Patsy – Nicole Dennis-Benn

I’m not quite sure where I found this title (probably on one of my blog-reading adventures) but it sounded very good and my library had a copy so I brought it home.

From Amazon: Beating with the pulse of a long-withheld confession and peppered with lilting patois, Patsy gives voice to a woman who looks to America for the opportunity to love whomever she chooses, bravely putting herself first. But to survive as an undocumented immigrant, Patsy is forced to work as a nanny, while back in Jamaica her daughter, Tru, ironically struggles to understand why she was left behind. Greeted with international critical acclaim from readers who, at last, saw themselves represented in Patsy, this astonishing novel “fills a literary void with compassion, complexity and tenderness” (Joshunda Sanders, Time), offering up a vital portrait of the chasms between selfhood and motherhood, the American dream and reality.

 “But di weirdest t’ing ‘bout life is dat it’s only understood backward. Yuh neva know what’s at di end ah dis tunnel waitin fah you, sweetheart. Now come get dressed. We got life to live an’ rent to pay.” (p. 204)

This was a fast read at first and I really enjoyed the first two-thirds but then… I’m not sure what happened. The last third of the book seemed to be a different quality of writing (and not in a good way). It became sooo over-written in several spots that it became irritating to read which is a shame because the plot was good. I’d been sucked into the narrative of the characters but the questionable writing kicked me out very quickly.

What do I mean by “bad” writing? Let me count the ways:

“She weeps finally, finally with the rage of a woman touching her earlobe for the feel of an heirloom earring and discovering it gone, not knowing when and where it fell, and powerless at this point to find it.”

I know, right? A long and rambling non sequitur…

Or how about this example:

“Patsy pauses, the words bundled in her belly, as lifeless as a still newborn.”

Doesn’t it actually hurt your writing soul to read these sentences? Why would you use this comparison when there has been no talk of babies or infants around this?

The only (very slight) mention of anything linked with the topic of “baby” is “belly” in the phrase that comes right before this one and this image is such a stark negative one for what it’s being used to describe…

AND this book was stuffed with a really heavy Caribbean dialect which was continuously tricky to follow. I can typically do dialect for most books but this one was really hard to decipher. There were times when I had no idea what the characters were yapping on about.

The book, on the whole, had a strong basic narrative plot but my goodness, the last third of it was so overwritten that I almost stopped there. I soldiered on though because (a) I am pointlessly stubborn about some things and (b) it became quite entertaining to see what other writing nuggets I was going to read.

So, in terms of a plot and the actual story, this was a good read. In terms of writing, ummm…..

News of the World – Paulette Jiles (2016)

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Life continues with university classes now back in session – the first class is today so I’ve been busy prepping for that and doing general office-y things that have cropped up. I hadn’t been in the office (officially) since last July (due to all the medical stuff) so there has been quite a bit of catch-up although I have been doing the odd thing here and there during the interim. It’s good to be back as I really enjoy my job and I am fortunate to have really good co-workers and boss. 

Wanting to try something new, I rather rashly signed up DH and me for the local chorale group. (What could go wrong with that?!) 

Turned out that, despite having slogged through years of piano and (briefly violin) lessons, I couldn’t actually remember how to read music or sing, so that activity has been crossed off the list now. I was so out of my depth. I think I had thought that this would be more of a casual sing-along when, in fact, it’s a VERY SERIOUS group full of professional singers. They were friendly-ish, but DH and I decided that we’d rather watch the latest episode of the remake of “The Karate Kid” than pretend to know which page of music we were on.  All is well. Just not what I had anticipated. 😉

Reading-wise: While I have neglected my book-reading, I’ve been tempted (and typically have succumbed) to the lure of trawling on the internet, traveling from various blogs scattered here and there, so I haven’t actually done that much actual reading of books per se. (Must. Break. That. Habit of web surfing.) I place most of the blame on people such as yourself for writing such interesting blogs! 😉 (What a good problem to have!) 

