Book Review Time: Intimations

Zadie Smith makes me wish my brain was bigger. Only then, might I stand a chance of keeping with her. Yet in Intimations, there is a marked vulnerability noted in this great writer/thinker, as she pieces together a revised philosophy on life. A revision made necessary by a global pandemic. 

Covid-19 has changed (and continues to change) the world in immeasurable ways. And although we can now see a clearer path forward, things will never again return to how they once were. In the midst of the pandemic, throughout the United States and around the globe, a reckoning has taken place, ignited by the horrific murder of George Floyd. Calls for criminal justice reform and police accountability finally have found some traction, drawing attention and support from many, across racial lines. But tension remains, ever-present. Every step forward is met with resistance. Fear generated by conspiracy theories and changing demographics, makes our current times one of the most turbulent in human history. So how do we manage in a world, seething in social unrest; locked-down by a public health crisis? The answers vary, of course. If you’re Zadie Smith, you continue to do what you’ve always done (and done brilliantly, btw). You observe and you write.  

In Intimations, which consists of six short essays written during the earlier stages of the pandemic, we witness Smith’s gift of deep introspection paired with a worldly consciousness. She explores the immediate questions we were all faced with and struggled to resolve. What is this new reality? In what ways would our time be best occupied when the options are limited? How do we manage a redesigned work life which increasingly bleeds into our personal space and time? How and when did public health become such a divisive and politicized issue? How can a country proudly proclaim its exceptionalism, yet at the same time, turn a blind-eye to the glaring disparities among its citizenry? What does it mean to truly suffer? And most importantly, with the realization of our dire circumstances, and a death toll steadily rising, how do we then begin to evaluate the impact of other people on our lives? People whose contributions and efforts often go unnoticed. Intimations is a powerful testament to the uncertainty and helplessness we have all felt during these unique times. There are no clear solutions here. No tips on how one should conduct themselves during universal turmoil. Smith simply delivers a gentle call for contemplation and compassion. Doing so can only yield positive results. And we could all use a bit more positivity.

Smith ends this slim volume of essays with a section entitled “Intimations: Debts and Lessons.” It’s a refreshing take on the standard acknowledgments often found at the end of most books. In this case, the acknowledgements are written in the style of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Smith lists one by one the people who have influenced her life and her writing. I found myself deeply moved by this particular section. The attention in giving credit where credit is due, and a clear awareness of the role others have played in informing her life, are on full display here.

As enviously big as Zadie Smith’s brain may be, it’s even more inspiring to realize that her sensitivity and empathy are just as enormous. Intimations is a must-read!

~G

Problematic: Ernest Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises

We find ourselves in the midst of a reckoning, centuries in the making. The cry to denounce racial and patriarchal constructs has increased across the world. Societies have begun to open their eyes to the inequities that have long existed. With this closer examination of culture, past and present, there has also been heightened (and justified) scrutiny of public figures, many of whom until now have held iconic status. We see this especially in literature. 

An often asked question: How does a contemporary audience come to terms with a “problematic,” and likely long-dead, writer? It’s difficult, particularly when you narrow your scope to American literature. The foundation of what was deemed great literary works in the past (and still, to a slightly lesser extent today) was decided upon by those in positions of power; white males. They were the ones who published and marketed the books after all. So, when we go down the list of the most influential classic American novels, you’ll see titles from writers like Hawthorne, Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and of course, Hemingway. And this isn’t to discount these individuals as writers. Their talent was unquestionable. Their works, extraordinary. But I do often wonder about the voices that went unheard. Perhaps writers of equal or greater talent, who unfortunately didn’t fit the mould. Their desks piled high with rejection letters. Their potential untapped.

I became an avid reader at a young age. As I grew into adolescence and graduated to more “serious” novels, I began reading works that have long been categorized as American classics. And although I enjoyed many of these novels, I always had to brace myself when reading them. Depending on the plot, setting, and characters, I was well aware that any story rooted in the past would likely present scenarios and language that for me, as a black female reader, would be disturbing. I’m sure literary academics would audibly tisk at my strong dislike of William Faulkner, who professionally and personally made his thoughts on race well known. The Sound And The Fury, with its stream of consciousness, reads like racist/sexist jibber-jabber in my opinion. Sorry, Scholars, that’s just how I see it. But with other writers, at least for me, it becomes a bit more complicated.

Which leads me to Ernest Hemingway.

