About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

#11: Native Son

Don't think I've mentioned this here yet, but I've been listening to an audiobook of Richard Wright's Native Son (New York: Random House, 1940).

Summary: "After 58 years in print, Wright's Native Son has acquired classic status. It has not, however, lost its power to shock or provoke controversy. Bigger Thomas is a young black man in 1940s Chicago who accidentally kills the daughter of his wealthy white employer. He tries to frame the young woman's fiance for the crime and attempts to extort ransom from the victim's family, but his guilt is discovered, and he is forced into hiding. After a terrifying manhunt, he is arrested and brought to trial. Though his fate is certain, he finds that his crimes have given meaning and energy to his previously aimless life, and he goes to his execution unrepentant. Wright avoids the trap of making his hero a martyr, for Bigger is a vicious and violent bully. But out of this tale the author develops a profoundly disturbing image of racism and its results that puts Bigger's experience in horrifying perspective." (-Library Journal Review)

Opening Lines:

"An alarm clock clanged in the dark and silent room. A bed spring creaked. A woman's voice sang out impatiently:

"'Bigger, shut that thing off!'"

My Take: I'm just about halfway through the book right now (Bigger's just fled his employer's home, knowing his crime is about to be discovered). Incredibly disturbing, suspenseful, and surprisingly contemporary. I suspect this will be one of this books I appreciate deeply, but can't really say I like.

Wow. Maybe it's the way I took this book in -- a few tracks at a time over several weeks, while in the car or doing the dishes -- but when I finished it last night, I felt both bereft and deeply satisfied. The book's a classic, and synopses/ study guides/ Cliff Notes abound on the internet; I won't spend time providing another one here. But the way Wright unfolds Bigger's story is nothing short of masterful. Even now, having finished the novel, it's hard to wrap my brain around how I could feel at once appalled by the murders Bigger's committed and unconvinced that things could have gone any other way. His jail conversations with Boris Max, lawyer and eventual friend, bring about an ending that's simultaneously devastating, terrifying, and ever-so-slightly hopeful. Frankly, I can't do this book justice.

Monday, January 24, 2011

#10 - The Gendarme

The Gendarme, by Mark T. Mustian (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2010)

Summary: "What would you do if the love of your life, and all your memories, were lost -- only to reappear, but with such shocking revelations that you wish you had never remembered?

"Emmett Conn is an old man, near the end of his life. A World War I veteran, he's been affected by memory loss since being injured during the war. To those around him, he's simply confused, fading in and out of senility. But what they don't know is that Emmett has been beset by memories, of events he and others have denied or purposefully forgotten.

"In Emmett's dreams he's a gendarme, escorting Armenians from Turkey. A young woman among them, Araxie, captivates and enthralls him. But then the trek ends, the war separates them. He is injured. Seven decades later, as his grasp on the boundaries between past and present begins to break down, Emmett sets out on a final journey, to find Araxie and beg her forgiveness."

Opening Line: "I awake in a whispering ambulance."

My Take: A good story, but didn't quite live up to the potential it suggested at first. I'm reminded of one oft-offered criticism of the movie Julie & Julia: that Meryl Streep's performance as Julia Child was so compelling, the contemporary storyline featuring Amy Adams as the underemployed blogger seemed lacking by comparison. So it is here. By itself, the account of young Turkish Ahmet's service as a gendarme, overseeing the Armenian deportation to Syria, and then deserting the army to follow Araxie, the young Armenian woman who's somehow captivated him, is serviceable enough, albeit not completely convincing. As is almost always true of war stories involving genocide, the Turkish treatment of the Armenians was unimaginably brutal; we see this hear in Ahmet's descriptions of his comrades' behavior, and we simply don't learn enough about who he was before joining the army to know why he'd be any different. Why, then, does he become so enchanted with Araxie that he believes himself in love with her? Even more implausibly, why does Araxie seem to return his affections to some degree, when he's attempted to rape her and murdered her adoptive father in cold blood? And how, exactly, does Ahmet Khan find himself returned to the battlefield, wounded at Gallipoli, and eventually swept off by an American nurse to his new life as Emmett Conn?

Surprisingly, it's the story of 92-year-old Emmett, set in Georgia in 1990, that's far more captivating. Having lost his wife Carol (the aforementioned American nurse) to Parkinson's disease some years earlier, Emmett is alone, though daughter Violet visits often. At the novel's outset, he learns from the irrepressibly positive Dr. Wan that he's suffering from a brain tumor. Violet, Dr. Wan, and nearly everyone else in Emmett's orbit is quick to blame the tumor for the seizures and visions Emmett's been having, but in fact, Emmett is merely remembering, even reliving, his past. Violet and the doctors just assume these dreams need to stop, but Emmett needs them somehow -- desperate to remember who he was and what he did during the war, however shameful it may be, and to find out what became of Araxie. Ultimately, he is confined to a state psychiatric hospital for monitoring, but refuses medication after but one night when he realizes it suppresses his dreams.

Again, the elderly Emmett's story is well-written and gives the reader a lot to chew on, but I was left feeling like I myself was confused and drifting in and out of the story line. Perhaps this was deliberate on Mustian's part, but it seemed more like there were just plain pieces left out of the puzzle. It's the author's first novel, so I'm inclined to think maybe he just hasn't hit his stride yet. Be that as it may, I still think the book was a bit overrated. The horrors of war have been done many times before in literature; making the perpetrator an old man who now looks back with some horror on what he's done is an interesting spin, but doesn't by itself overcome the novel's shortcomings. In short, liked the book well enough, but wasn't overwhelmed.

Monday, January 17, 2011

#9: The Race Card

The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, by Richard Thompson Ford (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

Jacket Summary: "What do Katrina victims waiting for federal disaster relief, millionaire rappers buying vintage champagne, Ivy League professors waiting for taxis, and ghetto hustlers trying to find steady work have in common? All have claimed to be victims of racism. These days almost no one openly expresses racist beliefs or defends bigoted motives. So, many are victims of bigotry, but no one's a bigot? What gives? Either a lot of people are lying about their true beliefs and motivations, or a lot of people are jumping to unwarranted conclusions -- or just playing the race card. As the label of 'prejudice' is applied in more and more situations, the word loses a clear and agreed-upon meaning. This makes it easy for self-serving individuals and political hacks to use accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of bias to advance their own ends.

"Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor, brings sophisticated legal analysis, lively and eye-popping anecdotes, and plain old common sense to this heated topic. He offers ways to separate valid claims from bellyaching. Daring, entertaining, and incisive, The Race Card is a call for us to treat racism as a social problem that must be objectively understood and honestly evaluated."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction - Playing the Race Card
  • 1 - Racism Without Racists
  • 2 - The Wild Card: Racism by Analogy
  • 3 - Calling a Spade a Spade: Defining Discrimination
  • 4 - The Clash of Ends: Contested Goals
  • 5 - Post-Racism: Why the Race Card Is a Crisis of Success
My Take: Interesting and more balanced than I expected, if a bit muddled in places. Based on the jacket flap I expected to find this book maddeningly inflammatory. It's actually not; it's a complex, well-reasoned exploration of what racism looks like and doesn't look like in 21st-century, allegedly post-racist America.

Having spent so much time working on The Perfect Review for Some Sing, Some Cry, I had to return this one and several others to the library before I finished the review, so I'm going to cop out: William Grimes's 2008 review from the New York Times is here, and provides a good overview for those so inclined.

#8 - Big Girl

Big Girl, by (yes, it's true) Danielle Steel (New York: Delacorte Press, 2010)

Jacket Summary: "A chubby little girl with blond hair, blue eyes, and ordinary looks, Victoria Dawson as always felt out-of-place in her family, especially in body-conscious L.A. Her father, Jim, is tall and slender, and her mother, Christina, is a fine-boned, dark-haired beauty. Both are self-centered, outspoken, and disappointed by their daughter's looks. When Victoria is six, she sees a photograph of Queen Victoria, and her father has always said she looks just like her. After the birth of Victoria's perfect younger sister, Gracie, her father liked to refer to his firstborn as 'our tester cake.' With Gracie, everyone agreed that Jim and Christina got it right.

"While her parents and sister can eat anything and not gain an ounce, Victoria must watch everything she eats, as well as endure her father's belittling comments about her body and see her academic achievements go unacknowledged. Ice cream and oversized helpings of all the wrong foods give her comfort, but only briefly. The one thing she knows is that she has to get away from home, and after college in Chicago, she moves to New York City.

