Monday, November 28, 2016

The Mothers, Another Amazing Debut Novel

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What a fabulous year for readers! I can't remember the last time there were so many stellar writers debuting novels of such sophistication and depth. Especially gratifying is that they are women, Emma Cline, Yaa Gyasi, Nicole Dennis-Benn, to mention just a few of my favorites in 2016. And now, Brit Bennett (http://britbennett.com/about/), a winner of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 50 award, with an Ivy League education that includes Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Oxford. Whew!
 
We first meet Nadia Turner through the eyes of "the mothers," the elders of the Upper Room Chapel, who keep keen eyes on the youth of their parish. These women pride themselves on their observations about all the members of their Oceanside, California, community but they are not above spreading gossip based on false assumptions and misinformation. The onus is on the reader to parse what we learn from the mothers with what we learn from the first person narration of the three main characters themselves.
 
The mothers were the last people to see Nadia's mom alive and they wonder, in hindsight of course, what they might have done differently if they'd known she intended to kill herself. Nadia and her father both died a little bit that day, their grief internalized, creating an impenetrable wall that neither seem able to breach.
 
Nadia's search for anything to fill the hole in her heart begins with the usual suspects, drugs and alcohol, and ends in a secret fling with the pastor's son, Luke Sheppard, a man fighting his own demons. They know it won't last, after all, Nadia is heading off to college the following year, to Michigan on a full scholarship. So when she finds out that she's pregnant, it never occurs to her that Luke might have mixed feelings about the child he'll never know. This lack of insight into Luke's true character has ramifications for each member of the Upper Room over the next several years.
 
Absent mothers, whether physically or emotionally, are an integral part of Ms. Bennett's novel. Aubrey's mom is alive but has chosen her boyfriend over her daughter. Abandoned, Aubrey moves in with her sister and her sister's partner and joins the Upper Room seeking a safe haven. There she meets Nadia, one empty girl seeking out another. Nadia is drawn to Aubrey's innocence and to the home she has made with her sister, harboring an aching envy that Bennett describes in this gorgeously written sentence,
 
 "Monique and Kasey's love for Aubrey hung in their eyes, and even though it wasn't meant for Nadia, she inched closer, holding her hands up to the warmth."
 
Can't you just see it? Insightful sentences like this jump off many pages in "The Mothers," a book that holds so much pain, loss, and misunderstanding behind its cover that if feels like it should have come from a much older soul. Bennett examines grief, loyalty, friendship, and love, along with the seemingly unbreakable bond between parents and children. Lots of material here for book groups.


 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Jacqueline Woodson's Other Brooklyn

Product DetailsLong before the brownstones started going for a million dollars and up, there was "Another Brooklyn." Jacqueline Woodson is fortunate enough to now live in the new, gentrified Brooklyn, but there was a time when she lived in the middle of Bushwick, when white flight was happening all around her and  neighborhoods were being populated by black and Latino families. This is the Brooklyn that is a full-blown character in Ms. Woodson's first book written for adults. Finally! http://www.jacquelinewoodson.com/

I've written before about a new phenomenon that really seems to be catching the literary imagination. It's the memoir as novel,  a trope that allows the writer much more freedom even as it keeps the reader guessing. How much of this actually happened? In an interview, Ms. Woodson said that her books may not all be physically autobiographical but they are "emotionally autobiographical." I love that distinction. I love this book.

Ms. Woodson covers so much emotional territory in this finely tuned novel/memoir that in only 179 pages my senses ran the gamut, from poignant melancholy, to worry, to wise laughter, and memories of my own young adulthood. Oh, it's remarkable how she perfectly captures such an achingly difficult time!

There is a mystery in the novel that slowly reveals itself. Our narrator August moves north from Tennessee with her brother and her dad, yet there is a huge hole in the family that was once occupied by their mother. "Why didn't she come with them?" asks her baby brother. "When will she arrive?"

Woodson creates a beautifully written bond between August and her little brother, alone at home all day while their dad is at work, not allowed to leave the house for their own safety. Their faces are often pressed to the window from which they observe the neighborhood. They long to join in with the other kids, jumping rope, bouncing balls, running through the pulsing water of the fire hydrant, but a full season goes by before their dad feels comfortable letting them explore their diverse, fascinating cityscape.