I did just finish a read of News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2016). This is fiction set in 1870 Texas and follows the lives of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and Johanna, a young orphan being accompanied to her relatives in San Antonio after having been kidnapped by a band of Kiowa raiders. Johanna only knows life as a Kiowa tribal member which means that she is surrounded by things that she doesn’t understand or know about — a very fish-out-of-water type of situation. The same can be said for Kidd, an elderly man whose livelihood consists of traveling across Texas giving readings of the latest news to isolated communities. 

And, if you think about it, the state of Texas could also be viewed as being inexperienced, since the book is set around a time when Texas’ own statehood is still quite new… 

This was a good read. Initially, I had been concerned that it would be more of a typical “old people/child relationship” type of story, but it’s much more than that, which was very appreciated by this reader. There was definitely a generational influence in the overall narrative, but I liked how Jiles took that idea and applied it to a larger context. 

Really strong descriptions of Texas and its inhabitants along with some excellent writing, this was a fast and enjoyable read last weekend. Plus – the actual book itself has some lovely production values: deckled pages, French flaps (in a soft covered book) and in a good font. 

I enjoyed it. 

Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights – Gretchen Sorin (2020)

With the world in this state of flux (for all of the many different reasons), I’m really interested in learning more about the history and the lives of the many people who call the U.S. “home”.

At the same time, I’m also committed to reading more BIPOC authors and topics, so toddled off to the library to see what I could track down on the shelves.

“Driving While Black” covers some of the history of American civil rights through the lens of automobiles and their overlap with social history. This was a fascinating read.

As the cover copy states, this book “reveals how the car – the ultimate symbol of independence and possibility – has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing [B]lack families to evade the many dangers presented by an entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open road.”

And although a lot of this history may not have been unfamiliar to me, the manner of how these two topics were combined and presented was eye-opening for me, as a white reader. Through careful documented research, Sorin puts together a thorough timeline of the parallels between the introduction (and subsequent widespread adoption) of the car and the increasing social roles of Black people in America:

Travel for Negroes inside the borders of the United States can become an experience so fraught with humiliation and unpleasantness that most colored people simply never think of a vacation in the same terms as the rest of America.

The Saturday Review, 1950

Geographer Karl Raitz has described the American roadside as a public space open for everyone, but the roadside itself only represented private interests.

This presented a dilemma for Black travelers: sure, you can buy a car (if you can afford it); sure, you can drive your car along the roads for great distances throughout the U.S., BUT if you want to actually stop at any point along your journey, these “private interests” (the hotels, restaurants, rest-stops etc.) are not always going to be welcoming for you and your family.

So, the introduction of the car to Black consumer symbolized freedom, just as it did for other car owners, but only the freedom of driving along the actual macadam. If you, as a Black driver, became hungry or tired and wanted to stop along the way, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. Do you see the dilemma now?

Sorin goes into well-documented depth on this using oral and written histories to bring you, as the reader, into this problematic world. As the twentieth century progressed, American life slowly and incrementally improved for Black families but it was geographically uneven and in irregular fits and starts. Sorin’s decision to intertwine consumer history of the car industry and the social history of Black America made this a riveting read which made me shake my head as the stupidity of racism.

Throughout the twentieth century, America was a confusing mix of integrated and non-integrated places which made traveling by car hazardous for Black drivers without significant preparation.

What were your options for help if you had a flat tire by the side of the road on a highway? Where would your family sleep at night? Have you packed enough food and drink for the non-stop journey (obviously you can’t stop at any old restaurant along the way)? Would your life be safe if you were driving in this particular community after sunset? (There were more than 150 “sundown towns” across the U.S.). And don’t even think about what your choices were if one of your party became sick and needed medical care…)

It is insane that the Land of the Free allowed these horrible constraints on some of its very own citizens. How traumatic for these early Black travelers just to drive to see other family members!

“At the Time of the Louisville Flood” – 1937 photograph by Margaret Bourke-White. (Getty Images.)

You’ve probably heard of the Green Book (link to book review), one of several travel guides for Black drivers on where to go, where to eat and where to stay, but this was just one of several publications that were popular at the time. (Huh. Didn’t know that but it makes sense that Victor Green wasn’t the only one to see the need.)

