Speak

41WvR8-CBULThis year is starting with a big bang with and excellent five-star YA novel.  I finally chose one that is living up to my expectations and isn’t a long puffed up series.  The story is about Melinda Sordino.  She’s starting her first year of high school and no one is speaking to her, including her best friends.  An incident from summer has plunged her into silence and it seems she is doomed to speak no more.  Even though she is silent, she is screaming inside.  It’s just nobody hears her, not her parents or her friends.  Speak took me back to high school and made think of those days when you only seemed to befriend those that were just like oneself.  Clicks were the way students got from one year to another.  You had to fit in and fit in is what most students do or at least attempt to.  However, there are those who are total outcasts for one reason or another.  Melinda is not really an outcast.  She just feels like one and is perceived as one in her surroundings.  She feels as if she’s disappearing, crumbling like an abandoned home.

Speak takes us on Melinda’s journey to express her pain and not speaking is the way she survives, literally hanging off the edge of a cliff, and hoping to be caught by a suspended net below if she falls, which doesn’t seem to come.  In spite of her pain, she is very lucid about the people and the things happening around her.  Her descriptions are blunt but absolutely correct.  As a reader you’ll love her, want to protect her, and root for her right from the start to the end.

The writing in this novel is clever, witty, and cutting at times.  The sentence structure is short, direct, very humorous and sometimes makes you want to shed a tear.  The chapters are never longer than about 3 to 3,5 pages and the shortest ones are about half a page.  At no point will this book bore you.  Actually you could read it in one sitting because it’s not very long.

At the beginning of the book Laurie Halse Anderson writes a letter to her friends.  She says, “Speak is the book I wasn’t going to write.  Why would I want to revisit the agonies of adolescence?  Wasn’t that the point of surviving to adulthood—-so I could block out the traumas of being a teenager?…..So I tried.  I wrote the book.  I never thought anyone would publish it.  I never dreamed it would earn any awards.  I never imagined it would be taught in schools,…This has all been an unexpected, remarkable ride.” (Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak)  This is a really wonderful book and everybody should read it.  It will make you think.  It will make you see. It will make you cry, but most of all it will make you listen.

Laurie Halse Anderson is an American author known for writing about difficult topics like dysfunctional families, body image, rape, etc.  She tackles these topics originally and honestly.  She writes primarily for young adults and children.  Her first novel Speak was published in 1999 and led her to win the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults selection, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize,the Printz Honor Book Award, and a  National Book Award nomination among others.  Some of the other young adult novels she has written are Catalyst, Prom, Twisted and Chains.  Her first children’s novel, Ndito Runs, was published in 1996.  Turkey Pox, No Time for Mother’s Day, The Big Cheese of Third Street and many others have followed.  I’m definitely going to try to read some of her other YA novels because she really is a brilliant writer who knows how to capture the emotions of a situation.  Great read!!  Check out the video below where she reads a very moving poem related to this book.

Title: Speak

Published: 1999

Edition: Penguin Platinum (Beautiful edition with deckle edge paper!)

Pages:  198

My Rating: * * * * *

Favorite quote:  “Art without emotion is like chocolate cake without sugar.  It makes you gag.” (Speak, p. 122)

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race

It was approximately five months ago that my book club was speaking about race since we were discussing Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I found myself being the unique reference since I was the only black person in the room.  Scary. That brought home the idea that black people are not a monolith.Everybody else is white and the majority are from the UK.  Surprisingly enough, the subject of race and the UK came up as they all declared themselves disappointed with America’s outward racism since 45 being elected.  They then came to the conclusion that class was more of a divide in the UK than race.  I was surprised to hear this because the few black people I’ve known from the UK always said that race was largely the issue.  Not being able to speak knowledgeably about the UK’s race issues, I remained silent on that one, while silently suspecting that they were giving the UK a bit too much credit on the race issue.

