The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward

The Fire This Time is brilliant. Read it. The end.

Oookay, so I can’t really stop there. It was my book group’s read for June, and we all were impressed by it. Let me tell you about it.

71aOha7tq9LIt’s an essay and poetry anthology edited by the amazing Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, Men We Reaped, and most recently, the National Book Award-winner Sing, Unburied, Sing (which I haven’t yet read.) In her introduction, after trying to process the unjustified killing of Trayvon Martin and seeking wisdom from James Baldwin’s classic The Fire Next Time, she writes,

It was then that I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California, who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview, would need a book like this. A book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In the pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don’t forget it.

Writers I have read before like Carol Anderson (White Rage,) Kiese Laymon (Long Division,) and Claudia Rankine (Citizen: An American Lyric) contribute essays while poets Natasha Tretheway and Clint Smith offer moving poems. I was introduced to quite a few writers I’d never read before, like Garnette Cadogan, who wrote what might be my favorite essay of the bunch, “Black and Blue.” In it Cadogan contrasts his experiences walking all over his Kingston, Jamaica home as a teenager to his experiences walking in New Orleans and New York City as an adult. As a college student in New Orleans, university staff told him to restrict his walking to certain touristy, “safe” areas of town. He scoffed, thinking, come on, I’ve already been through every rough neighborhood of Kingston, these New Orleans criminals have nothing on them.

What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.

He describes incidents with white pedestrians and police, detailing how he would formulate the outfits he wore to appear as non-threatening and scholarly as possible.

Light-colored oxford shirt. V-neck sweater. Khaki pants. Chukkas. Sweatshirt of t-shirt with my university insignia…The sidewalk was  a minefield, and every hesitation and self-censored compensation reduced my dignity. Despite my best efforts, the streets never felt comfortably safe. Even a simple salutation was suspect.

His adoptive aunt persuades him to move to New York City, and he dreams of following in the footsteps of writers who had “wandered that  great city before me.” He spent the first few months exploring with friends and lovers, but it wasn’t long before “reality reminded me I wasn’t invulnerable, especially when I walked alone.” When running to dinner one night, a white man turned and punched him in the ribs, assuming he was a criminal, then blamed him for the assault because he ran up behind him. Another night he was jogging to the subway because he was late to meet a friend, and suddenly a police officer has pointed his gun at him and orders him against the police car. More cops surround him, each badgering him about why he was running, where was he going, where was he coming from. He couldn’t answer them all at once, trying to be calm and explain that he’d just left one group of friends to meet another, they could go find the friends down the street, look at his phone and see the texts. It turned out that a black man had stabbed someone earlier a few blocks away and they were looking for him. When a police captain puts his hand on Cadogan’s back and feels no sweat, he tells them to let him go because, “If he was running for a long time he would have been sweating.” The captain offers Cadogan a ride to the subway station, and when thanked for his help, the captain said, “It’s because you were polite that we let you go. If you were acting up it would have been different.”

I returned to the old rules I’d set for myself in New Orleans, with elaboration. No running, especially at night; no sudden movements; no hoodies; no objects – especially shiny ones – in hand; no waiting for friends on a street corner, lest I be mistaken for a drug dealer; no standing near a corner on the cell phone (same reason.)

This collection of essays and poems blew my mind. Sometimes I begin to think I am aware of my privilege and then I read more and more and I am shaken by all that I don’t know, all that I can’t truly know, because of the color of my skin. I am profoundly grateful that this anthology exists and that reading books like this enables me to question the status quo, empathize, and learn.

(This is book 8 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.)

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Five Sentence Reviews: Little Fires Everywhere and The Power

I just finished reading my 11th book (!) for 20 Books of Summer but I’m behind on my posts, so I thought I’d try a couple of short reviews.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

91twTG-CQ8LIntricate story, many layers of secrets, many points of view. Set in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990’s (and Ng really nails the sense of time and place.) I was completely absorbed in this story of unknown interior lives and two mothers with diametrically opposed ways of living, thinking, and raising children. This was better than Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You. I absolutely loved it. (5 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less… Now, as a teenager, Pearl’s caresses has become rare – a peck on the cheek, a one-armed, half-hearted hug – and all the more precious because of that. It was the way of things, Mia thought to herself, but how hard it was. The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

51PUiZ2CfqL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_This was a real page-turner for about the first 100-150 pages. Super compelling premise: teenage girls (and later grown women) develop a bodily adaptation (a power) to shoot electricity out of their hands, upending gender norms and relations all over the world. It was a neat idea – what kind of power would women wield? In the end, it sort of lost focus and fizzled and got incredibly dark, violent, and depressing, and there were only two characters well enough developed to care anything about. Would probably be a good book group choice, though. (3 Stars.)