As cultural mores slowly started to shift and the white-owned travel business saw that more money could be made by catering to Black business, more hotels and restaurants gradually started to cater to these new customers. The Civl Rights Act of 1964 further accelerated this program (although it was achingly slow in parts of the South), but people were stubborn to change and adapt.

The problem of [B]lack business is not the absence of [B]lack support, but the absence of white support.

John H. Johnson, owner, Ebony magazine, 1971.
The Post-Racial Negro Green Book by Jan Miles (2017).

And although life has improved for Black Americans in the 21st century, it’s still got a ways to go. (Witness: police brutality et al.)

In 2017, author Jan Miles published “The Post-Racial Negro Green Book“, which is her take on the historical travel guide but this one is a 2013-2016 state-by-state collection of police brutality, racial profiling and everyday racist behavior by businesses and private citizens. Yikes.

Suffice to say that this was a powerful read for me. It wasn’t perfect in terms of the writing (quite a bit of repetition which could have been caught by a sharp-eyed editor), but the content more than made up for that.

Highly recommended!

Summer mini-reviews

Summer is now here and for me, life has slowed down (but just until I start teaching Summer School). In the meantime, I’ve been focused on learning about racial and social issues and how I can impact those. 

My first step in that plan is to be quiet, listen and to learn, so I’ve been doing a lot of that. On a more practical level, I’m also planning on working some voter registration drives – a cause that I believe will be critically important this autumn. I am cautiously optimistic that perhaps this country’s (and the world’s) social unrest will be the catalyst for some long-overdue societal changes but again – that leads back to the upcoming U.S. election. 

I’d like to really encourage you to take some action in your own community, however you’d like to do that. If you’re interested in registering more voters, then you might follow up with your local League of Women Voters (LWV), a non-partisan non-profit focused on getting voters (of any stripe) signed up ready to do their civic duties. If you happen to live in a mid-sized (or up) city (or near one), I bet there is a chapter near you. Pretty fun and important to do at the same time. 

A tricky (and miniature) jigsaw puzzle completed the other day. 🙂

Moving on, I’ve been reading some books, working on a jigsaw puzzle or two, and messing around in the garden a bit. Just bibbling around really, but it’s been fun and relaxing. Our local gym opened up the other day – thank goodness! – and so we’ve been spending time there, trying to catch up for the previous slacker COVID months when nothing was open. 

I went through a patch when I had a reading block, but that seems to have lifted now, so let me give you a brief taste of some of the titles I’ve finished recently:

Wallis in Love – Andrew Morton. Let me save you some time here. Interesting story but it’s Andrew Morton. He writes for drivel such as the English red-top newspapers so it’s pretty hard to take him seriously, but as a gossipy frothy look at Wallis Simpson and her influence on the British monarchy, it was ok. No one was portrayed well throughout this recounting of this story, but at least the book was grammatically correct. 😉 

Offramp – Hank Stuever. NF travel essays by Stuever who writes a little aimlessly about his journeys to the smaller towns and communities just off the larger highways that crisscross America. I had quite high hopes for this, but it was not to be. Although fairly well written, the essay collection was only tangentially related to the overall theme of road travel and was more of a lame excuse to lump these texts together. Not bad, not great. Just ok. 

Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo. Fiction. Truly excellent. Will definitely make my Top Ten Books of 2020. See my review here and then go and read this book. You’ll love it (but let me know what you think about that last chapter!) 

The graphic novel version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Loved this, although it was a necessarily shortened recounting of the novel’s more-involved plot. Still, a good reminder of Atwood’s plotting excellence and gave me impetus to check out the third volume in the MaddAdam trilogy. 

My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite. A satirical take on what might happen if your actual sister was a real serial killer and you were involved each time with the clean-up and cover-up of the victims. Well written Nigerian title. Good descriptions of life in this modern African country. 

