For Something Completely Different, Try Friday Black

Interesting stories about institutionalized racism, racism as amusement, consumerism, genetic optimization, dystopian ground-hogs day and more.

Friday Black (2018, 192 pages), a collection of stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, was recommended by one of the staff at Words here in Maplewood. The Words guy teaches at Seton Hall Prep and was so moved by the stories that he uses two of them in his English class. I took the bait and bought the book!

I recommend this book of short stories.

The stories are amazing. I took my time reading them because there was so much to think about in each one. They are other-worldly – dystopia from the point of view of a young black man. For example the stories encompass:

  • A theme park in which the white customers pay to react to the threat they perceive when confronted by a young black man in their neighborhood.
  • How the consumption and purchase of goods and clothing has become a blood sport,
  • How black youth reach the limit and unite after a jury fails to convict a white man who slaughtered five black kids.

There is violence and gory imagery throughout the book, so if you can’t deal, this book might not be for you. I’m not crazy about blood and guts in general but they are essential to these stories, plus there is a sense of underlying humor. Although the topics and settings may be other-worldly, I really connected with the family relationships that are presented throughout the book.

I plan on re-visiting this book again soon. I think these stories are ones that will reveal more upon re-reading.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Malawian boy triumphs against odds to survive famine, teach himself physics, and use ingenuity to improve his family’s life.

This week I read another memoir – make that 3 in a row! Had been meaning to read for a while, saw there is now a Netflix movie so I hustled to read this. I was also scoping it out as there is a young adult version that I’d like to get my kids to read.

Disclaimer: This book is set in Malawi and thus I was inclined to love it. I spent two years as Peace Corps volunteer teaching secondary mathematics from 1993-1995. I was posted to Ekwendeni, a small town in the northern region of the country. William Kamkwamba was a small child when I was there and lived in a different region of the country, but I fully related to and enjoyed his depiction of Malawian life.

Right: Me, in front of my house in the teachers’ compound… Below: Student life at school…. Still working on figuring out captions and photos LOL.

His memoir describes the life of a typical Malawian boy (a girl’s life would be very different!) growing up as a subsistence farmer. His family grows just enough maize to feed themselves with little left over to save to plant for the next year. There is one maize crop a year and it must feed the family for the entire year. There are other vegetables grown, and a bit of tobacco, but to a Malawian, maize and nsima (porridge) are life. A drought occurs in 2000 and the maize crops fail across the country. The government does nothing to intervene and people starve and die. Somehow William and his family manage to survive.

Following this horrific ordeal, William decides to do something to improve his family’s situation. As he could not pay for school, William teaches himself about electricity and physics. He decides to build a wind-powered device which will generate electricity and hopefully one day power an irrigation system so that his family won’t have to worry about lack of rains again. His entire village thinks he is misala, or crazy, but he perseveres.

It is a beautifully told story, full of sly humor despite the poverty and circumstances. I loved the description of the schools William attended as I taught in one so very similar. He describes not being able to pay the school fees and then hiding and sneaking into the classroom anyway, until he’s finally caught after 2 weeks. I was NOT a fan of ejecting kids because of lack of payment and happily hid kids in the class if I was able to. I had two Form 2 (or Sophomore) classes each with a zillion kids (ok maybe 150)…. seriously this is one of them:

One of my Form 2 classes, more than 100 kids all on the floor.

By the time the kids get to Form 4 they are styling with desks but still crammed – 200 in this one class.

You will enjoy this book if you happen to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi… or if you want to imagine life in another culture…and/or if you are a fan of plucky heroes who overcome great odds to do something really amazing and great.

How Would You React?

Irresistible memoir that reconstructs Dani Shapiro’s sense of self.

In January I read a compelling Wall St Journal review about Dani Shapiro’s new memoir and had to snap it up when I saw it at Words, our local bookstore. Inheritance A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (2019, 249 pages) is about Ms Shapiro’s shock at learning via DNA testing that she is not biologically related to her father, and the aftermath as she investigates her history and comes to terms with it. It’s an irresistible story, flowing easily and quickly, and is satisfying in the end.