In light of the aforementioned reckoning, and influenced by the recent Ken Burns/ Lynn Novick documentary, I decided to re-read The Sun Also Rises. It’s such an interesting book, and captivating in a way I’ve never been quite able to describe. It’s the story of a group of expats; some are writers, others are unemployed bon vivants. They plan a trip from Paris to Spain, in order to take part in the festivities surrounding an annual bullfight. Each is unhappy in his or her own way brought on by failed relationships, bad luck, ill-temperedness, and the scars of war. But their interior lives are never fully fleshed out; a great deal of the action is overshadowed by alcohol consumption, detailed descriptions of European transit, and a desperate need to keep the party going. The story thrives predominantly in what isn’t said. And then, there are the problem areas. In one scene, Bill Gorton relays his recent travel experiences to his friend, and quasi-leader of the group, Jake Barnes. Gorton talks of an encounter with a black boxer in Austria, a man who he consistently refers to as “The N****r.” In more than one scene, members of the group complain about one their own travel companions, Robert Cohn. Cohn is desperately in love with Lady Brett Ashley, who is also along for the trip and clearly doesn’t share his ardent feelings. His hovering obsessiveness creates tension within the group. But the behaviors that they find most reprehensible in Cohn, they often attribute to the fact that he’s Jewish. 

So, I ask myself again, what draws me to this book? I don’t like feeling uncomfortable when I read. I don’t derive pleasure from wincing at disturbing language and sentiment. This novel harbors a degree of ugliness that can never be explained away. Yet something keeps me coming back. Maybe, it’s the character of Brett. A troubled woman, with a dark past. Brett lives by her own rules, bucking conventional stereotypes of what is and is not considered lady-like. Perhaps, it’s the glimpse one gets of the life and times of expats in a by-gone era. We witness Paris in the 1920s, a haven for creative types, where romance is fluid, and the champagne is overflowing. Or maybe I’m drawn to Hemingway’s distinctive style; a hard staccato rendering of information. There’s honesty in his lack of flourish, and that appeals to my sensibilities. But more than likely, it’s just because Hemingway, a man with enormous personal demons, also happened to be a damn good story-teller. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever sort it out. 

There is, however, one thing I’ve come to understand with certainty, Ernest Hemingway was a man of his time. A white man. And the beliefs he held were no different than that of many other white men of his time. Therefore, his work must be viewed within that context to assess its value. The Sun Also Rises is an enthralling narrative in spite of being “problematic.” Do those problems tarnish a bit of its shine? Why, of course! As it should. But, I know I’ll likely read it again and again.

~G

Book Review Time: The Editor

As Barbra Streisand sang so beautifully “People/ People who need…people/ Are the luc–.” Well there’s no need to recite (or in my case, sing) the whole verse. You know what I’m getting at. We need each other. And sometimes we need someone to just give us a chance. An opportunity to reveal our true potential. A shot at living out our dreams. James Smale, a New York City writer, is about to receive his chance. An editor for a distinguished publishing company has taken an interest in his latest manuscript, a work of fiction which draws heavily from James’s real life upbringing. A meeting between the writer and editor is scheduled. As James sits alone in a conference room awaiting the arrival of the editor, his mind races, perseverating on the many ways in which this life-changing encounter may play out. But when the editor enters the room and introduces herself, James realizes nothing could’ve fully prepared him for this. His editor is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. 

Set in the 1990s, The Editor captures New York City in a time when the Twin Towers stood formidably, cell phones had not yet wreaked havoc on our attention spans, and a former first lady, in the latter stages of life, has found fulfillment as a working woman. Steven Rowley provides a window into the intimate relationship between a writer and their editor. In some ways, it resembles a parent-child relationship. The writer (child) has a voice. Something they want to say. A message they want to relay in their writing. But they may be struggling to get the message across; finding it difficult to reach their truth. So, the editor (parent) steps in, to draw the writer out, to guide them in their storytelling. Always keeping their writer honest. After James’s initial shock, his relationship with Jacqueline Onassis grows as they work together to revise his manuscript. Although they engage with each other at a certain remove, their professional relationship is one of mutual respect and warm regard. This warmth is contrasted by the more fraught interactions that James has with his mother, a woman struggling with the fact that her son has written a book that only thinly veils her family’s reality. What presents as a golden opportunity for James, is viewed as betrayal by his mother. The tension in their relationship is what drives this story.

The Editor is a funny book. James’s social faux-pas and insecurities provide many giggle worthy moments. Although, I’m sure if Jackie O. were my editor, my behavior would be awkwardly comical as well. James’s family drama is where the story takes on a more serious (often painful) tone. Any family drama worth its snuff is built on secrets and lies. And in this case, the secrets and lies are HUGE. And they are revealed at the worst yet most predictable moment: Thanksgiving dinner. But instead going into the darkest of dark places, Rowley creates a story that speaks to our more generous natures. One might perceive it as a call to be more mindful, reserve judgement, deliberate, communicate, empathize. The shades of gray are abundant. We must recognize and acknowledge them. Or, at least, that’s what I got out of it.

