Monday, January 12, 2009

Books I Read in December 2008 -- Part I

The number of books I read in December surprised me and consequently, I’ve procrastinated about writing up this post. In honor of author Carleen Brice’s project, White Readers Meet Black Authors, I have a number of discoveries to share.

The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate follows the complex relationship between three characters at an exclusive boys’ school in Connecticut. Jerome Washington, the school’s only Latin teacher and only black teacher is a reserved, complex character. He keeps to himself and his views about society and race are so conservative that I couldn’t help thinking about Clarence Thomas as I read. As the faculty’s only minority, he is called upon to help recruit a more diverse student body, and he does so out of loyalty to the school, but he is clearly uncomfortable in this role. He is not an advocate of anything that resembles affirmative action, and his attitude toward the tiny number of minority students in the school nears contempt. He’s worked hard to get to the respected position he holds and is loathe to see anyone that he views as undeserving getting special treatment. One gets the impression that he’d prefer that the color of his skin would go unnoticed and he appears to resent the young black students who embrace popular black music and culture – as if it reflects negatively on him.

Jana Hansen is a new teacher who has left an urban public school to join the faculty. Middle aged, white and recently divorced, she finds Jerome Washington enigmatic and attractive. Unlike Mr. Washington, she is anxious to help bring a more diverse blend of students to the school.

Rashid is new to the school. A black student from Brooklyn, Rashid has worked hard to gain entrance and earn a scholarship to an elite school as his older brother did before him, but Rashid’s brother is tragically killed just prior to Rashid’s enrollment, and his family is shell shocked. His parents don’t want to call attention to the tragedy and the assumptions people might make about it and they don’t tell the faculty about the senseless killing of their son. Lost in their own grief, they are unable to provide Rashid with emotional support and Rashid is left alone in a challenging academic environment, struggling to keep up and dealing with the loss of his brother in isolation. Rashid finds some companionship in his roommate, who is also black, but who hails from a wealthy, accomplished family and is academically and socially comfortable in the upscale prep school.

Mr. Washington lost a brother too and on the surface, would appear to be an ideal mentor for Rashid; however, Jerome Washington views the death of his brother during the commission of a crime as a source of shame and this emotion extends out to the black scholarship students who he cannot seem to view without painting them with the same brush with which he viewed his brother.

“After I returned east and took up my duties at Chelsea, I put Isaiah’s death out of my mind. I never think about it anymore. That is as my mother would have it. That is, I’ve come to believe, how it should be. I can’t bring him back. I couldn’t save him. Neither could she. Why he couldn’t fight harder to save himself, I will never know. That was why I feared Jana’s faith in young Mr. Bryson might be misplaced, save for his talent as a runner. As the season wore on, it was becoming more and more apparent that he was the kind of athlete a coach might see once in a lifetime. He had almost no awareness of his gift, which made it even more impressive. While I was not wholly in agreement with Jana about his chances, I thought we should work to save him if only to encourage that ability. It would only wither and die at some squalid city school. And if, by some happy chance, Jana was right about the rest, that his work could be brought along…well, so much the better. I guess I should say, too, that though I thought it unwise to indicate so, I was somewhat impressed by the way he confronted me about calling on him in class. I had been overlooking him, simply out of my belief that he would not be with us long. I also felt it particularly important that our Negro students realize that the world would give them no quarter. Why should I?”

The intersection of these characters leads ultimately to disgrace and shame for one of them and salvation for another. Martha Southgate is a gifted writer and this novel is an important one. It illustrates how deeply our issues with race go. It’s complex and the issues are not black and white, but extend into shades of gray that reflect generational and socio-economic differences between and within our races. This is a must read for anyone hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the evolving complexities of race in America.

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard was one of my favorite novels this year. I wrote an extended review of it last month and you can find it here .