Ms Shapiro grew up as an only child in an orthodox Jewish home and her Jewishness is a huge part of her identity. She finds herself unmoored as she begins to unravel how/why she is not her father’s biological daughter. (Her parents are now both deceased). She and her husband piece together once-forgotten comments and old memories. She consults with very old relatives, friends, and family rabbis who were alive at the time of her birth who may shed light on the circumstances of her conception and birth. Internet searches and genealogical sleuths help them with their investigation.

The theme of being “other” runs throughout the book. Dani Shapiro always felt like an outsider in her own family and within her Jewish culture for reasons she couldn’t quite name. This is a feeling most of us can relate to.

I was really touched by the love she encounters throughout the year she spends unwinding everything. Love is a big part of this memoir, and it is beautiful.

There are a few points in the book where I wanted to say – “Enough already, get over it, it’s not that big a deal!” to the author. (You have an amazing life, family and career...It’s not like you had to claw your way out of Camden!)

But even with that, I really enjoyed the story. Ms. Shapiro is a well-known author who has published both fiction and other memoirs, so she knows how to research and tell a good story. Of course I won’t reveal what happens or how she gains resolution, you’ll have to find that out for yourself!

Please let me know if you have read and enjoyed any of her other books. I’ve read her pieces in magazines but this was my first book by her. I’m interested in trying another!

Reporting Back – I Love the Love that Darnell Moore Embodies

Darnell Moore came to our book group discussion – No Ashes in the Fire.

I wrote recently about how I loved No Ashes in the Fire by Black LGBTQ activist Darnell Moore. Yesterday I was able to break away from usual Saturday activities (which included 4 hoops games and two birthdays including my oldest son’s) to join other members of the SOMA Justice book club in a special event. We got to meet Mr. Moore and hear him speak about his life and his experience writing his memoirs.

How to describe the experience? Simply, love.

Love is the central theme and feeling that Mr. Moore conveys in both his writing and his speaking. He describes the love his mother and family has shown for him as Radical Black Love. He was loved intensely for himself, as an LGBTQ individual, even before he was able to love himself and admit to his family that he is LGBTQ.

He also spoke about his relationship with his father and his friendships with other black students while he was at Seton Hall. It was clear though that his mother’s love and acceptance allowed him to love himself and to stop punishing himself for his perceived sin of being LGBTQ.

Hearing him speak was to feel his love, it was a truly moving experience.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez Wasn’t On My Radar…

Quick review of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

…Should It Be On Yours?

Last Sunday evening a friend who reads a ton and who happens to be a published author (i.e. knows much more than me) offered me her copy of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018, 212 pages). At some points in my life I’m more in tune with the NY Times reviews, news of literary awards and lists of best-of books, but now is not one of those times. So I totally hadn’t heard of the book even though it won the National Book Award for fiction in November.

(No, Rocket is not in the book but he’s cute and I needed some more visual interest.)

I found it very compelling and gobbled it up fast. Set in NYC, the narrator is mourning a very dear friend’s death by suicide. While confronting her own sorrow she is then asked to care for the dog he left behind…a Great Dane that weighs 180 pounds and is also seriously distraught over his master’s demise. And her rent-stabilized building does not allow dogs….

The dog, Apollo (the only named character in the book), and the narrator slowly grow accustomed to each other and in so doing, they both begin to heal. (Dog Lovers please note that the book is not solely focused on the dog so if you’re in it just for him you may be disappointed in spots.)

The writing style can seem quirky. Written in 12 parts with some sections written almost in snippets, it seems at times like Stream of Consciousness ramblings. However there are generally points to the streams that support the story, make a point, or inject humor. They didn’t bug me that much. Plus the entire book is slim, so if you find it annoying it’s only for 212 pages.

