Persephone Giveaway Time (U.S. Focus)

Hello, fellow bookies!

In the joy of (almost) getting my grades completed, I thought I would celebrate by offering one of you a free copy of a Persephone volume, “Hostages to Fortune” by Elizabeth Cambridge (1933).

I haven’t had time to put a blog review about this read, but suffice it to say, it’s a Persephone and it’s a good fiction read. (Find out more about the book at the Persephone site here.)

Just let me know in the comments if you’d like to enter the drawing to win this particular copy. I’ll probably draw a name on Wednesday of this week (so 12/11). It’s a brand new book, one owner (me), one read through (me), so it’s in good shape.

The only caveat is that the winner will need to have a U.S. mailing address. (Sorry, rest-of-the-world!)

Bon chance!

Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village – Ronald Blythe (1969)

“…making a strange journey in a familiar land…”

From the introduction, Akenfield (1969).

What an absolutely charming literary interlude with the inhabitants of a fictional small English village in Suffolk in 1969. This was such an interesting read that, when I turned the last page, I felt as though I had just had a few cups of tea with these individuals, each of whom had been interviewed by author Ronald Blythe to just tell him (and thus you) about their everyday lives.

I’m not too sure where I found out about this title, but have a feeling that it’s always been around in my life, most probably from seeing my mum read it ages ago during my childhood. I remember the cover and being interested in it, but then forgot about it for years. On a trip back home to the Mother Land, I must have stumbled upon it (or my mum found it for me) and wanting a fairly calm book to read, I selected it from my TBR shelves.

I’d known it was a non-fiction read and one with a sociological slant to it, and so, looking for a fairly gentle read with a domestic focus to it, I’ve just finished it, really enjoying every minute.

“Only a man born and bred in the county could, one feels, have extracted the confidences and revelations which fill these pages, as an old soldier, a farm labourer, a district nurse, an ex-army officer and other typical figures tell their personal stories.”

Blythe patiently has sat down and recorded his conversations with villagers in the 1960s, a time of great change from the more traditional rural ways to the modern approaches, from both people whose families have lived in the village for centuries to those who have moved there more recently (the incomers).

Blythe describes this book as “the quest for the voice of Akenfield, Suffolk, as it sounded during the summer and autumn of 1967”, and the volume includes pieces of monologues from a wide range of villagers, ranging from the wheelwright and the blacksmith to the farm laborer and the Brigadier, and in a variety of ages (but typically veering towards middle aged in general).

In this way, the reader gets to hear (via the villagers’ own words) how the village has changed (or not). Blythe interviews the oldest inhabitants who have seen the farewell of horse-pulled ploughs and introduction of factory farming to the younger residents trying to decide whether to stay in the village or leave. It’s mostly men who are included, but that’s probably (a) a sign of the times – the interviews were actually done in 1959 and 1960, and (b) most of people who “worked” outside the home (but still in the actual village) were men. Most of these men had wives (or at least some of them did), but the wives either didn’t do recognized “paid” labor or had jobs in the nearby town of Ipswich (and were thus outside the project parameters).

This was a read that pulled me in each time I opened the pages and when I wasn’t actually reading it, I was thinking about the characters and residents. It’s a realistic look at rural life in England in the 1960s and doesn’t sugarcoat or idealize any aspects of life: the animals are working creatures, the land is appreciated for how and what it can produce, and there’s a poignant air throughout the book of a dying/changing lifestyle to be replaced by an unknown future.

Overall, a gentle and fascinating look at country life in England. Highly recommended.

There’s also a 1974 film (loosely based on the book with Blythe himself playing a cameo role and in process of being digitized by the British Film Institute) and there’s an interesting article from the UK’s The Observer newspaper about a new study that will explore rural communities and the surrounding changing countryside (similar to Blythe)…

And here’s one about Akenfield 50 years on… (from the Daily Mail) and a Canadian author, Craig Taylor, has written an updated version of the book, Return to Akenfield (published in 2003).

