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.)

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.

31434883Oh my goodness, I loved this book. I had heard so much buzz about it that I didn’t know what to expect. When a book blows up like this one has it is sometimes a disappointment. Sometimes I avoid reading such a book in a perverse bit of book snobbery. If I had done so with Eleanor Oliphant, I would have missed out on one of my favorite books of the year so far, and it would have been a real shame.

This book is not what you think it is, even once you start digging into it. It starts off kind of quirky in tone, and you think maybe it’s lighter and fluffier than it turns out to be. It quickly becomes warm and wise, deeper and more life-affirming than I had anticipated. Eleanor is quite a character. She has constructed her life with precision to cut herself off from other humans as much as possible in today’s world and still hold a job. She holes up in her flat over the weekend with a couple of bottles of vodka and drinks slowly to dull her pain until Monday morning when she gets up and goes to work again. She is desperately lonely, however, talking to her houseplant Polly (the only possession she had saved from her childhood.)

I talk to her sometimes, I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.

But Eleanor is not pathetic. She is smart with a cutting wit and is a character that I was instantly drawn to. She doesn’t bother with the little societal niceties that make an office or most social interactions run smoothly. She doesn’t see the point, frankly. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to be on the autism spectrum or not, but in any case, she isn’t really like most people.

And we soon see why. Little hints here and there are dropped about her past. She’s has a trauma, social workers check in on her bi-annually, and she has weekly conversations with her “Mummy” which are truly awful. Mummy is horrible and cruel. Initially I wondered, why on earth does she even talk to her once a week? Well, we come to find out a lot about Mummy and Eleanor’s past. It’s horrific, and we can see why she so desperately wants to cut herself off from other human beings and numb her feelings with a slow drip of vodka.

But things change in Eleanor’s life – the new IT guy at work, Raymond, inserts himself into her life in an affable, friendly way, and when the two happen to witness an older man, Sammy, collapse in the middle of the street, they team up to help get him the medical attention he needs. She also develops a rather intense crush on a rock singer she sees when she wins an office raffle of tickets to a concert. She is convinced that she’s found the man for her. It’s the kind of crush I has when I was 12 or 13. As she starts stalking the singer in her free time, Raymond and Sammy slowly thaw Eleanor’s defenses and draw her into an actual life. But Eleanor’s past, the things she can’t or won’t deal with, won’t let her go towards happiness easily…

This novel ends on a hopeful note, and when I finished I was tempted to flip back to the beginning and start again. I can definitely see myself reading this again in the future. It’s not exactly a “feel-good” read; it’s too sad and weighty to be considered that. But it is what I call a “life-affirming” read. This is a story of a woman who is not really living who slowly is pulled into something resembling a life, with genuine human connections and investment in herself. I really appreciated the way that Honeyman didn’t manipulate the reader. She lets the reader do the work of feeling things for herself instead of pulling the heart strings with maudlin sentimentality. And the fact that I never pitied Eleanor speaks volumes about the author’s affection for her character.

I highly recommend this novel, if this sounds at all like something you’d be interested in. Yes, everyone and her aunt’s book club is reading it, and Reese Witherspoon’s production company has optioned it, but there is much here to savor: a character you can truly root for and sharp commentary about the modern epidemic of loneliness.

 

They Had Library Holds: An American Marriage and Red Clocks Mini-Reviews

Egads, I’m SO behind on reviews. I’m tempted to throw in the towel and forget about them, but these two books are SO GOOD that I feel like I can’t in good conscience move on without writing just a little bit about them. I had to turn in my library copies of these a couple of weeks ago, so I have no quotatations to share with you, unfortunately. But they both made such an impression on me that I am confident I’ll be including them on my year end Top Ten list.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones intimidated me at first. I worried it would be too depressing for me to handle. While it certainly was sad, it wasn’t hopeless by any means. It’s about a young African American couple, married for a year and a half before the unthinkable happens. Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

61D-QSBXV+LNewlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. 

What I loved about this novel was that it was so nuanced, so complex. Everyone in it was believable, flawed, human. I never felt like there was one person that I was supposed to “root for,” other than to have the injustice of Roy’s conviction overturned. This was an intimate portrayal of a marriage in the most dire of circumstances. Celestial and Roy were fully formed characters and I believed all of their actions and dialogue. Despite the shocking plot event that forms the central story arc, this was a character study. I read this rather quickly and was very impressed by the quality of the writing. I will definitely have to read Tayari Jones again. Once again, Oprah picked a winner!

