Reading Review: February 2017

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Well, that month passed quickly, didn’t it? (At least it did for me in my world.) It’s Spring here, although to us in West Texas, Spring tends to mean high winds along with a high chance of being very dusty, and so the weather is sticking to that atmospheric format for today. That’s ok. The very next day after these high winds and dust is usually crystal clear and looks fantastic, so I’ll take it.

Reading: After a rather dismal January where I couldn’t find my reading mojo, February marked the month where the mojo returned (much to my relief), and so now I’m happily picking and choosing titles again.

February is also Black History Month here in the U.S., and for the past few years, I’ve really concentrated on reading materials from people of African descent here in the States. This year, however, has meant that my poor eye (and some poor planning on my part) has led to a rather weak effort. However, at the same time, it has strengthened my resolve to continue to read more POC authors throughout the rest of the year, so it’s not all bad.

I’m a bit behind in my reviews though, so I expect we’ll have a round-up post soon.

To the stats:

I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

Total number of books read in January: 7

Total number of pages read: 1,683 pages (av. 210).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 2 fiction / 4 non-fiction; 1 play.

Diversity3 POC (2 from African continent: Nigeria and Ghana; 1 from India). 3 books by women + 1 mixed anthology of speeches by both women and men.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 4 library books, 2 owned books and 2 e-books.

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Great Speeches by African-Americans – edited by James Daley (2006)

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It’s African-American History Month here in the U.S., and although the month is almost half over now and I’ve been tardy, I have been making an effort to read some work by POC (specifically people of African descent). As part of that, I happened to drop by one of the library branches (I know, shocking, right?), and they had a display of interesting looking titles that were themed with this. As I am a sucker for library displays, I picked a couple of titles, one of which happened to be a slim Dover Thrift edition of a collection of speeches by African-Americans over the years.

Obviously, being an edited collection means that someone will choose and miss pieces, but I thought that this book had such a good selection – at least to a neophyte such as me. There were a variety of speeches, long and short, from both male and female speechmakers (more men since historically men were more likely to be in such a position), and this was so interesting for me.

I have a smattering of African-American history having immersed myself in it on and off over the past few years, and it was so interesting to read some of the words that reflected (and in some cases changed) the course of history in the U.S. for people of color.

As historical background, here are the large markers that illustrate the hideous history of slavery in the U.S. and the U.K.:

Brief run-down on the early history of U.S. history:

  • 1542 – Spain enacts first European law abolishing slavery
  • 1807 – UK Slave Trade Act makes slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire/colonies. (You could still own slaves – just not sell them.)
  • 1833 – UK Slavery Abolition Act – abolition of all slavery within the British Empire/colonies
  • 1863 – US Emancipation Proclamation (which meant slaves were now free in the Southern/Confederate States)
  • 1865 – US 13th Amendment ended slavery in all the states of the US

There was quite a list of speeches in this title, and so thought I’d spotlight a few of my favorites for you:

  • Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth (1851).  A short but powerful speech delivered at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, its brevity adds to its power and this is a fire-cracker speech not to be missed. Seriously.
  • What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July? – Frederick Douglass (1852)  Given on July 05, 1852, this is an inspiring speech given by freedman Frederick Douglass to show the hypocrisy evident when Americans were celebrating Independence Day from England, and yet a large percentage of their population were still not free. It’s powerful, it’s long, and I would have loved to have heard this speech in real life. I’m not sure how many people would have stuck it out to the end – brevity is not in this work – but it’s a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy of the time. Frederick Douglass has an amazing story and I reviewed his diary earlier a few years back. See here for the link.
  • Black Woman in Contemporary America – Shirley Chisholm (1974). Chisholm was the first AfAm woman elected to the U.S. Congress and in 1972, she was the first black woman to seek a major party nomination for the U.S. Presidency. (How brave is that??) She served in Congress until 1982, and gave this speech in 1974 at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
  • The Ballot or the Bullet – Malcolm X (1964). Like Malcolm X or not, he was a pivotal influencer on the civil rights movement in the U.S., and in this speech, he argues that if America can send black men overseas to fight in the Korean War, surely that gives AfAm people the right to stand up for themselves and each other. It’s a fiery speech, no doubt about it, and his passion shines through. Interestingly (and frustratingly), many of the same issues that Malcolm raises are still social justice issues of today. Have a looksee.

