The Mothers – Brit Bennett (2016)

After reading Petry’s excellent work, I wanted to read a more modern Black author so I tracked down Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers” (2016). After having seen all the recent exposure for her most recent release, “The Vanishing Half” (2020), I was curious about all the hoopla so nipped down to the library to see what I could find. “The Mothers” was what I left with. 

The plot revolves around an African-American community who are linked with a Black church called the Upper Room. The main protagonist, Nadia, is still reeling from her mother’s unexplained suicide and, along with her surviving father, Nadia spends with and is supported by the Church Mothers, a tightly-knit group of women who are deeply involved with this religious organization. Along the way, Nadia also hangs out with young Luke, the son of the pastor, and ends up getting pregnant with Luke’s child. But what to do, what to do…

This was a very quick read – Bennett rightly has a lot of traction in the publishing world right now and the narrative flows well and is well-written. So I’m quite puzzled why I wasn’t as positively taken with this title as many other readers have been. It wasn’t a bad read, by any means, but it wasn’t as supercalifragilistically fantastic as I had expected it to be. 

As I think about this, this was a pretty “issues-y” novel – unmarried/unplanned pregnancy, a parent who has killed herself (but why? It’s never explained…), a lonely young woman trying to sort out her life with a fairly-distant father who doesn’t help her… It seemed to me as though Bennett had thought of some issues mostly likely to attract her readers and then plugged them in to the plot as she wrote.

You know – it reminded me of the 1980s/1990s Oprah Books where they were designed to trigger long meaningful interactions about knotty social issues that tend to happen to “other people”.

I’m glad I read it – I don’t regret the time I spent with this book at all but to put it into perspective for you, my favorite thing about the edition that I read was the artwork on the cover. (Really nice.) So – perhaps this is more of a beach read than a substantial work on social issues. It was fun to read. It was well-written, but it was a pretty superficial approach to some weighty issues. 

(It’s also possible that I could be the only person in the world who doesn’t gush over Bennett’s work, so you might take this with a grain of salt. It just suffered in contrast after reading the excellence of Petry’s book immediately before it. If you’re looking for a solid read this summer, the Petry is the one I’d recommend.) 

Slow summer days and Petry’s “The Street” (1946)

Ahh. I really appreciate the fact that I am privileged enough to get to experience and enjoy a faculty summer at a large state university. After having worked year-round as a full-time staffer on campus for 20+ years, the fact that I officially get to have the ENTIRE summer off is, frankly, almost unbelievable. (Well, I am teaching summer school but I chose to do that.) 

So – what have I been doing with these long languid days? Have I been using them wisely to contribute to the world around me during these times of COVID and civil unrest? Ummmm. :-}

Right when the semester officially ended in mid-May, I finished up all my grades and then worked hard on the front garden flower beds (new shrubs, tidy-up etc.). After that burst of focus though, I picked up in the world of jigsaw puzzles (OMG – the time-suck but OH SO FUN!). I finished up a couple and bought a new one (which I am looking forward to completing) so that’s been interesting. 

Reading-wise, I’ve renewed my focus on Black writers and their work, starting with the 1946 fiction called “The Street” by Ann Petry, an amazing first novel by a Black female author and which was the also the first title to sell more than a million copies in print. 

Set mostly in WWII-era neighborhood in Harlem, the plot focuses on Lutie Johnson, a single Black mother who is confronted daily by the serious issues of racism, sexism and classism. It’s a political novel, in terms of dealing with society ills and making a point, rather along the same lines as Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, published in 1939. 

(And – if you haven’t ever got around to reading “Grapes…”, take thee to a book provider and read it. It’s. Oh. So. Good.) 

Ann Petry.

Back to “The Street”: Lutie is a really hard-working woman who is doing her best to give her young son, Bub, a better life and she really truly believes that if she just works hard enough and saves enough, she will be able to give Bub that gift for his future. However, it’s the mid-1940s in New York City so the reader just knows what is in store for this small family. 

Lutie also believes in Benjamin Franklin and his ideas of working hard and being frugal to get ahead, and Petry even names one of the other main characters Junto, after the name of Franklin’s true secret organization of the same name. It’s totally heartbreaking because you just know that, historically, no matter how hard Lutie Johnson works and scrimps and saves, her life (and that of young Bub) is not going to improve that much. She’s stuck in the poverty trap and despite her goals of moving out of this dark and ugly tenement building, the odds are way against her. 