Tomboy – Liz Prince. An autobiographical graphic novel which looks at the role of gender and how its then-limited definitions impacted the childhood life of the author. This might be a helpful read for middle-school-and-up readers who are struggling to fit in with their peers without giving up their own individuality. Good artwork along with the evergreen message of staying true to yourself.

After this string of OK reads, I’m also relieved to report that I’m now thoroughly immersed in the 1946 novel, “The Street”, by Ann Petry, a Black* writer. An early literary thriller and a huge bestseller, this title is notable for being one of the first bestselling novels to be published by a Black female writer. 

Black writing had been published before this, naturally, but the general term of “Black lit” typically referred to only male writing. This was a woman writer who had centered her story in Harlem and featured the hard scrabble side of life. It covers serious issues such as sexism, racism, poverty, and unemployment, but at the same time, the story has a seam of hopefulness and almost optimism throughout the plot. Really good read so far. More deets later.

*Note: I am using the term “Black” in favor of “African-American” since that is the recommendation from the National Association of Black Journalists and the Associated Press. See here for more details.

Mr. Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo (2013)

Wow. I have just finished up my first read of Bernadine Evaristo’s novel called “Mr. Loverman” – and I loved it. There is not one doubt in my mind that this will not make my Top Ten List of books at the end of the year. Right now, it’s tantalizingly close to the top…

Yes, it was THAT good. I enjoyed this read even more than her 2019 Booker-Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, so whatever your experience was with that the highly regarded novel, good or bad, there is an even higher possibility that you will enjoy this novel as much (or more).

Such high words of praise, right? Let me tell you more….

The actual plot revolves around Barrington Jedidiah Walker, a 74-year-old British immigrant, born on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean, who now lives his life in Hackney in London. Barrington (now called Barry) is known for this retro dress sense and as a husband, father and a grandfather. 

He’s been married to wife Carmel for years and has two daughters. 

At the same time as Barry has been married to Carmel, he’s also been living a secret parallel life with his childhood friend and lover, Morris. 

Barry’s retired from his factory job and now has some big choices to make. (And never fear. I’m not giving anything away about the plot here. It’s all on the back-cover text of the paperback I have.)

Barry is a joy to get to know – he is cheeky, mischievous, careful of others’ feelings. At the same time, Barry is deeply flawed in some ways and yet this only makes him even more human. 

He has a grown-up family with wife Carmel, but he’s in love with Morris (and has been for his whole life since he was a child on his island home). His marriage is going into meltdown and Morris would like him to move in with him into his flat. What to do, what to do. 

Bernadine Evaristo, award-winning author.

Evaristo has written this novel mostly from the POV of Barry (with occasional flashes of POV from other characters) and to stay true to that vision, she has written it all in a strong Caribbean accent (mixed up with a bit of London dialect). 

At the same time, the story is also deeply immersed in the older Caribbean immigrant culture of Britain and I found it to be fascinating to see Barry glide in and out of these overlapping environments, each with their own particular set of mores and expectations.

Although this novel is a love story, it also addresses the more weighty issues of prejudice, truth (the definition of truth, to yourself and to others), being a good person, love-is-love, family relationships… It sounds like a very heavy read but through these different POVs, it’s handled with aplomb by the author. 

Barry is hilarious at times. Once I got the hang of his Antiguan accent, I was swept up into the story and stuck closely with him as he tries to figure out what he wants. He’s a caring man – he doesn’t want to be malicious to anyone but he’s old, his family has grown and the marriage seems to consist of constant bickering. 

Morris is his safe haven – but is he willing to risk everything he knows for his childhood friend and lover? 

The only downside I saw in the entire novel was the final chapter. It reads as though it’s just stuck on to the plot at a later date and time in that there is a definite change in the writing style and tone. Barry’s POV remains the focus, but the actual voice of Barry is so completely different. 

It’s set a year ahead of time (I think), and there is the possibility that the characters could have grown and/or matured in some way. The POV just didn’t even sound as if it was originating with the same character.

The writing style (even some of the word choices) seemed rather out-of-character after the previous 298 pages. It didn’t ruin the novel but I was left rather puzzling about why the book ended up like this. 

