Friday, February 24, 2017

A New Generation Vying to be Heard in The Fire This Time

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Literate readers can look just about anywhere today and find references to the work of James Baldwin. The thirtieth anniversary of his death has caused renewed interest in Baldwin's remarkable output of essays, novels, and short stories. The documentary film "I Am Not Your Negro," about Baldwin and his groundbreaking work, will be considered for an Academy Award on Sunday evening.

"The Fire This Time," is a collection of essays compiled by the estimable author and memoirist, Jesmyn Ward, whose devastating novel "Salvage the Bones," about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, earned her a National Book Award. The title is an homage to Baldwin but the essays are dedicated to Trayvon Martin and "the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice for these last four hundred years."

This work seems especially important as our country tries to move forward in the wake of Donald Trump's presidency and the strong presence of a white nationalist, Steve Bannon, at the president's right side. We should all be afraid, but unless we've seen inside the soul of a black man or woman, I don't think we can fully comprehend the constant drain that prejudice and distrust takes on the psyche. These essays will give readers some measure of insight. 

Divided into three parts, the book deals with the past, present, and future, or Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. Ward has called on friends to weigh in and oh, do they ever. Professor of Creative Writing at the New School, Wendy Walters relays her experience in "Lonely in America," a story about her reckoning with her family's history of enslavement, a history she chalked up to her roots in Louisiana. But living in New England, she was taken by surprise to find that bodies discovered under the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, were found to be those of African families long forgotten.

Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) asks "Where Do We Go From Here?" after the death of Eric Garner, and multi-award-winning poet and essayist Kevin Young weighs in on the very ironic case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman, president of an NAACP chapter in Oregon, who passed as black for years in a very funny "Blacker Than Thou."

Perhaps two of the most difficult essays come from poet Claudia Rankine and memoirist Edwidge Danticat. Rankine looks back at the killing of four little girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, recounts the courage of Mamie Till Mobley who ordered an open casket for her murdered son Emmett's funeral, and moves forward to Dylann Storm Roof and the Black Lives Matter movement in "The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning." Danticat pens a "Message to my Daughters" harkening back to Baldwin's letter to his nephew in which he explained how to exist in a world that sees you as a worthless human being.

Harsh words? Yes, the are. But like Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son, "Between the World and Me," these essays issue a warning of a legacy that has not died. Racism has been percolating under the surface for many years now. Some of us idealists thought it had gone away but we were wrong. This election has brought out the worst in human nature and it's imperative that we continue to read and understand and try to put ourselves in another man's shoes to fully grasp the fear and depression that the new administration is inflicting upon people of color and all people of good heart.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Chabon's Moonglow Glows

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I've been asking you readers for titles of books that you just couldn't put down and you haven't offered me any possibilities. But I kept looking and now I have a treat for you. My favorite read of 2017, and yes I know that the year is young, comes from Pulitzer Prize winner (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) Michael Chabon. I'm embarrassed to admit that though I've assiduously followed his career because of his spectacularly opinionated wife, novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman, I had never read one of Mr. Chabon's books. Oh my, now, where to begin?
 
"Moonglow" is subtitled "a Novel" but it's one of those instances where you sense that the author is having fun with you in terms of what is true and what is not. In fact, he tells us so in his author's note when he assures us that he has taken liberties with his family's story with pure abandon. A love story, a war story, a memoir? What's your pleasure? This book has it all and Chabon offers it up to us readers as a gift.
 
A young man who just happens to be a writer is visiting with his grandfather over the last week of the man's life. This once rather quiet, severe man is suddenly bursting with stories which he shares with Michael/the writer in fits and starts until he's unspooling a remarkable history of the twentieth century. From the horrors that he witnessed in Germany during the second world war, to his fascination with rockets and space exploration courtesy of the publicity surrounding Wernher von Braun, to a stint in prison, and marriage to a war-damaged woman, the grandfather purges his soul for the eager pen of his grandson.
 