Like Trees, Walking, by Ravi Howard. When the phone rings at the home of Paul and Roy Deacon, sons of the family owned Deacon Memorial Funeral Home in the early morning hours of March 21, 1981 it is not a routine call. Nineteen year old Michael Donald, a close friend of Paul had been found hanging in a tree in downtown Mobile, Alabama. This fictional tale of an actual event that happened in Alabama is a painful journey for two brothers who are otherwise leading a normal teenage life. It has fallen onto Roy, the main character to take over his father’s business. Deacon Memorial Funeral Home has buried the loved ones of Mobile’s black families for over one hundred years and Paul has already rebelled and made his intent clear that he will not be going into the family business. Roy, who has been working with his father since his early teenage years, brings an unusual, intimate perspective to the deaths that are a natural part of life, but Michael Donald’s brutal murder tests Roy’s ability to continue on in the business he doesn’t want to be in, but feels obligated to continue, for his father’s sake. The response to the murder is inept and devastating, the police focusing on the possibility that the lynching was the result of a drug deal that had gone wrong.

“’I assure you, the Mobile Police Department is going to do all we can to figure this out.’ The sad part was that he probably meant it. He stood tall, as though his posture made the assurance that much stronger. It didn’t matter what he said, because the truth of it was playing out behind him, the Mobile police milling about the block in slow and steady chaos. The only crime scenes I’d seen were on the news and on cop shows. There was always a slew of police officers knocking on doors, canvassing the area, and pursuing the guilty parties with prime-time tenacity. Nothing of the like seemed to be happening on Herndon Avenue. The gathered authorities were taking their turns looking at Mobile’s first lynching in sixty years. Before we left Detective Wilcox, my father made one request. ‘Cut that boy down before his mother gets here.’”

There are many poignant passages throughout this novel. Roy and Paul's grandfather, although he'd been retired ten years shows up to help prepare the body of the dead boy:

"My grandfather had been stifled by the shaking in his hands and a memory that sometimes failed him. We worried that he wouldn't be able to live alone much longer, but as he worked around Michael's head, stitching the ruptured skin and reshaping his face, his hands were steady and his memory was sound.

He remembered things we had never known. How to dress rope-burned skin. How to wire a neck, broken and distended, to make the bones straight again. Arrange the high, starched collar and necktie so they hid the marks that makeup could not conceal. I watched him as he worked, cradling Michael's head in his hands. He held it like he held mine in the waters along the bay, on the summer afternoon he tried to teach me to float. I floated for a while, but when I opened my eyes and realized his hands were gone, and what I felt along my neck and back was just a memory of his fingers, I sank like a rock."

The story follows the activity that ensues in the aftermath of the murder and the mark that a tragedy such as this leaves on everyone it touches. It illuminates how much and how little had changed in the American South in 1981 and shows the impossibility of healing when it seems that there will be no justice.

Push, by Sapphire was an uncomfortable, painful reading experience. Claireece “Precious” Jones is an overweight, illiterate black sixteen year old girl who is pregnant with her second child. She delivered her first at twelve and her father is the father of both of her children. Her mother is an abusive, jealous, reclusive figure who offers Precious neither protection nor love and she abuses Precious verbally, sexually and physically. This first novel is by the poet and performance artist, Sapphire. Sapphire spent time teaching literacy in Harlem, which makes this story with all of its broken characters all the more heartbreaking. Through the intervention of her school’s principal, Precious is sent to attend a literacy program and encounters a teacher who finally helps Precious to learn to read and to understand that she has value and a future. When Precious first goes to the alternative school, she’s given a test to determine if she should be in the G.E.D. class, which requires reading at the eighth grade level. She does not qualify.

“For me this nuffin’ new. There has always been something wrong wif the tesses. The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me an’ my muver – my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible. One time I seen us on TV. It was a show of spooky shit, an’ castles, you know shit be all haunted. And the peoples, well some of them was peoples and some of them was vampire peoples. But the real peoples did not know it till it was party time. You know crackers eating roast turkey and champagne and shit. So it’s five of ‘em sitting on the couch; and one of ‘em git up and take a picture. Got it? When picture develop (it’s instamatic) only one person on the couch. The other peoples did not exist. They vampires. They eats, drinks, wear clothes, talks, fucks, and stuff but when you git right down to it they don’t exist. I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am – vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.” I wanna say I am somebody. I wanna say it on subway, TV, movie, LOUD. I see the pink faces in suits look over top of my head. I watch myself disappear in their eyes, their tesses. I talk loud but still I don’t exist.”

