Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Under the Radar: "Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America"

One thing I like to do in this space is introduce books and authors that may have flown under the radar. I make many of these discoveries in used book stores, but sometimes I discover them because they are mentioned in other books. Since I don’t get around to reviewing every book that I read, I’m introducing Under the Radar as a way to ensure that I’m getting these titles to you whether I write about them or not.

While finishing up Dust Tracks On a Road by Zora Neale Hurston, I learned about Cudjoe Lewis. She interviewed him while doing research for the Journal of Negro History and Columbia University. He was the last known living captive that came to the United States on a slave ship. The ship arrived after the African slave trade had been abolished. I did a quick search and found Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America which discusses the last recorded group of Africans deported to the United States as slaves. Cudjoe Lewis died in 1945.

The book was published in 2007 and I will soon have my hands on a copy. You can get your hands on a copy of this book or click here to find out more about it on Amazon.

Please share in the comments if you know anything about it!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Nigger: An Autobiography by Dick Gregory

This was a challenging review to write. I’ve had it drafted for a while, but I didn’t think it was good enough. I still don’t. So to sum it up I’ll go ahead and tell you, Nigger makes my list of best books ever.

Migrations of the Heart by Marita Golden has been the book with the most memorable dedication I’ve read. That was until I opened this one:

Dear Momma - Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “nigger” again, remember they are advertising my book.

I didn’t make it much further than that before realizing this would be the most emotionally taxing book I’ve read. I ultimately decided to read it in one sitting. It was too distressing to read daily. I started to wonder how so many misfortunes could befall one person.

Kids made fun of Gregory because he had an absentee father, and his family was on welfare. He discovers his knack for comedy when he begins using humor as a coping mechanism. But dealing with kids at school was only one of many worries. When his father was present, he was abusive and not providing financial support. Gregory was left to try and support the family with whatever money he could make from whatever jobs he could find. 

A boy having to provide for his family, as a man would, came with its own set of challenges. Gregory found himself in countless compromising situations. He never did tell his mother about the burdens he carried because in addition to helping her support the family, he felt he had to protect her.

Things started to turn around once he got to high school. He became a runner and even earned an athletic scholarship. He became Outstanding Athlete of the Year at Southern Illinois University. But he left college before graduating after determining that a degree was useless for a black man.

After doing a number of successful comedy shows, he was sure he could run a profitable comedy club of his own. He managed to borrow money from people that believed the same; however, it was only a matter of time before his luck turned again. A brutal Chicago winter had something else in store for Gregory's new business.  

As we know, things did eventually turn around. The second half of the book shifts to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. He heads south after deciding that sending a check wasn't enough. As good as this book was, it felt incomplete. Maybe adding more would’ve taken something away. But he wrote several books after this one. I suspect they pick up where this one left off.

“I never learned hate at home, or shame. I had to go to school for that.”
Nigger: An Autobiography

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Monday, January 12, 2015

The Book of Negroes/Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill

I posted in July 2013 that The Book of Negroes, also published as Someone Knows My Name, would be aired as a television miniseries. Once I found out that the premiere would be this upcoming February, on the B.E.T network, I made this my first read of 2015.

I will use the same words I used to describe The Warmth of Other Suns. The Book of Negroes  is “thoroughly researched and impeccably pulled together.” It is historical fiction at its finest. And as with The Warmth of Other Suns, this book is of the same epic proportions.

Aminata Diallo is the storyteller. When we meet her she is an older woman, but the novel quickly shifts to her childhood where she recounts her life from the time she was conceived, to the moment that she was captured by slave traders, and then to the the life she lived after being sold to her first owner. 

The care the author took to include details from this time period immediately stuck out to me. It allowed me to lose myself in this book. It’s the closest I’ve come to being able to imagine I was there - to the extent possible- while reading any book covering this subject matter.

The trauma of being captured, long before being sold to an owner, is a detail that seems to be overlooked, at least in the literature that I’ve read. The trek from the villages to the ship lasted a few months in this novel. Women menstruating while unclothed is something that never occurred to me. Not so for this author. Many lost their sanity, one character even lost his ability to speak. The trauma, even long before being sold, is a detail that some writers seem to overlook. 

Hill frequently mentions the smells in and around slave ships. Charles Town, currently Charleston, South Carolina, was enveloped in an unmistakable stench. The same stench that intensified, allowing you to know when a slave ship had docked. And it wasn’t uncommon for bodies that had been thrown overboard to wash ashore.