Despite that little hiccup, I still adored this read. I loved getting to know Barry and Morris, his adult daughters are hilarious in their own ways, and it’s a complex love letter to the city of London and its melting-pot residents. 

Just loved this and am now planning a second read. I’m sure that there were quite a few things that I missed in the first time through… 

Plus – it looks Evaristo has other texts out there to chase down. <rubs hand with glee>. 

COVID Catchup…

Thought I would do more of a roundup post for today, just to catch things up a bit more than they are right now. Pandemic life continues for most of us, I think, along with some protesting and various other sociopolitical ills – but we’ll always have some good books to read. :-}

It’s storm season here in West Texas, which means that hail, thunder and lightning (and rain, of course) are fairly frequent visitors in the late afternoons of early summer.

With the increasing frequency and severity of weird weather here, last Spring we forked out to have a metal storm shelter put into the floor of the garage and last Tuesday, we had enough reason to go into it (both because the weather had potential to be tornadic and also because we needed the practice of using it).

(Above) – The actual metal storm shelter is the white box on the truck’s trailer above. (The guy is leaning on it, waiting to unload the shelter.) See – it’s pretty small. (This was back in February so no leaves on the trees.)

Let me describe this shelter for you: it’s in the photo above so you can see it’s not very big. It’s made of metal and is sunk into the concrete ground of our garage, so it’s close enough to our house for us to nip out there if we need to. Just big enough for 2-3 people (and/or pets).

The Superhero and I had our strategy planned out previously and thought that the storm coming through town had enough potential to be dangerous.

Additionally, we were also listening to the National Weather Service radio and their announcer kept repeating (on a loop) that the storm was favorable for tornadoes (as la Wizard of Oz), that people should take immediate shelter as complete destruction of property was imminent, and that, in fact, a large tornado had been spotted just a few miles away from where we lived. Crikey.

So we scooped up the one cat we could find, shoved her in a carrier, grabbed the German Shepherd and trotted out to the shelter, with the very real concern that a big tornado could fall from the sky and completely obliterate our house and neighborhood at any minute. We’d already put together a storm shelter kit (with the essentials) so picked that up on the way out and then climbed down into this small metal box shelter. 

Storm shelters are not particularly made for long-term (or even short-term) comfort for its occupants. They are designed to withstand incredible EF-5 tornadoes (and their associated weather patterns), so they don’t have any AC or any other creature comforts.

Basically, we were sitting in a hot underground metal shoe box with a frightened cat and a large nervous dog.

It’s pretty strange as there is nothing you can do about anything outside this shelter – you just have to wait, sweating and hoping that, when you slide back the protective top lid, your house is still there when you climb out.

As it so happened, there was no tornado (phew!) but we did have large hail stones (see pic above) and there was terrific thunder and lightning all around us, so I must admit it was slightly nerve-wracking for both the humans and the pets.

Luckily, it didn’t last long and we are more prepared to handle this situation next time. Practice makes perfect etc. etc. Amazingly enough, our roof and cars weren’t damaged in the hail. 🙂

Apart from that, it’s been pretty quiet around here. The Superhero had the week off from work, which was fun, and we finished up some jobs around the house, took Nova Dog hiking in some nearby state parks and piddled around. 

I have also done some reading…. 🙂

COVID has enabled me to focus a lot on my TBR pile (since the library has been closed until early last week), and I’ve really enjoyed reading through some of these long-held but long-neglected titles. First up is a novel about a small of people who pick strawberries in the English fields… 

Published in the UK as “Two Caravans” (but in the US as “Strawberry Fields”), this 2007 novel by Marina Lewycka was a good and fast read. Lewycka is the author of several novels, one of which is the best-selling novel, “A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine” (which also features a group of European immigrants who have come to England to work picking fruit) and so “Two Caravans” follows a similar narrative arc in some ways.