This was not an easy read – quite a few of the speeches are really dense and last for more than a few pages – but they are worth reading to see their speech-writing skills and the passion that each presenter demonstrates. A really good read about an important battle that continues, I’m sad to say, to this day in some parts of the country.

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Shirley Chisholm in 1972.

Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

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Chosen off the TBR for being a classic, Beloved was a good read although quite challenging in some ways. The beginning of a trilogy* set by Toni Morrison, the book is based on the history of an African American slave, Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery in Kentucky in 1856, although I’m not sure how much creative license has been taken by anyone. I haven’t read any of Morrison’s work before, so had little idea of what to expect but loved it in the end. It’s not the easiest work to read and you have to concentrate on the plot and the characters (or at least I did), but the effort is so worth it at the end of the day. Just be prepared for quite a ride, reading-wise.

So – to the story. It revolves around Sethe, an African-American woman born into slavery and who has now escaped that life. However, eighteen years later, she is still not free from the ramifications of her prior slavery life at a plantation called Sweet Home, an idyllic name for a ghastly place and one that still maintains a tenuous hold on Sethe, despite her best efforts at unshackling herself and her family. The book plot delves into her life so readers can better understand the choice that she makes, and how that choice impacts her days for the remainder of her life. (I can’t really tell you any more about the plot without giving spoilers, and it’s the plot that makes this book such a good read. Well, the writing too, but the plot definitely plays a role.)

There is a dreamy gauzy quality to this narrative, and it’s not a logical or chronological retelling, mainly because the events that occur are of the most terrible kind and hurt where it hurts the most – the heart. There is a lot of poetry in this novel in terms of how it’s been written and how it flows, but once I gave up trying to impose order on it, it was a much better read. You will need to let go of the typical structural expectations, but if you do, what was once surreal and puzzling becomes more understandable and predictable. (Well, I’m not sure about predictable, but at least one can see some rationale for why the characters behave as they do.)

It’s a good read, and all the more powerful for not being written or structured in a straight-forward narrative style as that fits the story being told: unreliable narrators, this dream-like quality, the nightmarish events, the resilience of the human spirit…

It’s a super book (obvs since it’s won loads of accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), but it plays with reality and with dreams, it plays with time and space, and it can all get a tad confusing if you’re not paying close attention. (This was my situation. I was picking up and putting down this book all over the place, and in retrospect, I think the book is best read in huge long chunks of time for immersion into the narrative and characters. I bonded with the story much better when I could dedicate some time to it.)

This is one of those books where the reader may need to work a bit at the story, but in this case, it’s so worth it. If I was going to compare it, I would pair it with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. I loved this on its own rights though, and I think you will as well.

  • I had no idea that Beloved was part of a trilogy. In case you’re wondering, # 2 is Jazz (1992) and #3 is Paradise (1997).

All Involved – Ryan Gattis (2015)

book387All Involved is a far-ranging novel that explores the aftermath of the 1992 LA riots that occurred right after the end of the trial for the police officers who were involved in the beating of Rodney King. In 1992, I’d just finished graduate school and was very busy working my little heart out at an all-consuming job, so I remember this but not in very great detail. However, I do remember the six days of rioting in LA when the streets in South Central were in a state of chaos day and night with law enforcement struggling to regain control. Additionally, with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, this seems pretty recent and relevant history even though it was actually 24 years ago. (Huh. Most college students weren’t even born then so it must seem pretty Olden Days to them.)

Anyway, this novel weaves and interweaves (and then weaves again) the many disparate characters whose lives were impacted by the riots in some way. There are representatives from both sides of the law – the lawless and the enforcers – and each chapter sees the events through the PoV of that character. You have to keep your wits about you, and it’s ambitious, but if you don’t daydream (a la me) you’ll probably be fine. (I might suggest a diagram at the back of the book for reference as it can get a mite confusing at times. The glossary was a good tool though.)