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas was a surprise for me. I thought it would be more sci-fi/dystopian than it turned out to be. It’s really literary fiction set in a slightly different reality than the one we are in right now. Here’s the blurb:

51Hq-siMA7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

This is a hard novel to describe. I see on Goodreads it seems to be polarizing. I loved it because I loved the raw honesty with which these women’s lives were portrayed. I may have felt more affinity with certain characters, like Ro, the single high school teacher desperately trying to have a baby but wondering why she’s trying so hard, or Susan, the housewife and mother who feels unchallenged and underappreciated by her family role. Others, like Mattie, the pregnant teenager, and Eivor, the unknown 19th century explorer that Ro is trying to write a biography of, felt a bit underdeveloped. But the book as a whole worked for me because I was invested in these women’s lives, and it was scary how plausible their reproductive nightmare scenario is to being reality. This was a world just like ours except that abortion is illegal and in-vitro is banned; Ro is desperate to get pregnant partly because in a matter of months it will be illegal for single women to adopt children as well (because two parents are best, of course.) I think Susan and maybe Ro both mused about how things changed so quickly in America, and that they regretted not doing more, not being more involved in the protests. But ultimately this is a novel not about politics but about women, women’s bodies and desires and agency. I didn’t always agree with their choices but I was enthralled by them. Here’s another author I clearly need to catch up on.

Have you read either one of these, or are they on your TBR list? What do you when (if) you get behind on reviews? Mini-reviews or just move on and forget about them?

 

20 Books of Summer (Finally!)

20-booksI’m still playing catch-up from May, where my blogging zest seemed to have left me. Thankfully it has returned and once again I’m taking part in Cathy’s annual 20 Books of Summer challenge. This time I’m once again going for 20 books, despite not completing my list either year I’ve participated. I guess I just look at the number 20 as more of a suggestion than a rule, ha ha! I’m not worried about whether or not I finish all of them, mostly I just want to get some books crossed off my TBR list and enjoy myself!

Here is my list:

  1. Last Night in Montreal – Emily St. John Mandel
  2. Shadowshaper – D.J. Older
  3. The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths
  4. Little Fires Everywhere – Celest Ng
  5. The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race – edited by Jessmyn Ward (my book group’s pick for June)
  6. The Power – Naomi Alderman
  7. The Radium Girls – Kate Moore
  8. The Enchanted April – Elizabeth Von Arnim (a Classics Club list choice)
  9. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline – George Saunders
  10. The Bird’s Nest – Shirley Jackson (Classics Club)
  11. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary – Sarah Manguso
  12. Wizard and Glass (Dark Tower #4) – Stephen King (I abandoned this in the spring because it’s huge and it had library holds on it. I’m determined to get it again and finish it!)
  13. Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin (Classics Club)
  14. Dear Martin – Nic Stone
  15. Binti– Nnedi Okorafor
  16. READER’S CHOICE, according to mood (I can do this because it’s my list.)
  17. READER’S CHOICE
  18. READER’S CHOICE
  19. July Book Group Pick
  20. August Book Group Pick

The last five open slots on the list give me the flexibility I need as a mood reader. Plus, I’m a good book group member and almost always read the book, whatever it may be.

Have you read any of my picks, or are any of them on your TBR lists?

Road Trip: Parnassus Books and U2 in Nashville

img_2087Thank you all so much for your kind words of condolence about Cleo. In contrast to my last sad post, I wanted to share my wonderful road trip experience to Nashville over Memorial Day weekend. I got to complete one of my 40 For 40 goals, which was to visit Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore co-founded and co-owned by author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Commonwealth, etc.) And later that night my husband and I went to Bridgestone Arena to see my favorite band in the whole wide world, U2!

First, the bookstore. It’s tucked away in an average sort of strip mall (bonus: a yummy local donut shop at the other end, Fox’s Donut Den!) It was just starting to rain as we pulled into the parking lot, so it made for the perfect excuse to linger as long as I wanted. My husband was prepared for me to be there a while. 🙂img_2088img_2090

It’s truly a book lover’s place. A nice, varied selection for a small-ish space, tastefully decorated and inviting with a small seating area in the middle. There are little cards with book recommendations all over the store and you truly feel like the employees care about books. Plus, they have book shop dogs! I was hoping that the long-haired dachshund named Mary Todd Lincoln would be there, but I got to see sweet 16 year-old Bear instead, and he was lovely. (By the way, I felt kind of like a loon taking pictures all the while I was in there, but I guess they’re probably used to that from us book-blog types.)img_2097

There’s a terrific children’s section and also a whole lot of book-related paraphernalia, like pins, notecards, socks, shirts, totes, etc. Also, there were these cute, random tiny badgers (which were not for sale.)img_2094

I ended up with five books, a Parnassus t-shirt, and a Sense and Sensibility pin. My book haul consisted of John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson, Stephanie Powell Watt’s We Are Taking Only What We Need, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.

After the donut store and a rest back at the hotel, it was time to head downtown for dinner and the concert. We used Uber for the first time (it was easy and we were so glad not to have to fight traffic and find a place to park!) Downtown Nashville on a Saturday night on Memorial Day Weekend was nuts. I’d never been to lower Broadway before,which is lined with honky-tonks and bars, and I couldn’t believe all the people, specifically, all the drunk people! Not my scene for sure, but I’m glad people were having a good time! Made for some entertaining people watching. Our meal at The Stillery was delicious, and they make a good mason jar cocktail (I had the Stillery Sour.) Finally it was time to see U2!!

It was a sell-out show and the crowd was super excited. I saw so many old tour t-shirts that I knew a lot of the audience were super fans. I’ve been lucky enough to see them play three times before, but I hadn’t seen them since 2005 (!) because of, well, life. And the fact that sometimes they don’t come anywhere withing easy driving distance of me.

img_2120The show was beautiful. It was unlike previous concerts of their’s I’d seen because it was more like a play. They told a story of their beginnings (Innocence) to some wild days (Experience) and back again to Innocence. It was a very personal show for Bono, especially, as he talked a lot about his mother and some of his faults and follies as the band became famous. Then as the show wound down they also wove in current politics in the US and the world, using their hits “Pride” and “One” and some of the newer songs on their latest album (Songs of Experience) to argue for the rebirth of the idea of America as a light and hope for the world. While “Pride” played they showed images of the Women’s Marches and other progressive marches on the huge screen that almost ran the length of the arena and it was very inspiring. I got chills during that song and my eyes teared up. It never fails to thrill me.

So our one day adventure in Nashville was a blast. I am so glad that I got to cross one of my 40 For 40 items off my list! If you’re in Nashville for any reason definitely stop by Parnassus Books. They host so many author events each month that if I lived over there I’d be in there all the time!

Have you been to Nashville before? Have you read any of the books I bought? What’s your favorite U2 song, or your favorite kind of donut? 🙂

A Cat Named Cleo

I am very sad tonight. We had our cat Cleo put to sleep today. She was 13, not super old for a cat, but old enough. She developed a cluster of health challenges rather suddenly, and she was in pain and not herself. My husband and I were with her at the end, and the good people at our vet clinic were as kind as I could have ever hoped for. (God bless vets and vet technicians!)

img_2132Cleo came to me as a stray street kitten. One day I was visiting my mom’s house, stepped out of my car, and there was this little fluffball, gray and peach and white (what I would later learn was called a Tortie), meowing up at me. At the time I was totally broke and couldn’t afford to take her to the vet to get shots and rid of fleas, so I asked my mom’s neighbor to keep an eye on her for a week or so till my next payday. When the payday rolled around I took her to the vet and brought her home. I’ll never forget watching the fleas just drop off of her and die from the medicine they gave her. She slept most of that day and then started bouncing off the walls as kittens do, playing with and getting used to my other cat at the time, the unflappable and dignified tabby Gus.

img_2130A few months later I started dating the man who would become my husband. Two years later we would all move to our new house. Three years after that, my son was born and five weeks later sweet Gus kitty passed away. I don’t think Cleo was quite right in the head after those events. She was an anxious, vocal, possessive kitty. She loved me fiercely and I loved her, even as challenging as she could be.

Here are some things I want to remember about Cleo:

She always wanted to be in my lap at night, any time I sat down. If I reclined she would get up on my chest and fall asleep.

She had the softest fur. She was 90% fur, I think.

She was beautiful.

img_2131She could be hateful to anyone besides the three of us who live here. We had to put her up in my bedroom when we had company over. But she was still a sweet kitty to me.

She loved to go outside and eat grass.

She never was much good at killing bugs. I always wanted her to take care of them for me, but she’d just kind of half-heartedly bat away at it for a minute and then lose interest.