It is from this window that August first spots the girls, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, with whom she will develop a seemingly inseparable friendship. Remember, if you can, the angst, the drama, the secrets and confidences shared during your teen years. Woodson depicts this time so realistically that I actually began to relive old hurts leveled by girls I thought I could trust, and acts of gross misbehavior instigated by a bully to whom I couldn't say no.

And though "Another Brooklyn" is about the dangers and pitfalls of growing up as a black girl, the story has universal appeal. Each of the girls has a dream, not each will live up to her potential. Burgeoning hormones run rampant, fear of pregnancy is never far from the girls' minds, the stigma and the lost opportunities. There is also a lovely exploration of Islam. August's dad and then her brother convert, finding joy in their daily devotions, the healthy dietary restrictions, and the intellectual rigor, such a different vision from the hate- filled rhetoric of today.

I own this marvelous little book. After sitting next to Ms. Woodson at the National Book Festival there was no way that I couldn't buy it, right? If you've gotten this far in my post then you may be more than a little interested in reading her. I'd be thrilled to "pay it forward" and send my copy to the first person who comments.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Good Girls Revolt, A Book that Raises a Question

Product DetailsAs people around the world pondered and attempted to analyze what just happened in the United States on Tuesday, November 8th, I was beginning a new book by journalist Lynn Povich (http://www.lynnpovich.com/) that drove home to me, once again, what I see as a serious problem in our country. Women are still too reluctant to support other women.

"The Good Girls Revolt, How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace," is a true story about a class action lawsuit that was brought by the fiery and formidable Eleanor Holmes Norton, then assistant legal director at the ACLU, on behalf of the female employees at Newsweek Magazine, the first of its kind. I was just graduating from college in 1970 when this all began and I admit to being totally oblivious. But I'll excuse myself by saying that I didn't have access to the constant barrage of 24/7 news feeds or women's studies programs that are prevalent now. Two generations of young women have reached adulthood since the women's movement began and I worry that too many of them either take all the work that's gone before for granted, or don't realize how close they may come to losing it all.

The ladies at Newsweek, graduates of the finest colleges in the country, were hired as fact-checkers, entry level positions that many of them assumed would get them in the door. Then they would be able to showcase their true talents, writing and reporting on the news of the world. Instead they were bypassed by young men with equal or lesser skills who steamrolled their way to important positions in the company. Newsweek was owned by the Washington Post company which, in turn, was led by Katherine Graham, the first female executive of a major news organization, a woman who was sadly unaware of the discriminatory treatment of her own female employees.

These women were in the vanguard of the movement. It took courage to secretly plan the suit, carefully choose whom to trust, realizing that they could possibly lose their jobs, and would certainly be retaliated against. Ms. Povich was a signatory to the lawsuit but she gives a clear-eyed account of all that happened, giving credit to the men who stood behind their co-workers, and calling out those who stonewalled. Though Norton won the case for the women, two years later very little had changed.

Well regarded writers like Nora Ephron, Jane Bryant Quinn, and Ellen Goodman had moved on to other venues where they found better options for advancement. Those who stayed continued to push for writing opportunities, eventually having to bring another suit in 1973 to force the Newsweek administration to prove that they were actively soliciting female editors. At the same time, the Post organization was under an edict to hire more minority professionals. I've always thought it a shame that the Black Power Movement and the Women's Movement couldn't have joined forces to advance their outcomes. It seems that a lack of trust and an every man (sorry) for himself mentality prevailed.

Which brings me back to the election of 2016. The latest statistics tell us that 53% of women in the United States pulled the lever for Donald Trump. How can that be? Of course I'm not saying that we should vote with our vaginas as Susan Sarandon quipped, but come on. It is doubtful that, in my lifetime, we will have another candidate as qualified to lead our country as Hillary Clinton. Many of Bernie's younger supporters said, "she comes with too much baggage." Well, hell yes, she comes with baggage. You can't become a leader without putting yourself on the line, again and again. She had some spectacular successes and some flaming failures. In other words, she was tested.
"
"The Good Girls Revolt" should be added to college reading lists in journalism and gender studies. It reminds us that only forty years ago women were relegated to getting the coffee, expected to endure outrageous sexual harassment, released from their jobs for getting married or pregnant, and were not allowed to even hold credit cards in their own names. We may have come a long way baby but believe me, we're not there yet.