So as the story progresses, the reader sees the events play out through the eyes of various gang members, through a firefighter, through a nurse (receiving the injured at the ER), and through the friends and other contacts of these characters. It’s well done, and I found it drew me in and had me reacting in the immediate present as the riots built up to a crescendo and then wore out. It’s quite the ride, and I enjoyed it.

The only thing that niggled me was that Gattis is a white guy, but he wrote through the eyes of several people of color (POC), and I’m just not comfortable with that. How can a white privileged guy know what it’s like (really like) to be a socio-economically disadvantaged gang member in East LA? To the author’s credit, he does acknowledge having talked to numerous sources to get their experiences, but really, at the end of the day, I think it’s a tad awkward for someone in his position to pretend to “know” what life is like for someone from a very different background. And it’s not just one character, either. It’s character after character, which just seemed to be a large assumption on his part. However, is this the perspective of a similarly privileged white woman who might be over-sensitive about the issue? It just seems that it’s presumptive to write through the eyes of someone of a different race when the whole incident around which the plot revolves is a racial issue (which the Rodney King riots all boiled to in the end).

But then again, it is classified as fiction and I’m not grumping about anyone writing as a vampire when they clearly haven’t ever lived their life as a vampire. I’m not sure. I just think it’s a little insensitive (for a white man) to co-opt Latin@ and African American characters at a time when race is such the hot-button issue that it is right now. What would you think?

But – good read all the same. Various reviewers on Goodreads have compared it to the TV series The Wire, but I think that that was a much stronger end product than this.

Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett (2015)

book385Wow. This novel is quite a ride as we see a modern-day Lagos, Nigeria, through the eyes of a young black man who’s struggling to make his way in the world around him. He’s a pretty average person, but what makes the story strong is that on the day in question, he wakes up a white man (except for his bottom, as the title admits). From then on, the narrative offers lots of questions about identity, possibility, and the world around him.

As Furo, the protagonist, lives his first day as a white man with red hair and green eyes, he learns about white privilege and learns to take full advantage of that as he determines to lose his former life. To his family (parents and sister), he has simply disappeared and as they search grimly for him, worried for his safety, Furo is working out how he needs to live successfully in a world that he has only seen from the outside. People are confused about him as he speaks pidgin and knows the black culture, but to them, he is an oyibo (a white person). The question is: How can he be both white and Nigerian?

It’s a simmering plot exploring how fluid identity can be on many levels, and who owns that identity – is it the world around that determines your identity based on your looks or can you overcome that to become someone other? As the story progresses, the narrative arc continues to boil until in the last third of the book, it explodes bringing you the reader along for the ride.

It’s an experimental book that plays with unreliable narrators, fluid POVs, and time, so it’s not a story to daydream through really. I’ve read that it’s based on The Metamorphosis by Kafka as satire, but haven’t read that so not familiar with it. Reviews relating the parallels are a bit grumpy about it though.

There are a lot of things at play throughout the book — truth/deception, real vs. not real – and quite a bit of it is written in Nigerian pidgin slang which is pretty fun to read (once you get the hang of it). (Speaking of which, a glossary would have been pretty useful.) It’s also written in British English with British spellings (aluminium vs. aluminum, settee vs. couch etc.) so you’ll need to keep your wits about you but if you pay attention, you’ll be paid in dividends by the read.

So, not an easy read but certainly a fun and interesting one if you’re up for the challenge.

Nigerian words that I learned:

  • Okada (motorbike taxi)
  • Batakari (type of shirt)
  • Oyibo (white person)
  • Buka (roadside food stall)
  • Fufu (not sure but might be food)
  • Eba (type of food)

Homecoming – Yaa Gyazi (2016)

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“Homecoming” is a debut novel that has set the interwebs and reviewers into a bit of spin about how fantastic it is, and so when I spotted it on the shelf, it leaped (leapt?) into my little grubby hands. It’s been hailed as one of the newest darlings of the literary world and as a new tour de force in African-American (or African?) literature.

However one chooses to describe it, it’s a good read. The narrative arc follows the fortunes (or not) of a family in Ghana tracing how slavery impacts its path over the centuries starting back in the 18th century.