Chabon writes sensitively yet seductively about the mysteries of his grandmother's background, a Jewish girl, unmarried and pregnant, protected from the Nazis by a Carmelite community of French nuns. In a stunningly evocative chapter, Chabon recounts the night in 1947 when his grandparents met at a Baltimore synagogue that was hosting a casino night. (Funny, I thought only Catholics raised money by gaming.) Each detail of their clothing, their mannerisms, the sexual attraction, and the uncomfortable repartee as they inch toward each other and a lifetime of better and worse, is sheer literary perfection.
 
Generational novels that delve into family secrets, tragedies, and misunderstandings are a dime a dozen. But in the hands of Mr. Chabon the genre is elevated to another dimension. Each character stands out and none are a "type." There's Uncle Ray, granddad's brother, a former rabbi with a penchant for women, the track, and booze and the delightful German priest and sci-fi aficionado, Father Nickel, who harbors granddad and his fellow soldier in a hayloft to avoid retreating German troops.
 
Though there are many wry, funny bits in this book, overall it is a distinctly sobering examination of mental illness, of the dark side of mankind, and of the struggle to escape the effects of a past that may threaten to pull one under. There are lies we tell to protect ourselves and there are those we tell to protect others. And though love is a ferocious, glowing force throughout this beautiful novelized memoir the sad truth is that sometimes love's just not enough.
 
 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Moonlight and the Danger of A Single Story

My friend Don and I have instituted what we call "movie Mondays," our attempt to see all of the Academy Award nominated films before the Oscar production at the end of the month. This week we finally got to see "Moonlight." Let me say, unequivocally that I found it to be a beautifully shot, quiet film with some outstanding performances, especially Ashton Sanders as the teen, Chiron, struggling with his sexual identity, and Naomi Harris as his mom.

The problem arose in the third part of the film when Chiron is a young adult, now a drug dealer like his mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali), living in Atlanta where his mother is in a drug rehabilitation facility. I turned to Don and said, "I wonder how the writer went from being a drug dealer to being an award winning playwright?" As a librarian, I had to immediately go home and investigate.

Of course what I found out is that neither Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose 2003 theatre piece "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" was written as an entry to graduate school, nor Barry Jenkins, the screen writer and director of the movie, had ever been drug dealers, not remotely close. Yet they have been participating in world-wide interviews speaking about the semi-autobiographical nature of their film collaboration.

I'm confident that they don't intend to mislead audiences but it will happen nevertheless. Both men grew up in the Liberty City section of Miami, Florida, during the crack epidemic of the '80's. Each had mothers who succumbed to addiction. McCraney's mom died. Jenkins' came out on the other side. McCraney is gay, Jenkins is straight. Each attended the same fine arts high school in Miami that set them on the path to higher education and success. McCraney holds a degree from DePaul University and the Yale School of Drama, Jenkins from Florida State.  

One of my favorite authors and speakers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a famous TED Talk about the danger of a single story. http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
Her talk is really about ignorance, ignorance and lack of imagination when it comes to the American world view of Africa's many countries and their diversity. Don argues vehemently that the same ignorance holds true about America's view of African Americans and he hates it when filmmakers play into this single story, ie: The Butler, The Help, Fences, Twelve Years a Slave. Hidden Figures is the recent notable exception. 

So the question is, why didn't McCraney and Jenkins write the full story of their wonderful lives? Why didn't they show Chiron going on to college, accepting and loving himself as a gay, Black man in America? Why did they leave audiences to believe that the only way up and out of neighborhoods like Liberty City is through a life dealing drugs? Why the single story when the actual story is so much more compelling and uplifting? Don is writing to McCraney and Jenkins with these questions. I'll let you know if he gets answers.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Searching for the Next Great Read

I love it when I get to talk books in the strangest of places, like cardio class for example. A fellow book lover who knows me from the library lamented that she hasn't read anything great for ages and I agreed. Nothing is making me swoon. In fact, she had just finished the new Wally Lamb and was sorely disappointed. Since "I'll Take You There" is on my "to read" list, she has offered me her copy for my opinion. Anyone else out there read this novel yet?

