Summer Reading List: The African-American Experience

K_Haring_19831

Credit: Keith Haring (1983).

I published a couple of posts the other day about summer reading, one of mostly fiction and then another on mostly non-fiction travel. In reviewing both of the lists, I saw that I was remiss in not recommending many reads from around the world from the POC experience, and so this post is to rectify that.

(Please note that just because these titles are under the POC category does not in any way negate their value. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing to be reminded of the many titles that are far outside the typical Western selection of literature and than what’s on the best seller tables at Barnes & Nobles, and so that is what this post is. Just a signpost of some other excellent reads which may be more off the beaten track a bit… Feel free to add any titles. I’m always open for recommendations!)

For the queens of African-American writing (and superb artists in their own right), I would suggest starting with super stars such as Alice Walker (The Color Purple [1982]), Maya Angelou (who actually I haven’t really read yet, but is on TBR…) and the wonderful Toni Morrison (Beloved [1987], Jazz [1993] or perhaps Sula [1973]).

And for poetry, I happen to love contemporary poet, Nikki Giovanni, while Gwendolyn Brooks is also lovely… What about Langston Hughes? And if you think about it, there’s definitely an argument for looking at rap and other song lyrics as poetry (even though some of the content can be a bit rough around the edges)…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_b49a

Part of a Langston Hughes poem integrated as part of huge public art project at Dallas Fort Worth Airport. Well played, my friends.

More fairly contemporary writing comes from the pen of author Paule Marshall with the 1985 Virago title and collection of short stories, Merle and Other Stories , and I recommend exploring her backlist – Marshall has a wide variety and I’ve enjoyed every one I’ve read from her. These are out in the trusty Virago Press if you see some around.

(Side note: Virago Press is famous for printing neglected works of female authors of the twentieth century, and the books are easily recognizable for their dark green spines — the contents of each book vary widely. Worth seeking out in if you see one in a charity shop or similar.)

For a great contemporary solid read, try  the recently published Homecoming by Yaa Gyazi (2016) or, if you’d rather have a go at some strong short stories, try Z. Z. Packer’s wonderful Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003). Don’t forget the excellent Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) or any of the other works by this author.

The historical experience of African-Americans in the U.S. has been long and pretty awful for the most part, so there are some very tough but fascinating reads about this. Go back in time to the terrible years of slavery, and learn from Solomon Northrup’s 1853 narrative of his life, 12 Years a Slave. If you’d like more NF background into the issue, there are loads of titles out there. I started with this one for a good backgrounder, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Horschild and found it to be a really accessible and useful introduction.

Nella Larson’s 1929 fiction, Passing, looks at life for two female friends in the early twentieth century when people felt that they had to hide their origins in order to live a happy life. (Good read, btw, and will leave you with lots of thinking about it.)

Another excellent read from the early twentieth century, this one with the power of a hurricane, is Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God (1937). (Hold on to your hat for that one as it’s one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time. Highly recommended. Stick with it though… There’s dialect, but you get the hang of it after a while.)

The history of having African-American help is covered very nicely from the perspective in the novel Like One of the Family (Alice Childress [1954]) which explores the divide (obvious and otherwise) between the white families and the domestic black servants that they hire. (This is also a good read as it’s in one-sided conversations….)

Plays of that era are also excellent and powerful: Try A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959) and her follow-up play. (Really good if you can see if in person on a stage. Or check out the 1961 movie of the same name…) For a more contemporary look at life in American, check out Stick Fly (2006) by playwright Lydia Diamond about family dynamics in modern America…

Coming forward in time, there are some really good titles from African authors, among whom would be the Senegalese classic So Long a Letter (Mariama Bâ [1980]) about a first wife who reacts when her husband takes a second wife, or perhaps Blackass (A. Igoni Barrett [2015]) about a twenty-first century young Nigerian man who is born black, but wakes up one day with all-white skin (except for his bottom). How does this impact his life? You’ll have to see….

Mentioned in the other post the other day, I really recommend the Aya graphic novel series by Marguerite Abouret and Clement Oubrerie set on the Ivory Coast in Western Africa, or if you’d like to read a poignant and really funny novel about a young girl growing up in 1970’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), see if you can find Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1989). Great read.

If you travel north a bit from the African continent, you may run across Zadie Smith who has a great collection of work from which to choose… White Teeth is the one that brought her to the fore and the one that I remember the most, but the others are certainly as good.