Ghana_africa-map Told from an omniscient point of view and traveling through time and across continents, the story starts with two half-sisters who follow very different paths through life unknowingly, one living a life of relative wealth after marrying a white man and one who ends up on the opposite side of the coin, but both affected by the slave trade. The location common to both is that of Cape Coast Castle, one sister living on the upper floors in safety and comfort whilst her sister suffers on the dungeon floor in terrible cramped conditions with the others waiting for their travel on the ships to America or other colony elsewhere.

So it’s not that new a narrative structure or in how it’s presented, but it is well written. I am wondering if many of the other reviewers out on the web are inexperienced with slavery stories and perhaps that is how it’s had this great reception. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book but not completely unlike others out there. (Am I being mean? I’m trying not to be. I just wasn’t so wowed to quite the same extent as others.)

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(So, I’ve only just now realized that the patriotic English song, “Rule Britannia!”, contains a reference to the slave trade. Partway through, the line goes “And Britons never…shall be slaves”, and growing up hearing this song, I had always thought this to be a call of maintaining national independence etc., when, as I think about it now, it’s more likely a reference to the slave trade. (D’oh.) The song was written in the 1740’s which was slap bang in the middle of slave industrial years for England so it makes sense. Hard to believe that I’ve only just put this together…)

In researching that song, it turns out to have a strong link with the Royal Navy who played a vital role in maintaining the independence of England, the island nation, and over time, the lyrics were edited from being an exhortation (“Britannia! Rule the waves!”) to more of a statement (“Britannia rules the waves!”) and which reflected the historical changes over time as England became more of a nautical powerhouse. This links with the Victorian phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire” which refs the fact that a lot of the world was pink on the world map (signifying British territories or colonies) and the colonies were spread out in such a way that regardless of whatever the time was, it was daylight somewhere in a colony at the time.

Huh. So now I know… Cool.

Back to the book: So, this is a multi-thread narrative from both the perspectives of the enslaved (or soon to be enslaved) and those who run the slave industry, so there are interesting power/powerless dichotomies to look at. It also covers some of the early Ghanaian tribal warfare which also adds another complex layer as humans (especially women/brides) also had a price, but in a different way. How is this way more acceptable than another way…?

So lots to think about. This was a quick read and a good one. Not quite sure why it’s getting all the hoopla vs. other authors out there, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, here you go.

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

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Wow. What a powerful play this was to read. I can only imagine what it’s like to experience as live theater.

A Raisin in the Sun* is a play (and then film) published in 1959 which sees the lives of an African-American family in Southside Chicago as they try and decide which of several potential directions their family could take in the near future.

I’d heard of this play and the film, but never seen either of them, and, in the mood for a play-reading of some description, this came to the surface. Read in the twenty-first century, this was an intense read (especially towards the end of the final act), so I can only imagine how powerful this message was when it was presented on stage. It certainly took my breath away, let me tell you.

A_Raisin_in_the_Sun_1959Hansberry was awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year for this work, which was notable for a boatload of reasons: she was the youngest playwright to receive this award, the first black writer, the fifth woman, and although it’s a hard-hitting play, it was met with really good critical acclaim (apart from that award) and Hansberry was recognized for being one of the first American playwrights to realistically portray the African-American experience on stage.

Set in the 1950’s, the play focuses on the Younger family, a working class family who are just about to receive a large check from the life insurance of one of the family’s patriarchs. As money easily can do, the idea of the large financial check has each family member thinking about s/he would like to spend it leading, naturally, to conflict that reflects American life and values during the 1950’s. Does the family sort out this situation? You’ll have to read it to find out.

And it’s this conflict, which arises in the very first scene, that threads throughout the play spanning a wide range of topics from housing, discrimination, employment, addiction to hope, optimism, and being true to yourself. I’m wondering if this is a literary work that’s read in a lot of high schools and if so, do the students really appreciate the strength of the narrative arc?