The characters in the more recent novel are a scrappy group of immigrants from Africa, China, Malaysia and Eastern Europe, all hard-working people trying to get a foothold to live the Western life in England. However, their current lives are far from that comfortable dream, seeing as they are being (poorly) paid as farmworkers hand-picking strawberries in the Kent countryside while living in two caravans (i.e. tiny and very basic RV-type vehicles), one caravan for women and one for the men. 

Two caravans, probably similar to the ones that are featured in Lewycka’s novel.

As the small group live and work, they coalesce into a tight-knit friendship of sorts and life is running fairly smoothly for everyone (including their farmer employer), but when the farmer’s wife finds out about her husband’s fling with one of the workers, the jobs evaporate and the small group is forced to travel on the roads of England to find safe haven. 

This most recent novel is more serious, more political and covers substantial issues such as human trafficking, immigration, homelessness and other social ills.

Good read – I rather felt as though the novel was trying to cover too many social issues, but it was still an enjoyable read with some charming characters. 

They Called Us Enemy – George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker (2019)

If you’re on FB at any time, you might look up George Takei (yes, that one) and read his feed because he has some good stuff going on. You also might be interested in looking up this graphic memoir because it’s fascinating and it’s really well done.

Takei is a son of first-generation immigrants from Japan – his father’s parents had immigrated from there and his mother, although born in the U.S., had been sent to Japan to go to school. George (and his young brother and sister) were raised with a foot in both cultures – all U.S. citizens but fully cognizant of their Japanese roots.

(Interestingly, George gets his name from Anglophile father after King George VI and his brother, Henry, is named after King Henry VIII [since he was a chubby healthy infant when he was born]. The sister didn’t get a royal name though, but was named after one of the parents’ friends for whom both the parents had high admiration.)

So, the Takei’s were a typical immigrant family, working hard and minding their own [dry cleaning] business. It was at the start of the American involvement in WWII and although the war seemed distant, all that changed when Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor catapulting the U.S. into this event. It also immediately changed the lives of the Takeis and thousands of other Japanese-American families.

I’d been sort of familiar about the awful history of the U.S. internment (really, imprisonment) of Japanese-Americans at the start of WWII, but reading about Takei’s experience of this was heartbreaking. And the fact that the Powers That Be reacted to an outside force in such a knee-jerk and paranoid way reminds me of another U.S. administration, 70 years later, but who’s naming names? ;-]

George Takei, actor and SJW.

This is a thoughtful read through the memories of Takei from when he was a young boy and from the after-dinner conversations that he has held with (mostly?) his father, it seems. I really appreciated how honest Takei is when he admits that his childhood memories of how fun and novel this whole situation was for him as a kid starkly contrasts with his parents’ more honest appraisal of how this edict uprooted them and forced them to lose almost all their possessions.

Looking back upon this time, it’s quite astonishing that the U.S. government allowed this situation to happen (let alone continue for a few years), but sometimes power corrupts. Hmm.

Good read about a shameful historic time that has led me down a few rabbit holes since finishing it.

February 2020 Reading Review

February has passed pretty quickly for me, but it’s also a short month and smack in the middle of the school semester so it’s not surprising really. Still, weird to believe that Spring Break is just around the corner and then, it’s only a matter of weeks until the summer break. Whoosh. Time does fly faster as you get older, doesn’t it? 😉

My February reading was steady but slow, sadly. The most impactful read for me (as part of Black History Month) was, no doubts about it, Invisible Man by Ellison. What an amazing read. (It’s also a Scary Big Book [in terms of page count – 581 pp], but the story carries you along nicely for the most part.  

I must admit to wading in the weeds of confusion for parts of it, but the big picture is that it’s a memorable read and is a classic for a reason.

If you haven’t read it, do pull this title off the shelf. Just know that there are passages that are a little dense (or perhaps it was me who was a little dense?) Just keep on truckin’ through these and know that it all makes sense in the end. 😉

To the actual titles:

In progress:

  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris (NF/auto) POC
  • Inside this Place, Not of It: Narrative from Women’s Prisons – Robin Levi and Aeylet Waldman (NF/bio) POC
  • Total number of books read in February4
  • Total number of pages read1,229 pages (av. 308 pages)
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction: 2 F and NF
  • Male authors: 4. Female authors: 0. (Yikes.)
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 1 library book and 3 owned books. 0 e-books this month.
  • Books off TBR pile this year: 12. (Go me.)