For a non-fiction focus on the U.S., one of the best historical reads about African-American pioneer history I’ve read (in terms of opening up a whole new world of black history in the US) was Going Home to Nicodemus by Daniel Chu and Bill Shaw (1994) which covers Exodusters and the African-American migration to pioneering Kansas. (Fascinating.) Related to this would be Black Women of the Old West (William Loren Katz, 1995) about the rarely talked-about world of African-American female pioneers who traveled west when the frontier was open. This led me down rabbit holes for many happy hours…

If you’d like to trace more recent history and the absolutely amazing stories of courage with reference to the U.S. Civil Rights fight, you can do no better than reading Sen. John Lewis’ graphic novel series called March. (Volume I, Volume II, and Volume III right now.)

To fully understand and appreciate our great former President Obama, try his fascinating autobiography, Dreams from my Father. Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on right now, it’s a good read about a very smart and level-headed man.

Moving forward in time, there are some excellent African American authors who are very eloquent and vocal about the state of their world.

A really good and passionate start to this would be reading journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work, including Between the World and Me, his essay to his teenaged son on life in the U.S. for an African-American young man, or, if you’d rather read a plea for feminism (through the African-American lens), pick up And We Should All be Feminists by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie (2012). Both strong and provocative pieces of non-fiction writing…

(Coates also has written an impassioned plea for reparations in this article from the Atlantic mag. Totally worth reading if only to make you possibly rethink and reimagine a new future.)

For a shocking and contemporary critical look at how the medical establishment has treated the African-American population, Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington (2007) will leave you shaking your head at the world around you.

In fact, there is so much really good POC literature out there, that it’s hard to choose. What a great problem to have!

Can You Pls Pass Me the Catch-Up?

catch_upI’m not quite sure what it is, but I seem to be in the midst of a Summer Snoozefest when it’s a bit too hot to really do anything major, and nothing seems to be perking my reading fancy. Fussy, I know. Summer time in Texas is underway and in full swing.

I’ve finished some middling reads, although I’m at a loss to explain why these weren’t great as lots of other people have thought just that.

The first is Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. I fully accept the blame for this read not being that satisfying as I’d gone into it thinking it was a collection of short stories, when actually it’s a pretty clever complex novel about WWII.

It’s strange how just one expectation about your book read can impact your real experience of actually doing a read, but it can. Ahh well. You win some, you lose some. I’ve read some of Doerr’s work earlier and had thought it was the Bee’s Knees (see The Shell Collector review), and All The Light You Cannot See continues that trend of being extremely well written. He is a craftsman of a writer, to be sure, and so I think that what threw things off was the rather complicated tapestry structure of the plot when I was rather hoping for a more straight-forward short story read that would compliment my Monkey Mind instead of having to, umm, actually work for the plot. :-)

I know loads and loads of Very Important Readers have loved this book, so perhaps don’t take my word for it…

I also finished up Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett. A short novel – perhaps a long novella – this featured a fairly normal Bennett plot of Haves and Haves Nots up in the Potteries, except this one focused more on the theme of religion a fair bit. The role of the church (and the people who attended) was a central theme, but it wasn’t too heavy-handed. Still well written, but again, I think it was me expecting something else when I was reading it as it took forever for me to finish, and that’s usually a sign of trouble for me, Will Robinson.

So now I’m wheeling around thinking about my next read… 

I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

Slipped by the Goalie…

newbooks_rev

As you can see, one or five books may have slipped between the goal posts in the past week, despite my (definitely absolutely) iron-clad no-buying-books mandate for the last three months.

One was a pressie, three were dead-cheap in a charity shop, and the final one was because I had a weak moment in the bookstore. I had to do it…

(Well, to refuse to do so would just be rude, wouldn’t it?…)

Top to bottom of list:

  • Two Caravans – Marina Lewyska (F)
  • Matilda – Roald Dahl (kid lit)
  • Meet Me in Atlantis – Mark Adams (NF)
  • The Big House – George Howe Colt (NF)
  • All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (F – short stories)

I might have “The Big House” in my TBR shelves, but I couldn’t remember, so bought it anyway. (ETA: I do have a copy. Sigh.) I might even read it with this second copy. <grin>

Other book reviews of authors’ other works are right here:

  • Mark Adams also wrote “Turn Right at Machu Pichu” (NF) which I enjoyed so much that it triggered this purchase…
  • Anthony Doerr also has a stellar collection of short stories published back in 2002: The Shell Collector…
  • Matilda will be a reread but it’s such a fab story that that’s ok with me. Sometimes you need some more Matilda…

 

Suggested Summer Reading…. (Part One)

Summer-Reading-Guide-HEROAs a public service to you (and a rather fun thing for me to do at the same time), I thought I’d gather some of the titles that I’ve read over the years and that seem to have a summer kind of feel…

Just seeing these titles brings up memories of outside fun in the sun and reading inside in the cool, so perhaps you may like some of them for your reading choices this season. (The list is in completely random order, btw…)

I’m not sure that some of these would qualify for the traditional “Beach Read” definition, but they’re enjoyable all the same. (I’d read them on the beach, but perhaps I’m weird!)

And, naturally, I’d love to hear your suggestions (even if your summer isn’t here yet).

Books with a child’s perspective (and sometimes coming-of-age narratives) would also make up quite a few of my recommendations. (Who can forget those days of summer when you’re a kid [if you’re a lucky kid])?

So, to start off, I thought I would begin the list with some more traditional summer-focused (perhaps “summer-feel”) books.

Since I’m in America, I’ll start off with Twain’s two great summer books, Tom Sawyer  (1876) and Huckleberry Finn  (1884). Sure, there are “teachable” moments in each of them, but these just remind me of childhood in some ways. (Admittedly, my childhood was nothing like them as I grew up in Bedford, England, but they’re still good to read. Our town did have a lovely river though… )

Oh, and don’t forget the adorable Anne of Green Gables who will charm your socks off.

A more English-y summer selection could be, let’s say, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908) (which I adore) but which has no blog post (pre-blog). Hmm. May have to reread this little gem again over the next few hot months….  It’s as close to perfect a gentle summer read as anything you’ll find.

For a more caper-ish approach to English summer, try Just William – Richmal Compton (1922), which has some really funny scenes  in it regarding its titular character, William, and some of his adventures… (Plus there is a series of books about him… Lots of summer reading ahead!) Compton also wrote some more adult fiction which others have raved about, so you could check that back-list… Good caper novels are also some of those by John Buchan (who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps et al.)

If you’re more interested in the gently humorous adventures of a particular young bear, then you can’t go wrong with the the Paddington Bear Series as they are set in mostly sunny summers (despite being in England ). Yes, they’re children’s lit, but they are so sweet, and sometimes when it’s 114 degrees outside (as it was the other day), you just want gentle and sweet…

If you’d rather have an arachnid as the star, don’t forget about E. B. White’s delightful (and rather poignant) Charlotte’s Web  (1952).  Sidenote: E.B. White also has several books of well-mannered and pretty gentle essays that are perfect to read on a lovely summer day in a hammock, for example. Try this one for starters: Essays of E. B. White (1977). Reading it is like having a great cup of tea (or glass of iced tea) with an interesting and funny conversationalist.

Ray Bradbury has a couple of strong contenders in this category,  Dandelion Wine (1957) being my favorite. (He also has a sequel of sorts, Farewell Summer  (2006), and it’s almost as good as that first one, but then it gets all weird in the last chapter without explanation, so perhaps a more muted endorsement there.) If you’d like something more challenging, check out Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for a good spec fiction type of read. (Haven’t read his other sci fi titles, but I expect that they are pretty good.)

From English soil, I’d suggest Winifred Foley’s trilogy that starts off with A Child in the Forest (1974), an autobiographical book of Foley’s childhood  of living in a loving but poor family in the forest in Gloucestershire. Marvelous commentary on her life, with some really good and very witty pieces in there as well.

Along those same lines (but with a very different British childhood experience), check out this title, From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties by Philip Oakes (1980) which is another very witty childhood recollection, this time of growing up in an English boarding school.

(Other boarding school stories which are not very demanding reading but would still be fun include Mallory Towers series from Enid Blyton…)

Oh, almost forgot this one: The Railway Children – Edith Nesbitt (1906). (Lots of jolly hockey sticks, how dashingold thing, perhaps a midnight feast or two, and lashings of ginger beer…)

For a great summer read, you certainly can’t go wrong with Laurie Lee’s classic, Cider with Rosie (1959) (pre-blog) followed up with its sequel of sorts, As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning (1969).