Btw, the characters are real, but Blythe fictionalized the place using conversations with people from the hamlet of Debech (where Blythe actually lived) and Charsfield just 10 miles outside Ipswich.

Similar to this read:

Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor (1982)

After reading some other Naylor books, I was pretty curious about this one, Women of Brewster Place (1982) which seems to be actually the most famous one of the lot. It’s been made into a movie and a TV miniseries, was awarded the National Book Award for First Novel, and is typically the title with which more readers are acquainted. It’s also been the one that I’ve had to search the longest for!

After my first read of Naylor’s, I’ve been searching for a similar read from her pen but it seems as though that first read (Bailey’s Cafe – 1992) is actually the outlier for her oeuvre, and her work is actually much darker and strongly literate than I had initially realized. (This is not a bad thing, by any means, but does mean that I have really underestimated her writing.)

So, what about this read? This book, my third Naylor read, confirmed my feeling that Naylor is a much more complex writer than I had believed after that first read. The second read, Mama Day (1988), was a tougher more complicated read than Bailey’s Cafe (1992), and this one (published in 1982) was the one that was more broccoli (for me).

If you review the dates of when these books were published, it looks like Naylor started off with really complex narrative arcs and then gradually got easier over time, but I could be mistaken on that. There are still quite a few titles that I haven’t read just yet.

Naylor was well educated. She had an undergraduate degree in English from City University – New York, and a M.A. in African-American Studies from Yale. In fact she published Women of Brewster Place when she was still in college, which underscores that she was probably deeply immersed in lit criticism and theory at the time – perhaps one reason for the complexity in this novel.

Researching Naylor online, it’s mentioned quite often that she was really a fan of the Harlem Renaissance writers back in the 1920s (such as Langston Hughes, Nella Larson and Zora Neale Hurston), and in fact, Naylor uses one of a few lines of Hughes’ Harlem poem as part of her epilogue of this novel. (Same reference as the title used for “Raisin in the Sun” play by Lorraine Hansbury (1959).

(And her parents were, in fact, part of that great northward movement called The Great Migration when thousands of African-Americans went north and east in search of an escape from the Southern racism.)

Obviously, Naylor was not the only African-American writer of the late twentieth-century to be influenced by this cultural movement: others include Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (which was heavily influenced, in turn, by Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God), so there’s a lot going on there (and that’s before we even get into the plot!!)

They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased, these women of Brewster Place.

The plot of this one revolves around one central apartment block (Brewster Place) which is used as the hub for meeting a group of different characters as they interact with each via these seven short stories. It’s a tapestry book with lots of different threads, but Naylor handles the introductions really well, and gives the reader enough info to keep a clear idea of each of these individuals. (Similar set up as Bailey’s Cafe in that there is a central location [almost a character in and of itself) through which a set of other people interact).

Written and published originally as short stories in Essence Magazine, each of these female characters (except the one male – but he’s been through hardship as well…) have all gone through personal hardship of one type or another which has led them along the path to Brewster Place. Individually, each character is strong but together they are stronger as a group (and this is clearly demonstrated in the last chapter when things come to a head for the women).

In her acceptance speech for the NBA (the award not the basketball league!), Naylor said that she wrote the book “as a tribute to her [mother] and other black women, who, in spite of very limited personal circumstances somehow manage to hold a fierce belief in the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.”

So, we have this group of disparate mostly female characters, who have all undergone different hardships and somehow have ended up living in close proximity to each other.

Not only are there overlapping actions between each of these women, but each separate story is also interwoven with similar dream imagery. This dream theme is repeated throughout the novel starting with Hughes’ poem about “a dream deferred”, combining it with MLK Jr.s’ “I Have a Dream” speech and the dreams (delayed or otherwise) that each of the characters have themselves, and then that dream sequence {or is it} in the final concluding chapter.

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying that I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up on life…”

Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963.

So, this turned out to be much deeper read than I first anticipated and although I may internally grumbled about this, in the end and after more research, it’s actually turned into a much more provocative read than I had originally thought.