Contrary to the title  Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race,  I find myself img_4073having to do it more frequently, since I’ve been living in France for over 20+ years.  Here nobody wants to bring up the subject of race.  The French are living in a race Disneyland in their heads.  They never question the lack of racial diversity on television, in politics, in schools, and in the hierarchy of big business.  Everything is hunky dory here.  France has quite a way to go before they begin to just scratch the surface of their race issues.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was an engrossing and informative read touching on race in the UK.  This book was developed from a blog post Reni Eddo-Lodge had written on 22 February 2014 about her difficulty to speak about race with white people.

“I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race.  Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms.  I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience.  You can see their eyes shut down and harden.  It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals.  It’s like they can no longer hear us.” (Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, p. ix) White people not being interested in hearing about race problems was very similar to what Michael Eric Dyson described in Tears We Cannot Cry:  A Sermon to White America.

This book is her detailed extension of that blog post.  It reminds the reader that black American story has taken over and become the story that is learned in the UK, while the black British story being neglected.  So neglected that the average British person probably isn’t aware of how blacks really got to Britain nor how much race as also shaped the UK.  It opens with a powerful preface, introducing you to Eddo-Lodge’s voice –  insightful and punctilious.   The book is separated into seven chapters, Chapter 1 beginning with the history of Britain – colonialism and slavery.  The other chapters cover the system, white privilege, mixed race people, feminism, and finally race and class.  The very last chapter is uplifting and gives both white and black people ideas on how to deal with discussions about race.  Basically, we have to choose our battles carefully.

“Racism does not go both ways.  There are unique forms of discrimination that are backed up by entitlement, assertion and, most importantly, supported by structural power strong enough to scare you into complying with the demands of the status quo.  We have to recognize this.” (Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Racep. 98)

If you’re still not sure about reading Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, click the video below and listen to Reni Eddo-Lodge talking about it.  It’ll give you an even better overview of the topics she covers.

My copy:  Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race,  paperback, 224 pages

My rating:  * * * * *

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Hunger A Memoir of (My) Body

According to my electronic dictionary, hunger means a feeling of discomfort or weakness caused by lack of food, coupled with the desire to eat or a strong desire or craving.  I must say that Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger A Memoir of (My) Body was named appropriately.  She has a hunger but so did I as a reader and lover of her writing.  I have to admit I didn’t love Difficult Women.  I couldn’t understand the emphasis on these lost women who found themselvesimg_4070 in the most appalling situations.  I kept asking myself why.

I have read all of Gay’s works, except An Untamed State.  It is the novel I seem to be putting off.  I have been anticipating its true life brutally; even more now that I’ve read Hunger.  Nevertheless, I will be reading it and completing Gay’s list of writing.  I feel that now having finished Hunger, I understand her a bit more and can bring myself to accept the brutality and authenticity of her writing with my eyes wide open.  Difficult Women presented me a real challenge, as did Hunger.

Hunger is a confession of sorts.  It discusses sexual assault and recovering from that horrible experience alone.  It also discusses being a big woman and all the challenges that she faces from society and family.  Gay gave me a lot to think about in this memoir – everything from fat shaming, to eating disorders, to dating, family, and more.  She BREAKS it down!  There were things she speaks about in Hunger that I can relate to because I am also a big woman.  When she said “It is a powerful lie to equate thinness with self-worth.” (Hunger, p. 135), I just wanted to rent a billboard and have that phrase written on it.

The best thing about this novel for me was its natural perfect progression.  It begins and ends with the right tone.  We learn quite a lot about Gay’s feelings on many different subjects and I commend her for her raw openness.  She is brave, yet vulnerable.  I couldn’t begin to imagine how honest this memoir was going to be.  She is unbiased and unabashedly honest about some of the deepest problems in her life.  Hunger is a way for Gay to exorcise those demons from her past.  I’d like to think this memoir could help some people out there to accept and understand themselves better and to get help if they need it.