Favorite quotation:

Tunde interviews a woman in the crowd. She had been here for the protests three years earlier; yes, she had held up her banner and shouted and signed her petitions. “It was like being part of a wave of water,” she says. “A wave of spray from the ocean feels powerful, but it is only there for a moment, the sun dries the puddles and the water is gone. Then you feel maybe it never happened. That is how it was with us. The only wave that changes anything is a tsunami. You have to hear down the houses and destroy the land if you want to be sure no one will forget you.”

Have you read either of these, or are they on your TBR? If you’re participating in 20 Books of Summer, how is it going?

(These are books 6 and 7 that I’ve written about from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

Dear Martin and Shadowshaper (20 Books of Summer #4 and #5)

Regular readers of my blog know I don’t read a whole lot of books aimed at teens. I’ve tried some in the past, with middling success. The ones I tend to like are either books with a social justice angle (think Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give) or something totally out of left field (for me) like a paranormal mystery or fantasy (like Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series.) I often think most of these books just aren’t aimed at me, a middle-aged woman. And that’s totally fine! But I do continue to want to give YA a try, if only so that I can recommend a few every now and then to a library patron. I have recently read two for my 20 Books of Summer list that I enjoyed and wanted to share a few brief thoughts.

Dear Martin by debut author Nic Stone was a fast-paced, engaging story that I read quickly (just over 200 pages.) High school senior Justyce McAllister is near the top of his mostly-white private school student body and heading to Yale University next year. The book opens with an incident where he is trying to help his drunk girlfriend get home from a party and ends up handcuffed for hours by a cop who mistakenly sized up the situation. The incident rattles Justyce and he starts to write “letters” to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way to process his emotions and thoughts.

Last night changed me. I don’t wanna walk around all pissed off and looking for problems, but I know I can’t continue to pretend nothing’s wrong. Yeah, there are no more “colored” water fountains, and it’s supposed to be illegal to discriminate, but if I can be forced to sit on the concrete in too-tight cuffs when I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s clear there’s an issue. That things aren’t as equal as folks say they are.

24974996The novel alternates these letters with every day conversations in Justyce’s classes and his regular high school life. Some of his white friends and classmates demonstrate an appalling lack of sensitivity, and some do things that are out-right racist. However, when Justyce and his white classmate SJ start becoming more than friends, Stone doesn’t shy away from writing about how Justyce’s mother would be uncomfortable with him dating a white girl. Later there is another incident with an off-duty police officer that it even more traumatic and serious for Justyce and one of his friends, and it really makes him question everything, including the value of following Dr. King’s non-violent teachings. While I was engaged by the story, I didn’t love it because I found the writing to be lacking in complexity, but perhaps that’s the thing that might make it sing to a 13 or 14 year-old. Stone has delivered a highly relevant and emotionally affecting story that will speak to a lot of young people today. (3 stars.) 

22295304Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older is a bit of a departure for me as I don’t normally read much fantasy. But I’m here to say I really liked it! When I do read fantasy I prefer it to be set in a world that’s similar to the real one, with maybe just a few wacky things different. In Shadowshaper, you’ll recognize Older’s portrayal of current-day Brooklyn, NY – except maybe for the murals on buildings that move as if alive and the corpses that become reanimated with evil spirits!

From Goodreads: Sierra soon discovers a supernatural order called the Shadowshapers, who connect with spirits via paintings, music, and stories. Her grandfather once shared the order’s secrets with an anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, who turned the Caribbean magic to his own foul ends. Now Wick wants to become the ultimate Shadowshaper by killing all the others, one by one. With the help of her friends and the hot graffiti artist Robbie, Sierra must dodge Wick’s supernatural creations, harness her own Shadowshaping abilities, and save her family’s past, present, and future.

The writing was lively and vibrant, sometimes funny, and Sierra felt like a believable character to me. I loved this exchange when she worried over her belly to her best friends before a date:

“What if he doesn’t like my ponch?”

“Your what now?”

“My little belly ponch.” Sierra patted her tummy.

“Oh lord, Sierra, really? Everybody has a little gut, and plenty a’ dudes go crazy for ’em. Stop fretting.”