As with most things, I think you’ll get the most out of this read if you continue to explore the book online once you’ve turned that last page. Naylor was a fascinating person who lived an interesting life, and this online poking-around can lead you down into all sorts of rabbit holes about the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, sharecropping, civil rights, and onward.

So, although this perhaps wasn’t the most *enjoyable* book in the world, I did get a lot out of it.

For another take on Women on Brewster’s Place, try this review from The Vulture (May 09 2019):

The Women of Brewster Place Cracked Open the Door for Queer Tv.

Gloria Naylor in 1992.

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
  • The Education of a WASP – Lois Stalvey
  • 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 Everisto
  • White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism – Robin DiAngelo

TBR AFRICAN-AMERICAN FICTION:

  • Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

TBR AFRICAN FICTION:

  • The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears – Dinaw Mengestu (F)

FOR FUTURE READING:

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:

Many thanks to the hosts:

October 2019 Reading Review

That was a pretty fun month, reading- and life-wise. Outstanding was the play that we saw at the university (Black Girl, Interrupted) and watching the BBC-TV series, “The Durrells in Corfu.” 

  • Total books read: 12 (including 1 DNF)
  • Total pages read:   2664 pp. (av. 242 pp.)
  • NF: 4 (36% of total)      
  • F: 7 (64% of total)
  • TBR: 6 (50% of total read). 
  • Total % TBR for year to date: 55%.
  • Library: 5 (including 1 ILL).  
  • POC author/topic(s): 7 (58% of total).
  • Male to Female: 5 males + 6 females + 0 of mixed genders.
  • DNFs: 1 (but probably going to pick it up again after a space of time)
  • Oldest title: 1883 (A Book on Medical Discourses…) . 
  • Longest title (re: page count): 344 pp. 
  • Shortest title (re: page count) (excluding DNFs): 132 pp.

Here’s what I read in October:

Plus (because I am a complete nerd) this jigsaw puzzle:

November plans? Not really. I am very open to whatever comes my way and I’m happy to keep jogging along in this particular lane. I might need to rein in the book purchases though. (With the caveat that there is a December book and jigsaw puzzle sale on the cards…) :-}

Oh, and join in a bit for NonFiction November...!

Nonfiction November: Week 2 – Fiction/NF Pairing:

With Week 1 of Nonfiction November now completed, we’re on to Week 2. The task: to pair up a NF title with a fiction title. 

Wanting to come up with choices that perhaps may be off the beaten path a bit, this was actually a little more challenging than I had first realized, but putting my Thinking Cap on, I came up with the following:

The 1936 edition of the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (the actual book itself, not the movie based on it) and Native Son, the 1940 novel written by Richard Wright. 

The obvious connection between the two titles is that they are by (and about) persons of African descent who live in North America, but what’s less obvious is that they were both written within four years of each other and when one reads these as a package or sequentially, they add depth to each other, different though they may be. In my mind, it’s similar to the difference between watching something on normal TV and then watching it again in high definition. (Or it could even be compared to an experience in virtual reality (VR) if you’d like to move it to an even more digital plain.) Reading the two of them just adds so much more detail and depth to what would otherwise be a fairly superficial literary experience.

Let’s look a little more…

Wright’s Native Son has a narrative arc that follows a journey (of several types) undertaken by protagonist Bigger Thomas, born and living on the South Side of Chicago and whose journey is both literal (the story’s main catalyst is linked with his job as a chauffeur) and psychological (in terms of how the action impacts Bigger and his entire life, as well as that of the people who surround him). 

The plot also clearly demonstrates the dichotomy between the interior (i.e. Bigger’s life and thoughts) and how they are necessarily impacted by the exterior (cultural, judicial, social/economic)… 

But even if this is all sounds too academically intimidating for you, please don’t be put off by the literary criticism side of things: I have no qualms recommending Native Son for just an excellently good read. (This novel is a rollicking experience to leave you with lots of thoughts, even if you don’t notice or see these same aspects.I understand that not everyone is lit crit nerd! :-} ) 

As a complementary read to this powerful title, I suggest the Negro Motorist’s Green Book (1936) which is a NF title* published as a guide book for African-American car drivers traveling throughout the U.S. at a time when it was dangerous and challenging for travelers such as themselves to find somewhere safe to eat, drink and stay when they were on the road. 