“I am realizing I am not worthless. Knowing that feels good.  My sad stories will always be there. I am going to keep telling them even though I hate having the stories to tell.  These sad stories will always weigh on me, though that burden lessens the more  I realize  who I am and what I am worth.” (Hunger, p. 251)

I read this book while listening to the audiobook with Roxane Gay’s voice – stong, unflinching and expressive.  She manages to make the reader smirk and smile despite the seriousness of the memoir.  She even uses pop culture and real examples, in order to make her thoughts crystal clear.  I recommend listening to the audiobook if you’re thinking about reading Hunger.  I’d even suggest reading Hunger first even if you haven’t read any of her other works.  Watch the video below where Roxane Gay is interviewed in Australia about Difficult Women.  It’s EXCELLENT!  Roxane Gay doesn’t sugar coat anything and that’s what makes her so awe-inspiring.

My copy:  Hunger  A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay (Harper Collins), p. 304

My rating:  * * * * *

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He Never Came Home – Interview with the author Regina R. Robertson

I must admit the first time I saw this cover and read this title I was immediately drawn in and was curious to see what this book was all about.  As soon as, I realized that it was a collection of essays written by women recounting life living without their fathers and their sometimesimg_3775 subsequent and turbulent reunions, I knew it was for me.  It’s the first time in a very long time that the back cover of a novel as truly spoken to me.  It was calling me.  Of course it was, since I too am a woman who grew up without my father.  I’m so glad I took the time to read it, ponder it, and even shed tears over it.  This is a must read for everybody.  Read below and discover Regina R. Robertson’s answers to my interview questions about her poignant debut novel He Never Came Home.

Me:  How did you get into writing?
Regina:  When I think back, I can admit that I was always a bit of a “closet writer.” As a kid, I spent a great deal of afterschool time at the library, read lots of books and was completely head-over-heels in love with magazines. I also loved my English classes. Oh, and I’m very proud to say that I was a master of sentence diagramming!

I studied marketing in college and after graduation, I landed my first “real job” at a record company. There, I did a lot of writing – marketing plans and such – and over time, I noticed that my writing stood out. That was probably the first time the “light bulb” switched on for me. Until then, I just assumed that everybody knew how to write.

After leaving the world of music and moving from New York to Los Angeles, I did some job-hopping in the film marketing and advertising industries. My paychecks covered the bills, to a point, but I wasn’t happy, at all. Then, on one fateful day in January 2001, I was fired from a job that I really hated. My immediate thought was, “What do you want to do with your life, like seriously? What will make you happy?” Because I’d always loved magazines, I figured I’d try my hand at writing for my favorite publications. My first writing assignments were press releases and artist bios…and I just kept building from there.

Me:  Could you tell my readers how He Never Came Home came to be?
Regina: He Never Came Home began its journey to publication as a 1,500-word article I wrote for Honey magazine entitled, “Where’s Daddy?” For that story, I interviewed three women who grew up without their fathers as well as an author who’d written a book on the subject and a psychologist. After the article ran (in October 2002), a colleague of mine, Tresa L. Sanders, asked why I hadn’t thought to interview her. Although I didn’t know her family history at the time, her question made me wonder how many other women saw their upbringing reflected in that story. That’s when I had the first thought about writing a book. Oh, and Tresa’s heartfelt story, “He Always Said, ‘I Love You,’” is featured in He Never Came Home, page 107.

More than a decade after that Honey article was published – and after enduring my fair share of rejection and many, many starts-and-stops – I scored a book deal, finally, and began my search for (and found) 21 brave women who trusted me to share their stories. So, it’s been quite a long road.

Me:  How did you go about writing the stories that were told to you? Was it difficult to do?
Regina:  Writing and editing the as-told-to stories was rather seamless. The biggest challenge was working around everybody’s schedule, but it was manageable. We got it done.

For these stories, I either hopped on the phone (with my out-of-town contributors) or scheduled a time for a sit-down (with my Los Angeles-based contributors). After each interview, I’d do my transcribing and think about where I wanted to start. Once I had the opening mapped out, I’d send along a few paragraphs to the contributor and ask, “Did I get it right? Is this your voice? Are those the facts?” Thankfully, the feedback was mostly along the lines of, “Yup, that’s what happened,” or “Wow, that really does sound like me!” From there, I’d continue crafting the story and we’d go back-and-forth with editing. In the case of Regina King (whose essay is entitled, “Redefining Family”), we were editing while she was juggling two, primetime shows and also, winning Emmy Awards! There were a few times when I’d missed a fact or didn’t understand a piece of a story, so I might have a quick follow-up call or a few frantic email exchanges.