"Landing her dream job as a high school teacher, Victoria loves working with her students and wages war on her weight at the gym. Despite tension with her parents, Victoria remains close to her sister. And though they couldn't be more different in looks, they love each other unconditionally. But regardless of her accomplishments, Victoria's parents know just what to say to bring her down. She will always be her father's 'big girl,' and her mother's constant disapproval is equally unkind.

"When Grace announces her engagement to a man who is an exact replica of their narcissistic father, Victoria worries about her sister's future happiness, and with no man of her own, she feels like a failure once again. As the wedding draws near, a chance encounter, an act of stunning betrayal, and a family confrontation lead to a turning point.

"Behind Victoria is a lifetime of hurt and neglect she has tried to forget, and even ice cream can no longer dull the pain. Ahead is a challenge and risk: to accept herself as she is, celebrate it, and claim the victories she has fought so hard for and deserves. Big girl or not, she is terrific and discovers that for herself."

Opening Line: "Jim Dawson was handsome from the day he was born."

My Take:
It's a Danielle Steel novel; what can I say that you can't figure out on your own just by reading the dust jacket? Appreciated the gay best friend as a nod to contemporary sensibilities (hey, for the most part, these books haven't changed, but that is one thing you wouldn't have found in the ones I used to borrow from my mom when I was in middle school), but other than that -- a few hours this afternoon's really all I want to spend on this one.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

#7 - Some Sing, Some Cry

Some Sing, Some Cry, by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "From Reconstruction to both world wars, from the Harlem Renaissance to Vietnam, from spirituals and arias to torch songs and the blues, Some Sing, Some Cry brings to life the monumental story of one American family's journey from slavery into freedom, from country into city, from the past to the future, bright and blazing ahead. Real-life sisters Ntozake Shange, award-winning author of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, and Ifa Bayeza, award-winning playwright of The Ballad of Emmett Till, achieve nothing less than a modern classic in this story of seven generations of women, and the men and music in their live.

"Opening dramatically at a sprawling plantation just off the South Carolina coast, recently emancipated slave Bette Mayfield quickly says her good-byes before fleeing for Charleston with her granddaughter, Eudora, in tow. She and Eudora carve out lives for themselves in the bustling port city as fortune-teller and seamstress. Eudora marries, and the Mayfield line grows and becomes an incredibly strong, musically gifted family, a family that is led, protected, and inspired by its women. Some Sing, Some Cry chronicles their astonishing passage through the watershed events of American history."

Opening Line: "The first orange light of sunrise left a flush of rose and lavender on Betty's hands as she fingered the likenesses of her children."

My Take: I've long acknowledged my fondness for grand, sweeping family sagas, so this one was on my Must Read list from the moment I read the review. Though parts get a bit confusing, the book as a whole is a good read -- enough action to keep you reading, but meaty enough to be satisfying. Tracing the seven generations of the Mayfield family from the end of the Civil War up to the present day, Some Sing, Some Cry takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of American history as experienced by Bette and her (mostly female) descendants. It's always difficult for me to sum up the plot of multi-generational epics like this one -- heck, it's hard enough even to explain who the main characters are and how they relate to one another -- but I'll give it a shot:

Already a grandmother when the Civil War ends, Bette Mayfield remains at Sweet Tamarind, the Carolina Low Country plantation where she's lived her entire life, until she absolutely can't stay any longer. Although her late ex-master, Julius Mayfield, was both her own father and the father of all but one of her children, Bette nonetheless seems to have loved him, and considers herself his "slave wife." (Not surprisingly, Julius's legal, white wife was far less enamored of her.) After saying goodbye to all her loved ones, past and present, she and granddaughter Eudora set out for Charleston, expecting to begin their free life by moving in with Bette's married daughter Blanche. Blanche, however, has fought long and hard to claim her place among Charleston's black elite, and having a countrified, Geechee mother and niece in residence doesn't quite fit her lifestyle. Under considerable pressure from her husband, Roswell Diggs, and young children, Benny and Francina (who are thrilled to have a Nana), Blanche relents, but Bette is too proud and stubborn to stay where she's not welcome. Instead, with the help of Blanche's stepson, Roswell Jr., Bette and Dora rent an apartment the Diggs's own in the poor but vibrant black neighborhood of Little Mexico. Here, Bette establishes herself as a conjurer and fortuneteller who is simultaneously scorned, revered by younger generations.

arrives in Charleston on the threshold of womanhood, with dreams of being not a mere seamstress but une modiste -- a designer and dressmaker whose talents are sought after by the very best of Charleston society. She gets her start operating a sewing machine for Yum Lee, a Little Mexico neighbor who runs a Chinese laundry and shirtmaker's shop, but quickly gains enough money and experience to strike out on her own. While she enjoys a budding friendship with Tom Winrow, hack driver by day and enthusiastic horn player/ card sharp by night, she aspires to better things, and politely ignores his romantic overtures. When she is hired to make a wedding dress for Miss Matilda, a debutante from one of white Charleston's best families, she earns even Blanche's grudging respect, and is invited to a book party for Ida B. Wells. Here, she meets the mysterious Yves Desallines, a Haitian diplomat turned sailor. When Yves sends her a bolt of exquisite lace, she is both flattered and shocked, knowing she ought to refuse the gift ... until Yves explains that he wants Dora to make a wedding dress for his fiancee back in Haiti. In time, though, the two grow closer, and Yves sets sail intending to call off his Haitian engagement and marry Dora. Unfortunately, Eudora has also caught the eye of Miss Matilda's brother, and is brutally raped during the course of the bachelor party. She tells no one, but the wedding is inexplicably called off. By the time Yves returns to Charleston, the pregnant Dora has already married Tom Winrow, and does her best to heed Bette's advice:
"'We got nothin' but to choose life. Find the honor in it. Make it so. Will it so. You a fighter, Eudora May -- in life, there is hope. In life -- choose not to give up. New day means a new day's battle begun. This child is the child of your womb, and if she is born of this hell all the more power to deliver us from it. To the seventh generation.'"

Not long after Dora's daughter Elma is born, gossip about Yves and Eudora reaches Tom's ears. Already suspicious about how little the baby's coloring resembles his own, he erupts in fury. This turns quickly to tenderness, however, when Dora breaks down and confesses everything; the result is the Winrows' second daughter, Lizzie. Sadly, over time, the tenderness and affection Tom and Dora share is strained by the repeated failure of Tom's farm to produce a viable crop, his insistence on staying out late to play his horn, and their disagreement over just how much one ought to curry favor with the white folks. Their bills mount ever higher. Shamed and broken by his inability to support his family, Tom sells his father's farm without telling Dora, and abandons them to work in the mines of West Virginia, his state of mind recalling that evoked by Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred"
"Tom's anger stirred. Folks all day telling him no to every simple request he made. He was a man. He didn't need to beg for groceries. He needed to stay in this game to turn his luck around."
Owing to her brutal beginnings, Elma is quite light-skinned -- so much so that when she enters a whites-only train car by mistake, the conductor asks her not to leave. Dora takes pride in Elma's color and singing talent, and is determined that her daughter will succeed where she herself did not. The two work hard to make this happen; Elma adopts Diggs as a surname to capitalize on her wealthy relations, and the family makes considerable sacrifices to send her to Fisk University, where she sings with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. As her freshman year ends, she is on top of the world, and expects to do great things with her voice. When her biology teacher, Professor Minor, tries to steer her toward a more practical career, she insists that "[s]inging is a gift from the Lord, not a profession." When she meets Minor's nephew Raymond, an architect, the two are instantly smitten with one another -- so much so that when Elma leaves for Charleston the next day, Ray follows without her knowing.

