(Originally posted on my book review blog, Diary of a Mad Reader)

I am someone who reads books that break my heart, time and time again. The Book of Night Women broke my heart. Apparently, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which I’m 14 pages away from finishing, is going to do the same. And they’re both by Marlon James.

I so want to say that I hate him and his damn novels but that wouldn’t be true. They resonate too deep for hate. The Book of Night Women stayed with me so long I was extremely reluctant to buy A Brief History. I waited; saw it in my favorite bookstore, saw it win prestige and still said I ain’t buying fucking bullshit that breaks my fucking heart. I nah fi do it.

But…

Marley

whose music reached me before Prince.

Marley

whose reggae connected me to my family in a way no other music does.

And so I bought it…and started reading.

Fucking Marlon James, man. I mean, damn.

I can’t fault him for his knowledge, or sense, of history. I can’t fault him for me reading past the sick ass murder that occurred in the first few pages. I can’t fault him anymore than I could fault Dylan for Masters of War or NWA for Fuck the Police or War for The World is a Ghetto because neither him or Dylan or NWA or War are the originators of this violent ass world I’m raising my son in.

I can’t even fault him for my reaction to a book that I haven’t yet finished, although I only have 14 pages left out of a 686 page novel. I can’t fault him for me feeling sorrow for the fictional psychopath Josey Wales. I can’t fault him because he’s an honest writer. His research is solid. His writing is beyond great. I can’t do anything but finish the novel, post this review and this song…

Selassie I Jah Rastafari

Addendum: I just finished the book. Considering the deranged violence that occurred throughout the book was that I would end it smiling and happy but I did! I’d read the whole tome all over again just to read that ending but first, I need a year or two to recover, just like I did with The Book of Night Women. With this ending, I do believe Marlon James has joined my very small list of favorite writers.

Reading Round-up 3.3.15

March 3, 2015

As of this date I have accomplished the monumental task of reading two books from start to finish. It might seem counter- intuitive for a writer to have a problem completing the reading of a book but such is the nature of my life now. The two books read were Watershed by Percival Everett and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.

Watershed – I don’t know what I think/feel about this book. I read it and continued reading it waiting for some “action” to happen.  Considering that the story involves Black Panther history as well as the Indigenous struggle at the Pine Ridge reservation, some action was bound to happen, was it not? However, whatever action did take place seemed muted by the main character, a hydrologist named Robert Hawks’ emotional disconnect. I am not yet sure whether that is an indication of the author’s talent or my response to the novel’s very understated action scenes. I will say this: at the end of the novel, after wading through various chapters being prefaced by hydrologist jargon, I felt like the author was smacking me, the reader, by stating that the prefaces were fictional. In researching the author, I discovered that he is considered a satirist or at the very least includes aspects of satire as one of his literary tropes. I’m just not sure yet whether I appreciate that or not. I shall have to read another book or two of his to figure it out.

Brown Girl Dreaming – First of all, chalk it up to my ignorance that I was surprised to find out on opening the book that it was poetry. I don’t pay as much attention as I should. That aside, from start to finish, Brown Girl Dreaming was a delight. So much so, I plan on it being the foundation of a poetry unit for my home-schooled son.

Deeper than that, however, is the strong sense of love and peace I felt upon finishing the book. In that way, it reminded me of how I felt when I finished Clare of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat. Some writers have the incredible ability to write in such a way that reading their works opens up the gentleness of the world. Considering that the world isn’t truly a gentle place, that is a remarkable achievement.

An Open Letter to Those Colleges and Universities that have Assigned Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as the “Common” Freshmen Reading for the Class of 2016 | Brown Town.

Excerpt from the letter:

What makes the racism of Skloot’s account all the more insidious is that she could have foreclosed my accusation that she was unquestioningly  appropriating Henrietta Lacks’s body by admitting that Henrietta’s self-touching was, indeed, a fabrication, a “it-could-have-happened-like-this” situation. She could have admitted the unreliability of her narration. Instead of self-reflecting, Skloot turns the criticism outward, recounting in great detail how difficult it was for her to get Henrietta’s story. As a result, the black characters in her story are racialized but she is not. They have the problem with racial difference, not her. She has less to get over than them; she comes in earnestness; she can be trusted. So she says. And so we believe. We learn so much about the fears and hesitations of the Lacks’s family toward this white writer but nevertheless come to trust Skloot more than the Lackses; she is the voice of reason.  And so we come to suspend our disbelief and go on thinking that it is fine and ethical for her to rewrite Henrietta Lacks’s body in an intimate moment that may not, in fact, even have happened.  Yet the proclamation of the book’s truth content begs an analysis of Skloot.  What feelings of privilege and authority over another’s body must a writer possess in order to rewrite an already exploited body and call it “non-fiction”?

