Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler (1993)

Image of book cover for Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.

Following on with the POC reading theme and wanting some dystopian world to read about, I picked up Parable of the Sower (no “The”?) by Octavia E. Butler. Written as the first of a two-book series, this sci fi novel was published in 1993, and received a lot of critical acclaim including being selected as the 1994 NYT Notable Book of the Year (along with other lit awards). 

So – all signs pointed to a good read (as was an earlier of another Butler book) and I’m happy to report it was – enough so that now I’m searching for the second title (Parable of the Talents). (My library doesn’t seem to have that title but I’m probably going to have to take advantage of their great interlibrary loan program since I haven’t seen it on the shelves yet.)

(Random aside: In fact, there was also supposed to be a third title to make it in a trilogy, but it seems that Butler had serious writer’s block about this, and although she started this third novel a few times, it never materialized into a finished product. (However, I totally get and respect the writer’s block problem. No problem with that. 🙂 ))

The plot for this particular spec fic/sci fi read revolves around a young woman (variously called “girl” and “woman”) called Lauren Oya Olamina, who lives in the U.S. (or what used to be that nation) during the 2020s.

(This is not so far into the future as to be unbelievable and was one of the many points that really sold the novel to me. I love it when people invent worlds just a squidge off-center from real life as it is right now. Plus – I love that Butler is sensitive to the vocabulary she uses to describe her characters.)

Back to the book: Lauren has been living with her mum and dad and sibling in a small community, gated and walled to protect them from the marauding aggressive outsiders who surround them, trying to survive in the external extremely dog-eat-dog world caused by governmental collapse and all other economic and societal systems. 

As the troubles start to move closer to her small community, Lauren starts to seriously plan to move north to keep in front of these dangerous gangs. But how to do that?

Another new wrinkle has the introduction of new street drug called “pyro.” Pyro had the effect of making the act of setting a fire akin to the experience of really good s*x for its users, and so, of course, to “chase the dragon,” lots of these outside marauders end up being quickly addicted to it, making life difficult and challenging for everyone else. 

Along with this increasingly unpredictable situation is the fact that Lauren also possesses hyper-empathy, a human condition thought up by Butler which gives the individual the ability to feel the pain (and other sensations) from people she witnesses. Thus, if someone close to her vicinity gets hurt, both that person and Lauren experience the same amount of pain even if Lauren was only a spectator at the incident…

This can make it tricky for Lauren to be really effective when someone is very hurt as both she and the patient may be incapacitated at the same time – another complication to consider for both her and any future travelers in the group on her already-precarious northward journey.

Fully aware that the future task (and all its dangers) will be easier if she can get a small group together, she invites the brother of a neighbor along to add power in numbers. Planning continues apace, but when the pyro vandals burn down her own home (and others) which ends up killing most of her family (and that of her friend) one night, the goal to migrate north to safety gets moved up sooner than originally planned. It’s too dangerous to stay where she is right now…

Another great twist for this fast-moving plot is that there is also a vast shortage of water, so it’s an expensive but necessary product and has to be used carefully. This situation doesn’t help the pyro problem (not enough water to put out the frequent fires, people dealing with scarcity and all its related issues), and so the whole situation starts to get a little incendiary for all. (See what I did there? 🙂 )

With nothing for which to stay, the small group starts to journey north to reach Washington or Oregon where it rains more, pyro is not yet a “thing”, and life is (hopefully) not quite so difficult.

The plot then follows the ragged group as it gains members (and loses some) and treads along the miles of abandoned highways in their efforts to reach their own promised land up north. And how does it end…? You’ll need to read it to see! 🙂

(You know, this novel reminded me in some ways of the poor old Joads in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” (1939) which describes a similar quest to reach the promised lands of California. I’ve read Grapes quite a few times, but it was mostly during grad school and that was a LONG time ago. Maybe I should refresh my memory to see if there are more overlapping homages to Grapes or other books in this Butler title…)

An excellent read, whether you dig sci fi or not… This might also be a really good book for someone not familiar with spec fiction in which to dip. There’s no robots, no Star Wars, no dragons. Just a good solid narrative arc that really made me care about the characters and pulled me in as a reader for a couple of days. Recommend this.

For another Octavia E. Butler read, try Kindred (review).