So, allow me to set the stage for both of these reads. 

Historically speaking, the later 1930s and early 1940s marked the middle-to -the-end of World War II and were a time of radical change for America in many ways. American soldiers (of all races) were returning home after military service armed with new job skills and experiences which would enable them to earn their entrance to the middle class, socio-economically speaking – a fact that particularly impacted African-Americans upon their return stateside. 

For many African-Americans, their military service years had given them experiences abroad where they were given training and responsibilities far different than their lives had allowed prior to the battles. For the first time, quite a few African-Americans had been placed in battalions and given the same job duties (with similar levels of respect) as their white brothers-in-arms were given. 

War impacted every soldier, regardless of what color his skin was, and so, when these servicemen (and they were mostly men, in terms of enlisted soldiers) returned home at the end of their military commitments, they had just survived life-changing experiences only to be expected to re-enter a Jim-Crow era of laws and cultural mores that had remained untouched from before they had left to fight abroad. Soldiers had just risked their lives for a country that now anticipated them to (re-)fit quietly back into the same old molds as before. Of course there were problems for all involved.

You can’t give a prisoner a taste of freedom and respect, and then expect them to squeeze back into their old cells without issue, and yet this was the case with these returning GIs.  (If you’re interested in more details about African-American soldiers serving in the armed forces, you might try The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks, a 2014 graphic novel about an all-black regiment who served in WWI. This link takes you to Goodreads since I don’t have a personal review for this (regrettably).)

So, despite the Negro Motorist travel guide being mentioned as published in 1936, it was actually updated and published every year between 1936 and 1966, so there would have been a new edition published in the same year as Native Son – the country had not changed that much for the average African-American, despite the ongoing war, and there would still have been the related Jim-Crow concerns for those with cars who travelled across the nation. Where to eat? Where to stay? How to stay alive when the sun went down to drive tomorrow? 

So, to me, Native Son pairs well with the Green Book since it would have been a guidebook with which Bigger would have been familiar, particularly since his job was as a chauffeur, at least for a while.  It also is a clear demonstration of some of the restraints and rules to which these returning soldiers would have had to bend, rules which impacted every aspect of the life of an African-American at that time. 

When you read Bigger’s story and then fit it into the national and cultural landscape of the Green Book and of America at that time, it’s no wonder that the novel ends as it does. How could it have any other ending without turning it into a fantasy tale? 

If your interest is at all piqued by this post, I highly recommend you take a delve into the history of African-Americans (and other POC/disenfranchised groups) in the U.S. It’s a fascinating rabbit hole with repercussions still echoing in the world of today. 

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these: 

Many thanks to the hosts:

  • I haven’t seen the movie, so can’t speak to that just now. Perhaps others have?

General Catch-Up – October 2019

Autumn has finally arrived here in my region of the world. The temps have been cooling down significantly – even enough for us to put the flannel sheets on the bed. (I’d forgotten how delicious these feel to sleep between: it’s like sleeping in clouds. Sigh. Bliss.) I’m wearing socks more regularly during the day and even had to pull on a coat last week. I’m loving it all.

There are some Octobers when I’m just pulled back into one more read of “Dracula,” the 1897 classic by Irish writer Bram Stoker. (For a previous review, see here and here.) My typical experience is that I really enjoy the whole experience, even if it’s not the first time of reading it – I’m up to about five times now… And now I think it’s time to give it a break.