That last bit of commentary may feel a little too philosophical for a book I’m sure most would put on their summer, sitting by the pool/beach, reading list. But, it is what it is. 

Happy reading!

~G

Book Review Time: Ordinary People

Insightful realism collides with moments of the supernatural in this tale of relationships on the brink. In Ordinary People by Diana Evans, we are introduced to two couples: city-dwelling Londoners, Melissa and Michael; and long-time suburbanites, Stephanie and Damian. Each relationship has years of investment behind it, as well as, children in tow. And the friendship between the couples is demonstrated through periodic gatherings, where their respective families are brought together for food, drink, and spirited conversation. But all is not well. Melissa and Michael are out-of-sync. Michael longs to reconnect with Melissa, a woman for whom his love and attraction have never waned. But Melissa desires to reconnect with herself. Often befuddled by the complexities and demands of motherhood, Melissa is searching for who she once was before small humans dominated her life. What Melissa views as Michael’s neediness and inability to be emotionally present, creates further friction and threatens their stability as a couple. 

Stephanie and Damian have their own share of problems. The recent loss of Damian’s father has sent him into an emotional tail-spin. His life lacks vigor and drive. He hates his job and his fellow co-workers. And the constant unsolicited advice he receives from his father-in-law on how to improve his situation, irritates him to no end. Of course, he blames Stephanie. She’s his wife. The one closest often gets the blame. For her part, Stephanie has tried to offer help. But you can only help someone who truly wants it. Stephanie and Damian find themselves held together by a singular string, stretched to its max; their children. But is that enough to keep them together?

Ordinary People presents an interesting take on life, relationships, parenthood, and gender politics. Although the issue of race is also presented in the story (including a heart-wrenching subplot involving gang violence in South London), Diana Evans makes a point of creating a narrative that holistically investigates the internal lives of its black characters. Their beliefs, emotions, and actions are varied and complex. Obviously, their lives are affected by systemic racism. But that does not account for their entire story. Ordinary People illustrates the very human need to connect. Unfortunately, for these characters, when that need isn’t met, boundaries become easier to cross. Good people become unrecognizable. 

With R&B soul as its soundtrack, Ordinary People is a story of tension, miscommunication, and disappointment.  It rings of something lost, which might never be reclaimed. Yet it’s also a story of grace and forgiveness. Because at some point, you have to decide to move forward, and just get on with it.

Oh, and did I mention the novel features a poorly-designed haunted house? Welp…it does.

~G

A Brief Reflection and A Short Book Review Time: Heavy

Losing a loved one cuts deeply. But if you’re fortunate as I have been in my life, what is left behind is a wealth of beautiful memories. If you haven’t already, please read my review of News Of The World by Paulette Jiles, which was published on December 25, 2020. Separate from the review of the book itself, that blog entry may now be seen as a tribute to a great man and an amazing father, whom I will miss until it is time for him and I to meet again. I am comforted in knowing my father’s journey onward is filled with peace and light.

And now for my review.

The memoir, Heavy, by Kiese Laymon explores complicated, and deeply personal, family dynamics. It also addresses broader issues of racial and gender inequality which plague American society. Mr. Laymon’s intention is not to make one feel at ease. Niceties are not to be found here. He strives for truth in all its ugliness. In all its beauty. He runs and he runs. And in so doing, strips away the weight; a lifetime of confusion, trauma, and pain. We witness through Laymon’s eyes the exploitation of the most vulnerable. We writhe under his accounts of institutionalized racism, within the criminal justice system as well as the halls of academia. We see how the most negative and destructive aspects of American society affect black communities, black families, black children. 

The very backbone of Laymon’s story is the tangled relationship that he has with his mother. She is a woman of humble beginnings with extreme intellect and drive. A single-mother who clearly wants the most for her son. Yet she is also the same person who victimizes him, physically and emotionally. How does one reconcile such an individual? How does a son come to terms with a mother who at times can be affectionate and loving, and at others, reckless and abusive? Heavy tackles the very real concept of racial trauma. How deeply it’s embedded. How it is passed down through generations; its effects far-reaching. Laymon’s dogged honesty is painful. But it’s clear there is no other way but to speak one’s truth. We wither under the weight of lies. 

