3 Mini Reviews

February is Black History Month in the United States, and while the current administration claims they are going to be commemorating it, well…

Oh! It wasn’t until I pasted that tweet that I realized it was from Brit Bennett. How fortuitous, as I was planning on including her book “The Mothers” in this mini review roundup. Basically, I want to share some of the best books by black authors that I read in 2016.

The Mothers, Britt Bennett. I listened to this book on audio in December, and it is really well done. The themes of motherhood are explored in diverse and interesting ways. Some of the Mothers referenced are church mothers, who converge like hens when there is a crisis. There was a moment when I could imagine them as the chorus, both in the church choir sense and in the “preaching to” sense. There are some flashes of pure brilliance here that make me want to pick up whatever Bennet does next.

Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I checked this out as an e-book from my local library. I live in a pretty conservative area, and I was worried that this book would be some type of master-slave apologist BS, since it deals with white men who bring their black slave mistresses with them on holiday. I googled the author before committing, and what I saw was incredibly encouraging. Perkins-Valdez is a respected academic and a serious thinker. The novel bore that out. Each of the women were drawn as distinct, fully fleshed out characters, each with their own motivations and concerns. Highly recommended.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. This one has had plenty written about it, and with good reason. I’ll admit – as a child, learning about the Underground Railroad, I thought it was an actual railroad. Nice to know it seems I wasn’t the only one. This alternative history is even more chilling considering the current state of affairs in this country. Cora’s plight reminded me of the true life horrors of Harriet Jacobs, as recounted in her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (which you should also read).

Joining in R.I.P.

I’ve decided to join this year’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril challenge. I had in my head I was going to, as I’ve been wanting to read some spooky, creepily atmospheric books this season. In fact, I may have started the reading before I actually officially joined. Somehow, I don’t think this crowd will hold it against me.

I’m jumping all in, joining at the highest level: Peril the First

Peril the First: Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be King or Conan Doyle, Penny or Poe, Chandler or Collins, Lovecraft or Leroux…or anyone in between.

I’ve already read The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker and The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel. I just started Graveyard Shift  by Angela Roquet, which is already grabbing my attention and making me want to curl up on the couch and not come up for a breath until I’ve finished.

I have never read anything by Lovecraft, and have been wanting to, so maybe I’ll meet Cthulhu during this challenge. Anyone have any other suggestions? This genre is definitely out of my comfort zone.

Inspiration

I am *finally* reading If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson. This is one of those books that I knew I’d love from the moment I heard about it. Fortunately, I haven’t been disappointed. Phelps Lake

Inspired by the title poem, and a recent trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I sat down and wrote a poem of my own:

Long summer days

So many hours in the hot sun

Burning skin

Until refuge is taken in the shadow of a mountain

If not, winter

With its crisp icy beauty

Broken by the crunch of our feet in the snow

Cold puffs of hot breath

Anticipating your hands

Building a fire

Currently Listening to…

Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird Song.”

And like woah.

I heard about this album on npr (where else?), while I was driving to work one day last week. I went ahead and downloaded the album, which has Dr. Angelou reading her poems to hip hop beats.

Dr. Angelou said this about who she wanted to reach with this project:

“Some young woman, who had decided that life owed her nothing and she owed nothing – she had decided that life had no promise for her. But she’ll turn on the radio or pass a car with the radio booming and it will be playing something that came out of our meeting. And the young woman’s eyes will open, and her heart will be lifted up.”

So in addition to listening to it myself, I had it playing in the car today when I was with my “little.” While I hope that she doesn’t feel that low, I’m all for all young women’s eyes being opened and hearts being lifted up. So often they are broken down instead.

My favorite song on the album is “Ain’t That Bad.” I dare you not to do a little dance in your car when it plays.

Listen to “Still I Rise,” which is less hip hop and more a blend of gospel and Motown:

Recent Very Good Reads

I’ve read quite a number of books this year, but many of them were only ho-hum. I find that sometimes when I am caught up in reading st such a fast pace, quality gets lost in the quantity. That said, these are some books I’ve recommend wholeheartedly:

 americanah Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Confession: I’ve read both Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus, and liked them fine, but never really understood the gushing over them. Well, now I am gushing over an Adichie. Americanah is the story of a young woman from Nigeria who comes to America for school, then eventually moves back to Lagos. In the meantime, she learns about what it means to be black in America, grows up, has relationships (romantic and otherwise). Through it all, there is a sense of what she left behind, of not quite fitting in despite learning the intricate ins and outs of American culture.