It’s got all the same great ingredients: epistolary, scary-but-not-too-scary, familiar storyline but, for some reason, this year’s read dragged for me which signals that perhaps I need a break. It’s been fun, Bram, but I’m gonna to put you aside for a while so I can get your “special” back. No hard feelings. You’re still awesome. I’ll still come back to you. Just not for a while. (And if you’d like to see a review of an earlier version of Dracula-like creatures, try The Vampire by John Polidori (1819).)

In other news: we went to a really good play over the weekend. Called “Black Girl, Interrupted”, it was written by Iyanisha Gonzalez, a Ph.D. student at our university here, and was stupendous. Seriously. It was an excellent play-going experience and was completely professionally run. The play is based on the real-life rape and murder of a black female soldier in the Iraq conflict and how the U.S. Army covered it up as a suicide. (The drama is fictionalized from there, but the actual basis of the plot is true.) So – phew. Hard topic but again, an excellent experience. If this play comes to your area, I highly recommend it.

I’ve been reading but have had some titles recently which have been good, but for some reason, haven’t had a blog post about them. One, especially, deserves its own post but for time reasons, this mention will have to do. “The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (F) was a fast and thoughtful YA read, epistolary (as the title implies) and about a young teenager who goes against the cultural mores of his tribe when he decides to go to a high school “off rez”. A sensitive and provocative read about the importance of fitting in balanced with being true to yourself. I bet high schoolers love this read. (Maybe not. They might be more enamored of “Twilight” or playing on TikTok or similar…:-} )

Another read (although this was not half as good) was a quick peruse through “The Well-Dressed Lady’s Pocket Guide” by Karen Homer (2013), who has written for Vogue and other fashion mags. Fairly ok, but didn’t really have that much helpful information in terms of wardrobe, but a pretty ok foundation overall. I’m trying to make more use of my current clothes, especially with our cooler temperatures, and was rather hoping that this guide would help with that. It was actually more of a brief historical overlook of fashion, which was ok – just not what I had been looking for/hoping for.

In the in-between times, I’ve been sucked into the flow of doing another jigsaw puzzle – I’m addicted to these things and time just disappears when I’m doing them sometimes. This one (on the right) is a redo of one my mum and I attempted a couple of years ago on one of her visits, but we had run out of time to finish it. I’m determined to finish this sucker now. 🙂

And now it’s almost November. Thanksgiving is around the corner (wow) and then, I saw Christmas stuff in Target yesterday…

And I found a big stash of Twiglets half-price (below) whilst I visited World Market. (They are typically very hard to find, locally, so this stash will need to last quite some time. In theory.) Life is good.

Nonfiction November Week 1: The reading so far…

Intro by What’s Nonfiction?:

Nonfiction November, that time of year to celebrate stories filled with facts and footnotes, truth being stranger than fiction, and very, very long subtitles begins today!

This week, a look at your year in nonfiction:

Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Julie @ Julz Reads): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

My year has included a big increase (+170 percent!) in the numbers of NF titles that I’ve chosen and completed, related (I think) to a growing need from recognizing that there is still so much for me to learn in the world out there. That, and I seem to be interested in almost EVERYTHING so there is always a good book waiting for me to pick it up. (Additionally, this trend may or may not be related to the political nonsense happening across the globe in terms of truth (or the lack of it).)

What has been your favorite NF read so far this year?
In terms of being influential, I think my favorite NF title so far has been “Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston (written in 1931 but published more recently). It really underscored just how recent slavery was; before I had read this book, slavery had rather seemed like some “long-ago” historical event, but the fact that Neale Hurston actually met and interviewed a man who had lived through it was amazing and really brought the fact home that it wasn’t really that long ago when it occurred. It also overlaps with the focus on most of my NF reading this year. (See below for more deets.)

What particular topic have I been attracted to more this year?
Oh, the African-American experience for sure. No doubt about it. As part of my ongoing focus, I’ve been choosing book titles that are either by a POC author and/or about a POC experience. Since February was Black History Month (at least here in the U.S.), I’ve maintained my emphasis of reading more African-American authors and/or related topics, and looking back at the numbers, I can see that just over one in every three titles falls under that category (and this number includes all the POC titles – not just those from African-American writers.) 