For an American perspective of growing up, perhaps you’d like the play, Brighton Beach Memoirs  (Neil Simon (1984), which details the childhood of a funny young man as he navigates those teenaged years on the East Coast during the 40’s…  🙂

(That reminds me: if your community has any local plays, serious or otherwise, they can be really fun to attend and it’s great to see (probably) local volunteers acting their hearts out. Just go with a generous spirit… 🙂 )

Moving into a slightly older age group with the characters’ lives, I’d suggest Seventeen – Booth Tarkington (1914) which covers a gently humorous approach to the tragedies and fragile joys of having your first love. (This is a U.S. book, but the feelings are universal.)

For a complete change of pace but still linking with the topic of coming-of-age/young people, I rather think that Lucy Knisley’s graphic novels have a summer-y feel to them: Displacement and French Milk seem warm-weather to me… Or what about An Age of License: A Travelogue or even her first book Relish?

This leads me to funny (or what I think are funny) books. Have a try at some of these if you’d like to have a good laugh (assuming you have a similar sense of humor as I do):

  • A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson (1998) or any of his earlier works. (He gets crabby and grumpy in the more recent books, but the old ones are still rather fun.)
  • P.G. Wodehouse books are mostly light-hearted summer fun
  • Three Men in a Boat– Jerome K. Jerome (1889) (pre-blog but worth searching out)

The Jerome book is in a diary format with short entries, and if you’re in the mood for some good and pretty funny epistolary (journal/letter format) reading, I can suggest the absolutely gorgeous read, Letters from New York – Helene Hanff (1992).

More diary joy resides in The Country Diaries: A Year in the British Countryside (Alan Taylor (ed.) (2009)) which, just as it says on the tin, covers a whole calendar year of real diary entries about rural living in England from people through history up to the present. An excellent read, and great for picking and putting down, should the summer temperatures affect your concentration…

(You could also try The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diaries edited by Irene and Alan Taylor. More of the same except broader in scope —  a much longer read from a wider selection of sources…)

And Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007) had me nodding with agreement as he talks about how the Queen of England discovers the joy of reading… 🙂

Some other authors with lots of titles that don’t particularly need to be read in order (because – summer!) and that are just plain good and perfect for hot days:

And then don’t rule out the older titles for they also can be great. For example, the long novella/short novel, Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton 1911) is a great read packed with lots of things to think about during and post-reading.

Christopher Morley is a US author, but if you’ve not heard of him, never fear. He’s available on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere, and for just a plain good read of a book about the joys of books and reading, look no further than Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop . *Perfect* for bookie people, these may very well bring tears to your eyes as they are so gorgeous…

English author, T. H. White, is more known for writing about King Arthur and his men, but he does have a gorgeous and poignant back list title called Farewell Victoria (1933) which is a novel following the life of an older character who is struggling to keep up with the process of time at the turn of the twentieth century. (He wasn’t the only one, naturally, as there were/are whole generations with the same struggle.)

I’ll make a break here, but watch out for the non-fiction-heavy book list of suggested summer reading coming soon.

In the meantime, what are your recommendations for some hot weather reading?

ETA: I’ve just noticed that this list of recommendations has very few POC authors or topics in this. I’ll get that addressed soon as there’s a ton of good reads in that category as well…

No Cowboy Post Today…

All is well and Cowboy is fine, but going out of town and having my lovely mum stay with me has put me behind with scheduling real life. We’ve been really busy just hanging out and doing things. More to come, but in the meantime, here’s a photo I took the other day of a stack of foam pieces that just look fantastic….

colors_rev

Normal service to be resumed as soon as possible. Please stay tuned.

A Letterpress Weekend…

 

letterpress1_rev

Very kind and patient artist who was helping us with the new skill…

I’ve recently been itching to do something arty (as in drawing or something along those lines), and to try to scratch that itch, Superhero and I went along to the monthly First Friday Art Trail that is hosted by the arts organizations in our community. It’s a big event and happens once/month when most of the big galleries here in town open their doors on a Friday evening, rain or shine, and you can just walk around and see what’s shaking up in the local arts world. (There are also food trucks, which also helps gets us downtown on those evenings. Yum.)

As we were strolling around, looking at the hundreds of great artworks on display in both indoor and outdoor venues, I caught my eye on a flyer advertising a printmaking workshop for that following Sunday, and having seen some really good letterpress pieces hanging around town, decided to sign up for that afternoon’s activity.