~G

Ever-So-Slightly Condensed Book Review Time (because not everything needs to be written in 500 or more words): The Long Call

In the marshlands of North Devon, along a neighboring beach, the body of a man has been found. The cause of death is a stab wound to the chest. There’s little on his carriage for positive identification, except for one unique physical marker: a tattoo of an albatross on his neck. This was a man with a shadowy past. A man who carried a burden. Could that burden have played a part in his murder? Detective Matthew Venn and his team have been assigned to the case.

The Long Call, marks the introduction of a new series from one of the masters of crime fiction, Ann Cleeves. In the character of Matthew Venn, Cleeves has created a protagonist that is complicated and guarded; noticeably strained yet duty-bound. Not unlike the man who’s murder he’s intent on solving, Matthew is a man with a past. He, as well, carries a burden. As a young adult, he decided to leave the deeply religious sect he was raised in, leading to an estrangement from his family. Matthew’s eventual discovery of his sexuality and his subsequent marriage to a man resulted in a complete severing of the relationship between him and his parents. With the recent death of his father, Matthew finds himself grappling with feelings of guilt and insecurity. If there is a way to bridge the divide between him and his only living parent, his mother’s chilly reception gives him little hope of finding it. But family issues must be put aside for now. There’s a crime to solve, and a host of suspects.

In The Long Call, Cleeves demonstrates, through Detective Matthew Venn, that bravery need not be cloaked in bombast. He moves quietly. Yet he always moves with intention and purpose. Much of the drama in the story generates from what is not said, from the internal battles. A downward gaze. A flushing (or whitening) of the face. A slight pause. The Long Call also tackles relevant issues including systemic patriarchy, and how it’s used to victimize the most vulnerable in society. This was a highly enjoyable read. I would definitely place it in the category of “I couldn’t put this book down!” And if you’re anything like me, you’ll try to solve the case right along with Detective Venn and his team. I’m looking forward to reading more in the series.

~G

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Book Review Time: Aftershocks

As we find ourselves firmly planted in the 21st century, our ideas about how we identify ourselves, and concepts concerning interpersonal relationships have evolved and diversified. Nowhere can this evolution be seen better than in the model of the nuclear family. In spite of resistance from darker, more sinister sources, what makes a “real” family has grown in scope and acceptance. As the incomparable Lin-Manual Miranda stated, “Love is love is love…” And the love between a parent and their child is enormous, no matter what the specific configuration may be. I write these words with a wealth of experience on both sides. Children need their parents’ love. But what they also need, dare I write, in equal measure, is stability. Children are vulnerable.Very little is under their direct control. Hence, even the slightest changes in circumstances can create great tumult in their young lives.

In Aftershocks, Nadia Owusu candidly documents the tremulous nature of her early life. The daughter of a Ghanaian UN official, Owusu spent much of her childhood and adolescence globetrotting, living in both Europe and Africa. This upbringing provides her with a unique perspective and an acquisition of language and culture. But adversely, it often places her in situations where she must subdue her authenticity in order to comfortably adapt to her environment. Always shadowing Owusu, is the absence of her mother, an Armenian-American woman who abandoned the family when Owusu was quite young.

Owusu begins her memoir by describing her mother’s brief re-entry into her life. It comes the day after a deadly earthquake in Armenia. Although Owusu’s family at the time was living in Rome, she as a child heard the news of the event and immediately comprehended the connection to her mother. Fortuitously, later that same day, there was a knock at the door. It was her mother. She had come to spend the day with Owusu and her younger sister. It would be a cursory visit, filled with awkwardness and confusion. It would end with her mother leaving again, to start a new life with a new family in another country. A resonant aftershock.

Several years later, as a teenager, Owusu endures a major “earthquake,” when her much-beloved father succumbs to brain cancer. The loss is shattering. And Owusu spends the next years adrift, moving through dissatisfying romantic relationships and self-destructive behaviors. She attends college and graduate school in New York, and is further rocked by the events of 9/11.  Eventually, Owusu’s life reaches an emotional crisis point triggered by a contentious argument with her step-mother, when a dark secret about her father is revealed. The revelation is unsettling, and threatens to destroy the truths Owusu holds onto so dearly. Her world is teetering. The deep cracks are surfacing.