There are also many, many literary references. The narrator teaches writing and is an author, and her deceased friend was similarly a writer and a teacher. O’Connor, Simenon, Flaubert, Woolf, Keats, Auden, Coetzee, Ackerley, Kafka, Patterson… these are just a few of the authors whose words, works or ideas or mentioned or discussed in more detail. I knew some of them but had to look many up!

As we near the end of the book, tension mounts over the health of the aging, arthritic Apollo. There is a surprise in store for the reader which I didn’t see coming at all. It gives cause to more carefully contemplate the book title. To which friend is Nunez referring?

I recommend it! Give it a whirl! (Mine is a borrowed copy so unfortunately cannot lend out!)

Coming of Age Black & Free in America – A Memoir

Compelling memoir about LGBTQ Black activist Darnell Moore.

BLM, LGBTQ Autor
Darnell L. Moore, photo by Eric Carter in the NYT.

I just devoured Darnell L. Moore’s memoir No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America (2018, 256 pages) and highly recommend it for several reasons.

Love – I love the love described throughout the book. Moore is not always aware of the love of others and needs to learn how to accept it. His path to awareness and acceptance is the central theme of the book. Self love, black love, parental love, family love, love between friends, romantic love, label-defying love – all of these are examined in beautiful writing. I especially adored his relationship with his mom – though you’ll have to read the book to get to my favorite scene between them.

Education/awareness – Moore writes extensively of his childhood and adolescence in Camden NJ. Camden is generally known as a blighted city but now I’ll look at it much differently. Moore describes the city with love and describes how the neglect of elected officials lead to its decline.

SOMA Justice chose this book for its February book club and Darnell Moore will be attending the discussion next week.

SOMA Justice chose this book for its February book club and Darnell Moore will be attending the discussion next week…PM me for more information!

Black Lives Matter – As a white woman, the book gave me tremendous insight about growing up as black boy in our white-centered world. Worthwhile reading for anybody seeking to understand where other people are coming from. The epilogue also describes how Moore helped organized Ferguson MO rallies after Michael Brown’s murder.

BOTTOM LINE – Fast, worthwhile read. I read it on my Kindle App so don’t have to lend.

Good, great and excellent historical fiction (IMHO)

I enjoy good historical fiction if it pulls you right in – to the time period, to the conflict, to the characters. Aside from learning historic facts and geographical details, I love being made to feel as if I am there, experiencing in real time what the protagonist is. Here are a few of my recent reads.

Good, Excellent, Great

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate (342 pages, published 2017) – It sounds like this was a big bestseller last year among lovers of historical fiction. I liked it but didn’t love it. It is based on an evil woman in the 1930’s in Memphis who basically stole babies and children and re-sold them. The story is told in mystery-format, with current-day Avery trying to figure out details about the early life of her grandmother who has dementia. Avery’s story is interspersed with that of a young girl named Rill who in the 1930’s endured abduction from her parents. Good…. It is entertaining and a page-turner, though you can kind of figure out what’s going to happen. Happy to lend, I have the hardcover edition.

Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton (319 pages, published in 2017) – Written in diary form by a young Quaker woman in the late 1800’s in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Lilli must cope with her mother’s passing and then pregnancy as an unmarried woman. The book describes in great detail the obstacles women faced, especially poor unwed women. This book pulls you in quickly and is a great read until the end when it starts to drag a little bit. Great! Even with the dragging I recommend it for highlighting this under-studied and under-represented viewpoint of our history. Good for book club discussion…. Let me know if you would like to borrow (paperback!) Thanks to Tim & Amy for the gift of this book!

I was glad for the map on the inside cover of The Winter Soldier. Referred to it several times during the book to understand the geography. But please don’t quiz me!