Once I was all done, I sent the final version to the contributor and said, “Okay, this is what’s going in the manuscript…what do you think?” Each of my contributors were happy with the way their stories were told, even the tough parts. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure that everybody had the space to tell their story and “hear” their own voice when they read it.

Me:  The pacing of He Never Came Home was perfect. How did you decide the order of the stories?
Regina:  Writing and editing the book was therapeutic, but also quite taxing, emotionally. Once all of the stories were written and edited, I was actually quite excited about the sequencing process.

My plan had always been to section the book into three categories – distant, divorced, deceased. If I recall correctly, I whipped up the table of contents in a few hours, in a single day. I knew I wanted to open with a young woman’s voice, so I gave that slot to Niko Amber (“The Birthday Present”). Then I thought maybe my essay (“Death of a Stranger”) might be a good way to close the collection. From there, I looked over the list of contributors and thought about how their stories might flow together. Although everybody’s circumstances are different, I started to see that there was some “connective tissue,” if you will.

After I submitted the manuscript, my publisher thought the sequence was perfect! So, I’d say that writing the table of contents was the easiest part of my publishing journey!

Me:  He Never Came Home is your first book.  Will you be writing any fiction novels in the future or other non-fiction novels?
Regina:  Yes, He Never Came Home is my first book…and there are more to come! I’m definitely thinking about what I’d like to write about next, but I’m also trying to catch my breath. The publishing process is intense – worth it, of course, but intense! So, for now, I’m tossing around a few ideas and mapping out my next book proposal…in my head.

Me: Will you be exploring this theme of missing fathers in future novels?
Regina:  We shall see what comes to mind.

Me:  How has He Never Came Home been received by the public and in literary circles?
Regina:  So far, the response has been amazing. I’ve received such positive feedback from women, many of whom have shared with me their personal stories, whether on social media, at book signings or just out in the world. I’ve been quite surprised by the amount of feedback I’ve received from men, too. In fact, I had a man tell me that reading the book made him “want to be a better man.” That was really touching.

In literary circles, the response has been quite positive as well. Again, I’ve received such interesting feedback from men. Whether they are fathers or uncles or brothers, so many men were moved by the stories and seemed to have found some enlightenment about how important their presence is.

Me:  Would you consider making He Never Came Home in documentary form?
Regina:  Absolutely…and fingers crossed!

Me:  How and why did you get Joy-Ann Reid to write the foreword?
Regina:  During the entire time I was writing and editing the book, I was thinking about who I’d like to pen the foreword. As I got closer to my deadline, I started panicking. One of my contributors, Wendy L. Wilson – whose essay is entitled “That Day in April” and with whom I’d worked during her tenure as the News Editor at Essence – sent me a note suggesting Joy-Ann Reid.

In short, Joy-Ann had recently lost her mostly-absent dad and wrote a very personal Facebook status about how she felt about his passing as well as the ways his absence affected her family. When I read her words, my first thought was, “Wow, this piece could have been in the book.” Then I thought, “Wait…of course she should write the foreword!” After asking around, I found my way to her within about a week’s time and sent her an email outlining the project and asked if she might have time to talk. We scheduled a call, she heard my long-winded spiel – ha! – and she was onboard, which completely blew me away.

I sent her the manuscript and in response, she crafted the most wonderful opening for the book. Again, I was completely blown away and still am, honestly. She was supportive from the start and it means so much to me that she is a part of the project. And although it might sound a bit cliché, working with Joy-Ann was an absolute joy!”

Me:  Do you feel your book will bring more attention to this problem of girls growing up without their fathers?
Regina:  The book is shedding more light on the issue, for sure, and sadly, there are so many fatherless young girls and women out in the world whom are still unpacking their feelings.