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I did have the chance to read Brad Watson's book, "Miss Jane," which was much touted at Book Expo last year and was on the long list for the National Book Award. A fictionalized story of Watson's great aunt, who was born with a genital birth defect that precluded her being able to make love or give birth, this is a quiet, melancholy little novel. Though I'll admit that it would take a certain sensibility to actually enjoy it, Jane is a pleasure to spend time with. She is such a sensible, smart little girl that it will break your heart to witness the chill rebuff that she gets from each of her withholding parents and her older sister, Grace.

Unable to continue in school because of the difficulty of cleaning herself and the diapers she's forced to wear, she learns about her world by silently watching and observing nature. Some of Watson's finest scenes take place on Jane's parents' farm where she discovers all the facts of life she needs to know from the pigs, cows, birds, and insects with which she shares space.

It's the early 20th century in rural Mississippi and medicine is not yet ready to handle a disability like Jane's. Fortunately, though, her physician, Dr. Thompson, recognizes something special and precocious about Jane, sharing books and conversation with her over the years, becoming both a father figure and a dear friend.

Eschewing the life of a surgeon in a big city like his friend at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Thompson chose the life of a country doctor, dealing with the poor and uneducated, often taking a jug of homegrown whiskey as payment in full for services rendered. A wise and caring man, he finds a kindred spirit in Jane and she in him. In fact, I'd say they most likely saved each other's lives.

Watson succeeds at honoring his aunt, a woman of resilience and resourcefulness, who understood the difference between being alone and being lonely. Still, one can't help but wonder what Miss Jane might have become had she been born in a different place and time, to other parents.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Little Life Could Have Been, Well, Littler

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I have finally finished Hanya Yanagihara's bold, disturbing, gorgeous, novel, a behemoth (814 pages) sorely in need of a better editor. Yes, it's astonishing. The language is stunning. It received multiple accolades, including finalist nods by the Man Booker and National Book Award committees, but it was the wrong book for me to tackle during this time of malaise to which I admitted in a previous post. The thing is, I have a lecture to attend in a couple of weeks and this book is to be the subject. I am nothing if not prepared.

There is so much to love about this amazing book, written by a woman, about the deep and abiding friendships of men. This doesn't seem to be a subject that's tackled in literature nearly as often as women's relationships are. Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude bonded during their college years, forming their own small community of struggling artists, actors, and strivers. Gay, straight, bi-sexual, these men bring others into their circle, nurturing each other over decades of escalating successes that none thought he would ever achieve.

Vicariously we live the lives of the 1% through JB's rise as a renowned painter/photographer, Malcolm's success as an architect, Willem's acclaim as an oft-feted actor, and Jude's unusual turn from underpaid intern in the New York state attorney general's office to lethal litigator. These men live in unique Manhattan apartments, build get-a-ways in upstate New York, own pied-a-terres in London and Paris and Rome. And yet each has difficulty in finding his own true self separate from the group.

The novel mainly focuses on the relationship between Willem and Jude, a deep trust building slowly over time into a mature partnership. It becomes obvious early on that Jude has many secrets and that he has been appallingly, psychologically and physically damaged by someone in his past. Jude is in a continuous state of pain that is as much existential as it is real. Hanagihara doles out insights into Jude's childhood in chapters that are very difficult to read.

You must be prepared for the worst kind of abuse administered externally and by Jude upon himself. Be prepared to learn more about the act of self-loathing that is cutting than you ever would want to know. Only Willem can keep Jude's nightmares at bay and even when their life together seems to be leveling out into some semblance of normalcy, Jude is often just at the edge of psychosis.

I would not want to discourage you from reading this book. There are many delightful secondary characters that you'll enjoy getting to know. Jude's trusted physician Andrew and his adopted parents Harold and Julia stand out. While there is too much repetition of Jude's cutting episodes, there is also the insightful examination of a forty year love affair between two successful, caring, devoted men, which I think may be an eye-opener for many readers. Yes, this novel took me to ever lower depths but, truly, it was worth it.