The first time Aminata saw “smoke” come from her mouth, due to temperatures that she’d never experienced in her homeland, she thought for sure that she was on fire. She waited for the burning sensation which, of course, never came. And then there are the things that are not horrific in nature but are equally successful in dehumanizing a person. It’s details like these that are included throughout this novel that make reading it an experience unlike any other.

It was easy to love many of the characters. Aminta’s mother figures, they are wise and nurturing. One of them, also a slave, even knew how to immunize for small pox. Aminata’s fortuitous love interest, he is resolute in his commitment to her. Aminata herself is skillful. She was taught to “catch babies” by her mother and read by her father. Even while being enslaved, her skills completely changed the trajectory of her life.  

And then there is the history, so much history. An entire section of this book is devoted to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, indigo plantations, and the Gullah language. Even today, there is a Gullah Festival that takes place annually to preserve African American Gullah the culture and heritage. There is the creation of the Book of Negroes, which is an actual document. As noted in the reference of this novel, “it contains the names and details of 3000 black men, women, and children, who, after serving behind British lines during the American Revolutionary War, sailed from New York City  to various British colonies." Then there is the resettling of former slaves in Freetown, Sierra Leone. And the facts surrounding this particular section of the novel touched me at my core, but the same was true through most of the book.

I am currently reading Hill’s second novel, Any Known Blood and am enjoying it so much that  I ordered his first novel, Some Great Thing. Although, the latter title could also be used as an alias for The Book of Negroes; it is, indeed, a great thing. 

"That, I decided, was what it meant to be a slave: your past didn't matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim on the future." 
The Book of Negroes 

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Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 Wrap Up

I decided that 2014 would be my best bookish year yet. And so it was.

In addition to reading forty books, I attended twelve author events. Meeting Holocaust survivor Margot Freidlander at her book launch was one of the most memorable of any events that I’ve attended. Jesymn Ward came to promote the paperback release of her memoir, Men We Reaped. It was such an emotional reading that I saw man with tears in his eyes when she was done. Cornel West arrived in DC on the heels of being arrested in Ferguson, and the venue was filled to capacity. And Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench, moderated a lovely panel discussion with Okey Ndibe, Chinelo Okparanta, and Taiye Selasi on New Writing of the West African Diaspora. It was quite an impressive event. They even served wine and cheese afterwards! You can find more event recaps on the blog under A Bookish Life.

The Cornel West photo was taken by the establishment: Busboys and Poets

But that’s not all! Between reading forty books and attending author events, I managed squeeze in the following literary events:
  • Baltimore (Maryland) Book Festival
  • Decatur (Georgia) Book Festival
  • A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, starring Denzel Washington
  • The Half of a Yellow Sun movie screening and Q&A with Chimamanda Adichie
  • Twelve Years a Slave book and movie community discussion
  • A visit to the Library of Congress
  • Chicago Independent Bookstore Day
  • Literary Walking Tour: Books of the Harlem Renaissance (in DC)
  • For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf stage play
  • And I hosted my first Book Swap 

So on to the final list of books, starting with the 10 Best Books I Read in 2014:

Nigger: An Autobiography by Gregory, Dick
An Untamed State by Gay, Roxane
Forty Acres: A Thriller by Smith, Dwayne
The Beautiful Struggle by Coates, Ta-Nehisi
Arrows of Rain by Ndibe, Okey
Redefining Realness by Mock, Janet
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Blow, Charles M

And the remaining 30:

The Husband's Secret by Moriarty, Liane
Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga, Tsitsi...
Foreign Gods, Inc. by Ndibe, Okey
A Raisin in the Sun by Hansberry, Lorraine
Half of a Yellow Sun by Adichie, Chimamanda
Redemption Song by Berry, Bertice
'Til the Well Runs Dry by Francis-Sharma, Lauren
The Rat-boys of Karalabad by Rashid, Zulfiqar
Breathing Room by Elam, Patricia
When Washington Was in Vogue by Williams, Edward Christopher
The Spook Who Sat by the Door by Greenlee, Sam
Perfect Peace by Black, Daniel
Yellow Crocus by Ibrahim, Laila
Ayiti by Gay, Roxane
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Shoneyin, Lola
The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Walker, Alice
Somerset Grove by Peart, Dionne
Song of Solomon by Morrison, Toni

Bad Feminist by Gay, Roxane
The Five Love Languages by Chapman, Gary
The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart by Walker, Alice
Last Night on Earth by Jones, Bill T
Letter to My Daughter by Angelou, Maya
Nine Years Under by Booker, Sheri
Sketches of a Small Town by Meador, Clifton K
The Wealth Choice by Kimbro, Dennis
Don't Play in the Sun by Golden, Marita
The Other Wes Moore by Moore, Wes
Try to Make Your Life by Freidlander, Margot
Chewed Water: A Memoir by Rahman, Aishah