This is a gritty novel in a gritty neighborhood in a gritty city, and it was hard for me to read how much hope Lutie had for improving her life and that of Bub. Almost everything in her life is against her and yet she gets up every day to keep working towards that goal of a better life. She works a crappily-paid job doing crappy work, she lives in a crappy cramped and dark apartment, her choices are few and far between, and yet she continues to believe that things will get better (if not for her, at least for little Bub). What’s even more difficult is that I know that things haven’t necessarily improved for families in poverty in the U.S. living lives that follow a similar pattern. 

Lutie gets involved with Junto, who runs a steadily-employed nightclub band, and by dangling her dreams of a better life in front of her, Junto ultimately leads Lutie to commit a serious crime from which there is no escape. 

(It’s interesting to think how awful this Junto character is in this read when you consider that Benjamin Franklin’s secret club of the same name (and also called the Leather Apron Club) was focused on mutual self-improvement. It consisted of twelve men, of course, all white, of course, and started in 1727 in Philadelphia.

In contrast, this novel’s Junto character here has absolutely no interest in anyone except himself (and Lutie, sexually-speaking). He’s such a selfish character that you can just see Petry’s opinion of him through her giving him this name. Clever of her to pick this name and use it in this manner.) 

It’s a heart-breaking story but it’s so exceptionally well-written that you bear the harshness of Lutie’s life alongside her, hoping against hope that her dreams might even slightly come true. 

It’s pretty interesting to search online to see what else was happening in the U.S. in 1946. WWII has been over since 1945 (so not that long ago and, of course, the lingering social effects were still in existence), there were civil rights riots in Chicago, there was the last recorded lynching in Georgia (crikey)*, atomic bombs were being developed, Truman was starting the first group that would turn into the CIA, and the Russians were viewed as significant threats to world peace. 

Realizing that, you can see how “The Street” fits into the cultural milieu of the times. This is a fascinating read on a hundred different levels, but even if you’re not interested in the backstory, this is one heckuva read. I loved it!

*And holy cow: Wikipedia reports that the state of Georgia didn’t officially acknowledge any of its lynchings and its role in them until 1999 when a state highway marker was placed at the site of the original attack. What took them so long??

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See here for a review of Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman. (LOVED it.)

Nonfiction November Week 3: Expertise

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

This prompt took me down a few rabbit holes (in a good way) and forced me to take a good objective look at what I’ve been reading in terms of POC-related authors, topics and titles. To that end, I’ve collected many of the POC titles that I’ve read and reviewed on my blog over the past few years, certainly not as a method of boasting or as positioning me as any sort of expert, but more as a reference for others who may also be interested in digging a little deeper into this subject. 

I’m also rather hoping that others may also have lists of related titles that they might want to share… There’s always room for more books on the TBR, don’t you agree? 

Enjoy!

COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN RELATED NF TITLES (from last couple of years): 

AFRICAN NF:

(Now, I know this is NF November, but sometimes I think that fiction reads can really complement some NF reading so here are some recommendations that you might try…) 

COMPLETED AFRICAN-AMERICAN FICTION:

COMPLETED AFRICA FICTION:

TBR AFRICAN-AMERICAN NON-FICTION:

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
  • Go, Tell Michelle: African American Women Write to the new First Lady – Barbara A. Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram (eds)
  • The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium – Kathy Russell-Cole
  • Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America  – Charisse Jones
  • The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America – Nicholas Lemann
  • Human Cargo – Matthew Crampton
  • Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press – James McGrath Morris
  • We Gon Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation – Jeff Chang
  • In the Land of Jim Crow – Ray Sprigle (1949 – earlier version of “Black Like Me”)
  • Writing from the Underground Railway – William Still (ed.) 

TBR AFRICAN (AND OTHER COUNTRIES’) NON-FICTION:

  • They Poured Fire on Us: The Story of Three Lost Boys from the Sudan – Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, Benjamin Ajak (with Judy A. Bernstein)
  • Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-1945 – Stephen Bourne
  • My Traitor’s Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face his Country, his Tribe and his Conscience – Rian Malan
  • A Walk around the West Indies – Hunter Davies 
  • Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo
  • White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism – Robin DiAngelo

FOR FUTURE READING:

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:

Many thanks to the hosts:

Beloved – Toni Morrison (1987)

book377a

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).

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)