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason (336 pages, published 2018) – Set in Eastern Europe during World War I and told from the perspective of a medical student who must quickly shed his bougousie upbringing and training and assume the lead of a medical hospital at a front. There are mysteries, there is a love story, there is resolution (as much as there can be in war-torn Europe). You get to learn more about the demise of the Austro – Hungarian Empire, a little bit more about what’s going on in Russia (there are Cossacks!) It is very well written as the author is a medical doctor and he must have spent an extensive time traveling the area about which he writes. Excellent! I loved it. Still thinking about it. Let me know if you would like to borrow!

Books I Read in 2018 (in no particular order)

Last year I got to 39.5 books, check out what I read.

How many books do we have in common? Please respond in the comments!

Less: Not everybody liked this book but I dug it. Won Pulitzer.
Reservoir 13: Eerie book set in remote English village…. Need to find another by this author.
The Power: Women Take Over, Watch Out. Don’t read much sci fi but this was good…
  1. My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley
  2. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  3. The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason
  4. Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
  5. Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce
  6. The Man I Never Met: A Memoir by Adam Schefter
  7. Exit West by Mohsin Hamed
  8. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
  9. Priestdaddy: A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood
  10. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
  11. We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
  12. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
  13. Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  14. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolfs
  15. There There by Tommy Orange
  16. The Pisces by Melissa Broder
  17. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
  18. The Leavers by Lisa Ko
  19. A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass
  20. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston
  21. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
  22. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  23. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  24. Educated by Tara Westover
  25. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
  26. The Revenant by Michael Punke
  27. Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan
  28. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
  29. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  30. Good Neighbors by Joanne Serling
  31. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  32. The Power by Naomi Alderman
  33. Tiernan’s Wake by Richard T. Rook
  34. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
  35. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  36. Catapult by Emily Fridlund
  37. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  38. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  39. Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

and then 39 1/2 is Black Klansman which I read half-way and then lent to my 13 year old friend…. finish it when I get it back!

Asymmetry – Worth the Read?

I eagerly started Asymmetry after having read about it on several Best-of-2018 lists. It’s broken into 3 parts, and the author is credited with achieving something magnificent and awe-inspiring.

I have to admit that while I enjoyed the 3 parts – I sure didn’t get the significance of her accomplishment on the first read-through!

I devoured the first section, written about the May-December romance between an older famous writer and the younger editor. Loved the NYC setting and the jaunts to the vacation home. Loved how his idiosyncrasies and age/illness pervaded their relationship.

The second section is written from a totally different perspective & set in a different time & place. Written in flashbacks while the narrator is detained in immigration control, it’s a compelling story about an man trying to return to Iraq to find his brother.

The third & final section is short… I won’t give too much away. It is an interview with a character from the first Section. I honestly didn’t get the connection between all three sections until I read a few reviews (NPR’s and NYT’s).

Bottom Line –  Borrow My Copy, Put on your 2019 List!

Read it for the enjoyment of each section. It’s OK if you don’t get “it” until you look it up & read about it. This is a book you’ll be thinking about it for days maybe weeks afterwards. You’ll be glad you read it, I know I am.

 

Lisa Halliday Credit Phil Soheili
Lisa Halliday in NYT Review, credit Phil Soheili

How to Begin to Enjoy Elena Ferrante without Reading My Brilliant Friend.

Get a taste of Elena Ferrante by reading The Lost Daughter.

Don’t let the cover freak you out.

If you tried to get into My Brilliant Friend but just couldn’t do it, I highly recommend trying The Lost Daughter. It’s like a small dose of Elena Ferrante that you can delve into without 1,681 pages of extra intricate characters, relationships, families, feuds, and nicknames. 

The Lost Daughter is 140 pages long. It pulled me right in so I’m reading it quickly. That’s right, I haven’t finished yet. But I will soon and it will keep me on track for 52 books this year.

You can borrow it when I’m done! Or get a copy at Words, where I found mine.

UPDATE: I finished it! You really get into the narrator’s mind as she wrestles with the struggles of motherhood and sense of self.