Plans for March? Spring Break is on the horizon, so very looking forward to that (as are the students!) I’m also going to continue the POC topic/author and the reading-my-own-TBR trends and yet, at the same time, open my reading selection up to the rest of my TBR pile.  There are some other authors I’ve been itching to get my little hands on…

And I’m not sure if I’ve told you this yet, but I’m also on a serious book-buying ban. It started on January 27 and I’m holding out until the end of April. An occasional library book can get thrown in the mix, but for the most part, my focus is on my own TBR. It’s going pretty well so far – only one book purchase and it was for the Kindle. :-}

Onward and upward, my friends.

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (2007)

Continuing the focus on my own TBR, this title floated to the surface as part of the ongoing recognition of BHM and making a concerted effort to read more POC authors and related topics. This title, written by Ethiopian-American writer, Dinaw Mengestu, follows the life of an Ethiopian immigrant and struggling small shopkeeper living in Washington DC’s Logan Circle, a dilapidated but slowly gentrifying neighborhood.

The narrative also draws upon strong themes of identity, of belonging/not belonging, of friendship, money, immigration… The story covers a lot of themes, but it stays connected through the ongoing friendship of Sepha Stephanos, the shopkeeper, and his two African immigrant friends, Ken (from Kenya) and Joe (from the Congo). There’s also an important overlap with Sepha’s new neighbor, white history professor Judith and her mixed-race daughter, Naomi. 

Different though all these characters may be to each other and different though their paths through life are, there are enough commonalities for the reader to understand the overlaps between them – some are more closely overlapped than others – but they are all struggling with the feeling of belonging: to the neighborhood, to the city, to the country… It’s really well written by Mengestu and emphasizes that lonely feeling of displacement, whether you were born in a place or not.

The three African friends (Sepha, Joe and Ken) all met earlier in their immigrant journeys when they were still quite new to the US and each had fled their home countries due to unrest. The one thing that they have in common is that they enjoy passing the time playing their own game of Dictators.

As they hang out together, each pretty lonely and left out from the American life surrounding them, the three men list the many dictators from the African continent, old and new, and vow that the game continues so long as they can continue to list these. However, it’s not played in a mean or thoughtless way. It’s mostly due to their connected African selves, their identities from years ago and the ones that they have not left behind, despite having committed to life in the States. 

When new (and white) next-door neighbor Judith and her young daughter move on to the street, they stick out. Judith’s new home is a ramshackle but large house, and there are weeks of renovations before they move in. It’s also the only house on the block that receives that sort of care from its owner, and so there are numerous reasons why Judith is kept at a distance by her immediate neighbors: she is white (in a non-white neighborhood), her intentions are not well understood, she is far more wealthy then most of the residents (witness the renovations of her new home), and she is an academic (when most residents are working class, if that). She also brings in one of the few children who lives on the street, so there are lots of reasons for her to be viewed with suspicion by the long-time residents on the block. 

So the matter of identity and belonging occurs to the other characters as well: for example, take Mrs. Davis, the elderly busybody widow who watches everyone and their business. She has lived on this street for decades and has seen it go into a decline. She is lonely but doesn’t really mean any harm, but she can’t adapt to the changes as they happen around her, so she is also suffering from a feeling of dislocation and not-belonging. 

Back to the book: Sepha’s business acumen is not that strong and with his store being located in a disintegrating neighborhood (with gentrification moving in very slowly), there is an overall feeling of dread in the story. How long will Sepha’s little shop survive in this section of the city? How will Sepha survive if the store goes under? Sepha’s friends are also surviving on a thin knife-edge, and even though Ken is an engineer, his life is still unstable. The men’s friendship, actually, is the most stable thing in each of their lives and so it plays a really important role for them (although they may not realize it). 