The grand homecoming Eudora had planned is tarnished, however; not only has Tom abandoned the family, but they've been evicted from the farm they no longer own. Not wanting to see her mother spend more money on her education at a time like this, Elma elopes with Ray, and the two move to the Great White Hope that is early twentieth-century New York.
"A wave of great inventions -- electric lights, moving pictures, telephones, phonographs, human flight, automobiles for the common man -- had made the world suddenly exhilarated and confusing, wide-eyed with hope and an unconditional faith in possibility, speeding into the future."
As Elma's vague letters to Lizzie reveal, though, the promised land isn't quite what it's cracked up to be:
"Elma's letters were always cheerful and short. Life with Raymond was getting better. New York, where buildings touched the sky, things were always looking up. Lizzie could read through the lines. She could see within the picture ... Her sister was gaunt, a smile forced on her thin lips, her large dark eyes wide and frightened, one fist clenched at the end of an arm seemingly bound to her side, her beautiful mane of hair pulled close to her head. Elma, too proud to ask, but always tacitly accepting the few dollars her mother dutifully sent."
The Minors' first two children die in the 1919 influenza epidemic, Ray loses a plum job under suspicious circumstances, and the whole country seems caught up in the exhilaration and fright of the 1920s:
"Between 1919 and 1929, the world exploded, expelling grief, death, and rage. The highways bled and flooded upstream with refugees from Southern weevils, blight, and terror. Death Riders and riots swept St. Louis, Tulsa, Charleston, Chicago. Red Scare, Red Summer, Red -- the age was hot! Burning the gut with liquor, feet slashin' up the dance floor. A perpetual party and ticker tape parade -- on borrowed time and borrowed money. With underground economies propping things up, the Depression came as no surprise to the criminal class. Their trauma came later with the repeal of Prohibition."
In partnership with a neighbor, he supports his family as a bootlegger, making enough money to turn some profit from the Harlem Renaissance.

Lizzie Winrow is as much Tom's daughter as sister Elma is Dora's. She's inherited his love of music and showmanship, but his wild and ornery streak, and is devastated by his sudden departure. "Running away, leavin' behind what you love, Pa, what made you? She could not believe her Pa would do that."
"Since her pa was gone, she felt disobliged to obey anyone. She was full of anger with no place to put it but into trouble. She could win most any fight, but she rarely had to. She'd made an early discovery -- get loud and improvise a barrage of epithets to make your assailant shrink from blows of pure sound.
Together with her lifelong best friend, Osceola Turner, she plans a career as a songwriter and entertainer, but these plans are derailed when Ossie's foster brother, Deke, steals their savings for a can't-miss business opportunity. Inspired by his idol, bandleader James Reese Europe,
who insists that war "condenss and compresses a whole lotta manhood into a veryshort period of time," Ossie enlists in the Great War, hoping for a chance to play in the army band with Reese.

Lizzie, who already blames Deke for his role in her father's disappearance, is furious, and a chain of events that begins with Deke trying to rescue Ossie from the recruiting station and ends with him jailed and sent out to work on a turpentine plantation makes him enraged. When he finally escapes and gets back to Charleson, he sneaks into Lizzie's home and rapes her. By the time Ossie returns, she is visibly pregnant, and Ossie can only assume the worst. Sadly, before the two are able to explain themselves, the combination of "black folks naive enough to think that the 'war for democracy' would make a place for them at the table" and "white ire at such audacity" proves deadly:
"Pumped-up soliders were comin' home wantin' sensing it, feelin' it -- something changed. Colored weren't colored. They were 'Negroes.' On the street, they looked new, acted new, proud and entitled. Expecting the war over there would change something over here, they had a new way of walking in the world, and these Southern soldier-boy soldiers weren't havin' it. They trashed the billiard hall, then like bees, a swarm of blue jackets came flying down the boulevard. They stormed out the tavern, knocking black fellahs in the head, throwin' them to the ground. They then spilled into the side streets and alleys, looking for anybody black. Their numbers grew to a thousand. The swarm blew over the city and formed a swath of rage and lust and fun. ... he city that had been the gem of the South was never the same afterwards."
Neither is Lizzie, as Ossie is killed in the riots. Two wrenching years later, she and daughter Cinnamon Turner head north to join Elma in Harlem. Here, she takes the stage name of Mayfield Turner and achieves some success as an entertainer, but eventually finds the U.S. too constraining.
"On the road half the year, the permanent exile found no world to her liking. Paris at least was a life of her own design. Paris was where she was staked and where she was going to stay. My worthless friends, my sorry club, my lousy bookings, but mine. She was tired of runnin'."
And stay she does, leaving Cinnamon in the care of Elma and Ray while she goes on to achieve near-legendary status as a chanteuse suspiciously reminiscent of Josephine Baker. Her heyday lasts until World War II dawns, irrevocably altering the character of her adopted city. "Paris was no longer a city of light but a city haunted by shadows, the Lost Generation replaced by a constant traffic of lost souls."

Not surprisingly, Cinnamon is forever haunted by her mother's abandonment, despite being raised with love by the Minors. Although hers is perhaps the most promising musical talent in the Mayfield family to date, she is determined to sing opera and opera alone, insisting "I already know that my life won't be involved in that gaudy, vulgar Negro jazz life my mother's chosen for herself. No, that's not for me." She overcomes considerable discrimination to study music at Hunter College and later, Julliard. But her single-minded focus on opera proves problematic. Most operatic roles are reserved for whites, so the only gigs Cinnamon can get are with the National Negro Opera Company -- even as she resists singing the old Negro spirituals that are coming back into fashion. Her contempt for jazz and swing remains unshaken, even at the price of a broken heart; at a rare nightclub appearance -- a favor to cousin Memphis, who doesn't share her mistrust of the night life -- she meets jazz musician Baker Johnson. The two fall deeply in love, yet Cinnamon categorically dismisses the music Baker plays and loves:
"I am singing opera. ... And I'm going to continue to sing opera. I'm not going to wallow in the gutter with this swing, this 'jazz,' like you and Memphis. Don't you see there's nothing hallowed about swing? It's colored folks doing what colored folks have always done, making things up as they go along. Just noise and pelvis grinding is what it is ... "
Stung by her rejection, Baker turns instead to the all-too-willing Memphis. Cinnamon's focus, however, garners the attentions of two unlikely patrons: Harlem kingpin Deacon Holstein and his wife Iolanthe. While Deacon admits immediately that he used to go by Deacon Turner ("'When I married into Mr. Holstein's family, I took the name on -- for the sake of the business"), he does not tell Cinnamon that it's he who bankrolls the National Negro Opera Company that gives her a stage -- or, until he's on his deathbed, what he meant to Lizzie and who he was to Cinn herself:
"I'm dyin', Cinn. But before I do, I must tell you somethin'. I have wronged your family. Run off the father, deceived and betrayed my brother, but the greatest wrong was to Lizzie. Broke her body, her heart, warped her spirit. I cannot undo that. I cannot give these things back to her, but maybe I could give her back her daughter. ...

"When I was a young man, I was a wild one, a roustabout -- got so the police arrested me before the crime, sayin' 'I know you gonna do it,' ... "We both loved Osceola. Competed. I came outta prison, took your mother by force. Your mother. Hurt her, hurt her bad. Most likely, you my daughter. ...

"Please, please. Hear me out. I cannot rest while there is distance between you and Lizzie, distance that was caused by me. When she left, she wasn't runnin' from you, she was runnin' from me. ...

"I cannot undo that night. Would not want to. You are my pride, Cinn Turner. I have done my best to do right by you."

Under the Turners' tutelage, Cinnamon travels to Washington, D.C. to hear Marian Anderson's famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial; to to Chicago. Here, she meets labor activist and Tuskegee airman Lawrence Walker, who embarks on a gentle courtship, even though he knows Cinnamon is still in love with Baker. Sadly, her nascent career is cut short when she develops a case of laryngeal dystonia. Lawrence's unflagging, unconditional love and support as this tragedy unfolds ultimately win her over, and the two are married, finding in each other a mutual, tender affection that grows steadily deeper over the years:
"Cinnamon wrapped her arms round her husband, feeling his weight and warmth. She thanked the Lord again that he'd come home unscathed from the war, giving her a chance to discover how much she loved him. How precious his life was to her! When she lost her ability to sing, he had stood by her through the sorrow and anger. The emptiness had been filled with love and laughter and three rambunctious children. At the same time Lawrence hoped his wife understood that while he couldn't play a horn or piano like most of her family, he had tried to surround her with creativity. ... [S]he missed her own voice. He knew that. Still, to him, Cinnamon's music was never lost. It lingered in the way she walked and laughed and smelled, in how she loved. She was every woman Ellington ever composed for, every lady Prez ever serenaded, every girl Smokey ever crooned to."
Jesse Minor, Elma and Ray's eldest surviving child and only son, survives the flu that killed his older sisters, but his speechlessness and overall slowness greatly worry his grief-stricken parents. Healing comes from a surprising source, however, when Lizzie and Cinnamon arrive in New York, and Jesse slowly but surely learns to walk and talk from watching and playing with his slightly-older cousin. Years later, when the Minors journey south to attend Grandma Bette's funeral, Jesse remains in Charleston at Dora's urging, and finds himself thriving on the slower pace of southern life. He eventually marries a young woman named Mabel and becomes a pastor. Their only son, Joshua, is killed before their eyes in 1953 when an Alabama voting rights protest march turns violent.