She loved to sit in the window and watch the birds. She made the funniest little squeak when she saw them close by.

She was such good company at night, when my son is asleep and my husband at work. It’s awfully quiet and empty feeling in here tonight. It’s gonna take some adjusting to not having a cat in the house for the first time ever. I know that we will get another cat some day, but we will never EVER have another cat quite like our crazy Cleo. She had a good life for a one-time street kitten. Rest in peace, Cleo, and have fun catching up with Gus up there. I’ll miss you.

Two Awesome Audio Books: We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Confession time: I don’t really like to write about audio books.  I like to listen to them but I balk at writing reviews of them. Why? Because I don’t take notes. I’m almost always driving in my car or doing dishes when I’m listening to them, so I don’t want to stop and get a piece of paper and a pen and write things down like I do when I’m sitting and reading a paper book.

Because I don’t take notes, I feel like I can’t give a detailed review of the book. So I just listen, hopefully enjoy, count them in my Goodreads total, and move on.

Today, however, I feel compelled to let you know about my two most recent audio book adventures. These books are so outstanding that I know I will include them in my end-of-the-year Best Of list. The first is Gabrielle Union’s memoir We’re Going to Need More Wine. I have to be honest, I’m not exactly sure why I listened to this. I don’t think I’d even seen one of her movies or shows before I picked this up! But it was available in my library’s digital nonfiction audio collection, and I saw that one of my Goodreads friends had rated it highly, so I thought, Why not?

51lTCeNTXNL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_What a woman! She is strong in the best way a person can be strong: by being vulnerable, showing her flaws and admitting her mistakes. She covers a lot of ground in these stories. She covers her childhood, growing up in a predominantly white, conservative town in California, dealing with clueless white classmates who are sometimes horribly racist without “meaning to be.” She writes about her disastrous first marriage, being a recovering “mean girl,” the importance of having money of her own, experiences on various movie sets she’s worked on, her sweet dog, Bubba Sparks, and so much more. She is smart and thoughtful and unapologetic about her owning her sexuality. These are really stories where you feel like a friend is telling you these things over a glass of wine, getting real with you so that she can impart some wisdom from learned experience. I don’t remember if she uses the word “feminist” at all in the narrative, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call her a feminist. She is a strong woman who wants other women to take care of their minds, hearts, and bodies, and to lift up other women. These stories were entertaining, sometimes funny and occasionally sad, and I loved 29780258them.

When I finished Union’s book, I thought that perhaps it was the best celebrity memoir I’d ever read. Until I started listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this from everyone I know who’s read it. I waited on my library’s hold list for months before I finally got it, and it’s worth the wait! I’m actually not finished listening yet – I’m on the last disc! But it is absolutely riveting. Not only is his delivery unbeatable, but his personal story is just fascinating. He managed to weave in so much historical and sociological information about South African and Apartheid. I learned that there’s a LOT I don’t know about that place and time, and even the aftermath of Apartheid, when Mandela came to power. I had no idea how codified and rigid Apartheid was. I had no idea of all the ethnic groups and languages contained in South Africa. So besides being entertained, I’m definitely learning! Noah’s very existence is unlikely with the way the races were kept apart. One anecdote he shared that stuck with me was how he later met other “colored” (what South Africans call mixed-race people) South Africans around his age who were expats. It blew his mind that his mother could have theoretically left South Africa and raised him elsewhere, somewhere that didn’t operate under the dark cloud of overt racism. He said something like, Imagine you fell out of an airplane and broke every bone in your body in the landing. You spent years and years healing from all the damage done to your body and spirit, and then someone told you about the existence of parachutes. That was how he felt when he realized that his life could have been different if he grew up in Europe or somewhere else. Noah’s mother is a force of nature, a strong and powerful woman who, despite an abusive marriage to Noah’s stepfather, raised a smart, compassionate son. Noah doesn’t shy away from describing his faults, though, especially delving into his youth as a petty criminal and a brief but harrowing stint in jail. This audio book is truly a MUST LISTEN. Even if you aren’t familiar with Noah’s work (which I’m not really) or you normally don’t read celebrity memoirs, I encourage you to give this a try.

Have you read or listened to either one of these? What kinds of audio books do you like, or do you enjoy them at all? Do you write reviews of the audio books you listen to, and if so, do you take notes on them? Let’s chat in the comments.