And this ongoing feeling of doom threads its way through the whole plot. There is the gradual building-up of racial unrest in the city (and the country). There is income inequality and all that that brings with it. There is change and instability in the neighborhood which can be hard to deal with for many people (especially if they have no control or impact over it – which they don’t.) 

It’s a powder keg in a way and all it needs is one flame. When Judith’s house is set on fire… 

In fact, the only character who manages to pretty much escape these feelings of loneliness and dislocation is 11-year old Naomi, Judith’s daughter from a broken relationship with a Mauritanian businessman father.  Being a mixed-race child, Naomi is able to float, in a way, between black and white, between new and old resident, between belonging and not-belonging. Although she is really a child, she is actually more immune to these negative feelings of the grown-ups, perhaps because she is not old enough yet to recognize what they mean.

So, there is lots to think about in this book, but don’t let that put you off. It’s also just a plain good read with a story that keeps you turning the pages and wondering about the characters. Mengestu is a good writer (witness his loads of awards) and despite coming out of an MFA program, this writing does not fall foul to the narrative templates that can sometimes arise with such program graduates. This is a good read. Recommended.

The Education of a WASP – Lois Mark Stalvey (1970)

“When this book was first published, I hoped it would soon become only a history of what racism used to be. I feel profound regret that it has not.” Lois Mark Stalvey.

When I was reading through “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race” by Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003) last semester, I found it to be an amazing resource for several things, one of which happened to be a bibliography of further reading. That’s where I came across mention of Stalvey’s book, considered by some to be a historical publishing landmark in terms of sociology and racial awareness in the U.S.

Piqued by the title, I tracked it down in the university library… And then, I even read it. 🙂

A biography of sorts, a journey in many ways, Stalvey’s book recounts her (and her family’s) gradual awareness of racism in its many forms in the U.S. in the 1960s. At first just living on the peripheral edge of racism’s impact, the Stalvey family (who were White and who are led mostly by Lois) slowly become more knowledgeable about the Civil Rights Movement and its importance. Seeing it negatively impact their friends, family and community, this social “awakening” (of sorts) leads to a solid commitment to Stalvey and her husband to become deeply involved in the issue. And involved they get. The family jumps in with both feet first.

This autobiography of a family’s experience of one of the most troubling social ills of our time was eye-opening for me in several ways. I used to think I am quite informed about the issue on the whole, but to actually LIVE it, every day… To commit your family to the cause with such focus is the stuff of legend. The Stalvey family didn’t just walk the walk.

It’s especially amazing when one considers the time period when this occurred. It’s the early 1960s. Racism is rampant throughout the country. Segregation is widespread throughout the American culture and there is a lot of societal resistance to any changing of the ways (notably from the whites). There are increasing pockets of violence and unrest in the larger cities, and the U.S. is facing one of its toughest challenges: how to integrate (or even if they should integrate). It reads as though the place is a tinderbox (which it was in many ways).

As the book continues, you read about the family and their efforts to effect change: among their friends, in the community, and in the larger area of federal impact (such as housing and education). The family face ongoing racist resistance from their neighbors; they lose friends and have to move to different cities from time to time, but their commitment doesn’t waiver. (They are scared. They are worried. But they don’t lose their bravery.)

Looking back at this time from the twenty-first century, it’s very sad and disheartening to see how far we haven’t come. The Civil Rights Movement was more than 60 years ago, and the country has improved in some ways. That’s true. But reading this book was a constant reminder of yet how far the U.S. has to travel to make the promises of yesteryear come true.

This was an astonishing and very sad read for me. It has removed any doubts I may have had about how societally-entrenched racism and other social ills are in the fabric of our world here in America, and I finished the book feeling rather low about any hopes for change in the future.

But you have to pick yourself up, brush yourself down and keep on truckin’. Change comes. It may not come on my timetable, but its forward movement is incremental but inevitable. Educate yourself first. Then do something about the world around you. It’s evolving, but crikey. It’s slow.

Step by step…