If you’re not certain what letterpress art is, it rather looks like an early example of printing, and it’s a piece that typically comes out of an old-fashioned heavy iron printing press, and is usually heavily reliant on fonts and words of some description. (Naturally, as it’s a LETTERpress.) So off I trundled to see what I could learn.

letterpress2_rev

Some of the letter forms used to make the print on the piece of paper….

It was a very casual workshop set in a really well-lit renovated studio that used to be a former gas station (or maybe an old fire station) years ago. Now it’s this great creative space with really good light and with loads of space to spread out and do artist things.

It was a small workshop, only a few participants, and led by two printmaking artists who were very patient at all our questions and inquiries as we learned the process. It’s typically used for broadsheets (large pieces of paper) only printed in very small quantities. You may have seen examples for graphic pieces or perhaps a short poem with plenty of white space surrounding the words. I’d been dying to have a go at this, so was pretty excited to get to do it.

letterpress_workshop_June2017Seeing as it was more of “experiential” workshop than a 100% serious “teaching” workshop, we all got to try our hands at creating some postcards and notecards which, obvs, was very exciting because – ohhh. Writing materials! Each piece was pre-cut with a matching envelope with really good weighty paper that the ink would not be able to bleed through. (Pet peeve.)

(If you’re curious about my results, check out the pic on left. Most of playing with space and graphic design, so no worry if they don’t make much sense.)

Such good fun, and although it’s incredibly unlikely that I will ever get my own printing press (big, expensive, bulky), I had a great time and it really scratched my creative itch which was good. If you ever get the opportunity to try it, it’s pretty easy and extremely satisfying. (Instant gratification. Hooray!)

We’re just about to head off to Albuquerque, NM, and drive with my mum and sister around to look around so things might be quiet here on the blog for a couple of days. Fear not. I will return, and then we can catch up with reading, news, and all those other things that make a life well-lived.

 

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 190

cowboy_peanut_butter_cup

Things on Cowboy’s Head No. 190: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

Background Note: Cowboy is one of our cats who showed up out of the blue one snowy January day seven years ago. Since then, she has made us her Forever Home (which works with us). She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot (Olympic-level) and she eats a lot.

All of these points are helpful with this project that I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

Where in the world…?

hello-600x400Well, hi. I’m here in the world, but have not been able to work on my blog with the regularity that I like due to overload at work and home. Spring tends to be the busy time at work, and then in my non-work time, I’ve been researching a trip that I’m taking with my lovely old mum and twin sister which is fun but does take up some time and energy. (It’ll be worth it in the end, for sure.)

And you know – I have been reading. I’m just about to finish up a non-fiction called “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” by medical scholar Harriet Washington. Goodness me. This has been a very difficult and serious read, not because the content is complex but because the content is true and almost too horrible to contemplate.

Washington’s thorough research seems to cover almost every instance of when the U. S. medical system has experimented on the African-American population over the years, with the (white) medical establishment doing everything from giving an unnecessary and unwanted HIV vaccine to healthy infants (without the parental consent) to digging up bodies to sell for dissection at medical schools, from lying to study participants about receiving treatment (the infamous Tuskagee study) to hideous other well documented incidents of other abuses to a population with no recourse to change any of this.

Obviously, this is a tough read for me (as it would be to anyone), and I’ve had to take some breaks – how can people be so horrible to each other (specifically to African-Americans)? – and at the same time, I think it’s important to know this history, and I’ve also been under a tight deadline to finish this since it’s an unrenewable inter-library loan. (And yes – I could have forked over the cash to buy my own copy, but I’m on a book-buying ban AND I’m learning that I’m better as a one-book-reader than trying to juggle several).

Long story short – it’s been an intense reading week and so not much time or energy for putting together a blog post. But trust me – one will be coming on this particular read as I think everyone who is aware of social justice in any form should learn about this issue. One must know the past to influence the future, I think.

I’ve also been reading “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities” by Rebecca Solnit which is a series of hard-hitting essays on how activists have changed the world for better, even when it’s tough to see the progress. (It’s been helpful to balance the terror that has been coming out of the WH lately.)

So – some hard hitting books here, and once I’m finished with the Washington book, I’m probably going to be heading for some lighter reading to balance things out. It’s astonishing to me that there are years and years of this documented medical abuse and yet no one did anything about it. No wonder that the African-American community tends to stay away from the American health care system. I would as well if I knew that history.

So – that’s where I am at right now. What’s new, Blue’s Clues?