 

Even though I love that the fact that it is no way, shape or form landlocked, Boston has never been my favorite place to live. I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly why. We (the city and I) have simply been at odds. Despite that fact, I currently reside in Greater Boston; in the small city of Cambridge, aka Moscow on the Charles. The “Moscow” aspect is a Cold War reference designed to indicate Cambridge’s radicalism – as if the Cambridge Police Department is full of leftists.

But I digress.

Since I have committed to be here, it kinda behooves me to have a historical understanding of the place where I am raising my son. I came across A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 while rummaging through an actual, physical bookstore. I immediately added it to my pile and carried it to the checkout aisle.

Several days ago, I started reading it. I have to admit that I am learning things I never knew; such as the fact that the currently prestigious Back Bay section of Boston used to be known as the Receiving Basin and said Basin

[…] became polluted quickly since sewers continued to drain into the area and, because of the dam system, tides no longer washed it out twice daily. In the 1830’s two railroad lines were built across the Back Bay on low embankments and trestle bridges that extended over the mudflat. These lines further reduced water flow in the Receiving Basin, which further increased pollution.

It was the prodigious proposal to fill and populate the Receiving Basin  that is most commonly referred to as the Back Bay landfill project.

And then this:

[… ] A City Council-commissioned report described the dire condition of the Back Bay. ‘(It is) one of nuisance, offensive and injurious to the large and increasing population residing upon it…The Back Bay at this hour is nothing less than a great cesspool, into which is daily deposited all the filth of a large and constantly increasing population.’ Trash and refuse were thrown into the bay from the Mill Dam, and wharf rats scurried in, out, and across the seawall. ‘Every west wind sends its (the Back Bay’s) pestilential exhalations across the entire city… (and) a greenish scum, many yards wide, stretches along the shores of the basin…while the surface of the water beyond is seen bubbling like a cauldron, with the noxious gases that are exploding from the corrupting mass below.’

Back Bay Boston, 1850’s (aka then)

 

Back Bay from Prudential Center, Boston MA

Stephen Puleo does an effective job of describing some of the blood girding the transformation of the Back Bay. However, having almost reached the halfway mark, I have to say it is, effectively, an Eurocentric take the history. The struggle the Irish had in Boston is mentioned enough to be described as significant (if there wasn’t a population of work-hungry Irish, drunken roustabout Irish and children of Irish women with stalwart Catholic beliefs) there would’ve been no workers to fill in the Back Bay to make it the exclusive neighborhood it is today.

Now I understand that the Irish built the Back Bay of Boston in the same way I understand that the Chinese built the railroads. However, while the Irish were doing that, what were the black people of Boston doing? If it is truly a history of ‘the rise of an american metropolis’, then it has to include all members of that metropolis who contributed to its rise.  Did Black people not contribute to the rise of Boston? According to this book, Black people didn’t, not even as footnotes. Of course, I am barely at the halfway mark but still, the absence is obvious enough to be mentioned.

I can, and do, appreciate the irony (appropriateness?) of a currently exclusive neighborhood being built on pestilence. However, the lack of inclusiveness is such that it renders such appreciation pale and anemic.

 

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought about writing a review of this book but when I finished it, I read the back cover text and saw this quote by Edwidge Danticat. It says what I feel about it so aptly, there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

“A beautiful meditation on love, fraility, and old age…as much a page-turner as it is a heart tugger. It is a novel that stays with you.” Edwidge Danticat

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Reading Round-up

February 15, 2012

 

The Help:

I know I’m a day late and a dollar short in discussing The Help but I recently saw an interview/discussion between Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Tavis Smiley that made me order the book. I read it relatively quickly over a weekend. During my reading of it, a quote from Alice Walker flashed into my mind:

“I used to wonder if any white child in the South who received the love of the great souls forced to tend them would ever develop enough soul of his or her own to rise in their defense.  Or even to an understanding, however limited or imperfect, of their silenced, hidden sacrifice.  Kathryn Stockett has done so.”

I think that, ultimately, is the value of this book.

