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…

February: 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?

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo (2019)

The Booker Prize winning title for 2019, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Women, Other was an excellent and enjoyable read. Although somewhat complex in scope, the book is made up of short stories, each focused on a British woman of African descent, some related to each other and others not but all with an overlap to someone.

(It’s actually quite a complicated set up, but someone has put together a diagram of how each of the characters related to another, if that helps. It would have been helpful if I’d found this during the read. I’ll try to dig it up online for you… )

So there are twelve characters of a variety of ages and backgrounds. As a reviewer on MookesandGripes writes: each of the four main stories introduces the reader to one of four key figures, and then goes on to introduce the reader to two more key characters associated with each of those four already mentioned.

I hadn’t known about this pattern before I had finished the read, but I do think it would be helpful to keep it mind. I had picked up that different stories mentioned characters who had previously been mentioned, but you do have to keep your wits around to keep track of who was whom with whom. It’s a good book if you don’t – Evaristo is a good writer for certain. It’s just that when you see these interlinking pieces, it elevates the novel to a higher level of appreciation (or at least it did with me).

Another interesting characteristic of the novel is that Evaristo chose to write each of the stories using non-standard English (re: grammar) so there are no full-stops/periods. It’s fine – you get used to it – and I’m wondering if she made that choice to give the book more of a stream-of-consciousness feel. It does feel as though you’re privy to the character’s own private thoughts as Evaristo recounts their narratives in this style.

It’s a strongly feminist book and takes pains (although it’s done seamlessly) to be as inclusive as possible in terms of who each of these female characters represent, socioeconomically, sexually, gender identity, professionally, etc. However, regardless of the demographics given for each character, Evaristo has managed to make each a believable character for me. There was no “checking off a list” feel to the book, in terms of representatives from each of the particular groups. Each was presented “as is” and not “other”ed (re: the title). It was really smoothly written and organized with the message of inclusivity woven throughout the story as opposed to being layered obviously on top.

So, there were lots of things that I really enjoyed about this book, not least the way that Evaristo has managed to eerily and accurately reproduce the exact dialect (and a lot of the vocab) that people in my town had used when I lived there growing up. It was like hanging out with my English friends (in terms of conversational style) and it made the read very convincing for me. Every time I opened up the book, I was typically sucked in to the narrative and didn’t come up to the surface until a suitable breaking point in the structure.

You know, I’m not always in agreement with the judges of the Booker Prize each year but I’m definitely supportive of this year’s selection. Congratulations to the author. To the readers who haven’t read it yet: get thee to a bookstore or library and fix that situation. Prepare to put some focused time and effort into the read and it will repay you many times over.

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!