Foreign Affairs, Alison LurieForeign Affairs, Alison Lurie
This book broke the ho-hum. I wasn’t expecting to love this like I did. Essentially, two New England professors go to London on sabbatical, and the novel follows their unexpected romantic liaisons. A rather simple story, but incredibly  masterfully rendered. This book won a Pulitzer, and it is a well deserved award. It reminded me of Edith Wharton’s insight into both character and class. One difference is that Wharton’s characters’ selves are revealed to the reader, they still seem hidden to themselves. Lurie’s eventually seem to come to a bit more self recognition, though they still have further to go. It makes for a slightly more satisfying resolution.

I am Forbidden, Anouk MarkovitsI Am Forbidden, Anouk Markovitz
This one is intense. It is based in the world of the Satmars, a sect of Hasidic Jews. The author was brought up in the sect, but left as a young adult. The book follows the story of two foster sisters, one who stayed and one who left. Since the author left, I expected the narrative to follow the sister that left. Instead, it followed the sister who stayed. Markovitz was able to paint a picture of the religion and its followers are complex, principled people who still hurt each other in such deep ways.

***Edited to add: Um, wow. I didn’t realize this post went live, when it clearly wasn’t finished. Oops!

A Spy in the House

A Spy in the House (The Agency, Book 1)
Y.S. Lee

Teenager in Victorian dress  looking back at building

We meet Mary as a twelve year old destined for the gallows. Somehow, she is spared that fate, and next time we see her she is seventeen and about to become an undercover investigator for the very people who saved her life.

This is the first book in the “A Spy in the House” series. At first, I was thinking that the series might focus each book on a different Agency spy, but I looked at the cover again and saw that it says “A Mary Quinn Mystery.” That makes me happy, I’m looking forward to seeing Mary grow into her own even more fully.

In this book, she is to play a minor, supporting role in the Agency’s investigation into a shady London merchant. I was rolling my eyes, convinced she was going to swoop in and save the whole case and be the hero, but it didn’t exactly work out that way. And I was glad. We see her as a baby investigator, still with plenty of pluck, but it seems to be a more realistic depiction of how a situation like hers might actually happen.

I *love* that this book is concerned with social justice issues (and in a non-preachy way!) The main investigation centers around artifacts stolen from a Hindu temple in India, possibly brought to London from traders and installed in private collections. Stealing another culture’s treasures is something that pops up in the news now and again, bringing with it questions about where these items belong, and who should have the rights to them.

There’s a scene where Mary comes across obscene materials owned by the merchant she’s investigating. The subject matter is African slaves being sexually abused by masters – and this is recognized as particularly bad, as abuse, not just average titillating images. (It’s not something that is mentioned in explicit detail, and is not a feature of the book, for anyone that might have concerns.)

There are also questions surrounding Mary’s identity, which I won’t go into, but are sure to provide more material for future books.

Glad I read this one for #Diversiverse!

 

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle

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Do you ever retread a book that you loved when you were young, and find there were huge parts that went right over your head? That happened to me on my recent retread of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

I loved these books growing up, even though I never read much fantasy/science fiction. The fact that my mother let me read L’Engle should have been my first clue that they were on some approved Christian reading list somewhere. Which, hey, nothing wrong with that. I just loved Meg’s awkwardness, and hoped that one day maybe I would grow out of that gawky adolescent stage. Maybe I would go on some kind of epic time bending adventure where I would save the day and the whole world. I also was enthralled with the idea of time “wrinkling.” This simple illustration has a permanent place inside one of my own brain wrinkles:

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As a child, I loved when books presented a way to reconcile my family’s faith with imaginings and creations and, well, science. We practiced a faith that relied heavily on the literal interpretation of the Bible, or at least parts of it. The Earth was 6,000 years old, and anything not talked about in its pages didn’t exist. Unless we wanted it to, of course. I guess books – novels – were the first thing that made me realize that words on a page were open to interpretation.

A Wrinkle in Time is itself a book that is open to varying interpretations. Reaction from religious circles is split – some praise it, some try to ban it. The is certainly support for both positions in the text. Based on this interview with the author, it seems that hers is a more expansive view than the one I grew up with, and for that I am certainly thankful.