Jesse's younger sister Memphis is born to Elma and Ray after the flu epidemic, and named by her aunt Lizzie (who mistakenly thought it was Memphis, rather than Nashville, where Ray and Elma had met). She inherits her mother's singing talent and Lizzie's wild streak, and idolizes her older cousin Cinnamon. After her fling with Baker fizzles, she weds one of his bandmates. Their marriage lasts just long enough to produce a daughter, Alelia, before dissolving. Memphis then follows in Lizzie's footsteps, decamping for Paris while leaving Alelia behind in New York.

Each of Cinnamon and Lawrence's three children, Abbott, Tokyo, and James, is shaped in his or her own way by two watershed events. The first is their service on the front lines of Chicago's busing controversy:
"It was an ominous fall morning, like a heroin haze kind of day, like a lazy Charlie Parker day, taut, delicate, and spiraling to God knows where. Trash dropped into the gutters was thrown at the lil mess of colored children. But the Walker family was prideful ... They'd seen burning crosses and KKK parades before, but this was different. It was their backs that carried the weight of the race and nobody had said a word. ... They'd been so proud this morning and here they were now, disheveled and soiled. How could they explain that the white grown-ups just didn't want them there? That any Negro youth found west of Halsted was imperiled? The first day of school -- turned away at the door. They hadn't done anything. Just being colored and trying to learn. What could they possibly say? They were now the ones to be ashamed or beat with a cat-o'-nine tails, that's how fearful they were of messing up their parents' dream."
The second is, of course, witnessing their cousin Joshua's murder.

Abbott finds an outlet for his anger in Elijah Muhammad's Black Muslim movement, and becomes his volatile sister Tokyo's rock, reminding her "that the only freedom for black people was liberation and they were busy enslaving themselves to cocaine and booze." Tokyo becomes the family's most successful musician, winning several Grammys and even seeing her biggest R&B hit used in a presidential campaign (unspecified, but obviously 2008), despite a lifelong struggle with drugs and alcohol.

Memphis's daughter Alelia becomes a singer in her own right, although her instrument of choice is the guitar, and she finds herself drawing on both her ancestors' sounds and the new strains of folk music she encounters. As a young woman, she travels to Paris to see her mother and now-venerable Aunt Lizzie, and immerses herself in that city's emerging beat/ folk scene. Here, she meets Raoul Johnson, son of Lizzie and Memphis's former paramour, Baker, and his Algerian wife, Raschel. (In an even-smaller-world coincidence, Raschel's mother Genya was an old friend of Lizzie's who died at Nazi hands in World War II.) Alelia and Raoul quickly discover that they're on the same wavelength emotionally as well as musically; they fall in love, marry, and have a daughter, Liberty, a deejay and cancer survivor who struggles to define her own place in the by-now-august Mayfield family pedigree.
"Sweet memories ... Each generation had its collector. For her Great-Nana Dora it was swatches of fabric and buttons, photos and shoes. For Lizzie it was costumes and poster, a kaleidoscope of stuff from her ragged, rollicking life. Rare LPs from Uncle Ray and her grandmere Memphis. Always the music. Aunt Cinn's precious librettos. The last time she had visited her beloved Cinn, the woman was just a grip of shaking bones, the skin soft, holding fast to her hand. Memories dissolving, even her beloved arias. Aida, Carmen, Butterfly, the heroine always dying. Cinn ... clinging to her with desperate fingers, one last grasp at life. Liberty had gone to confide in her, seeking that quiet solace she had always found. I can't do this alone.

"She reminded herself that she wasn't alone. .. Though her blood family was scattered all over the globe, she had family. People who loved her for all of her eccentricity. ...

"Life, Liberty ... or death. All of this rich history, this past I'm supposed to be able to stand on and draw from. Instead I'm already part of the past even before I've begun.
The Seventh Generation. The what? ... New life. To the seventh generation. What then? What now?"

As is probably evident from the epic-length book report this has become, I really enjoyed this book. I don't know that it quite lives up to the "modern classic" status the dust jacket proclaims, though. For one thing, a story this long and convoluted gets confusing real fast if some important points aren't made crystal-clear ... and occasionally, this is a problem. The chief example is whether Julius Mayfield truly was Bette's father as well as her master/ lover. The authors hint at this, but don't come out and confirm it for certain -- not a trivial issue, as there's otherwise no way for the other characters to blame their much-hyped unusual (read: white) coloring on his genes (given that Eudora's mother, Juliet, was the only one of Bette's children fathered by a fellow slave rather than by Mayfield).

For another, I like my historical fiction best when the history lessons don't detract from the narrative. There are passages here, like the long aside that interrupts Marian Anderson's concert, where it feels like I just clicked a hyperlink and ended up on Wikipedia by mistake:
"The Norwegian composer Dvorak in 1893 had declared American Negro spirituals the root of truly new American music. Since the end of the Civil War, the Fisk Jubilee Singers had stunned the world with their repertoire of these indigenous songs by anonymous composers. The great baritone Paul Robeson and tenor Roland Hayes in concert performances across the globe had through their renditions of American Negro spirituals ... "
I also had a similar reaction to that expressed in Mike Fischer's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel review, which suggests that the authors "dutifully [checked] all the boxes. The end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. World War I and the 1919 race riots. ... " and points out that the history presented is often sloppy and inaccurate.

That aside, there's a lot to enjoy and appreciate about Some Sing, Some Cry, and its 558 pages are crammed with complex and compelling themes. Most obvious among these is the complicated definition of success in the black community. Especially in the novel's earlier years, the characters can only get ahead by denying their pasts and their very selves. Certainly this is evident during Reconstruction; Blanche can't hurry her freed-slave mother and country Geechee niece out of her home fast enough, and even groundbreaking author Ida Wells is judged for her dark skin and nappy hair. A generation later, Elma's light skin and ability to "pass" gain her entree into the better colored circles in Charleston, and her husband Raymond is respected as the son of a higher-class black man. However, the price of their success is "[erasing] from consciousness facts and experiences they could not face, inventing stories more to their liking;" Elma is the product of rape, and Ray the son of a prostitute.

In addition to denying their pasts, generations of Mayfields find themselves denying their dreams in order to survive. After becoming pregnant with Elma, Dora is forced to give up on being an esteemed designer and work merely as a seamstress; the difference between her dreams and Tom's, and his unwillingness to give his own up, ultimately cause their marriage to collapse. Dora finds herself in the still-familiar position of working her fingers to the bone to send Elma to college, only to find that education changes her daughter in a way that can't help but separate her from the family. Many years later, Cinnamon explains this to Deacon, describing how "at school the white students are always yapping at me" while "at home, even at home, it's not my home." Cinnamon, at least, fares better than most; despite being abandoned by her mother (who saw in her daughter's face the rape that robbed her of a future with Ossie), and having to abandon her own dreams of being an opera singer, she does manage to build a loving, honest relationship with Lawrence and their three children.

In contrast to those who deny their pasts and their dreams, the characters who embrace them seem to lead far happier and more authentic lives. When the family travels to Charleston for Bette's funeral, Eudora embraces the chance to be "Nana" -- undoubtedly remembering her Aunt Blanche, who had ordered her own children to call Bette "Grandmother." On the same trip, Dora proudly tells Jesse that the slaves are in the family's blood, and that their history keeps the Mayfields strong. Similarly, Memphis emphatically rejects Cinnamon's insistence that only opera is good music: "If you got an idea you never let it go and never present it as if you understand it to be an opinion ... Just cuz I don't like that white folk shit make me ignorant?"

Through all their trials and varied history, the characters of Some Sing, Some Cry share a reliance on music as a solace in hard times and a means of preserving their history. Tom tells Eudora this with great earnestness shortly after they meet, explaining that while he makes his living driving a hack by day, the music he plays in Little Mexico at night is what makes his life. Years later, his daughter Lizzie is both inspired by and makes her mark on the Harlem renaissance and ultimately, the Paris jazz scene. Jim Europe is vehement about the importance of music not just to the individual but to society, telling Ossie during World War I that "the world is changing ... What has captured it is the music," and then acknowledging on his deathbed that words "take away from a man everything that he knows [so] what is he to do? He sings." Hearing Marian Anderson sing in D.C., "Cinnamon's faith in the power of voice to draw people, to awaken them, was reaffirmed. More than speeches, more than protests;" later, at the height of the Chicago busing crisis, her nonmusical husband Lawrence reminds their children that "the music of our forebears ... tells us that we can survive anything."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

#6 - The Debt

The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, by Randall Robinson (New York: Dutton, 2000).