  I also appreciated Older’s handling of the gentrification of Sierra’s friend’s neighborhood:

The place Sierra and Bennie used to get their hair done had turned into a fancy bakery of some kind, and yes, the coffee was good, but you couldn’t get a cup for less than three dollars. Plus, every time Sierra went in, the hip, young white kid behind the counter gave her either the don’t-cause-no-trouble look or the I-want-to-adopt-you look. The Takeover (as Bennie dubbed it once) had been going on for a few years now, but tonight its pace seemed to have accelerated tenfold. Sierra couldn’t find a single brown face on the block. It looked like a late-night frat party had just let out; she was getting funny stares from all sides – as if she was the out-of-place one, she thought. 

And then, sadly, she realized she was the out-of-place one.

This was an exciting, original adventure full of magic, art, and mystery. I ordered the second book in the series, Shadowhouse Fall, from the library and hope to read it in the next few weeks. (4 stars.)

Do you read YA books? If so, have you got some recommendations for ones I shouldn’t miss?

(These are the fourth and fifth books I’ve featured from my 20 Books of Summer list.)

 

Mid-Year Reading Goal Check-In

Since the year is half over, I thought it was time for a 2018 Reading Goal check-in. You may recall that I made two teeny-tiny reading goals for the year:

  1. Read at least one book a month from the books I already own, and
  2. Read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
cropped-img_1406.jpg
Of this stack from February I’ve read four!

 

On the first goal I am doing AMAZING. I’ve already read 13, which means I’ve technically completed my goal! But I have added new purchases to my owned stacks of books (is anyone surprised? No.) So I want to keep making a dent in my piles of owned books through the rest of the year.

I haven’t yet begun to read Count, but I am definitely planning on diving in this fall, after 20 Books of Summer is over. Actually, I’ve been mulling over doing a little readalong. I’ve never led my own readalong before and I’m intimidated, frankly! Would anyone out there be interested in reading along with me this fall? It would be SERIOUSLY low-pressure. I’d probably just try and break it up into sections and take my time with it. If you’re interested, let me know in the comments!

I lowered my number of books for the Goodreads Reading Challenge this year to 52. I completed it this past week. Before you think I’m some reading machine, I have included several books that my son and I have read together, like some of the Magic Tree House books and Bad Kitty books. I decided to do that because I’m reading them too and I want to have a record of what we read together! But the lower page counts of those books do inflate my numbers.

img_2257As far as my 20 Books of Summer challenge, I’ve read 7 and am almost finished with my 8th book. I’ve only written about three of them, though, so I definitely see some mini-reviews in my future. Right now I’m in a good reading groove, but I only have time to post once or twice a week, and if I have to choose between actually reading a book and posting a blog post, I’ll pick reading!

So how are your reading goals going so far this year? I’d love to hear if you’ve completed any goals, made progress, or if you’ve abandoned any goals. Do you set goals for your yearly reading? 

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (20 Books of Summer #3)

Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, spotted with stunted gorse bushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams. Sometimes, at this time of year, you see great flocks on wild geese wheeling across the sky, their feathers turning pink the the rays of the rising sun. But today, on this grey winter morning, there is not a living creature as far as the eye can see. Everything is pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white as the marsh meets the sky. Far off is the sea, a line of darker grey, seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly desolate and Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.

6688087Elly Griffiths came to my attention through a couple of bloggers I follow, Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books and Fiction Fan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews.  I love a good mystery, especially one set in the UK, and this one was right up my alley. The Crossing Places has a great sense of atmosphere, a likeable heroine in forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, and even a bit of believable romantic tension. I’ve mentioned before how mysteries are my bookish “palate-cleanser” and my go-to escape genre, and this one was an absorbing read that made me eager to read more in the series. I read it in two days!

From Goodreads: When a child’s bones are found on a desolate beach nearby, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls Galloway for help. Nelson thinks he has found the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing ten years ago. Since her disappearance he has been receiving bizarre letters about her, letters with references to ritual and sacrifice.
      The bones actually turn out to be two thousand years old, but Ruth is soon drawn into the Lucy Downey case and into the mind of the letter writer, who seems to have both archaeological knowledge and eerie psychic powers. Then another child goes missing and the hunt is on to find her. 

Besides the descriptive sense of atmosphere, where the Norfolk-area marshy landscape is practically a character in the book, I liked that Ruth was a fairly level-headed, smart, competent woman, late 30’s, good job, happily living with her cats in a fairly isolated area. The only thing that bothered me really were a couple of comments about her weight. She discloses early on that she’s 12.5 stone and I Googled that – being an American I have no clue what a stone is! It translates to 175 pounds, which IS NOT THAT BIG. It certainly wouldn’t preclude a woman from being able to fit in a car or being able to walk a couple of miles to a marshy crime scene without being out of breath (both little comments made in the story.) I’m sensitive about this issue, I admit, but honestly I don’t think she’s big enough to even make mention of it for character development’s sake. Oh well. One good thing is that it didn’t seem to stop her from enjoying the attention of men – thank goodness for that! (There are a couple of men interested in Ruth – I won’t spoil anything but things do get a bit messy and I’ll be interested to see how things develop in later installments!)