The New Moon’s Arms – Nalo Hopkinson (2007)

Image result for the new moon's arms

Having frequently heard of Nalo Hopkinson as a sci fi/speculative fiction author, and since I was in the mood for that sort of read, I checked out this title from the library. (I’d also been looking for a good fiction read by a POC author as well, so this ticked that box very nicely as well.)

So, not quite sure what to expect since Hopkinson was a completely new author to me, the first chapter got off to rather a rough start. OMG. It was so confusing – people change names for no apparent reason, there’s magical realism (which I wasn’t expecting), and there are animals who might (or might not) be mermaids/merpeople in disguise. 

So, taking a deep breath and really liking how Hopkinson writes, I soldiered on and interestingly it all got sorted out by the end of the second chapter. So – heed this warning. That first chapter is worth sticking with as the plot sorts itself out in the end. (And I must admit – the fault may have been mine, but just in case…) 

To the book itself: The narrative arc follows a redemption story, really, with a pretty unlikable and prickly character (she who changes names in the first chapter) and what happens when she takes in a child she finds on the beach of her Caribbean (or similar) island. 

Image result for nalo hopkinson
Nalo Hopkinson. (Picture credit.)

Calamity (also called Chastity at certain parts) is dealing with two big situations at the moment. One is the death of her father (from whom she’s been estranged since her teenaged years) and the other is that whenever she has a hot flash due to menopause, her finger tips tingle and her long-lost childhood ability of finding lost things comes alive. The things found range from a blue and white plate from her childhood to an entire grove of cashew trees that materializes one day outside her house to the mysterious beach child with sea shells in his/her hair… 

At the same time as all this is going on, Chastity/Calamity’s also becoming more involved with the issue of the group of particular rare seals who live on one corner of her island home. She makes friends with a seal researcher and so throughout this narrative, there’s this collision (of sorts) between the roles and importance of science and myth, of magical realism and reality, of things unexplained by rational logic. 

Interestingly, there are collisions of other sorts as well: the protagonist has ongoing tussles with her relatives over various points; the arrival of the beach child causes concern for all when Calamity/Chastity decides to look after him/her; there’s discord between the protagonist and her father; there is the struggle at that point where the sea overlaps with the land, with science and magic… This turned out to be such a thoughtful read for me, so it was much than “just” magical realism/spec fiction. 

I’m not typically that huge a fan of magical realism, but this is mostly a straightforward drama with sprinkles of magic through in along the way, so I found it more palatable than I thought it was going to be. (I had it categorized as a broccoli book, but it was actually much better than that perception.)

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this read and thought that this was really a well-written book. One of the Goodread reviewers described the writing as almost liquid in a way, and that’s exactly how I viewed it. It’s a smooth read, like a stream running through rocks and roots – there are obstacles to face, but how they are handled by the characters runs really fluidly. 

This turned out to be really good read and I ended up completing it in two days (which is fast for me). I’m also convinced enough to look around and see what other library titles by Hopkinson are available. She’s that good. 

If you’re not familiar with Hopkinson, I recommend taking her work for a spin. It’s a deceptively easy read that will leave you with lots to think about. 

Travel: The Civil Rights Movement of Memphis

Relating back to our Spring Break trip to Memphis:

We not only went there for Elvis and the other musical connections, but also because it is home to the National Civil Rights Museum and the historic Lorraine Motel, outside of which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a sentinel event in the history of civil rights in America. 

Although I’ve lived here in the U.S. for a long time now, I’m still continually surprised by how much life is impacted by racial issues in this country. I know that I shouldn’t be that surprised – after all, the U.S. has had a long, difficult and complicated history of race relations and TBH, England was also complicit in that trade, so it’s not as though England is above that. It just seems to be much more of a recent event that impacts ordinary everyday life, but perhaps that is just me who feels this way. (Very well could be.) 

So it was important to me to make time to visit and pay homage to the city which played an integral part of this movement, so off we trundled (via Uber) to the National Civil Rights Museum, a modest and rather unassuming building that is added to the original site of the Lorraine Motel (including the marked balcony where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1968.) 

You do have to make an extra effort to get to this site, as it doesn’t seem to be very close to any of the other attractions, but I could be mistaken on that. (It just seemed quite a long drive in the Uber.)

It’s in part of the older section of Memphis with lots of red brick buildings and smaller roads, but despite this location, the area was busy with tourists. Not a whole ton of places to sit down and have a cup of coffee or anything, so might want to keep that in mind when you’re dropped off there. (I think there was a vending machine, but there was definitely a very limited selection if you need a respite and some munchies.) 