Summary: "In Randall Robinson's view, racial problems can't be solved until America is willing to face up to the devastating effects of slavery and educate all Americans, black and white, about the history of Africa and its people. In his recent book, the highly successful Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America, Robinson makes a stirring call to form the next legion of African-American leadership. Now, in The Debt, he argues that reclaiming the lost history of Africa and African-Americans will help provide a much-needed springboard for solving many of today's problems -- from finding new leadership within the black community to developing meaningful educational programs to helping black people empower themselves economically. Robinson also argues that the United States must be prepared to make restitution to African-Americans for 246 years of slavery, and the century of de jure racial discrimination that followed, via major educational programs and economic development. Robinson offers a solution-oriented approach to controversial issues of social justice in a style that is both personal and informative."

Table of Contents:
  1. Reclaiming Our Ancient Self
  2. Taking Account of the Long-Term Psychic Damage
  3. Race to Class to Race
  4. Self-Hatred
  5. Demanding Respect
  6. Race, Money, and Foreign Policy: The Cuba Example
  7. The Cost of Ignoring the Race Problem in America ...
  8. ... and in the Black World
  9. Thoughts about Restitution
  10. Toward the Black Renaissance
My Take: If you haven't guessed, I'm focusing on the theme of race and culture this month. It's interesting to be finishing and reviewing this book, with its discussion of the lasting impact of a 350-year history of slavery and racial discrimination, and simultaneously starting Some Sing, Some Cry, which begins just after emancipation as a former slave whose three children were all fathered by her white master prepares to leave the Low Country plantation on which she's lived her entire life.

This is a hard, hard book for me to review. As with so many other subjects, I'm both eager to learn more, and not sure I know enough to offer any intelligent criticism. The fact that it's a book about race and racism in the U.S., and on paper I'm as white-and-privileged as it gets, makes this post all the more challenging. Bottom line, though, is that I'm glad I read The Debt, and have just added its successor, The Reckoning, to my book list. While I'm not sure I agree with Robinson's call for reparations to the descendants of former slaves, or how on earth a reparations program might work in practice, the book made me think about much of America's history and culture in a new light. That's a valuable outcome, just by itself.

To be brief, Robinson's argument is that the 250-year practice of American slavery and the hundred-plus years of racism and de jure discrimination that followed it were, no question, the greatest crime against humanity the world's ever seen. There's no way to eliminate the socioeconomic gap between African-Americans and whites, he says, until we not only acknowledge the magnitude of this wrong, but truly commit to righting it.

The book's middle chapters were for me the most persuasive and compelling. Here, Robinson argues that the Middle Passage and the slave trade, by kidnapping and killing so many young, strong, and able people; separating countless children from their parents and extended families; and doing so on such a broad scale over so many generations, virtually annihilated many of Africa's ancient, highly sophisticated civilizations. The impact of this crime was compounded by a U.S. and Europe that consistently overlook both the role of African people in history and the racism of our own esteemed leaders. We know, if we give it much thought, that Jesus, born in the Middle East to a Jewish woman, was unlikely to have been blond and blue-eyed; that Cleopatra probably didn't look like Elizabeth Taylor; and that George Washington owned slaves. At this point, we've even heard something or other about Thomas Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemmings. But Robinson makes us think about what we don't hear: that Haiti owes its independence to those slaves who revolted against Napoleon's soldiers in 1791; that Jefferson's relationship with Hemmings likely began when she was in her mid-teens and he thirty years older; that even Abraham Lincoln considered shipping all American blacks back to Africa after emancipation; that Charles Lindbergh was "a self-described racist [who] had written in Reader' Digest in 1939 that aviation was 'a gift from heaven ... a tool specially shaped for Western hands ... one of those priceless possessions which permit the white race to live at all in a pressing sea of yellow, black, and brown" and urged the U.S. to enter World War II on the German side. Nor is Robinson inclined to let any of these popular heroes off easily, on account of their living in different times with different standards:
"It is often argued in Jefferson's defense that it is unfair to hold his behavior with regard to race to modern standards, that after all he was 'a man of his time.' But who isn't? ... What about Genghis Khan? ... As the first ruler of united Mongolia, he is thought of by Mongolians much the same way as most Americans think of George Washington. In the West, of course, he is remembered as a ruthless scourge. But he was every bit as much a man of his time as Jefferson was of his.

"For that matter, the same specious excuse can be offered for Ataturk or Franco or Lenin or Mao or Hitler. All of them committed great wrongs within permissive if not supportive environments. But this cannot be allowed to render their heinous wrongs any less reprehensible."
Robinson notes that Thomas Paine, a man of the same time as Washington and Jefferson, called the slave trade "lamentable," "wicked," "inhuman," and "barbarous." He also asks the reader to consider why Washington, D.C. boasts a Holocaust museum but not a slavery or African-American museum:
"For wasn't the practice of slavery at least as serious a system of human rights wrongs as the Nazi holocaust? Did not the holocaust of slavery last longer -- indeed, 234 years longer? Did it not claim at least twice as many lives, in the Middle Passage alone? Did it not savagely eviscerate the emotional core of a whole race of people on three continents?"
Understand that Robinson is not seeking here to blame the Jews for American racism, or minimize their own experience of discrimination and human rights crimes; in fact, on several occasions, he cites the Jewish community's call for post-Holocaust reparations and the German government's relative generosity in paying them as positive examples to be emulated. Rather, he argues that the utter absence of black or African faces in the American story as generally told tells African-Americans that they and their contributions are valueless.
"Since this nation's inception, taxpayers -- white, black, brown -- have spent billions on museums, monuments, memorials, parks, centers for the performing arts, festivals, and commemorative occasions. Billions more have been spent on the publication of history texts, arts texts, magazines, newspapers, and history journals. Formulaic television and large-screen historical fiction treatments virtually defy count. Almost none of this spending, building, unveiling, and publishing has been addressed to the needs of Americans who are not white. ... And, indeed, needs are what we are talking about here. ... Ancestor worship is not alone the exotic preoccupation of quaint people mired in superstition in some remote corner of the world. Larger-than-life evidence of its industrialized-world variants can be seen in virtually every public park in America. ...

"Trouble is, George Washington is not my ancestor, private or public. He owned my ancestors, abused them as chattel and willed them to his wife, Martha, upon his death. I and mine need to know about George and Martha but, assuredly, we do not need to revere them. Indeed, psychically we cannot afford to revere them. ... Blacks need to remember who we are, not remember with others who they are."

I'm not sure this distinction is as black and white as Robinson suggests here; the U.S. is, after all, a nation of immigrants and mutts, and I suspect many of us see Washington and Jefferson not strictly as ancestors or owners, but as both -- or neither. Even if his argument is oversimplified, though, his broader point is at least worthy of consideration.
"In every competitive society, instruction in history and the humanities is a valuable instrument with which the dominant group, consciously or unconsciously, attempts to sustain its primacy, ill-gotten or not. In America, whites control virtually every mainstream purveyor of instruction, academic and ephemeral. And in America, whites have caused all Americans to read, see, hear, learn, and select from a diet of their own ideas, with few others placed to make suggestions, not to mention decisions. ... State and federal budgets, to which Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans contribute, are uniformly controlled by whites who seem to uniformly believe that the only ancestor worship worth funding is theirs."
The end products of this whitewashed history, asserts the book, are a persistent self-hatred within the black community and pervasive low expectations that extend beyond it.
"[A] static, unarticulated, insidious racial conditioning, to which all Americans are subject, lifts the high-expectation meritless (Dan Quayle comes to mind here) and, more often than not, locks down in a permament class hell the natively talented but low-expectation black. The gap mocks the efforts of the best of us, black and white, like some ageless yawning crevasse that separates the perennially privileged on their gilded higher ground from those who learn from birth to expect and therefore to reach for little."
Or, from a later chapter:
"[I]t is the very normalcy of our self-denial, our self-ignorance, that is so troubling. It all leads me to wonder whether any group of people in the world has been more resolutely, if unconsciously, committed to notions of self-abnegation than blacks. Well-trained, quiet-flowing, oblivious, uncritical, near total cultural self-abnegation. It is akin to driving in heavy night fog. Little can be seen of where we're going, less still of where we've been. The thickness of the blanket pitch steals our confidence. We conclude that the only hope is to follow the broken white line that snakes in the darkness."

