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.

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.

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?