Not much in-depth analysis of this one, really. I didn’t mark many places as I read  – I was turning pages too quickly! It was a realistic feeling mystery that wasn’t too gory or gruesome – a delicate balance in this genre, I find. Appealing characters, absorbing mystery, and I didn’t guess the “whodunnit” until very late in the game. I have the second in the series, The Janus Stone, checked out and sitting on my bedside bookshelf. I don’t know when I’ll get to it but I may make it one of my two remaining “Reader’s Choice” picks for 20 Books of Summer.

Have you read anything by Elly Griffiths? Do you like your mysteries on the cozier side or the more realistic side?

(This is the third book I’ve written about so far from my 20 Books of Summer challenge list.)

 

 

 

 

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel (20 Books of Summer #2)

Lilia knelt by the side table between the beds, extracted the hotel room Bible from the top drawer and opened it to the Sixty-ninth Psalm, fumbled in the drawer for a motel pen. She wrote fast and scrawling over the text on the page, I am not missing. Stop searching for me. I want to stay with my father. Stop searching for me. Leave me alone. She signed her name and her hand was shaking, because there were still people in the world who wanted her found: she had been leaving this message in motel-room Bibles for so long now, so long, and the messages were reaching no one. It was like throwing messages in bottles in the ocean, but the bottles were drifting far from shore.

6105964I’ve had Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal on my TBR list for four years now, ever since I read Station Eleven (still one of my favorite books.) It was her first novel, published in 2009. It felt like a first novel to me. Parts of it were gripping, parts of it were lovely, parts of it made me roll my eyes. Overall I enjoyed it and the last half made up for some of the flaws of the first half.

The novel opens with Eli, a perpetual student working on his unfinished and overdue thesis. He is gradually realizing that his girlfriend, Lilia, has left him for good and not just slipped out to get the newspaper as she had said on her way out. We learn more about Lilia and Eli, how they came together, and then we dive into Lilia’s past. It turns out she’s been leaving places and people for a very long time, ever since she was a little girl and she left her mother’s house in the middle of a snowy night, running into the arms and waiting car of her father. A life spent growing up on the road, pretending to be home-schooled (while actually getting a pretty good education; her father cared deeply for her and quizzed her, took her to libraries, bought her books, taught her languages.) She has been moving for so long it’s all she knows. She doesn’t know how to put down roots in a city or in a relationship for more than just a few months.

While we travel along with young Lilia and her father from hotel to hotel, there is another person traveling not far behind: a private investigator her mother has hired, named Christopher. He’s in a crumbling marriage and he and his wife are in the running for Crappiest Parent of the Year. His daughter, Michaela, becomes just an afterthought as he gets more and more obsessed with Lilia’s case. In turn, Michaela becomes obsessed with the young woman who has taken away her father’s attentions. The past becomes present as Eli and an adult Michaela become acquainted during Eli’s desperate hunt for Lilia.

I liked elements of this story very much: the scenes from the road with Lilia and her father, the scenes of the night she ran away from home (or was she kidnapped? We find out more as the story unfolds.) There’s a bit of a mystery to the beginning of Lilia’s story (Why is there broken glass in the snow? Why does Lilia have scars on her arms?) And the hunt for Lilia at the end, with Eli and Michaela coming closer, that part’s interesting. Michaela is a compelling character, so wrecked by the neglect of her parents and her own obsession with Lilia.

41BnT+ssNUL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_What I didn’t like was a certain preciousness to the characterization of Lilia – she was a “manic pixie girl” who bewitched Eli.  (Her hair was dark and cut unevenly, in a way that he found secretly thrilling; he knew that when it got too long she cut it herself, fast and carelessly, not necessarily in the presence of a mirror.) And the scenes of Christopher’s family life when Michaela was younger were annoying and ridiculous. He and his wife met because their parents were in the traveling circus together (?!?) and he wouldn’t confront his wife when he finds a stranger cuff link and TIE in his bedroom(!?) I couldn’t buy the extent to which he abandoned his daughter in pursuit of Lilia either. I just didn’t believe it.