Sadly, despite the tremendous progress Precious makes in learning to read and finally being able to leave her mother’s apartment to care for one of her two babies (the first has Downs Sydrome and has been with her grandmother since she was born), Precious begins to “age out” of the system and the social workers involved in her case are more motivated to see her get into the workplace as a home worker, taking care of the elderly than they are in seeing her achieve her G.E.D. or something better. Precious learns that she’s H.I.V. positive, the final legacy from her abusive father. Despite all this, the book ends on a hopeful note.

It comes as no surprise that Sapphire became the center of some degree of controversy over the work. As a result of her well-publicized half-million-dollar advance from an "establishment" publisher, there were some subtle political connotations since her work seems to portray the black male, and urban blacks in general, in a negative light.

Coincidentally, this book was recommended to me when I expressed an interest in reading Erasure, by Percival Everett. Read Push first and Erasure will make more sense to you. Erasure is about a black writer who writes purely literary fiction touching on themes about art and theology, but he can’t get a break. His would-be publishers complain that the work isn’t “black enough”. From reviewer Bernard W. Bell:

“Because his own most recent experimental novel has been rejected by publishers as not black enough, Monk is outraged at the national success of Juanita Mae Jenkins, an amateur black middle-class writer with little knowledge and less actual experience of living in an urban black community, and at her exploitative first novel in the neo-realistic vernacular tradition of the ghetto pulp fiction of Robert ‘Iceberg Slim’ Beck and Donald Goines, We's Lives in Da Ghetto. With self-righteous indignation, Monk, under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh and with little or no intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical distance between himself and the implied author of Erasure, writes MyPafology, an outrageously scurrilous parody in eye dialects, and its authenticity and authority are acclaimed by white editors and critics as well as a popular black TV talk-show hostess as a commercial and critical prize-winning success. In contrast to Monk's judgment that the parody, whose title Leigh has blatantly insisted that the publishers change to Fuck, is ‘offensive, poorly written, racist and mindless,’ the white judges on the Book Award Committee consider it ‘the truest novel’ that they have ever read. ‘It could only have been written by someone who has done hard time. It's the real thing.’ Ultimately, the huge commercial success of the parody and pseudonymous Stagg R. Leigh, engineered by a multi-million-dollar movie contract and the Book Club of Kenya Dunston, the nationally popular TV talk-show hostess, results in Monk's complicity with the media in the erasure of his integrity and individuality.”
I’ll make no judgment about the quality of the story or the writing as they're both so unconventional I have no basis for comparison. I will say that once I started reading, I couldn't put the book down. At times, the intentionally terrible grammar and spelling were a challenge.

From a social consciousness perspective, it brought me to the very crux of the tension that we feel all across the country right now. I’ve pondered the opposing points of view and I believe it comes down to the ideological differences in our answers to the simple question: Am I my brother’s keeper? The protagonist in Push and both of her children, the products of incestuous rape are completely unequipped to function as productive and self-supporting members of society, through no fault of their own. Some of us believe that our society owes something to these children. Some of us don’t.

The second thing Push brought to the forefront of my consciousness was the question of what this type of novel says to and about black authors. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Sapphire should muzzle her art because it shows a side of urban life that isn’t flattering to black Americans and that may indeed further perpetuate stereotypes. The story represents the truth of thousands of people of all races. On the other hand, I can understand that the literary writer, who happens to be black would feel frustrated with the publishing business and a seeming unwillingness to publish or promote serious black authors. I can’t say, although I imagine it’s not unlike the struggle any literary writer faces in our market driven economy where popular fiction brings in all the revenue. I’d love to hear thoughts on this book and on this question.

I’ll continue reviewing my December reads in the next post…


pattinase (abbott) said...

My goodness, how much you are getting from your reading choices. And how much you are giving us.

Ello said...

Lisa, you are like my reading hero!!