Oh! I almost forgot about the two coffee table books:
American Cool by Joel Dinerstein

I don't expect 2015 to be anything like this! But I do have a few exciting events already on the calendar. Stay tuned!
For the 2013 Wrap up click here
For the 2012 Wrap up click here 
For the 2011 Wrap up click here    
And my favorite, the 2010 Wrap up click here

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M Blow

My final and fortieth read of the year was Charles Blow’s debut memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Prior to reading the book, I attended Blow’s book tour stop in Baltimore. I have not attended an author event with so much energy in the room. I knew I was in for a treat from the moment I stepped into the auditorium.  

One of my favorite things about author events is hearing authors speak about those that influenced them. Blow credits his “literary fathers,” James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Ernest Gaines (to name a few), for allowing him to see himself. He emphasized the importance of diversity in literature, and all arts, because “you come to know yourself through reflection.”

And it’s always fun to know what writers are reading! What book does Blow have on his nightstand?  Encyclopedia of Black Folklore & Humor. He says it stays there. Since he didn’t have much growing up, he became used to reading the same stories multiple times. And he still does! When Blow was asked what he wished he had included in his book but didn't, he said, "It's all in the book."

So I had high hopes for the memoir after the invigorating discussion. And it delivered. I melted right into this book. Blow’s writing is lyrical; it has a soothing effect. There were passages that I read over, and over, and over again.

So many things about this book made me smile. Starting with the way Blow got his name. His brother wanted him named Ray Charles, after the singer. His mother’s compromise was Charles McRay. This from one of the same brothers that convinced their mother to let them call their dog Son of a Bitch- its literal name. Ha!  As much as parts of this book are funny, it is equally somber and, at times, disturbing.

From recounting the days of being a boy so poor that he and his brothers ate dirt, to becoming head of the New York Times graphics department just shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, Blow entwines details from the great loves and three great betrayals of his life.

He also reveals shocking and uncomfortable details about fraternal hazing at Grambling State University, but stresses the importance and the impact of his HBCU (Historically Black College and University) experience.

If you watch CNN, you’ve recently seen Blow as an analyst for the Michael Brown and Eric Gardner events. His analysis took on a new meaning to me after reading about his tragic and humiliating encounter with the police.
The final chapter of this book is by far one of the most profound, compelling, and revelatory closings I’ve read. We’ve all heard someone say that our experiences make us who we are. But many struggle with what to do or how to deal with the bad. Blow totally gets it.

I have an electronic copy of Fire Shut Up in My Bones. But I want it on my shelf. I will purchase a hardcover this week. And if you hadn’t guessed it already, Charles Blow has made my list of authors that I hope are writing another book.

“I had to understand that there was no way to be a whole man without being an honest man."
Fire Shut Up in My Bones

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Fire Shut Up in My Bones on Amazon
Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor on Amazon

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. As with all reviews posted, views expressed are genuine and are in no way influenced by external sources.

Monday, December 1, 2014

5 MORE Authors That I Hope Are Writing Another Book

On Friday I named five authors that I hope are writing another book. But those aren’t the only authors I’m keeping an eye on. Here are five more authors that I hope publish books soon!

Kiese Laymon
I attended Laymon’s local tour stop for his novel, Long Division. The turnout was disappointing, but with the crowd being so small, it led to an unconventional event. Laymon decided to treat the event like a get-together. You know, something you’d do with a group of friends, at someone’s house.  And you know what happens when you’re chatting with friends, at someone’s house. People say all sorts of things. It was awesome! He was so genuine, and it was so refreshing. What I realized after reading both of his books, Long Division and How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others In America, is that he is also forthcoming in his writing.

Lola Shoneyin
The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was a fun read. The story has five main characters and each of them have a voice in this novel. I appreciated reading about the experience from the aspect of the wives, how they found themselves there, and how they experienced the emotions that anyone would when your significant other is in a relationship with someone else. Baba Segi did not intend to have four wives at the start of it all. And it seems he took one wife too many when his fourth wife causes all of their lives to unravel. The book got a little slow in the middle but the last several chapters swept me away. There is something about the nature of her writing that makes me want more. 