Self-hatred, says Robinson, is evident in the performance of many black comedians, but is not limited to African-American images and experience; Native Americans are marginalized in much the same way. This is a tough argument to make convincingly (here's the danger of reviewing this book while I'm in the middle of reading The Race Card), as it's easily trivialized by those who think the struggle for civil rights and equality is so over already, but an extended thought experiment offered here at least makes you think twice about how insidious and offensive the cultural mainstream can be:
"On occasion, between [televised sports] plays, I have allowed myself to imagine certain franchise transmutations. I would change the team's name and logo, and then try to gauge public reaction.

"The Washington Redskins would become the Washington Blackskins. The logo on the helmet would look like the old caricatured Aunt Jemima. That Sunday, the Blackskins would be playing in Atlanta against Ted Turner's renamed football team, the Atlanta Mafia, who were coached by an Irishman named Maloney but known to all America variously as the Don and the Assassin. On the side of their helmets was a likeness of Al Capone. Before the game, toy machine guns had been handed to the Turner Field faithful, who screamed throughout on cue from Miss Fonda: Rat tat tat. Thatsa deada Blackskin. Thatsa deada Blackskin.

"That same Sunday, the New York Jews had a bye and did not play. One nationally syndicated sports columnist had written that the Jews did not play because they had a 'buy.' No one seemed to notice. After all, it was all in good fun.

"Across town at George Armstrong Custer Stadium, the New York Genocidists were wrapping up a four-game World Series sweep of the Massachusetts Pilgrim Feeders. The Indians had lost the first three games by large margins. The Genocidists, who wore blue and yellow uniforms reminiscent of the old U.S. horse cavalry, were led by a coach who called himself the General. The team's logo was a half-tone of a slightly inebriated Ulysses S. Grant. That evening, when the eleven-to-one score was announced on the evening news, the New York announcer said, 'The Genocidists have slaughtered the Pilgrim Feeders once again.' ...

"As inclined as blacks understandably are by painful experience to believe the contrary, racism is not black-specific. It is like the Hydra, the lethal many-headed mythological snake whose heads regenerated as fast as they were severed. Racism is a social disease that exempts no race from either of its two rosters: victims and victimizers."

Robinson also acknowledges the complex interplay between race and class. A long anecdote about a poor, black girl growing up in Boston who's got the deck stacked against her suggests that this interaction is most apparent in education. Many middle- and upper-income people of color are doing so as we speak; likewise, many white people, especially those who are poor, are not. The key difference, however, is that one can be poor and white without people assuming you're poor because you're white; poverty isn't thought to be intrinsically linked with being white in America. By contrast, if you're poor and black, it's just assumed that you're poor because you're black. We believe poor students can succeed, and we believe black students can succeed -- but consciously or otherwise, teachers often expect students who are poor and black to fail. While I don't agree 100% with everything Robinson says in this book, I find him most persuasive when he's arguing for the vital role education must play in combating inequality and injustice:
"Give a black or white child the tools (nurture, nutrition, material necessities, a home/school milieu of intellectual stimulation, high expectation, pride of self) that a child needs to learn and the child will learn. Race, at least in this regard, is irrelevant. ... It is obvious that in any effort to balance America's racial scales, education, defined in the broadest sense, must be assigned the very highest priority."
Where The Debt loses me is in its final two chapters, where Robinson actually makes the call for reparations that he's been working up to all along. I started the book knowing very little about the particulars of the reparations discussion, but skeptical about the overall concept. By the time I reached Chapter 9, though, Robinson's claims had hit their mark; I was sufficiently moved by his discussion of the suppression and denial of the African and African-American role in US history and culture that I was at least willing to be persuaded. Perplexingly, though, the last two chapters don't even begin to do so. Having spent the bulk of the text convincing the reader that a grave injustice was done to black Americans, orders of magnitude greater than other now widely-acknowledged crimes against humanity, Robinson's last two chapters are curiously vague: long on well-written oratory about how something material is owed, but short on specifics as to what, how, and to/ from whom. And personally, that's exactly what I wanted to hear at this point: How, exactly, might reparations for slavery be funded? Who would reap the benefits? Again, look at the racial, ethnic, and class makeup of our country; not everyone fits neatly into a "former slave" or "former master" box. Some of us may be both; some neither; still others may have no way of knowing. Sure, a comprehensive answer to these questions is about as easy as a hard-and-fast definition of race, but given the book's title, I at least expected Robinson to take a more substantive stab at it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

#5: The Black Girl Next Door

The Black Girl Next Door: A Memoir, by Jennifer Baszile (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009).

Jacket Summary: "A powerful, beautifully-written memoir about coming of age as a black girl in an exclusive white suburb in 'integrated,' post-Civil Rights California in the 1970s and 1980s. At six years of age, after winning a foot race against a white classmate, Jennifer Baszile was humiliated to hear her classmate explain that black people 'have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people.' When she asked her teacher about it, it was confirmed as true. The next morning, Jennifer's father accompanied her to school, careful to 'assert himself as an informed and concerned parent and not simply a big, black, dangerous man in a first-grade classroom.' This was the first of many skirmishes in Jennifer's childhood-long struggle to define herself as 'the black girl next door' while living out her parents' dreams. Success for her was being the smartest and achieving the most, with the consequence that much of her girlhood did not seem like her own but more like the 'family project.' But integration took a toll on everyone in the family when strain in her parents' marriage emerged in her teenage years, and the struggle to be the perfect black family became an unbearable burden. A deeply personal view of a significant period of American history, The Black Girl Next Door deftly balances childhood experiences with adult observations, creating an illuminating and poignant look at a unique time in our country's history."

Opening Line: "On an early autumn morning in 1975, as fog rolled off the Pacific Ocean and covered the Vista Grande School playground, my first-grade girlfriends and I decided to squeeze in a quick foot race before school began."

My Take: Liked this one a lot. As I've tried to articulate why, I couldn't help but remember a poem by Pat Parker that I came across about a gazillion years ago, entitled "For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend." It begins,
"the first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black.
Second, you must never forget that i'm Black."
Sounds contradictory, of course, but after reading Baszile's memoir, I think I understand better what Parker meant. On one hand, The Black Girl Next Door has wide appeal; it tells the story of the author's childhood, from age six through the end of high school, through a series of vignettes. Many of these will resonate with anyone who grew up in the 1970s and '80s, particularly in a well-off suburb like Palos Verdes Estates: the pains our mothers took to make us presentable for picture day; the unscripted summer evenings playing Kick the Can until the streetlights came on; the excruciating self-consciousness of attending your first middle school dance; the endless pre-DVD-era road trips to spend holidays in a house crammed with relatives you barely knew.

On the other hand, for every forty-something who smiles knowingly and nods at these memories, the experience was just a little bit different. In Baszile's case, that difference often hinged upon being the only black family in her neighborhood, and close to it at school. For a well-intentioned white liberal like me, this makes her book a kaleidoscope, at once familiar and new. Baszile's second-grade picture captures a disheveled braid and a torn shirt, courtesy of the young thugs-in-training who insisted on fighting the [racial epithet] on the playground. One night of street games takes an unexpected and disturbing turn when the kids go inside, get into some old clothes in the attic, and Jennifer finds herself mimicking a poor, rural, Southern black woman she claims is her grandmother. And the middle school dance marks a fork in the road for Baszile and her (until then) similarly gangly and gawky best friend Amy. Before the dance, the girls hit the mall for makeovers, but only Amy is transformed; Jennifer, who slowly remembers that her own mother always needs to go out of town for makeup, comes away looking more like a kabuki dancer. Perhaps the most poignant illustration, though, comes with the Christmas visit to Mr. Baszile's tiny, rural home town of Elton, Louisiana. From their arrival, when Grandmother compliments (?) Jennifer and her sister by pronouncing them "perfect little white girls," the Louisiana Basziles seem both wonderfully exotic and alien:
"For all of the Christmas cheer, Dad was sullen and again stayed outside on the porch. He talked to everyone, but his nerves seemed flimsy like tinsel. Whenever he saw one of his cousins, he called Natalie and me outside to meet them. He held us up like shields to these people and put us on display. I knew Dad was proud of us, but it felt to me like a distraction even more than pride. When I wasn't being paraded out to meet people, I mostly sat on the edge of the bed where I had slept, out of the way; I didn't want to met anyone else. I didn't want another kiss on the cheek, another stranger's hug, or another person's comment about my 'funny' California speech."
Later, when an argument between Jen's father and his brother Sunny gets a bit heated, she observes:
"No one cheered for Dad, even though we were related to nearly everyone there and he was right to defend me. I couldn't figure out why. ... Suddenly I felt the way I often did in California, like it was the four of us against everyone else. I didn't expect to feel such a thing among all these relatives. ... I stayed on the porch, afraid of what I wanted to do to them. The magic had disappeared for me. This had been a strange and terrible Christmas, maybe the worst one ever. I wanted to go to bed and then back to California."
If this makes it sound like The Black Girl Next Door is one complaint after another about how racism traumatized Baszile, it's not. Like anyone's childhood, Baszile's had its ups and downs; some of these were related to her ethnicity, but some weren't. Readers of all hues can cheer Jennifer on when she makes lemons out of lemonade at the dance. When Amy abandons her to dance with a boy, she remembers her mother telling her that she went there to dance, not to get a boyfriend -- and asks one male wallflower after another to join her on the dance floor until someone accepts. What young woman hasn't had a welcome-to-the-club trip to the beauty parlor that didn't quite go as she'd expected (even if she decided in the end that it looked pretty good anyway)? And I'm sure I'm not alone in cringing and wanting to shut my eyes when Jen and her dad have their climactic fight towards the book's end.