The stories in the book are triumphant, which makes me quite proud. We all made it, or are making it, and I think that’s what speaks to readers. I want people to know that no matter where you come from or what you’ve been through, there can be love and light and hope on the other side of it all.

I’d like to extend a big thank you to Regina R. Robertson for agreeing to do this interview, in spite of her extremely busy schedule.  I enjoyed our brief connections around He Never Came Home and I wish you tremendous success for He Never Came Home and for your future writing.

My copy:  He Never Came Home – Regina Robertson – paperback, 208 pages

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Here Comes the Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel explores living on the island of Jamaica.  Masquerading img_3150behind a jovial gay cover in bright orange, yellow, and green, Here Comes the Sun, starts gently and insidiously goes places we aren’t prepared for.  The novel revolves around three unlikable main characters – Delores, Margot, and Thandi, who form an unforgettable trio.  Delores is a mother preoccupied with money and not enough to the real well-being of her daughters.  Margot her oldest daughter is motivated to work in the hotel and she gets to the point of selling her body to hotel guests to earn enough money to pay for Thandi’s education and the family’s house expenses.  Thandi, Delores’ youngest daughter, is 15 years younger than Margot.  She’s brilliant in school and is searching to be loved and accepted.  All the family’s desires of escaping poverty in River Bank are tied up in the hopes of Thandi succeeding at school and eventually going to medical school to become a doctor.

The setting of this novel is River Bank a quiet little village situated near a resort hotel, where cruise ships make frequent stops with nonchalant tourists.  Life in poverty on an island can make people do things they would have never thought of doing to survive.  The way Dennis-Benn uses light and darkness to convey the moods of the characters and to set a scene is masterly.  Told with luscious language and poignant analogies, she accurately paints the picture of the horrific situations facing Jamaicans in little sleepy towns near luxurious high-rise resorts.  As I was reading this novel, it made me think of A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid and the rage that ran through the novel.

“The darkness claims her, encircles her with black walls that eventually open up into a path for her to walk through.  She takes a few steps, aware of the one foot in front of the other; of the strangeness creeping up her spine, wrapping itself around her belly, shooting up into her chest, The scent of the bougainvilleas that line the fence is like a sweet embrace. The darkness becomes a friendly accomplice. Yet, the familiar apprehension ambushes her: Can she be seen?  She looks over her shoulder  and contemplates the distance it would take for her to walk to her house from here.  A good mile.  She stands in front of the bright pink house that emerges from the shadows.  It seems to gloss in the dark….”(Here Comes the Sun, pp. 15-16)

Here Comes the Sun is a novel that mixes a good plot with excellent character development. It’s obvious that Dennis-Benn set out to depict a story showing the sociological implications of the difficulties people on the island face, while balancing the plot with pertinent themes such as homosexuality, mother/daughter relationships, colorism, sexism, class, race, missing fathers and of course the long-lasting effects of colonialism on the thoughts and behavior of the island people.  You’re probably thinking that this sounds like a lot to put in a 345 page book, but it’s brilliantly balanced, paced, and speaks clearly to the reader.

Having four generations living under the same roof was Dennis-Benn’s way of having the reader follow and understand the difficulties of each character.  Dolores is a horrible mother but her discourse is obviously that of the after effects of colonialism.  Money is the only thing that she believes will get them out of where they are.  She would subscribe to the expression – You gotta do what you gotta do.  Delores’ voice and a few of the other secondary characters like Charles, Miss Ruby, and Maxi are always in Jamaican dialect which roots the reader into the tradition of life in River Bank.  The dialect isn’t hard to understand.  Saying the lines out loud can help you understand the meaning better if you struggle with reading dialect.  Margot hiding her homosexuality, her deep hatred for her mother, and her desire to earn enough money to leave River Bank and set up elsewhere drive her throughout the story and the lengths she goes to make this happen are mind-blowing.  Thandi who has the weight on her shoulders to succeed in school to save her family from poverty and at the same time doesn’t feel accepted in her school;  has seemed to take in all the derogatory things she hears about dark skin.  “Tsk, tsk. Well, God played a cruel joke on you.  Because, chile, if yuh skin was as pretty as yuh hair, you’d be one gorgeous woman.” (Here Comes the Sun, p. 25)  Sadly, she is so sure that she’ll be accepted if her skin is lighter.