All in all, though, this was an entertaining book, especially the second half. Michaela is playing with Eli to get some information he has on Lilia’s past, and she won’t tell him where Lilia is until she gets it. Yet they seem to form an oddly moving bond with one another. I have to say that the ending surprised me. Mandel plays with multiple time frames and perspectives in this novel as she did so brilliantly in Station Eleven, so I can see the seeds of her later style here.  While flawed, I’m certainly glad I read Last Night; I intend to read her other two novels written in between this and Station Eleven.

Have you read this or any of Mandel’s novels?

(Last Night in Montreal is the second book I’ve reviewed for my 20 Books of Summer reading challenge.)

Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou (Classics Club Review #3; 20 Books of Summer #1)

It’s only been in the last couple of years that I realized that Maya Angelou had written more than one memoir (her most famous one, the one most likely assigned in school, is the first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.) And then somehow I started reading them out of order – me, the person who is a stickler for reading mystery series in order! So I’ve read the first, many years ago, and then the third and the fifth more recently. Gather Together in My Name (published in 1974) is the second of her memoirs, and it takes up where Caged Bird leaves off. It’s post-WWII San Francisco/Oakland and teenage mother Maya (Marguerite, shortened to Rita for a short-lived job as a Creole cook) is determined to make her way in the world  with as little help as possible from her mother. In doing so she finds ways to make money that are surprising to say the least.

This is a slim book and covers a lot of ground for a time span of just a few years in her life. Maya/Rita has lived more lives than any one person ever really should – here she is a cook, a waitress, a dancer/entertainer, a madam (yes, you read that right!,) a prostitute, a chauffeur, and nearly enlists in the Army. She also goes back to Stamps, Arkansas, the tiny place where she grew up with her grandmother, on the run from her time as a madam. (Things are a little different in Stamps between whites and blacks, to say the least, and she ends up getting quickly sent back to California for her safety after offending a white store clerk.)

Gather Together is a darker volume than the third and fifth books. I had to keep reminding myself that Maya was a 17 year-old single mother, with the judgement/naivety of a 17 year-old. She keeps falling in love with men who aren’t good for her, and she has the mentality (probably common in the late 1940’s) that a man is going to rescue her and  her child and allow her to be a homemaker.

He would be a little younger than my father, and handsome in that casual way. His conservative clothes would fit well, and he’d talk to me softly and look at me penetratingly. He’d often pat me and tell me how proud he was of me and I’d strain to make him even prouder. We would live quietly in a pretty little house and I’d have another child, a girl, and the two children (whom he’d love equally) would climb over his knees and I would make three-layer caramel cakes in my electric kitchen until they went off to college.

With all of her travels, adventures, and lucky escapes, one thing that struck me was how her son, Guy, was passed around from caretaker to caretaker, and she left him for long stretches with women who she paid to look after him. During her time as a prostitute, she leaves him in the care of a woman named Big Mary. After an extended absence caring for her mother and brother Bailey, Maya returns to collect Guy only to find that Big Mary’s house is boarded up and she’s moved to parts unknown with Maya’s baby in tow. A neighbor watching from her house tells Maya that Big Mary has a brother in Bakersfield. With only that as a tip a distraught Maya manages to track down her Guy, who by this time is three years old.

He took a fistful of my hair and twisted and pulled, crying all the time. I couldn’t untangle the hair or pull my head away. I stood holding him while he raged at being abandoned. My sobs broke free on the waves of my first guilt. I had loved him and never considered that he was an entire person. Separate from my boundaries, I had not know before that he had and would have a life beyond being my son, my pretty baby, my cute doll, my charge. In the plowed farmyard near Bakersfield, I began to understand the uniqueness of that person. He was three and I was nineteen, and never again would I think of him as a beautiful appendage of myself.

Poor Guy! I am glad that I read this because I want to read all of her memoirs, but this one wasn’t one of my favorites so far, probably because young Maya is an unappealing  combination of naive, snobby, and headstrong. She gets herself into some insane situations by virtue of ignorance, misplaced self-confidence, and desperation to be loved.  As usual, the writing is elegant and thoughtful, if a tad detached. For me it wasn’t as captivating a read as the third (Singin’ and Swingin’ And Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas) and fifth (All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.) But of course Maya is older in these books and has more about herself and the world figured out, and they both are set in interesting locales all over the world. I was shocked to read about the things young Maya did, knowing what we all know about the dignified, insightful, talented writer and poet she became, the lady who read poetry at President Clinton’s first inauguration. It’s a remarkable testament to the power of people to learn, grow, and change over the course of their lives.

(This is the third of my reviews for my Classics Club list and the first book of this year’s 20 Books of Summer Challenge.)