One criticism Dwight Garner raises in his New York Times review is that Baszile's memoir lacks "adult wit and complexity," and that her decision "to write almost entirely from the necessarily blinkered perspective of herself as a girl" proves detrimental to the narrative. I can see his point -- I, too, would have liked to know more about where Mr. Baszile went on Friday nights and why Mrs. Baszile seemed so cut off from her family in Detroit -- but saw this as a reasonable choice on Baszile's part. There are memoirs aplenty on the shelves whose authors retell their stories from an older, wiser adult's perspective; I found it a refreshing change to read one that felt more like I was there beside the 6-, 9-, and 12-year-old Baszile, without a grown-up narrator looking over our shoulders.

The author's own web site indicates that her next book will pick up her story at Columbia, just after this one leaves off. I, for one, will be eagerly waiting.

Monday, January 10, 2011

#4: Cum Laude

Cum Laude, by Cecily von Ziegesar (New York: Hyperion, 2010).

Jacket Summary: "Dexter College is a small liberal arts college in the quiet town of Home, Maine. But it won't stay quiet for long with this group of freshmen. There's Shipley -- blonde and beautiful, the object of envy and more than a little lust. Determined to assert herself and to shed her good-girl image, she buys cigarettes and condoms, because that's what every self-respecting college girl does. Her edgy roommate, Eliza, came to Dexter to get noticed, and she has the attitude and the mouth to prove it. There's Tom. Handsome, privileged, used to getting his own way, he's a jock-turned-artist who thinks his paintings will change the world. Sensitive Nick, Tom's wake-and-bake pot-smoking roommate, wants to follow in the footsteps of his boarding-school hero. And then there's brother and sister Adam and Tragedy Gatz. The freckle-faced farm boy lives at home with his parents and his little sister, who does all she can to stop him from being a wuss.

"As Shipley, Eliza, Tom, Nick, and Adam find out, that first year of college is more than credits and cramming. Between the lust and the love, the secrecy and the scandal, they'll all receive an unexpected education. It's a time of shifting alliances, unrequited crushes, and coming of age. Find Yourself is Dexter's motto. And they are determined to do just that."

Opening Lines: "College is for lovers. At least, this one was."

My Take:
Not great literature by any means, yet better than it had any right to be.

When a serious relationship ends, conventional wisdom tells us it's better to be alone for a while than to jump right into another one. And when I return from a week's vacation, treating myself to restaurant-sized portions and/or the guilty pleasures of someone else's home cooking, I somehow just want to eat oatmeal and veggies for a while.

In the same vein, sometimes when I've just finished a Really Good Book, I want some white space around it. As I'd hoped, Cum Laude delivers. While the characters themselves aren't particularly deep or compelling, they're just offbeat enough that this isn't a fatal flaw. Likewise, von Ziegesar's eye for the minute, often ridiculous, but nonetheless realistic details that comprise the freshman experience make the story both familiar and entertaining (in that quasi-awkward, "wow, I'm glad that part of my life's over" sort of way). Some examples: Eliza taking a work-study job as a nude art model, and milking every minute of it. Patrick, the homeless, Dumpster-diving Dexter dropout, floating around the edges of the main characters' consciousness. Every straight man in town developing a sudden, simultaneous obsession with the "It" girl du jour (in this case, Shipley). Tom deciding on a whim to be an art major, and going off on week-long, X-fueled painting binges. Shipley, who loses her virginity to Tom their first night on campus, staying with him mostly because he looks like good boyfriend material, even though she really has the hots for loner townie Adam.

Not surprisingly, other parts of the story line strain credibility. It may be that the characters' family relationships are supposed to be over the top, but still -- only Tom's and Eliza's parents seem remotely realistic or sympathetic (and we never actually see Eliza's on screen, anyway). Likewise, it's hard to imagine that even a relatively sheltered, still-lives-at-home freshman like Adam would opt to spend most of his free time with his 15- or 16-year-old sister (though I will say, for the squeamish among you, that von Ziegesar does resist the urge to add an incest plot line to the novel). I also don't buy the Dexter administration's blithely allowing Nick to construct a yurt on campus, or Eliza's blithe willingness to let Shipley's mom foot the bill (albeit unwillingly) for her new clothes.

Still kept me entertained for an evening, though.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

#3: Fat! So?

Fat! So? Because You Don't Have to Apologize for Your Size, by Marilyn Wann (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1998)

Jacket Summary: "Life is too short for self-hatred and celery sticks!

"Whether you're a size 2 or 2X, Fat! So? will make your 'weight problem' disappear. Based on the popular underground zine of the same name, Fat! So? tackles the last American taboo -- fat -- with sassy quotes, eye-opening essays, true stories, and attitude. Plus it's tons of fun, with a fab flipbook, nifty trading cards, glam paper dolls, and much more. Along the way, zine publisher and fat rebel Marilyn Wann shows you how to reclaim your body, live healthy at any size, and remember why they call it a belly laugh!"

Table of Contents (partial):
  • What Are You So Afraid Of?
  • Quiz: Are You a Fatso?
Anatomy Lesson #1: The Butt
  • What Do You Like About Being Fat?
  • Love in the Time of Size 18
  • Little Lost Pound o'Fat Sees the World
  • The Fat! So? Manifesto
  • Talk Radio & You
  • She Likes It!
  • But What About Your Health?
  • What's In a Word?
  • Fat Kills
  • 300,000
  • Another Number
  • Anatomy is Destiny
  • The Little Black Dress
  • A Letter to Fat! So?
  • The Cutoff Point
  • Oh, Yeah?
  • Celebrity Wasting Syndrome
  • My Personal Trainer Can Beat Up Your Personal Trainer
  • Cinder Says ...
  • Break the Connection
  • What Being Fat Has Taught Me
  • A Talk Show By Any Other Name
My Take: OK, perhaps an odd choice for someone who's lost ~30 pounds in the last 9 months and is desperately trying to get back on the wagon after Christmas to check out right about now, but it's been on my list for a while and it practically jumped off the library shelf into my arms this afternoon. What's a gal to do?

Mildly interesting and entertaining, but I think it leaves some key pieces out of the puzzle. Do I agree that fat may be the last great American taboo, and that even if rising obesity rates are a legitimate public health concern (which Wann would dispute), it's blamed for far too many not really related things? Yep. I also agree that the number on the scale and the size of your clothes probably mean much less for your overall health than your blood pressure, cholesterol level, and overall level of activity. And many of the suggested comebacks to rude, ignorant comments are pretty darned funny.

That said, I don't want to make this all about me ... but again, I think there's a lot to this issue that Wann's just plain avoiding. Yes, genetics influence our body's size and shape, but they're not the whole story ... if they were, how would we explain the huge uptick in the percentage of people who are overweight over the last generation or 2? Granted, the book's more than 10 years old, and at the time it was published, there wasn't yet much conversation about how culture and advertising influence how we eat ... but there is now, and (pardon the pun) addressing the issue of size acceptance without addressing the cultural component is like ignoring an elephant in the living room.