You’ll be glued from the moment you begin to read this story, anxious to find out what’s going to happen next, shocked as you’re pulled through all the twists and turns.  All the secondary characters are just as memorable as Delores, Margot, and Thandi.  The only real problem I had with Here Comes the Sun was the ending, to be exact the last chapter.  I was really disappointed to not get the closure I was hoping for once the novel was finished.  I wanted to know what happened to the characters.  Chapter 40 left me dissatisfied.  I really enjoyed all the other parts of the novel and felt they were perfect.  Unfortunately, the outcomes of the characters are left hanging and inferred.  It felt like she had no idea how to finish this book or maybe she was reluctant to end the book with all the loose ends perfectly tied up.  Could she have felt that ending the book this way shows that life goes on, as if we the readers were just witnesses to a part of these characters’ lives?  I’m wondering if maybe she plans on using these characters for another book.  That would make a great second book. 😉  So, have you read this one and if not are you interested in trying it?

My copy:   Here Comes the Sun, 345 pages

Rating: ****

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#ReadSoulLit Photo Challenge – Day 18 An Underrated Book

Day 18An Underrated Book  One of my prize discoveries in literature last year was Daughter by Asha Bandele.  The writing and the message were both beautiful.  I hadn’t heard of this author and hadn’t heard anyone speak of her nor of her novels.  Daughter img_2517was published in 2003, but being read today is very modern and unfortunately deals with problems of today in the United States for African-Americans.  If you haven’t read Daughter, you should definitely take the time to read and savor the writing, where every word counts and none are wasted.

asha bandele is a journalist, author, and poet.  She was a features editor and journalist at Essence magazine.  Her memoir A Prisoner’s Wife depicts her relationship with her husband who was serving a twenty-two year life sentence in prison.  Her second memoir Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother’s Story explores the outcome of that relationship and the birth of her daughter, Nisa and her struggle after her husband is refused parole and is deported.

“At nineteen, Aya is a promising Black college student from Brooklyn who is struggling through a difficult relationship with her emotionally distant mother, Miriam. One winter asha bandelenight, Aya is shot by a white police officer in a case of mistaken identity. Keeping vigil by her daughter’s hospital bed, Miriam remembers her own youth: her battle for independence from her parents, her affair with Aya’s father, and the challenges of raising her daughter. But as Miriam confronts her past — her losses and regrets — she begins to heal and discovers a tentative hopefulness.”(Daughter, back cover description)

My copy: Daughter, paperback 260 pages

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#ReadSoulLit Photo Challenge – Day 2 Fave Graphic Novel/Comic

IMG_2417

Day 2 – Fave Graphic Novel/Comic:  Ok who doesn’t love The Boondocks?!  I love this comic for it’s laugh out loud humor and it’s pertinent social commentary.  The Boondocks explores the world through the eyes of two African-American brothers from the inner city of Chicago that are living with their grand-father in quiet suburb.  I started reading A Right to Be Hostile on Sunday and hope to have it finished at some point this month.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading The Boondocks I recommend this one and another one of my favorites The Boondocks:Public Enemy #2.

“Here’s the first big book of The Boondocks, more than four years and 800 strips of one of the most influential, controversial, and scathingly funny comics ever to run in a daily newspaper.”

“With bodacious wit, in just a few panels, each day Aaron serves up—and sends up—life in America through the eyes of two African-American kids who are full of attitude, intelligence, and rebellion. Each time I read the strip, I laugh—and I wonder how long The Boondocks can get away with the things it says. And how on earth can the most truthful thing in the newspaper be the comics?”
—From the foreword by Michael Moore (back cover of A Right to Be Hostile)The Boondocks McGruder

Aaron McGruder, Chicago born, started The Boondocks as a comic strip on an online music site called Hitlist.com.  McGruder is a jack of all trades since he is a cartoonist, writer, and producer.  He was also involved with screenwriting for the movie Red Tails, which covers the story of the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, executive produced by George Lucas.  McGruder is also known for his frankness, his leftist views, and controversial statements made about BET (Black Entertainment Television) and attacks on black conservatives.  He often invited to speak on cultural and political issues.

My copy: A Right to Be Hostile, paperback – 256 pages

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Out Stealing Horses

I finished Out Stealing Horses on Saturday morning, before meeting with my book club in the afternoon. I was relieved it was over.  I’d dragged 9 days to read such a short book and couldn’t believe it.  So, how come big books get the bad rap so much?

I was expecting something different than what I got.  Actually, the description on the back cover is slightly misleading.  In spite of that, it was good for me but not great. It’s the story of a 67 year old retiree who is living out in the countryside in an old run down house that he’s just bought and is renovating himself.  The story takes place in Norway and the glacially cold landscapes and dark silent nights develop into a story that is both surprising and very melancholy. I can’t say more than that. The little you know about the plot the better off your reading experience. Speaking of the reading experience, Petterson’s writing is simple and undeviating, from his descriptions of the landscape to Trond’s personal feelings. It is perfectly written from the first person, while interchanging with flashbacks.  However, I had a problem with the quiet, slow pace, and depressing tone of this book. There were several times when I started out reading and wound up falling asleep.  Yes there were some slow areas.

Having not read much Scandinavian literature, reading this one made we wonder about the way Scandinavian authors tell stories.  It seems to be very different from the anglo-saxon way.  It’s intriguing and seems to be very much like a puzzle and emotionally charged.  I’m interested in continuing on to read Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book 1 or Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk.  If anybody has read either and wants to encourage me to read one or both of them, down below is where you need to tell me all about it.

As my book club discussed the book, we wondered how well it had been translated.  There were some parts that just seemed to have nothing special happen in them and we discussed in depth the utilization of the word “special” in one part of the book.  The book is only 264 pages but even so the plot thickens and makes you wonder because Petterson doesn’t give you all the details.  His writing resembles his protagonist’s personality.  He refuses to fill in the blanks.  We as readers have to do that.  This can either drive you mad, keep you confused, or titillate your imagination.  If anything this book will spark meaningful conversation and much speculation on the different characters – why they do what they do, the outcome of their actions, and oh all the what ifs….

Favorite passage:  “The face there is no different from the one I had expected to see at age sixty-seven.  In that way I am in time with myself.  Whether I like what I see is a different question.  But it is of no importance.  There are not many people I am going to show myself to, and I only have the one mirror. To tell the truth, I have nothing against the face in the mirror. I acknowledge it, I recognise myself. I cannot ask for more.” (Out Stealing Horses, p. 98-99)

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Hausfrau

Intense. Surprisingly addictive. Mounting intrigue. Anna is an American who has to all intent and purposes met and fallen in love with a Swiss called Bruno. He is tall good-looking, unwavering, and candid in his opinions. She has lived in Switzerland for 9 years and still doesn’t speak German fluently. Her life is evolving as if on autopilot. Switzerland and its people don’t seem to want to let her in or is it that she doesn’t want to fit in. After living 9 years in Germany the reader could probably assume that Anna doesn’t want to fit in (that’s what I assumed) and that she is just simply an unreliable narrator. However, I’d say that is not exactly the case.

hausfrauAnna is often very honest about her feelings to the reader and about the various events she goes through. She is also very clever with her scrutiny and descriptions of the different characters she has relationships with. The third person voice acts like a journal, where we hear her every thought – her fears, her loneliness, her desires.  Hausfrau has a similar voice that seems to be common at the moment in a few popular contemporary novels – female voice that’s raw and direct i.e. Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, etc. Fortunately, Anna’s voice is not annoying but realistic. Actually at some point, I felt sorry for her (didn’t last long) even though most of her problems stem from her incapacity to make proper choices and to evolve to something better.