This also aligns with the fact that the university where I work now has a vice-president who is focused on diversity, and in so doing, has brought (and is bringing) some powerful voices to campus to bring more awareness of diversity issues: bias, privilege, protest, history… It’s been eye-opening to say the least and I’ve learned a lot. I have a lot more to learn, but I know a lot more than I did this time last year.

That would be the topic-of-choice for this year (and ongoing), but another focus has been reading from my TBR shelves as well. When those two goals overlap, even better!

Which NF book have I recommended the most this year?
Despite what I’ve just said in the section before this one, this most-recommended title would have to be the tried-and-true “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. I reread it each year as a reminder of effective writing and I mention it a lot in class to students. I’m also pretty sure that I mention it to my poor patient friends more than they’d prefer, but what can I say? It’s good!

What am I hoping to get out of NF November?

I’m hoping to find more excellent titles that overlap with my current interests, and – fingers crossed – introduce me to more subjects of which I am woefully uninformed right now. I do seem to have a growing craze on animals so perhaps some new titles there?

I’d also love to be introduced to more non-fiction readers!

ETA: People have asked which particular NF titles I’ve read this year. Here you go. (Links where available):

For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these: 

Many thanks to the hosts:

The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (2015)

This really good novel from expert NF writer and journalist John Vaillant takes you alongside Héctor, a young man from Mexico who is currently sealed into an old empty water tank on the back of a truck in the middle of the Arizona desert. He’s not by himself: jam-packed into this small hot space are also others from Mexico and elsewhere, all of them trying to smuggle their way into America for a chance at a better life for themselves and for their families. Their coyotes have left to go for help, and none of them has any other options except to sit and hope that help will come before the heat kills them.

It’s a brilliant set-up for the novel: a group of unrelated strangers, all with the same goal, stuck into a small enclosed environment, waiting…

As the reader makes his/her way through the plot, Vaillant gradually drops little nuggets of information about Héctor and his travelling companions through the clever tool of having Héctor use his dying friend’s cellphone to leave voice messages for whoever he can reach who lives in America (or even sounds like an American person). Going through his friend’s contact list, Héctor comes across a name that has an American area code with its number and this is to whom Héctor narrates his story. (His story is also the story of so many other hopeful immigrants as well…)

It’s really well done. As you read what Héctor is recording on his rapidly-fading phone, you get to know and understand why Héctor has taken this enormous risk and, just as in a more traditional epistolary books, you are given access to his thoughts and feelings, more so than if the character was only allowed to have conversations with other characters. Héctor is so much more open and honest than he would have been otherwise, and by giving the reader this avenue to meet him, you’re allowed a much more intimate view than otherwise. You also grow more sympathetic with his plight (although who wouldn’t be sympathetic with a guy in his awful situation?)

As the situation goes from bad to terrible, resources start to run low: people start to run out of food, water and patience; under the brutal Arizona sun, conditions inside the metal cylinder become deplorable and claustrophobic – and deadly.

And so although Vaillant has chosen a hard-hitting (and very relevant) topic, the book is still un-put-downable as you’re gradually sucked into the lives of these unwilling captives, caught in a dark and empty water tank with no way out.

There’s an argument that it’s also reflective of the actual living situations from which many of the immigrants were running from: they had also been trapped in situations in their original countries which they could not change or impact, apart from leaving in this high-risk way. They exchange one prison for the other with only the optimistic hope of things getting better at the other end of the journey.

And so what happens in the end? Does Héctor escape? Does the group get rescued? Aaah. That would be telling, so I’ll only point you to the book and recommend that you also read it to find out.

Super-good read.

(The only slightly off-putting thing for me was that Vaillant, as a white male author (and with all the privileges that that identity entails) is writing as Héctor, a poor Mexican immigrant. Do you think that, in this situation, Vaillant is co-opting being a character of color and in him being a person of privilege, is that offensive? Shouldn’t he (Vaillant) have “let” a true POC with this backstory tell his/her own narrative?