My other chief gripe here is Wann's oversimplistic implication that if fat people can be happy and healthy regardless of their size (OK, with you there), thin or average-sized people are automatically unhappy and must be constantly denying themselves pleasure. Eh, not so much. Heck, I've been in the trenches of this war for almost a year (and that's just this latest deployment). Sure, in a struggle to achieve or maintain a healthy weight, many people find themselves sometimes passing up a treat that might seem appealing ... but does that necessarily mean you're denying yourself pleasure, and/or must be an unhappy, withholding person? I don't think so. I'd think part of overall health and wellness means making decisions not just based on what might feel or taste good right now, but what's going to make you feel best over the long haul. Sure, that third glass of wine might taste good right now if I let myself indulge, but you can bet I'll be paying for it later. Ergo, I'll say "no, thank you" -- to me, the short-lived pleasure of sipping the wine and perhaps getting a slight (responsible, of course) buzz isn't worth feeling sick or hung over later. Same deal with certain foods. Yeah, I like pizza, and if it's particularly tasty, a third slice might initially seem like a good idea ... but if I know that eating it will leave me feeling stuffed and uncomfortable, I'm going to pass it up. This isn't because I want so much to be a Size 00 and weigh 110 pounds that I'm willing to live on celery sticks and cottage cheese; it's that I've learned -- yes, while actively pursuing a weight-loss program -- that I feel way better, have more energy, am happier, etc. -- if I limit my intake of certain foods.

If the subject matter interests you, read it, but it's probably not worth an actual purchase. Entertaining, even thought-provoking in places ... but not, I don't think, terribly memorable.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

#2 - The Lacuna

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (New York: Harper, 2009)

Jacket Summary: "Born in the United States, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico -- from a coastal island jungle to 1930s Mexico City -- Harrison Shepherd finds precarious shelter but no sense of home on his thrilling odyssey. Life is whatever he learns from housekeepers who put him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He discovers a passion for Aztec history and meets the exotic, imperious artist Frida Kahlo, who will become his lifelong friend. When he goes to work for Leo Trotsky, an exiled political leader fighting for his life, Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, newspaper headlines and howling gossip, and a risk of terrible violence.

"Meanwhile, to the north, the United States will soon be caught up in the internationalist goodwill of World War II. There in the land of his birth, Shepherd believes he might remake himself in America's hopeful image and claim a voice of his own. He finds support from an unlikely kindred soul, his stenographer, Mrs. Brown, who will be far more valuable to her employer than he could ever know. Through darkening years, political winds continue to toss him between north and south in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach -- the lacuna -- between truth and public presumption."

Opening Lines: "In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten."

My Take: Kingsolver's definitely near the top of my favorite authors list. I read the first few chapters last night and don't yet know what I think. On one hand, I'm not yet chomping at the bit to find out what happens next (and truth be told, I'm more than a little confused about some of what's going on) ... but on the other, I initially had the same reaction to The Poisonwood Bible and ended up being very glad I stuck it out. Stay tuned.

Well, as with Poisonwood Bible, it took some time to get into the swing of this one, but when I did -- wow. This is not a book you can read while multitasking, one eye on its pages while watching TV or offering minimal responses to a young child's enthusiastic if somewhat incomprehensible patter. The Lacuna demands most of your attention, and offers handsome rewards in return.

Most of the story is told through Shepherd's diaries and letters, with pertinent news articles scattered through the text here and there. Born to a Mexican mother and U.S. father who split up long before the novel begins, he receives little formal schooling, yet aches to write almost from birth. He grows to young adulthood in quarters maintained by one, then another of his mother's boyfriends. His earliest memories are of the remote Isla Pixol, where Shepherd and his mother first encounter the howlers mentioned on the first page. It is here that his overly dramatic mother, Salome, tells him, "You had better write all this in your notebook ... the story of what happened to us in Mexico. So when nothing is left of us but bones, someone will know where we went." Shepherd takes her advice to heart, and thus is laid the foundation for the novel's principal themes: the role of art and the howlers, in their many guises, in shaping history -- what and how they record as events unfold, and which pieces are lost.

Shepherd's pivotal first brush with history comes about by accident. Having learned years earlier to prepare the European breads his mother's paramour preferred, he proves a natural at mixing plaster for the Much-Discussed Painter, Diego Rivera. This first job ends not long after, when Salome packs Shepherd off on a train to Washington, D.C. to live with his father and Rivera departs on a separate, unrelated trip to the States ... but eventually, both return to Mexico City and Shepherd returns to work for Rivera. He is quickly promoted from plaster-mixer to cook, and thus finds himself in the midst of the interesting-times whirlwind that is the Riveras' home. The already considerable excitement that comes from living with Diego's flamboyant jewel of a wife, painter Frida Kahlo, and cooking in the tiny kitchen of the boxy, Functional, divided, his-and-hers house is magnified a thousand-fold when two VIP guests come to stay for the duration: Lev Davidovich, nee Leon Trotsky, and his wife Natalya, who've exiled themselves to Mexico in a desperate hope of escaping Stalin's murderous purges.

It is here that he first observes the uncanny likeness of the news media to the howler monkeys that once plagued him and his mother. As Shepherd later muses in his diary, long after Lev has been assassinated and he's made a new home for himself in Asheville, North Carolina, "anyone who rises, any greatness, attracts those who would cut it down at the root. Any fool knows that also." Several years later, Harry Truman's surprising, newspaper-defying re-election offers a brief flicker of hope that the howlers' power is not absolute (says Shepherd's stenographer, Violet Brown, "it's a day to remember. Those news men could not make a thing true just by saying so. It's only living makes life.") The howlers regroup, of course, with their terrifying noise reaching its apogee during the red scares of the late 1940s and early '50s. Ultimately, after being repeatedly punished and humiliated over his years-earlier association with Rivera and Trotsky, Shepherd offers his journal a biting "Universal declaration of rights of the howlers:
"Article 1. All human beings are endowed with the god-given right to make firewood from the fallen tree. Article 2. Any tree will do. If it is tall, it should be cut down. The quality of wood is no matter, the tree asked for it by growing tall. A decent public will cheer to see it toppled. Article 3. Rules of normal kindness do not extend to the celebrated person. Article 4. All persons may hope to become celebrated. Article 5. It is more important to speak than to think. The only danger is silence. Article 6. A howler must choose one course or the other: lie routinely, or do so only on important occasions, to be more convincing."
For a man like Shepherd, who's always held that "Dios habla por el que se calle" (God speaks for those who keep quiet), this corruption and pillorying of the words he's so conflicted about sharing with the world is devastating. As he'd mused years earlier, in a letter to Frida on the eve of his first novel's publication,
"A terrifying miracle. These words were all written in dark, quiet rooms. How can they face the bright, noisy world? You must know. You open your skin and pour yourself on a canvas. And then let the curators drape your intestines all around the halls, for the ruckus of society gossips. Can it be survived?"
He has persisted in his writing, despite the excruciating vulnerability it brings, because he is driven to it, perhaps not realizing until he must stop how painful it is not to write. As he tells the Committee on Un-American Activities in a climactic, almost cinematic speech,
"The purpose of art is to elevate the spirit, or pay a surgeon's bill. Or both, really. It can help a person remember, or forget. If your house doesn't have many windows in it, you can hang up a painting and have a view. Of a whole different country, if you want. If your spouse is homely, you can gaze at a lovely face and not get in trouble for it. ... It can be painted on a public wall or locked in a mansion. ... Art is one thing I do know about. A book has all the same uses I mentioned, especially for the house without enough windows. Art by itself is nothing, until it comes into that house. People here wanted Mrs. Kahlo's art, and I carried it.

"You asked me why I've stayed here so long. I can try to say. People have a lot of color and songs in Mexico, more art than they have hopes, it often seemed to me. Here, I found people bursting with hope but not many songs. They didn't sing, they turned on the radio. They wanted stories, like anything. So I decided to try my hand at making art for the hopeful. Because I wasn't any good at the other thing, manufacturing hopes for the artful. America was the most hopeful place I'd ever imagined. My neighbors were giving over their hairpins and door hinges to melt down for building the good ship America. I wanted to give her things too. So I stayed here."
This speech notwithstanding, neither the Committee members nor the howlers who make him larger than life in their papers nor his fickle readers ever fully understand Shepherd. Frida and Violet Brown come closest, with lawyer Artie Gold not far behind, perhaps, but as he himself has acknowledged for years,
"[Y]ou can't really know the person standing before you, because always there is some missing piece: the birthday like an invisible pinata hanging great and silent over his head, as he stands in slippers boiling the water for coffee. The scarred, shrunken leg hidden under a green silk dress. A wife and son back in France. Something you never knew. That is the heart of the story."
I could write much more about this complex and lovely book, but to do so would almost spoil the joy of reading a novel whose title means "blank space or missing part." Please read it, without delay, and fill in the missing parts for yourself.