But we weren’t there to eat. We were there to pay our respects to a fallen civil rights icon, and so to be at the actual site of one of the most important civil rights events in the nation was very impressive. (We also happened to be visiting around the same date in the calendar only fifty years later.)

The Lorraine Motel’s exterior has been kept exactly the same as though time has stopped, and even includes period-appropriate cars that sit in the parking lot under the balcony and the rooms. There’s a huge permanent wreath in that location, and it’s really quite a place for awe and respect with a rather hushed and well-behaved crowd around it. It’s more of a hallowed ground than tourist haven, and generally, people seemed to appreciate that. (I was pretty impressed with this, to be honest.) 

Although you can’t actually go into the hotel room, you can visit the neighboring museum to learn more through interactive exhibits. Inside the museum, it’s not as big as I had expected but the exhibits and general curation were to a high professional standard. I rather get the impression that this museum is a labor of love from a small community group rather than a big museum association. That doesn’t dilute the message in any way, but may be one explanation for the size. I’m not sure. 

The message of the civil rights movement is conveyed through mostly displays and it can take as long (or as short) as you’d like as you are given time to consider your thoughts in relation to the exhibits. It’s a steady stream of visitors and I recommend that you don’t be in a big hurry when you visit here as there is a lot of moseying around (at least when I was there). Plus – school kid groups as well, so there’s quite high traffic. 

However, don’t let that put you off. The museum is worth visiting, and once you see the location of King’s murder and can put it into context with the rest of the civil rights history, it’s a powerful experience. 

So – that was a good and thought-provoking afternoon. 

We also visited Beale Street that day, an old wide street that has some really interesting history, but I think it’s more of a nightclub scene now than anything else. (Some interesting public art displays as well as one of the most curious general merchandise stores I’ve ever visited, but you might want to stay aware as we came across some rather rough-looking people as well.) 

So, our overall experience of Memphis was really good, and I really recommend a visit if you’re interested. What really elevated the trip was the fact that everywhere we went, we were met with kind and generous people. Honestly – it was the people who made the difference here. 

For our other Memphis shenanigans, check out this post.

March 2019 reading review…

March passed by in a flash and that speed-of-light passing was reflected in my reading totals for the month. At first, I thought this low number was quite strange, but when I look back at other past March reading totals since I started teaching, I can see it’s historically this way. I think I forget just how busy and occupying teaching can be sometimes. Plus – there were Spring Break travels!

Still, no worries. 

The reads for March 2019 included:

And wow. No review blog posts. Gasp. Never mind. I’m going to do a recap post with some reviewlettes in a bit to get me back up to speed… 

So to the numbers:

  • Total number of books read in March 20195
  • Total number of pages read 1,219 pages (av. 244). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fictionfiction / non-fiction.
  • DiversityPOC. 2+ books by women. (The + is because I read a couple of anthology-type books which included both male and female authors.) 
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books and e-books.

Plans for April include continuing the POC author/topic focus, finishing up a read of a teaching skills book, and placing my focus back on my own TBR. 

Elvis Presley, Reluctant Rebel: His Life and our Times – Glen Jeansonne, David Luhrssen and Dan Sokolivic (2011)

I happen to be visiting Memphis (and Graceland) over Spring Break next month, and in preparation for that trip, I thought I’d look for a good bio about Elvis at the library. There were a couple, one of which looked very serious and intimidating, so of course I chose the other one. 🙂

I’m not the biggest Elvis fan in the world, but I grew up hearing his music and watching a few of his films, and I well remember that day when Elvis died in the ‘70s. So my thoughts of him are a tangle of Elvis in Hawaiian clothes or being rather overweight in a white rhinestone-sparkly outfit. I know, however, that there are people on this planet who live, breathe and die Elvis… (Hoping to rather see some people like this at Spring Break!) 

LOS ANGELES – APRIL 1964: Rock and roll singer and actor Elvis Presley in a movie still with a woman on the set of ‘Blue Hawaii’ at Paramount Pictures in April of 1961 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Going to Graceland seems like a very American pilgrimage to do, especially for my English mum (who I’m meeting there). My mum was around the right age to revere Presley (late teen/early 20s) and she probably wasn’t a SuperFan, but I know she knew his songs. 