Owusu is an amazing writer. She understands that the genre of memoir inherently requires a deeper honesty; requires emotional and behavioral dissection. It’s a task not meant for the faint of heart. In her presentation, she strives to be fair, often prefacing recounted events with “the way I remember it” qualifications. In the Author’s Notes, she states “…my memory is prone to bouts of imagination…I can only tell my version.” And this is significant because memory is delicate and slippery; becoming increasingly hard to grasp as we move further and further away from the moment in question. Owusu does her best. Admits to her wrongs. Admits to being wronged. She explores race and the disconnect between African-Americans and continental Africans. She delves into her own multicultural background, and how it was viewed differently depending on the country she was in. Ultimately, Aftershocks illuminates the importance of family, whether they’re present or not. They inform our lives in multitudinous ways. As children there are aspects of our parents’ lives that we aren’t fully capable of understanding. Nor are we all that particularly interested in understanding it. But with adulthood, comes a broader sensitivity, and a compassion for life’s many complexities. I highly recommend this book.

~G

Book Review Time: Friday Black

Hello, my fellow bibliophiles. You may have noticed I took a brief hiatus. No need for concern. Reading is ingrained in me. I read every day. Yet for whatever reason, the writing wasn’t coming along as easily. I’m still trying to uncover the “why” behind that. Maybe the exhaustion and frustration of 2020 finally caught up to me in the form of writer’s block. But today is a new day. And I’m ready to discuss books. So, shall we?

Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, is an abrasive and thought-provoking collection of stories addressing race, class, cultural divides, and consumerism. Adjei-Brenyah creates a near-future western society where the most dangerous and incendiary elements not only have managed to persist, they have also strengthened. Black people’s increased reliance on code switching in order to survive day-to-day life. A criminal justice system so inequitable as to be devoid of true justice. Material consumption that eats away at our very humanity. The ongoing cycle of never-ending wars. The enormous toll it takes on younger generations. In 2021, the world is a powder-keg. We’ve borne witness to many of the devastating effects already: social unrest, a pandemic, the spread of disinformation, warfare, climate change. Despite being major occurences, these are the precursors (the igniting flame) of something greater; something potentially cataclysmic. Friday Black presents the world after the powder-keg has blown. It’s real and heart-breaking. Ugly and stomach-churning. Friday Black takes its name from the biggest consumer event of the holiday season. And just as the title is a reflective inversion of the term Black Friday, Friday Black holds a penetrating mirror up to society. The reflection has needle-sharp edges with acidic overtones. Adjei-Brenyah is showing us where we’re headed. The outlook is bleak. Luckily for us, there’s still time to change course. To tread a different path, a nobler one. One immersed in goodwill toward our fellow-man/woman with an abiding respect for the planet that sustains us. Like the young girl, Ama, in the final story of the book, Through the Flash, who in recognizing her dangerously violent descent, actively chooses to do better, to be better: “The old me did everything one way. And only thought about one person.” And here, Adjei-Brenyah presents the tiniest flicker of hope. One girl willing to change. So the question becomes, how do we extrapolate this and give it meaning in the real world? The issues we face are many, and with each passing day, they worsen. But how do we move forward when so many are reluctant to admit that there’s even a problem?

~G

Book Review Time: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces is a full-on comedic assault in the best possible sense. It bursts from the seams with the most absurdly uproarious episodes of complete ridiculousness and it never lets up. Not even for a second. With intersecting plots that criss-cross each other through New Orleans’ French Quarter, ACD follows a cast of hysterically memorable characters. Most of them can be described as down-troddened and seedy. Some are victims of circumstance. But what they all have in common is a connection with the book’s anti-hero, Ignatius J. Reilly.

And how should one describe Ignatius? A larger than life, lapsed Catholic?  A devout follower of Boethius? An overly-educated ne’er do well? An aspiring writer who lacks ambition? A pathological liar with a brilliant mind? A dissenter of the highest magnitude? A hot dog vendor?  All of these descriptors are quite true. Between Ignatius’ unpredictable “valve” and an increasingly toxic obsession with a college lady friend, destruction and hilarity follow his every movement. And no one is spared. We accompany Ignatius on his unusual adventures in day-to-day life, where he lays waste to everything and everyone in his path. Yes, there may be sword-fights in back alleys. Coup-d’etats have not been stricken from his alternate game plan. And occasionally we’re treated with spot-on social commentary from a character called Jones (likely the only individual in this story possessing that which resembles common sense).

A Confederacy of Dunces is funny beyond belief. And it challenges the reader in a unique way, by presenting characters that are polarizing. You either love them or hate them. And more than likely, you hate them. Yet they’re so darn entertaining in their distastefulness that you are obligated to see it through. Kinda like a John Waters film. Pepto Bismol and a long hot shower may be necessary afterwards. 

ACD’s devastating humor and brilliant crafting are made all the more poignant by the fact that its creator, John Kennedy Toole, would never enjoy its successful reception. But on a positive note, he has left us with a work that is epically preposterous and will have generations of readers laughing their a**es off.

~G