Very curious about seeing the film with Sydney Poitier (1961)  now…

* The title of the play comes from poem by Langston Hughes (“A Dream Deferred”):

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over –

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

February 2016 – Reading Wrap Up

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So February was African-American History Month, and as usual, it was a month of learning loads of new things for me as I engaged in reading focused on the lives of African-Americans and POC. As usual, I enjoyed the heck out of it so I’ll definitely be doing this again next year.

Here’s the list of the titles that I have read lately that were linked with that theme:

I also attended some cultural events held at university over the month:

And February was a fun month! I’ve learned a lot about the world in which we all live and opened my mind with some (helpfully) challenging reads. Definitely going to continue reading more diversely this year as I’m really enjoying the whole thing.

Read on, my friends.

The Color Purple – Alice Walker (1982)

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“Wives is like children. You have to let em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.”

This was a book that I’ve been meaning to reread for ages, and so with my project of African-American History Month, I dug out a copy and dug in. This was definitely one of the best reads that I’ve had so far this year. It was really good and I picked it up at every chance that I could get as I wanted to keep up with Celie, the main character. I was actually pretty riveted to this story and the memorable characters.

Written in 1982, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for 1983, and then was made into a film and a musical as well. (In fact, my local cinema is holding a movie series focused on sexism in American movies, and this particular film is one of the selections. I’m interested to hear what the prof says.)

So – to the story itself. Written in an epistolary form (swoon), it is made up of letters (obviously) from Celie to God, from her sister Nettie far away to Celie, and finally from Celie to Nettie. Celie, the main character, has grown up in poverty, having been abused by her father, her stepfather, and then her husband. She is really beaten in how she views the world, and the reader can read this as it’s seen through her eyes. The scene is set in 1930’s rural Georgia and makes no effort to try to sweeten life for poor women of color at that time. There’s violence, some drugs, rampant unemployment and poverty. It’s a tough mix to handle, but it’s much tougher for the characters involved.

alice_walkerIt’s also written in dialect, but this is completely understandable when you take your time, and it’s the dialect that makes the book special as it makes the events immediate and multicolor to the reader. At least it did for me.

Poor Celie. I really wanted to go out and rescue her and teach her that the world doesn’t have to be that horrible all the time. Her father abused her (and maybe slept with her) to produce two children who she hasn’t seen for years. Her stepfather hates her, and then she is made to marry another winner for a husband, a man who continues the abuse because he would rather have married someone else.

This husband of Celie’s is actually in love with another woman, a glamorous lounge singer who, when she gets ill one time, actually moves into the same house with Celie and her husband. Celie adores the singer (named Shug Avery) and is bereft when Shug leaves after getting well. And the story continues over the rest of Celie’s life. Does she ever get a break? You’ll have to read it to see.

It’s a long convoluted story with multiple characters and multiple layers to the narrative which leaves it open to various interpretations. It’s definitely a feminist novel in that Celie learns to take charge of her life and safety, and steps out on her own. Shug and another character called Sofia are independent women who don’t put up with bad behavior from the men in their lives, and then Nettie, Celie’s long-lost sister, also is brave when taking a leap into the unknown when she travels to Africa.

There’s systemic racism (naturally) that plays a huge role in the narrative arc, and there’s the questioning of gender roles throughout. There’s the issue of racial stereotypes (clearly described when Nettie goes to Africa and deals with the African perspective of African-Americans). In fact, I could go on and I imagine professors and teachers have a hay day with this. Interestingly enough, it’s also on the ALA Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books List of 1990-1999 and the years 2000-2009 for “offensive language, sexually explicit and unsuited to age group”.  Strangely, it hasn’t made the Top Ten list since 2009. Perhaps schools have stopped putting it in their curricula? Not sure.

I say this is a darned good read with a protagonist you’ll fall in love with despite her flaws. If you had to read this as part of your school curriculum and didn’t enjoy it, try it again now that you may be older. It’s a fantastic read and I continue to think about Celie even now.

And that in wondering about the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big ones than you start out. The more I wonder, he say, the morel love.

(NOTE: I’m sad that some men still engaged in horribly racist Jim-Crow style killing in Mississippi and just got ordered to pay $840,000 to the estate of the murdered man. See the story here.  Sometimes I wonder about the human race.)