Ta-Nehesi Coates
The Beautiful Struggle is the book I refer to as the book for readers. His father, Paul Coates, founded Black Classic Press publishing in 1978. And the influence of books on Ta-Nehisi’s life is obvious in his memoir, which I plan to read again. Ta-Nehisi is considered a thought leader of our time. I’ve been a fan of his since I discovered his home run article, Caring for Your Introvert, which he wrote in 2003. Many would say that his most recent display of brilliance is demonstrated in his article The Case for Reparations.

Donna Britt
I won a copy of Brothers (& me) from the publisher. It was delightful. I also stopped by her book tour and the event was well attended. But there may have been one other person my age in attendance, which is disappointing considering content in her memoir. As with the writing of Marita Golden, Britt’s writing resonates with me. They are the type of women I want in my sister-circle.

Roxane Gay
Surely you expected to see this name again! I don’t usually buy into the hype surrounding books or authors. But with Roxane Gay, people were almost in a state of hysteria! I just had to know what all of this was about. I bought An Untamed State and it’s the first time I’ve ever read a 370 page book in two days. Then I bought her book of short stories, Ayiti, and I realized that her success wasn’t by chance. So I felt like I had to read her third and most recent publication, Bad Feminist. Even though I didn’t love it, it made me love her as an author.  

You can find a list of the first 5 authors here.

Friday, November 28, 2014

5 Authors That I Hope Are Writing Another Book

When people ask me to recommend authors, I usually tell them I don’t follow anyone in particular; I just love a good book. But then I realized that there are a few authors that I really hope are writing another book. I guess this means I’m following them. So here are 5 authors that I’m keeping an eye on.

Maggie Anderson 

Our Black Year: Our Family's Quest to Buy Black In America's Racially Divided Economy made me change my consumer habits. Since reading the book in 2012, I make intentional decisions about what businesses I patronize. I decided to take it a step further and in addition to shopping with black owned businesses, I give priority to companies and business owners in my neighborhood, county, and state, in that order whenever possible.  
Dwayne Alexander Smith

Forty Acres: A Thriller is a book that I couldn’t post a review on fast enough. In fact, I posted the review an entire month before the book was even released! I loaned this book to 2 people and you know I never loan my books. But I just wanted people to read it. I needed to talk about it with someone... anyone... everyone! The end of this book leaves the opportunity for a sequel. But Forty Acres was certainly enough! I hope he comes back with a new topic.  

Isabel Wilkerson 

I will always refer to The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration as the book that I never wanted to end. So why wouldn’t I want the author of one of the best books ever written to write another? The Warmth of Other Suns was nothing short of brilliant and it was definitely epic. I sometimes wonder if she could write anything that would measure up to it. I hope she's trying!

Okey Ndibe
After reading Ndibe’s second book, Foreign Gods, Inc., earlier this year, I decided that I would definitely read his first novel, Arrows of Rain, and I finished it last month.  I love his writing style. His stories make me laugh, and the fable-like nature allows me to take something away. 

Heidi Durrow
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is one of the most adorable books I’ve ever read. I had been reading only nonfiction for years. After finishing this book, I dove back into fiction and haven’t thought about abandoning it again since.

Who are you waiting for to write another book? 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Bad Feminist:Essays by Roxane Gay

Photo Credit:Amazon Author Page

I recently posted a rave review on An Untamed State and a less stellar but favorable review on Ayiti. Bad Feminist is Roxane Gay’s third and most recent book, published a few months ago. And after reading this one, it’s safe to say that I’ll read whatever book Gay publishes next.

That said, I didn’t love this book. But only because I don't follow pop culture. Gay is apparently a pop culture maven and in more than a few essays, I had no interest in or idea what she was talking about. For that reason, I wasn’t able to read straight through. But where this book was good, it was really good, like - why are you all in my head - good!

Music, movies, reality television, politics, books, race...she touches on, what seems like, everything! She doesn't overlook her own bias and even shares some of the most traumatic experiences of her life which gives insight on her perspective. One of the things I like about her writing is that she comes from a place of - this is what I think, you should feel free to use your own brain.

We get an idea of what to expect from her work in the future when she writes, ”I have no problem with darkness, sorrow, pain, or unhappiness. I have no intention of straying from these themes in my writing.” So it doesn’t sound like we should expect any fluffy stuff whenever her next book does come out.  

Just before I finished Bad Feminist, someone posted something that I think sums up this book -

"Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.” Nelson Mandela

On second thought, I think that sums up feminism.

“I can’t debate the artistic merits of Django Unchained because the palms of my hands are burning with the desire to slap Tarantino in the face until my arms grow tired.”
Roxane Gay

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