OR – is this being too sensitive? What is the answer if no POCs have written this story yet? Should Vaillant, as a prize-winning journalist, have gone and found this story with real-life sources (if they exist)?  Is this the same situation as perhaps someone moaning about an author pretending to be, say, a dragon? Since dragons don’t exist, would that be more acceptable for an author to take on that identity him/herself? Any ideas/comments?)

For a true NF account of life for migrants crossing the southern border, try this one by Luis Alberto Urrea: The Devil’s Highway (2004).

Mama Day – Gloria Naylor (1988)

This was a buy at the most recent FoL Book Sale and it was a good one (although the narrative arc was not the easiest to keep straight in my head). I had been wanting to refocus a little more on POC authors/topics and thus this title bubbled to the surface. Plus – I had really enjoyed my read of another Gloria Naylor book (Bailey’s Café) and I’d just ordered myself a copy of the most famous of her books, The Women of Brewster Place (1982) so I was ready for a really good experience. 

This novel, Mama Day, is very different from Bailey’s Café and is much darker with a much more complex narrative than that one had. It’s a really good read, but forewarned is forearmed. And – this one goes REALLY dark towards the end (which actually means that I can now include it in the Scary October Reads list – an unexpected benefit!) 

(Let me make a note about the cover of this particular edition: It’s SOOOOOO 80s-perfect: pastel covers, geometric shapes, even the font design fits! – such a good example of design for that time period. Plus – lovely font and page set-up inside the actual book itself. Bliss.)

To the plot: it’s set on Willow Springs, a tiny island just off the coast of Georgia and an island unto itself in terms of how little the “outside” world impacts or influences this community. Its residents are sparse but closely interknit, and still rely on old-world practices of herbal medicine, the power of dreams, a close relationship with the natural world and magical aspects linked with its history of being a slave port and destination. 

A woman, who has grown up in that island community but who now lives in New York City, returns for a trip with her new husband, a city-born and -bred boy, and most of this narrative revolves around how the insular community reacts to him and how he reacts to them. His arrival is a mix of excitement combined with an unbalancing of the friends and family, and this mingling of each of these two very different worlds impacts the whole story right until the explosive end.

(I highly recommend that you set a large swathe of time to dive deeply into this novel. It’s not one that is easily interrupted, as once you’ve left this novel’s world, it’s quite tough to jump back into it without a short interval of confusion of who’s who, where and why due to the multiple POVs that Naylor employs. At least that was my experience.)

It’s a matriarchical society (led by Mama Day, who is the protagonist’s elderly grandma, and by her sister, Abigail), and the men who are there are confined more to the edges of the story. They still play a role and influence outcomes, but it’s a strongly feminist novel in terms of its leading characters and Naylor has done a good job exploring how this fairly removed world has grown and developed into the society that it is today.

So, what happens when this outside (male) person enters into this interior (female) world? The book ratchets up the tension as it progresses although it’s not clear to the reader how this intermixing of the separate elements is going to end. In fact, the whole ending completely surprised me in terms of how dark and how final it was, and it’s only in looking back at the whole narrative arc as a whole that I can see how it was actually quite inevitable when you see how the individual pieces join together to make the whole. 

As I think about it, this novel was a pretty slow-burn of a read. It’s not that the action drags, but more of how the embers of the plot lie below the surface gradually getting hotter without much notice until you turn the last page and realize that it’s turned into a huge bonfire. 

(Reading some of Naylor’s biographical info online, I learned of how her writing was influenced by such authors as Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I can see that now I’ve finished the read.)

This was a read that turned out completely different than the one I had expected when I started it, and on this occasion, this veer off-course actually made it a much more impactful reading experience than otherwise. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed the read while it was happening, but now it’s completed, I can review the narrative with a lot more appreciation than I had thought and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. 

A complex but good read. 

For a review of another Gloria Naylor read, try Bailey’s Cafe (1992).