 

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons:


This is a book of narratives of women both formerly, and currently, imprisoned. Every single one of the “stories” highlights the anti-human nature of prison. I’ve heard the phrase “if you do the crime then you do the time”. However the condemnation inherent in that phrase pertains more to black and/or poor  women than any other group. The women tell tales of being eight months pregnant and being shackled across their belly during visits during the prison hospital. One pregnant woman, Olivia, who was sentenced to a year in prison, nine years of probation and a $100/month post-incarceration repayment schedule for stealing $700 reports the following:

My due date was May 24, 2008, just before the Memorial Day weekend. A female doctor from the Atlanta Medical Center came to visit me on the 22nd. At that time, I wasn’t showing any signs of labor. We did an ultrasound, and the baby hadn’t moved one bit. I wasn’t dilated at all, wasn’t even close, and I wasn’t having any pains. She said I should be fine through the weekend, and that everything was normal about my pregnancy.

Then, on the evening on the 23rd-this was a Friday evening-the guards called me, and they told me to pack my stuff. But I hadn’t even had one contraction, so I asked a guard, “Where am I going?” And the guard said, “I don’t know. They just called  and said for you to pack your stuff.” I thought, Okay, maybe I’m going home!

I got over to the infirmary, and the captain said, “Well, the doctor from the prison says he’s going to send you to be induced.” When I asked why, she said, “Because your due date is May 24th, and this is a holiday weekend.” I said, “But I’m not even in pain or anything! I don’t want to be induced, I’m not even late. Nothing’s wrong with me!” And she said, “Well, these are orders.”

They put me in a room and shackled me. I was more upset than anything that the baby just wasn’t ready, and I didn’t want to be forced. They gave me Pitocin, but it wasn’t working. Later, in the middle of the night, the doctor came in to check on me. He came in and he started poking inside me with an instrument-I’m not sure exactly what it was, it looked like a little stick. He put it inside me and started poking the bag of water, where the amniotic fluid was, so he could bust it. It was a lot of pain, and I said, “You’re hurting me.” He stopped, but by then he had swollen up  my insides, and the baby couldn’t move any more than six centimeters.”

Then he said, “Well, if you don’t move any more by tomorrow, we’re going to have to do a c-section.” I said, “So you come in here, and you poke me to death, and now I”m swollen! I have never had a c-section in my life. My oldest son was nine pounds-no cuts, no slits, no nothing. And you’re going to make me have a c-section?”

The next day, the doctor came back and took me in to have the c-section done. A sergeant came in and said, “She needs to be shackled. She’s no different from anybody else.” I was hurting and I was tired. I said to the sergeant, “Ma’am, there is no way I need those shackles. I’m not going anywhere; I’m in pain. You’ve got a guard in my room. And I don’t know if you have kids but this ain’t something fun to have your hands shackled for.” But she made them keep the shackles on me when I went in for the c-section.

The doctor gave me an epidural. I went through with the c-section and finally, the baby came on out. It was a boy. The guard held him up to show him to me. Even then, they never took the shackles off me.

This c-section I was force to have-I doubt that it’s legal. I don’t remember signing any paperwork but I never looked into finding a lawyer. I was hoping there was something I could do but I was told that I had no rights. The guard said to me, ” You lost your rights the day you walked in here.”

I named the baby Joshua.

Now that was a long excerpt for what was supposed to be a round-up but it disturbed me enough to want to share what happens behind the wall to the fastest-growing population of prisoners: women.

Zong! – M. Nourbese Phillips

I had such high hopes for this book when I read the description: “[an] extended poetry cycle is based on a legal decision, at the end of the eighteenth century, related to the murder of Africans on board a slave ship. It was intended to be part of my research for my next book. However, the arrangement of the words on the page make the book, honestly speaking,  unreadable!  Here is a link to a sample so that what I’m saying can be understood from a reader’s point of view. Flipping through page after page, I found nothing else but the same.

Now I had watched a video of Ms. Phillips read-performing her work and I got it. In fact, it was the video that predisposed me to order the book. However, I simply think print isn’t the best format for that type of poetry.

I admit it. I bought this book because I like Edwidge Danticat’s books and was very interested in reading her choices. So far I have read two of the essays in the book: Generation Why? by Zadie Smith and Beds by Toi Derricote.

Generation Y was devastating in its critique of the Facebook phenomenon and makes me rethink being constantly connected; especially  considering I tend to reconnect with books when I disconnect.