So, never one to turn down American kitsch when it comes my way, I’m looking forward to the adventure. 

To the book: It’s written by three guys, two of whom are in academia (Ph.D. and/or doctoral student) and one a music journalist, but all three are very interested in the King of Rock and Roll, but mostly, their focus is on his music. 

(Editorial aside: What was pretty interesting was that the writing styles throughout the book were all very consistent. Sometimes, when you have multiple authors doing separate chapters, the styles don’t mesh but whoever edited this book deserves kudos for making this not the case for this title.)

‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”
Sam Phillips, recording studio executive.

It’s quite a short read for the life of someone who led such a meteoric life, but this is balanced out with the substantial bibliographies at the end of each chapter and at the end of the book (for further reading). However, what I found really appealing about this was that it was not just a straightforward biography (i.e. Elvis was born, he lived, he died). 

This looks at the life of Elvis via the perspective of the huge influence he had on American (and global) music and culture during his career while also considering who influenced the man himself. 

I don’t know if perhaps I’ve been pretty dense about this, but I hadn’t realized until now quite how much of an influence the African-American culture and music were on Elvis, although now I look back at it, of course it’s pretty obvious.

In fact, Elvis wasn’t even the first white singer to sing blues music, but he was surely around the beginning. (Actually, Elvis first gained attention for singing country music and its cousin rockabilly, but he was also influenced by the smooth crooning of Perry Como, Bing Crosby and the like. It was a huge mashup of musical influences.)  

Bought up in Mississippi, Presley’s mother and father were poor and worked in the fields picking cotton alongside the many African-Americans who were also employed in that manner. 

Mississippi was originally the location of the biggest slave market in the country, and was a hub for both industry and immigration. It had been one of the way-stations along the route for those African-Americans who were moving to the North as part of the Great Migration, and thus, the Mississippi Delta is one of the birth places for blues music. 

(Interestingly, the Great Migration also included large numbers of poor white people, including the Presley family. Although born and raised on the “wrong side of the tracks” of Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis ended up living in Memphis, Tennessee, where his family had moved trying to find a better life.)

Elvis’ parents were a hard-scrap couple, his mother employed at a shirt factory and his father with blue-collar jobs (via the New Deal) along with some involvement with bootlegging, and in fact, one suggestion was that his father’s activities with that was one of the reasons for the family’s move to Memphis. 

As common in the South, religion played a big role for the family and, despite living during one of America’s most racially charged periods of time, the Presley family did not hold racist attitudes to others. (Perhaps because of the constant exposure to their neighboring African-American families as friends and co-workers.) This close proximity also led to Elvis being exposed often to the gospel music and blues of his friends in the neighborhood. 

The Great Depression had ended just a few years before, WWII was a recent memory, and being the South, the centenary of the Civil War was close by, so it was a time of change for many. Elvis’ father had been charged with a poverty-motivated crime and sentenced to three years which caused a lot of financial hardship for the family. 

So, being of low income, their small home had no electricity or plumbing, but they could afford a battery-powered radio which was how the small Elvis was exposed to all these influences. Curiously, Elvis also became a huge fan of comic books, especially those of the superheroes like Captain Marvel. (Their capes became an integral part of his stage costumes in later life.) Huh. I hadn’t put that together…

(And so it goes on. This was a great read. I had no idea that Elvis led such a fascinating life. 🙂 )

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History – Vashti Harrison (2017)

I happened to catch this title in a display for Black History Month at the library, and curious, picked it up. My own knowledge of notable African-American women was limited, shamefully, but I knew that there were loads of inspiring and not-quite-so-famous women role models out there. Who would be included in this title? Let’s see…

Among the forty or so trailblazing women, there was Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895). In 1860, she applied to the all-white New England Female Medical College where she was accepted and graduated in 1864. Out of a total of approx. 500,000 physicians across the country, only 300 were female physicians, and out of that number, Crumpler was the only African-American woman. In. The. Whole. Country. (Can you imagine how hard she had to work in this world?)

Crumpler focused on women’s and children’s health, and published her own textbook, A Book of Medical Discourses, in 1883. (View the book here.) Wowee.

…There was Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) who was a junior high school teacher for 35 years, as well as an artist (at a time when African-American people did not have many rights). She was a leader in the Color Field Movement which created paintings using bright blocks of color and was an important influencer in art. (Rothko was influenced by Thomas.)