Monday, November 7, 2016

Nine Island by Jane Alison

Product DetailsI am on a never-ending quest for books set in Florida that I can read and review for The Florida Book Page, my monthly radio stint on our local NPR station WGCU. This can be more difficult than it sounds since I want to actually LIKE the book and consider it well written. What a pleasant surprise to open last Sunday's New York Times Book Review and find not one, but two new books that fit the description. I'll be waiting a while for John Grisham's "The Whistler," but "Nine Island," by Jane Alison, http://www.janealisonauthor.com/, a writer who is new to me, came in immediately. Now I plan to go back and read all her other books!

Advertised as a "non-fiction novel," a new one on me, this exquisite little gem of a book is melancholy yet hopeful, sad and funny and smart. Narrated by J, a woman at that precarious stage between youth and old age, who is wondering as the song goes, "should I stay or should I go?" From the floor to ceiling windows of her Miami high rise, she watches the toned bodies, the immoveable breasts, and the worked over faces of the women on the make and asks herself if it's worth it. Should she stay in the dating game or relinquish it for her literary pursuits.

J is a scholar of Ovid, as is the author. She is translating "The Metamorphoses," while pondering her own transition from the lush, sexual being she thinks she still is, to a woman who's given up on love. She reminisces about past affairs and a long, infertile marriage, and fantasizes about the toned young men who strut their stuff on the beaches and around the pools. When J is in the water she feels replenished, supple, lighter, more desirable, but ironically, the pool is in disrepair and about to be shut down indefinitely.

Living alone, J is curious about the comings and goings of some of her neighbors and they, in turn, are interested in her, especially N, the woman who beats J to the pool each morning and then disappears for the rest of the day in a whirl of mystery. N and her husband invite J for drinks. They want to know her better, whether she's contented with her life, with just Ovid and her old cat, or if she needs and expects more out of life.

This is not a novel for the impatient reader. This book reminds me of a good foreign film, contemplative and interior. It tantalizes and yes, it titillates. Alison has written a gorgeous meditation on life, on aging, on embracing what's offered and accepting that which we just may not be able to have.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney

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Not all reviewers were equally smitten with Jay McInerney's third novel about Russell and Corrine Calloway. Reading between the lines, I gather that some may have found it too, well, precious. Not so for me. Because I haven't read the two previous works about this New York City power couple, "The Good Life," and "Darkness Falls," I came to them fresh, thanks to an advanced readers' copy from the publisher, Knopf. I really enjoyed this book. It's sarcastic, funny, poignant, biting, and honest.

Taking us inside the writing and publishing business right before the 2008 financial meltdown, McInerney drops so many literary names and references that some might accuse him of being pretentious. But I loved reading about the behind-the-scenes machinations that result in a published book. Especially well-done and realistic is Russell's discovery of a "fresh new voice in fiction." Jack is an unpolished kid from the south whose undisciplined work shone under Russell's editing, a young man whose success went to his head as quickly as his star faded.

McInerney says that New York is really just a small town where everyone knows everyone, and the city, from Soho to Harlem, is a major character in this book He conjures up the very essence of what it's like to live among, yet on the fringes of the 1%, the endless fund raisers, charity parties, openings, screenings, benefits. He pulls us into that life, shallow and exhausting, and mesmerizes us with the rich tapestry of lives lived on the edge of the precipice.

Yes, they made it through the sex, drugs, and rock and roll days, for which there's little nostalgia. Now, will they survive the indignities of middle age and the looming financial crisis? Obviously pulling on his own thoughts about aging, McInerney depicts couples in middle age, rethinking their marriages, contemplating (and often having) affairs, grasping at those last ditch efforts to stave off boredom even if it means downing a Cialis with your $1500 bottle of Bordeaux.

And yet, ever the generous writer, McInerney forgives Corinne and Russell, Washington and Veronica, Tom and Casey their vanities, their deceptions that mean so little in the overall scheme of things. There is much love and respect among these couples. They have histories that are worth preserving. There's a wonderful scene on the evening of the 2008 presidential election when the long time friends and their teenage kids sit together watching the news results roll in from the various TV stations, learning that Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States.

The champagne corks pop, the sense of hope in the future is palpable. We realize that these couples, these friends, will probably make it. I remembered my friend Don and I popping our own champagne that night here in Florida, calling my sister in Massachusetts, and I felt nostalgic for those bright, precious days. That's what a good writer can do for you.