Hausfrau’s structure is what gives it an originality that makes it interesting.  It explores more than just a  discontented housewife who’s trapped by home chores and such.   That’s because oddly enough most of the time we follow Anna when she’s outside of the house. The juxtaposition of German language grammar and pertinent statements and questions from her psychoanalyst, between reading about Anna’s dalliances, disclose thought-provoking reasons why Anna has difficulty adapting to life in Switzerland. In no way are all of those questions answered but there is a brilliant case made for how important some life decisions are and how they can affect us for the rest of our lives. The onset of Hausfrau felt like a typical unhappy housewife story, but in spite of that beginning it gradually won me over with its structure. It’s like reading about a train wreck ready to happen, but it’s a quick read and full of lots of twists and turns that will keep you entertained. The weaknesses of Hausfrau – the predictable ending and I would have liked to see Anna evolve into a stronger woman as the story unfolded, but she seems to remain unchanging in character, no development. She didn’t even seem desperate towards the end. It seems this type of contemporary novel featuring weak women is becoming regrettably trendy. Even though, it’s definitely a good read and looking forward to Essbaum’s future novels and I may even try to pick one of her other poetry collections.

Have you guys read Hausfrau? If so what did you think?

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Daughter

Have you ever read a book that evoked so much emotion that you felt it was familiar and it made you shed a tear?  That hasn’t happened to me in ages.  Daughter begins with the story of Miriam and her daughter Aya.  They are keeping things together and getting on the best they can with no other family links.  One night Aya goes out for her usual run and doesn’t come back.  She is shot down by a police officer who mistakes her for a young black male suspect in a recent robbery in the area.  Aya is IMG_1798wearing a hoodie and listening to music, so doesn’t hear the officer approaching her.  As she turns and sees the officer she reaches in her pocket to turn off her music and the officer assumes she is reaching for a gun and shoots her.  From there the story of Miriam and Aya unfolds.

Miriam is a beautiful woman who is no longer living life to the fullest.  She is overwhelmed by life’s disappointments.  It’s as if she has made a pact with God to keep her and Aya safe if she upholds the highest standards of living – work, school, and church.  This means she expects the same from her daughter.  Problem is her connection to her daughter is minimal.  Miriam doesn’t have time for the attention that her daughter so craves.  Aya on the other hand finds her mother cold without feeling.  Aya doesn’t think her mother listens to her and secretly wishes for her father’s return.  Miriam wants to speak with Aya and understand her, however she refuses to tell Aya the complete family story, specifically about her father because she wants to protect her.  Nevertheless, this has its consequences.

Daughter is a perfect story about the roles of black women and men in the family and mother-daughter relationships.  It covers the difficulty of blacks to be seen as human trying to get better jobs and support their families.  Police brutality is a constant underlying theme, along with its impact on families and the black community.  Currently, there are often stories on the news and online about unarmed black men and women who have fallen victim to unmindful police officers.  This is nothing new in the U.S..  It’s been going on for a long while now.  “Since 1990, at least 2,000 people have been killed by law enforcement in the U.S.  Most of these people were black or Latino.  Most were unarmed.” (Daughter, p. 260)  The author, Asha Bandele, writes about the fall out from police brutality, through the development of Miriam’s character.  We see her change so much – from the naive over-positive adolescent to hard-working, silenced mother to destroyed and finally redeemed.

The structure and language of Daughter help depict the emotions and reality of the story.  The utilization of italics is inner thoughts and poetic passages, while blank pages after certain sections show a shift in the story or show something important is about to happen.  Bandele’s writing style flows beautifully and paints an exact picture of what she wants the reader to see.  This could easily be based on someone’s life story because it’s told with such attention to detail that nothing seems to be out-of-place.

Asha Bandele is a journalist(editor for Essence magazine) and writer.  She wrote her first memoir in 1999 called The Prisoner’s Wife, which is about her relationship and marriage to a prisoner serving a minimum sentence of twenty years.  She also wrote short stories like The Subtle Art of Breathing and short story collections and poems, Absence in the Palm of My Hands and Other Poems.  I’m looking forward to trying any one of these just to experience the quality, relevance, and sensitivity of her writing again.  Check out the video below to hear Bandele talking about writing. It’s really pertinent.

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