We also saw the author speak – wonderful as well.

The October Country – Ray Bradbury (1955) (F/short stories/spec pic). A collection of different spec fiction stories written by a master writer.

The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (2015) (F). I know the author for his amazing NF book about a Siberian tiger, but here, he’s writing fiction about the plight of Mexican immigrants… (Interesting to compare this work with the recent palavar about American Dirt/Jeanine Cummins [2020]. See here for an article from Slate about it all.)

The Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (1993) (F/spec fiction/sci fi). Really good sci fi novel by one of the first (and best) sci fi authors of color (also a woman). Try it even if you’re “not into sci fi”. It’s a good read, however you categorize it.

Other annual reading-related statistics:

  • Total pages read: 25,253 (average: 275 pp).
  • Total number of titles read: 94. (Compare with 2018: 77.)
  • DNFs for the year: 4.
  • Male: 42.
  • Female: 41.
  • Mixed gender (e.g. an anthology etc.): 11.
  • POC: 30 (for a total of 32%). Close to one in every three titles. Go me. 🙂
  • NF: 54 (57%)
  • F: 40.
  • TBR Titles: 60 off the TBR (of 64% of the total read).
  • Oldest title: 1836 (Charles Dickens/The Pickwick Papers).
  • Longest page number: The Thornbirds/McCullough: 692 pages.
  • Shortest page number: 32 pages (The Snowman/Raymond Briggs).

Happy new year (and happy reading ahead) to all!