Carleen Brice said...

A reading SUPERhero. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow! Cool.

I guess I'm ahead of the curve in that white readers/black writer's thing, I've been reading a lot of black writers since at least the 1980s. I was also a big fan of Samuel Delaney's as a teenager and still read his work. I did an article on him not long ago after reading his autobiography, the motion of light in water.

James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers of all.

LarramieG said...

'Fess up reading super-hero and at least admit to some eye-strain! *G*

Patti said...

i am a reading wimp compared to your super powers. i have heard of push and forgot to pick it up, so this was a nice reminder.

Vesper said...

Lisa, I don’t know how to stress enough the pleasure I get from reading your reviews. Not only are they highly informative and very interesting but also fantastically well written. You are a great writer (and reader!). Thank you!

Shauna Roberts said...

I'll have to come back later and read this long post when I have more time. In the meanwhile, I honored your blog today with a Prémio Dardos award at my blog: Thanks for being a bright light in the blogging world.

Lisa said...

Patti, I made a conscious decision to slow down and really try to figure out what it is I do get from the books I read and I'm getting quite a bit out of it. I think one of the toughest things for me to do after I read a book is to explain to someone why I did or didn't like it and so far, being able to analyze what makes a book stand out for me has been impossible. I'm working on it.

Ello, Aw, you're making me blush.

Carleen, Quit! Actually, when a month goes by and I've really read a lot, I immediately feel guilty and think of the reading time in terms of all the other things I wasn't doing. I suppose I could be spending time doing worse :)

Charles, You are way ahead of me. I've had INVISIBLE MAN for a long time and I confess that the first time I tried to read it, I found James Baldwin a little too challenging. But -- in this year of slower reading and Proust, I'm ready to take him on again :)

Larramie, I must tell you that I finally picked up a pair of Walgreens reading glasses and sometimes I use them and lately I haven't been. I'm sort of on the edge of needing them I guess. Of course, the last time I used them I accidentally caught my reflection with the glasses perched on the end of my nose and I haven't taken them back out since!

Patti, I am a wimp in just about all other things in the universe -- says the bookworm to the marathon runner.

Vesper, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your kind words. I assume that I'm like many bloggers and when I write up a post, I'm first and foremost writing it up so that I can figure out what I think about something and then the secondary reason is that I hope maybe something I think or say will connect with someone else now and then. Thank you again.

Shauna, Thank you! What a very cool award and a cool looking gadget as well. Congratulations to you too!

Steve Malley said...

Man, you read some literary stuff! Nice work, there...

Color Online said...

I read this recently. My own biases about urban black literature and stereotypes kept me from picking it up. Then someone whose opinion I valued, told me to read it. I could have kicked myself for ignoring this. While the grammar and vernacular took some getting used to, it wasn't unfamiliar so I didn't let it distract me. I was a little ashamed that I let my own prejudices keep me from giving this book a chance. The read is disturbing and it is very real for the young women I work with.

The book has been made into an Indi film and did very well at Sundance. I'm hoping we can get a copy by March. I'd like to show at our agency for National Women's History Month.

Love your review. Would you consider submitting a shorter, revision for our Black History Month Contest? This is really well written and thoughtful.

Glad I found my way here. I'll be back.

Color Online said...

"what this type of novel says to and about black authors."

It says that black authors, like black readers, are not a monolithic group. Sapphire isn't Toni Morrison nor should the two be compared. Do we compare Danielle Steele and Joyce Carol Oates?

All worthwhile fiction isn't literary. Sapphire's works examines the human condition. It happens to be set in an urban environment and the main character happens to be a member of a marginalized group.

I'm no fan of Triple Crown production books, and I'd really like to slap Meyers for the crap she has our young women eating up by the bowl fulls, still that doesn't mean popular fiction doesn't serve a purpose.

Push is important because of the issues it raises. The language and format work because they best articulate the way Precious processes language, and the stereotypes allow the reader to appreciate the world in which she lives. The Color Purple likewise used an unconventional format, and one could argue the dialect was equally cumbersome. Walker's novel is standard AP English material for students.