Apollo 12 – Splashdown – Alma Thomas (1970).

—There was Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), whose poetry I had heard of but whose personal life I was unaware. She published her first poem when she was just 13. After publishing books of poetry, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, the first African-American ever to earn that honor.

—There was Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983) who was a social psychologist and counselor. Educated at Howard University (where quite a few of these forward-thinking leaders were educated at different times), Phipps Clark is notable for designing some research on children and how they see the world.

Called the Doll Test, researchers would give children, both black and white, dolls from which to choose in answer to some questions. After being asked questions along the lines of “which doll would be nice?”, Phipps Clark’s research showed that African-American kids who attended segregated schools would choose the white dolls for the positive characteristics that the questions asked, and the African-American dolls for questions as “Which doll is mean?” 😦

Unsurprisingly, these kids had really poor self-esteem of themselves and of others of the same race. This research became the basis for the 1954 legal case that changed America: Brown vs. Board of Education, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

And the list goes on and on of notable and extraordinary African-American women who are just not talked about when they should be household names. Every page introduced me to someone who either I’ve never heard of or didn’t know much about, and one of the best things was the Harrison has drawn each of these figures with the same face, to allow young readers to imagine their own faces in a similar position.

This was such a lovely book, and I hope it’s widely available in school libraries across the US. I learned so many new names to learn more about. I bet you will as well.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” – Zora Neale Hurston (1931)

As part of Black History Month (and part of my ongoing goal to read more diversely), I saw this title on a blog somewhere (not sure where), but it seemed to align perfectly with my reading goal. Plus it looked fantastically interesting, so I found a copy at the library and set to reading it.

Barracoon is the name for a type of hut that was used for the confinement of slaves and criminals, and this book features remarks from interviews which Neale Hurston had with an 86-year-old former slave called Oluale Kossula. His slave name was Cudjo Lewis, and he arrived in America from West Africa where he was captured and brought across the sea on Clotilde, the last ship to cross the waters for the transatlantic slave trade.

Written in 1931 (but only published quite recently in 2018), Neale Hurston was at the start of her career as an anthropologist when she was tasked by her boss, Franz Boa, to meet and interview an 86-year-old former slave, one of the few survivors who could remember and then talk about his journey from Africa. (It’s astonishing to me that there was actually a living person with this memory back in the twentieth century. In my head, slavery happened yesteryear and ages ago, but obviously, I was wrong on that.)

Despite slavery having been deemed illegal in the US, Kossula was snatched from his African village and enslaved in the US in 1860. He was trapped as a slave for more than five years, when he was released and with others, worked to establish a community called Africatown in Alabama, a place where the other survivors from the Clotilde could live and work.

As Neale Hurston gradually gained the trust of Kossula, she was given more pieces of his history. Kossula was understandably not that trusting at first, but slowly and without rushing the process, Neale Hurston sat with and listened to this remarkable old man. Recalled in a heavy dialect that’s written almost phonetically, I could almost hear this old man recount his life in his accent.

It’s not that easy to follow, but you get the hang of it after a while and being able to “hear” his voice (via the writing) adds a level of intimacy that perhaps you wouldn’t be able to get in any other way (especially now with Kossula long gone from this earth).

Some of the freed slaves who lived in Africatown.

Without getting in the way of Kossula’s memory, Neale Hurston does a remarkable job of letting him tell his own life story without the need to be a filter for him. His story requires no translation, but it’s all the more remarkable when it’s “heard” in your head as his accent.

What makes this a stand-out account is that Kossula still has memories of his growing up in a small African village so it’s a more immediate account of a slave’s journey than perhaps other first-person recollections of slave life (for example, Frederick Douglass or Solomon Northup).

Kossula’s memories of being captured and taken to the ship with a long and harrowing journey ahead of him is detailed and immediate. Since his memories are personal, the descriptions of the ship journey and his slave life are all the more powerful due to them being recent memories for him.

An NPR review puts it best when it describes this book as being not only about the brutality of slavery in this country, but also about the emotional toll of being taken away from your home and own language, of being lost and losing almost everything. It’s a multi-layered recollection that is all the more powerful for being so personal.

This is a tough read due to its focus on how inhumane people can be to others. But it’s also a powerful read to hear a man’s own words describe his journey from freedom to captivity to freedom again.

For a review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Eyes were Watching God, check here.

See Now Then – Jamaica Kincaid (2013)

Going along my TBR shelves and looking for my next read, I came across “See Now Then” by Jamaica Kincaid, which was her seventh novel. I’d not heard of the title, but have had some good reading from two of her other novels (see Annie John [1985]) and Lucy [1990]), and was hoping for a similar experience with this novel.

WARNING: Slightly grumpy review ahead. You may want to avert your eyes.

I do have to say that this was not the easiest read in the world. It did have all the other ideal characteristics checked off for a reader like me: good quality paper, nicely sized font, and a novel from the experience of a POC author. However, what made it seem rather hard for me to follow was how the book was written: it’s in a solid stream-of-consciousness with never-ending sentences making few paragraphs so the reader is faced with large blocks of text (even if it is in a nice font on lovely paper). Plus, when you add to that the fact that the whole book is focused on Time (with a capital T), and you have one rather confused reader.

(In fact, Kincaid admitted in one of the interviews, “The one thing the book is, is difficult and I meant it to be.” The NYT review described it as “not an easy book to stomach” and “the kind of lumpy exorcism that many writers would have composed and then allowed to remain unpublished…It asks little of us, and gives little in return.” Ouch. )

The basic plot revolves around a family with the last name of Sweet  (husband, wife, two adolescent kids), but the surname doesn’t fit: it’s a family rife with problems. The husband hates the wife, the wife knows this but doesn’t seem willing or able to address it, and so most of the novel is written via the thoughts of the unhappy couple. (It’s not a cheerful novel, to say the least.) 

And the couple is really unhappy all the time, judging from the continuous stream of thoughts that is reported. It’s rather a grinding experience, really, and although it’s a pretty short read, it’s not an easy read due to this incessant negativity stemming from both people. (The kids aren’t that happy either.)

I’m not even sure why I kept reading it because it was a solid broccoli book – even worse, it was a solid raw broccoli book. There was no joy anywhere in the novel (apart from my own when I turned the last page). Most reviewers seem to believe that the plot is strongly autobiographical along with being quite an angry read, but Kincaid has denied that charge. (Still, quite a bit of the narrative plot does seem to track along with her own personal experiences though.)

Grumpy review finishes here. 🙂

So – quite a bitter read that was challenging at the same time. Phew. I’m glad I read it, but I’m even more glad that it’s over. I’m pretty sure that I’m over Kincaid’s writing now, but there are lots of other great POC authors ahead. Onward and upward to the next book.

If you’re interested in a couple of other Kinkaid reads for which I felt more positive, you might want to try Lucy (2002) or Annie John (1983).

This is part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month (in the U.S.)

Catch up time…

catch_upLife has been a bit busy lately, so in order to get caught up a bit, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of what I’ve been reading lately. Please don’t think that just because these titles don’t get their very own blog post, these titles are not that great. They are awesome, but in the interests of time and resources, I thought a brief mention would be better than no mention.

Back in September, I finished up a powerful read of “Warriors Don’t Cry”, a recounting of when Arkansas was forced to desegregate its Little Rock Central High School, much to the dismay of a lot of people. There were supporters, naturally, but this is from the viewpoint of one of the young high school students who took courage to new levels when she decided to stick with the desegregation process, scary though it was.

Reading just how badly people behaved during this  time period was heart-breaking and stressful. There was a band of six high school students, all African-American, who were selected to be the pioneers in integrating their school, and once I had read about how just plain horrible some of the people (community adults, teachers and students) were to these brave students, my heart went out to them.

It’s an amazing read that takes you into the very heart of a reluctant Arkansas city’s forced 1957 racial integration of one of its largest high schools, and it shocked me to learn how mean and threatening people were towards people of African descent (and those who supported them).

The author, Melba Padillo Beals, was a fifteen-year-old student at the time, and her recounting of this terrifying time when she was trying to get her education is shocking. (At least it was to me. I knew things were tough for African-Americans during this time during America, but this shows to what levels the opposition stooped to do – against high school kids!)

Picture1

Shameful and rather difficult to read, but not half as difficult as it must have been to actually live in those times. A tough but necessary read, especially in the atmosphere of today where it seems as though America is going backwards instead of forwards.

(Linked with this topic is also a short book of essays I’m reading that argues that America is moving towards resegregation… More to come.)

Kaffir_boyWanting to read more about racism, I picked up “Kaffir Boy “by Mark Mathabone (1986), a title that’s been on the TBR pile for quite some time, this one about South Africa’s time of apartheid and how one young black man struggles to escape. This was another toughie to read. It doesn’t gloss over the hardship of life for black Africans who have to live under apartheid, and once you’ve read these descriptions of living in a black township at that time, you realize that this kid’s escape to a better life was actually even more of an achievement. It’s sickening that the world allowed this government to continue with apartheid for as long as it did…

And then, since I rather needed something a little more cheerful to read, I did a quick reread of a collection of Atlantic articles by David Grann called “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” (See review of an earlier read here.)

Another really enjoyable and well-written read about how strange people can be across the world sometimes. 🙂

 

Bailey’s Cafe – Gloria Naylor (1992)

naylor1A recent find at our local FoL Spring Book Sale, this was a really good read and was actually just what I was looking for when I picked it up. I’ve heard a lot of talk about Naylor’s more famous book, “The Women of Brewster Place” (1982) and had originally gone looking for that title, but when I couldn’t find that one, this title popped up and into my grubby mitts and for once, I actually read a book that I had bought the same weekend that I had bought it. (A lot of times, I may purchase a book and then read anything BUT that title, but this weekend, there was the perfect overlap between my reading goals and the titles available. Dosen’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s simply magic.)

I’d been looking for a fairly comfortable domestic book written by a POC* author, and so although it wasn’t necessarily my first title choice, it ended up being a fantastic read all the same. I had wanted to read about several characters who perhaps lived in a community where their lives overlapped at times – similar to what I call a “tapestry” book where there are multiple characters (the different colored threads in a piece of fabric) whose individual lives overlap and interweave to create a multi-colored picture that’s richer for the overlap. (Similar to a tapestry in my mind.)

38550903nayl_20010701_01867.jpgI had heard of Naylor as the author of “The Women of Brewster Place”, but going along the shelves, I could only find this title. However, no worries. Everything that I had read about the Brewster Place novel had been good, so I considered this to be a low-risk proposition to pick up another title.

Additionally, it also met the criteria for another ongoing foci that I have right now of reading more POC authors and POC topics. I have a tendency to revert to Northern European authors and titles, presumably because they are more likely to come to mind, but after having had such a good experience reading authors of African-American descent in February’s Black History Month, I am determined to keep that awareness up throughout the remainder of the year until the pattern becomes something ingrained and one that I don’t have to particularly think about.

So, Naylor it was and I opened this title, “Bailey’s Café” late on Saturday night. After being unable to put it down for any long time between then and Sunday evening, I turned the last page with a contented sigh. It had been a great read.

But – pray. What is it about, I hear you ask? It’s a plot that revolves around a hole-in-the-wall café in an unspecified town and via the proprietor of the café, we are introduced to some of the regulars who come in for a (bad) cup of coffee and a (good) piece of pie or similar. It’s an idiosyncratic place with no menu and set food on particular days regardless of what you’re actually like to eat. It’s a home away from home for some of these characters and through the eyes of the café owner, we meet each of these memorable personalities with the common meeting place of the restaurant.

It’s a fairly straightforward read, with no chicanery in playing with time or other narrative structures. However, just because it’s a straightforward read in that sense doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s boring and predictable as each character is different and has a story (as you might guess) and towards the end there is some magical realism (but don’t let that scare you off).

There’s a transgender woman, someone who runs a brothel (except it’s much more than that to the people who live within its walls), and several other characters who have had (or currently lead) non-conformist lives, but Naylor’s storytelling carries no judgement for these people. The café is an accepting place for its customers, and as each person enters the building, the café owner (through whose eyes we see everyone) describes his take on each life and tells us some of the background of his customers, while at the same time, telling us about his own life with wife Nadine.

It’s very well done, and if you’re looking for a good solid read about some believable characters living fairly typical lives (but who fall outside the “norms”) then you’ll dig this read. I’m definitely going to scour around for Naylor’s other work after reading this book. (First one: The Women of Brewster Place…)

Naylor is a great author and has been recognized with a litany of literary awards, including being a recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and “The Women of Brewster Place” won the National Book Award in 1983. She died in September 2016.

* Note: “POC” is an acronym which refers to “People of Color” meaning any person who is not white. POC individuals may come from any country in any part of the world, but they have a different life experience than the typical white/caucasian person which informs their work.