Beds was originally published in Creative Nonfiction. A more apt named journal for this piece of writing, I cannot imagine. It reads like a piece of harrowing fiction but its placement in a book of essays dispels that delusion. With this essay, I found myself a fan of Derricote’s and will be adding her poetry to my to-be-read-this-year list; right alongside White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

At the beginning of last winter, I made a reading list of books I wanted to read for 2011. Looking over  the list, I see that finished two of them (Wild Seed and Half of a Yellow Sun , read partial amounts of others (Omeros and The Odyssey) and put all the others away for future reading. Now, don’t think I only read two books this year!  Below is a list of books read this year:

 

February:

(poetry) Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol – Okot p’Bitek

March:

(poetry) Nappy Edges – Ntozake Shange

(science fiction) Wild Seed – Octavia Butler

April:

(children) Mansa Musa: The Lion of Mali – Khephra Burns

(fiction) House of Sand and FogAndre Dubus III

July:

(historical fiction) Someone Knows my Name – Lawrence Hill

(nonfiction)Mississippi in Africa – Alan Huffman

October:

(poetry) Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York and When Winter Comes: the Ascension of York – Frank X. Walker

(fiction) Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison

November:

(poetry) Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate this Ride – Frank X. Walker

(nonfiction) Lewis & Clark Through Indian Eyes – ed. Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. (in progress)

 

I recommitted myself this year to read more poetry and I definitely have. There are poetry books I didn’t include in this list as I’m as still reading them. These books include Prophets by Kwame Dawes, African Sleeping Sickness by Wanda Coleman, Harlem Gallery by Melvin B. Tolson,  Neon Vernacular by Yusef Komunyakaa, Alphabet of Desire by Barbara Hamby, When Light Breaks by Melanie YeYo Carter, Dear Darkness by Kevin Young, the Collected Works of ee cummings, etc.

 

 

 

Mississippi in Africa
Mississippi in Africa by Alan Huffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mississippi in Africa details the extremely fascinating story of enslaved black people who were repatriated back to Africa in the early to mid 19th century and who, eventually, became the “founders” of the country known as Liberia. In 1836, one Isaac Ross, a plantation owner in Mississippi, died. In his will, he specified that the humans he held in bondage should be freed and passage would be paid for their relocation to Africa, if they so chose. By 1849, 200 of the 225 enslaved had emigrated to Liberia. Huffman details the histories of these settlers, as they are known, as they transition into becoming Americo-Liberians.

One of the more stunning premises in the book is that a prime cause of the Liberian Civil War was the undemocratic control of Liberia’s economic, military and political infrastructure, etc by the the Americo-Liberians. However, as unsettled as I was by that assertion, I could not deny the fact that they were very oriented toward America and American culture. They built houses in Liberia that were replicas of the ones they built their former owners. Their names were (and continue to be) of European origin. Upon declaring themselves free from the American Colonization Society in 1847, the Americo-Liberians did the same thing the fighters of the American Revolution did – declare themselves free from tyranny while holding people in bondage (the ward system).

It seems so predictable a behavior that I am left wondering how it is that the family of Fela Kuti, whose ancestors were also repatriated, managed to re-integrate into African society so successfully that they are integral to an understanding of modern Nigeria.

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House of Sand and Fog

April 14, 2011

The House of Sand and Fog engaged me from the opening lines when I encountered Massoud Amir Behrani, a colonel under the former Shah of Iran. Now an immigrant in the San Francisco Bay Area, he works back-breaking jobs while trying to maintain the illusion that he, his wife and two children fled Iran upon the Shah’s deposing with all their wealth intact. Upon marrying his daughter to  a son of a wealthy Iranian family, he then invests his whole life savings in an auctioned house. He also relocates his wife and teenage son to said house. Behrani’s plan is to upgrade the house and then sell it for a profit, which he can then reinvest in another property (his version of the American dream). Only to get caught up in the undertow of the bureaucracy that not so tightly stitches the dream.

The house that the colonel buys at a county auction was left to Kathy Nicolo by her father. Originally from a Massachusetts town, she and her husband drove out to San Francisco together. Soon after that, Kathy’s husband, Nick, left her. Lost in the emotion of dealing with that, she starts to neglect matters relating to the house; specifically, a letter sent to her by the County stating that because taxes haven’t not been paid, her house is being auctioned.

In other words, this is a very American novel. That is demonstrated clearly near the end of the novel when one character, Kathy Nicolo, is reflecting on everything that happened:

“…it was me letting Lester finish what we’d both started, letting all this happen so I could put off facing my mother and brother with the news that somehow Dad’s house had slipped through my fingers: I’d been willing for Lester to do anything so I could put off that moment of judgment.”

Even though this book has been made into a movie and is itself a few years old, I still don’t want to “spoil” it for someone like myself, who just happens across the book and decides to read it. For that reason, I won’t go into much more detail about the plot. I do, however, recommend you read this piece of americana literature yourself.

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