Lisa said...

Steve, I've been reading a lot of great stuff lately. I wish I had more time because it's not like I'm ever going to get through 1/100th of the books I want to read!

Susan, Wow, thank you so much for taking the time to write such thoughtful comments and you've confirmed my guess that prejudices related to the book's style and subject were off putting (and probably still are) to a lot of people. I agree that it doesn't take long to fall into the rhythm of the vernacular and consequently get inside the main character's head -- which is why this really is such an effective device.

I heard Push had been made into a film and I'm on the lookout for it. I am honored that you'd consider a shorter review submission for your contest. I will check out the rules and the deadline and think about it. Despite my ramblings here, I'm actually very self-conscious when I talk about books here. I worry I'm not doing them justice.

Your earlier comment about holding off on reading Push until a trusted friend recommended it may be more telling to me regarding my question "what this type of novel says to and about black authors". I think it circles back to the catch-22 of the A.A. fiction sections in bookstores that Carleen has posted about (and many readers and writers have commented on with a wide variety of opinions). Each author has a unique voice, style, genre and level of talent so promoting "African American Fiction" as if everything in the category falls into one group somehow would seem not to do much to promote black authors on their merits. But to your point about exposing young girls to books written about characters who are like they are, it helps to highlight the wide range of choices within that group.

Pros and cons...

I had to Google Triple Crown Production Books, but I get your frustration. Popular fiction definitely does serve a purpose and it's got a much larger market than anything else, but it is certainly a hope that those of us who have an opportunity to influence young readers might expose them to a variety of reading experiences.

I would actually characterize Push as literary fiction, in that the device Sapphire used in bringing the reader with Precious on her path was the evolution of the dialect and at times, the excerpts had a look and a rhythm that was almost poetic. I can remember reading The Color Purple back in the early 80's (was it that long ago?) and having the same sensation of getting into the rhythm of the dialect. I had very similar experiences reading A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting since both used dialect throughout.

Thank you so very much again for your thoughtful comments!

Color Online said...


You really express yourself quite clearly. Let the worry go. You and I and others might consider Push literary, but telling my reluctant readers that more likely would turn them off. I arrange our collection in manner that is most likely to get them to check out books. If I'm being misleading, pull out the wet noodle and begin the lashing.

It is easy to misjudge and narrowly label things we know little about. Having the AA section in the bookstores attracts readers who are purposely looking for black authors and this audience typically isn't looking for literary works.They're looking for pop fiction. I normally don't find Morrison next Jerome Dickey. I am ambivilant about how we market African American writers. If your reading habits are diverse, you browse several sections of the library or bookstore. If your tastes are narrowly defined or you're unsure, you seek out the familiar. This is my experience with the girls I mentor at least. I've learned to start with what they know and gradually move them into different genres.

If Push had been in our Women's lit section, it would have sat collecting dust. I put it in Urban Fiction because I knew someone who's looking for Dickey would pick it up and check it out.

As readers, we need to assume less and ask more questions. I get a little annoyed when others, black and white, ask me about popular urban black lit and I tell them I don't read it. I am particularly annoyed when asked by readers who have seen my bookshelf at Shelfari (network for book lovers). There isn't anything on my shelf to suggest I read the popular fiction.

I am also bothered by the assumption that I have read many mainstream, standard literary works by white authors (I have; I majored in English and I enjoy quality literature) while on the flip side if I ask what black writers a reader has read, I get responses like, "But I'm not black, why would I know any black authors?" I have gotten this more than a few times.

Personally, I think bookstores should diversify the AA section if they insist on having it. I know some have made useful changes like having Morrison in both the AA section and literary. In the end, I think it's the reader who needs to broaden his perspective.

I said I was going to stop rambling, but I really enjoy chatting with you.

I like what you do. I'll try to stay on topic from now on and not so long-winded.

...e... said...

i remember reding push maybe a decade ago? some time back, anyway. i remember i was absolutely blown away by the powerful writing, and then gradually disappointed that the book just didn't live up to itself by the end. but wow, what writing for the first half, anyway...

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf