Monday, October 20, 2014

Letter To My Daughter by Maya Angelou

Letter To My Daughter is categorized as one of Maya Angelou’s many autobiographies. This book contains snapshots of “events and lessons that [she] found useful.” With this book being published in 2008, Angelou had a chance to reflect on nearly her entire life. Knowing that made the events that she chose to write about even more significant.

Many of you may know that Angelou had only one child, a son. But she would tell you that she had thousands of daughters. I’ve deemed this autobiography as a love letter. It's a book that says these are the lessons that you do not have to learn for yourself.

The thought of becoming a teen mother and being beaten to near death may be foreign to some people. The idea of traveling the world as a dancer and having friends like James Baldwin, Alex Haley, and Coretta Scott King may sound like something that doesn’t happen to someone like you. But even though your story may not be the same as hers, Angelou has a way of showing you yourself through her own experiences.

I finished the book in couple of hours. When I was done, I had marked something from nearly every chapter. It was certainly worth the time it took to read it. Actually, it was worth more.

“I don’t believe that we should be brutal about anything, however, it is wonderfully liberating to be honest. One does not have to tell all one knows but we should be careful what we do say is the truth.”
Letter to My Daughter

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 Letter to My Daughter on Amazon
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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Author Event with Marlon James

Marlon James is a Jamaican writer who you may remember as the author of The Book of Night Women. I have the novel but have not read it. Signings often help me determine how soon I will read an author’s book. When I learned that James was coming to town to promote his new book, I took the opportunity to learn more about his work. 

According to Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel "uses the story of the 1976 assassination attempt on Marley as a kind of trampoline, bouncing off that terrible event into a multilayered, choral inquiry into Jamaican politics and poverty, into race and class, and into the volatile relationship between the United States and the Caribbean."

Just before James started his reading from the novel, he mentioned cutting 10,000 words from the book the last minute. Even so, he still ended up with 704 pages! That seems like a lot of time to spend with characters. But considering James says there are something like 200 characters in the book, and many of them die, it seems we won’t have to spend too much time with anyone for too long. I'm still not sure if he was joking about the 200 characters, but he later mentioned needing a spreadsheet to keep track of all of them.

After he was done reading from a few places in the book, which were very comedic, James answered some questions.  Here are a few of the responses.

Responses are paraphrased.

On the origin of the book:
The book was inspired from a Timothy White article which came out approximately 15 years before my first novel.

On the toughest post of the writing process:
Figuring out what to write! It takes about 2 years to figure out what to write but once I start writing, I can breeze through. Being fair to bad guys as well as good ones is also tough.

On where his inspiration comes from while writing:
I create a reading library for the novels when I write and I read them while writing. I referred to American Tabloid by James Ellory a lot while writing this novel. By the end of A Brief History of Seven Killings, I’d probably read 40 novels. And that’s just the fiction list which doesn’t include other references I used. If you had the list of books I was reading while writing, you could probably tell what I was reading and where.

On why it’s not necessary to shut out the “noise” from other writers:
I don’t avoid other books because books are in conversation with books. Books end up in my books. Reading is also an excuse for me to not write.

I wouldn't mind seeing the list of books that ended up in this one. I find that's where many of my book recommendations have come from, other books! You can view the entire event, which was filmed by the bookstore, in the video below. 

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A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel on Amazon
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Monday, October 6, 2014

Ayiti by Roxane Gay

Photo Credit: Amazon Author Page

This is only the second collection of short stories that I’ve read. The first was Krik?Krak! by Edwidge Danticat. Between these two authors, I think I’m beginning to like short stories.

Ayiti’s stories are about the Haitian experience. They discuss life in Haiti and life in America. One of the stories,“Things I Know About Fairy Tales”, is what subsequently became a novel, An Untamed State. A significant amount of content from the remaining stories was borrowed and used in the novel as well. It’s likely that since I read An Untamed State before reading Ayiti, it curbed my enthusiasm for this book.  

That said, “A Cool Dry Place” is one of the stories that I would read if it were turned into a novel. Yves and his wife Gabi have promised each other that they will not bring a child into the world, specifically, poverty stricken Haiti. Gabi describes it as “but one more sorrow heaped onto a mountain of sorrows we share.” Yves is determined to go to America and he finally convinces Gabi to go with him on a boat to Miami.

“In the Manner of Water and Light” is a compelling story about a grandmother who is “haunted by bloody smells.” This is because the grandmother ended up in Massacre River, fortunately alive, which was not the fate of so many others. This story which is based on historical events, that I first became familiar with in Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, refers to the Parsley Massacre.  

I enjoyed several of the stories and was indifferent about others. It seems, at least from this book, that Haitians generally have an unfavorable view of Americans. It’s a theme that runs throughout. The book also addresses stereotypes. In one story, a Haitian college student  has a roommate that assumes she practices voodoo. The girl doesn’t correct her, but instead plays along.

I'm not sure what earns a book an erotica classification but this book was pushing that boundary. Since I'm not a fan of erotica, I was over it after a while. An Untamed State was filled with erotic scenes too. They were offset with extensive descriptions of brutal sexual assaults. I guess that's just something you'll get with Gay's novels. But we will have to wait and see!

I will read Bad Feminist, the third of Gay’s three published books, sometime before the end of the year. And Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri will be the next collection of short stories that I read.

Purchase through affiliate links to support Reading Has Purpose
Ayiti on Amazon
An Untamed State on Amazon
Bad Feminist: Essays on Amazon

The Farming of Bones on Amazon
Krik? Krak! on Amazon

Interpreter of Maladies on Amazon

Monday, September 29, 2014

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Photo Credit:Amazon Author Page

From the inside flap: “Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate.

Whoa! This book is 370 pages and I read it in two days. It is relentless from paragraph one. I woke up at 8:30 a.m. and reached for it, only to remember that I had finished it just after 1:30 a.m. the same morning. Even if only for a weekend, this book ran my life. But it is not for the faint of heart.

The book opens with the kidnapping. Mireille describes the experience in detail. Throughout the book she recounts the brutality she experiences at the hands of her captors. Between these scenes, we learn about “the before.” Mireille’s “fairy tale” life with Michael is a love story being told amidst the horror of her current situation.

After only a few days in captivity, she realizes that if she continues to fight the men who are abusing her, they will beat and torture her to death. In order to return to her “fairy tale,” she reduces herself to “no one.” For thirteen days, she endures rapes and beatings. Mireille, a daddy’s girl, slowly loses love for her father who refuses to pay the ransom.

Sebastian, Mireille's father, started his own construction company in Port au Prince after working years in America, being the best at what he does, but getting less than he deserved. Her parents now live in Haiti where they built a home behind a secure wall, and under the protection of armed guards. Their wealth is the reason Mireille is a target.

This author stays focused. We aren’t introduced to random characters, and storylines don’t fall by the wayside. They are instead amplified by numerous parallels. Mireille gets her tenacity, strength, and stubbornness from her father. His tenacity, strength, and stubbornness are the reason she remains in captivity. Mirelle could never imagine living her life on the farm where her husband was raised. But after her release, it is where she begins to pull her life back together. 

I now know why the literary world has been going crazy about Roxane Gay. She’s won me over too. Immediately after finishing it, I read Ayiti, a collection of short stories by Gay. I’ve discovered that An Untamed State was one of the stories. I’m in awe of how authors can turn a few pages into an entire novel, but I guess every story is short when it begins. I will post the review on Ayiti soon.

"I lied because that lie cost me less than the truth would have cost him." 
An Untamed State

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sketches of a Small Town Circa 1940: A Memoir by Clifton K Meador, MD

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I received a notification that review copies of this book were available. I saw that it was about a small town in Alabama, much like The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg. I requested it immediately and the author sent me a free copy for review.  

The author writes about growing up in segregated Greenville, Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s. Formerly a cotton farming town, Greenville is about 130 miles south of Birmingham. Generally, the books I read about this era are written by and/or about blacks. I opened this book knowing that Dr. Meador’s experiences would be much, much different than those of the individuals I’ve previously read about.

I expected to read some things I didn't care for but I almost quit this book at page 2 when the author writes, “In spring, there were aromas of fertilizer, of seeds, of metallic smells of plows and new rope and the peculiar odor of newly plowed dirt mixed with leather, and the distinctive odors of laboring black men.” 

So laboring black men have a distinctive odor? Which is different from fragrant laboring white men I suppose. Even little kids smell weird when they’ve been running around in the hot sun all evening. And to include this description of black men in a list of inanimate objects..... I proceeded, but with the side-eye.

Things get better when Meador begins to discuss the community churches and the different denominations. The Southern colloquialism begin to flow as he reminisces about Sunday dinners. Reading what happened “after the chicken got to frying good,” and how his friend Billy “cut [toy guns] out of wooden crates he found out back of the grocery store” made me smile. 

But part of the story just always seemed to be missing. Meador recalls how syphilis testing was mandatory for everyone in the state. To mention this with no mention of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment seemed like a glaring omission.  

I felt the same when the author writes, “The force of a fire hose is tremendous. It takes three men to control the nozzle. The water at full pressure will knock down a large man and spin him along the ground.”  I thought surely that this was foreshadowing. What followed was a comical series of events involving a well known member of the community. And it was funny. But there never was mention of those hoses being turned on individuals, which would come many years later. 

And then there is the part where the author writes, “In the 12 years I lived in Greenville, there were no shootings, no murders and no robberies, at least not in the white section of town. There were rumors of knife fights in the black sections, but I never heard of a murder, black or white.”
Facepalm Hand Gesture

It's not necessary to mention rumored fights in the black section of town, especially after gloating about the absence of shootings, murders, and robberies in the white section of town. 

Again, things got better. I loved the story of Miss B. A sickly woman who became a permanent addition to the church’s prayer list. Her condition vacillated between “just fine,” “wore out,” and “having a bad day” all conditions that I’ve been diagnosed having grown up in the South. In my family the prescription was usually to either “go lay down” or “go outside.” 

I could go on and on pointing out my likes and dislikes about this book. It has left me conflicted. But at the end of the day, Dr. Meador told his story for his children, grandchildren, and great granddaughter. And it reinforces the need for African Americans to tell our stories. Our history is in the stories. 

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Author Event with Lauren Francis-Sharma

After missing three of her local book signings, I finally made it out to see Lauren Francis-Sharma discuss her debut novel, ‘Til the Well Runs Dry. I was glad that so many people came out and after the reading, there was no shortage of questions.

I managed to get in the first question and asked about the book’s pace. As I wrote in the review, this book is go,go, go. I wondered if this was intentional or if the book kind of took off after the writing started. She says it was intentional. She found herself picking up the pace when she thought things were slowing down. And she also took into consideration the type of book she’d want to read.

I’m usually hesitant to even ask questions. It must’ve been the Pumpkin Spice Latte I was drinking that had me feeling good enough to ask another. This time, I wanted a little insight into the editing process. We learned that the book was over 600 pages when Lauren handed it over to the editor. After about nine months, they got it down to the current 400 pages. She did have to tweak the ending a bit and change one of the book’s twists but in the end, this is pretty much the story she started with.

Lauren’s experience with her editor was quite different than the one Kiese Laymon described with his. Remembering the discussion at Laymon’s author event is what actually prompted me to ask the question. He felt like his editor wanted him to tell a different story, to make the story attractive to a more “mainstream” audience. He elaborated on that quite a bit, but back to Lauren……

From the time she started writing, it took nearly four years to get the book to the shelf. Creating a social media presence to help promote the book has been one of the most rewarding parts of the entire experience. The encouragement she’s received from fans has really kept her energized. I’m glad she said that because I don’t interact much with authors on social media. I’ll have to start doing that, especially for those whose books I’m recommending to anyone that will listen!

For the audio book lovers, it’s coming! Since much of the book is written in the local dialect, she wants to make sure that she chooses an individual that gets it right. She’s making a conscious effort to avoid offending Trinidadians. I wish people would have the same awareness when they select individuals to copy Southern dialect.

Of course any book can be read at anytime but, to me, something just screams summer read about this one. So if you’re looking to squeeze in one more book before the end of summer, you should at least check out the synopsis of ‘Til the Well Runs Dry before making your final selection!

Yours truly and Lauren

And I can’t end this post without saying that Lauren took a moment in the middle of her event to give Reading Has Purpose a shout out! It was completely unexpected and very much appreciated. 

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'Til the Well Runs Dry: A Novel on Amazon

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim

Author Image:Amazon author page

“Moments after Lisbeth is born, she’s taken from her mother and handed over to an enslaved wet nurse, Mattie, a young mother separated from her own infant son in order to care for her tiny charge. Thus begins an intense relationship that will shape both of their lives for decades to come. Though Lisbeth leads a life of privilege, she finds nothing but loneliness in the company of her overwhelmed mother and her distant, slave-owning father. As she grows older, Mattie becomes more like family to Lisbeth than her own kin and the girl’s visits to the slaves’ quarters—and their lively and loving community—bring them closer together than ever. But can two women in such disparate circumstances form a bond like theirs without consequence? This deeply moving tale of unlikely love traces the journey of these very different women as each searches for freedom and dignity.”

Sounds captivating right? Unfortunately, I had problems with this book from the beginning. The dialect wasn’t quite right and even when present, it didn’t feel authentic. The story didn’t feel like it was written of that time. The verbiage felt like is was from today. I had come to this conclusion even before one character used the words “laugh out loud” to describe her amusement. And that brings me to the simplicity.

Major spoiler follows!

There is a particularly fascinating series of events in which Mattie takes her child and runs away from the plantation. After reuniting with her husband and son, the author writes, “She had done it. They got away. And now they were together.”  This happened often, a tendency to state the obvious, and in a mundane way.

In the second half of the book, Lisabeth and Mattie’s stories separate but only Lisabeth’s story is told. The synopsis is misleading in this regard. Nearly the entire second half of the book is about Lisabeth and her road to becoming an abolitionist.

There were some parts of the book that I enjoyed. Unlike everything I've read where it's impossible to empathize with the slave owners, Lisabeth's internal conflict was critical to the story and I felt for the child. I do believe that the premise for the book was good. But with so many things working against the story, it was a challenge for me to like it.

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Yellow Crocus on Amazon

I received a 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. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Part One - 10 Books That I'm Determined to Read Before the Year Ends

Author Image:
A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes 
(Harlem Cycle Detective series Book 1)

After reading about Chester Himes for the first time on Mosaic Literary Magazine's website, I added him to my high priority list. According to the article, Himes started his literary career while serving a seven and a half year prison sentence. I read his first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go which was published in the 1940’s  and immediately knew that I would read more of his work. I have not yet complete an entire book series. Maybe the Harlem Cycle Detective series will be the first. 


Author Image:  Amazon author page

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

I have no idea what this book is about. But when I read in an article somewhere that the main character is an introvert, I was sold. Well that plus the fact that I enjoyed This Is How You Lose Her, Diaz’s first book. Fortunately I found a copy at one of my favorite used book stores, so it’s at my fingertips. 

Author Image:
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is all up in my Facebook news feed these days. I’m not usually one that’s inclined to read what everyone else is reading but I at least had to see what all of the excitement was about. When I read the synopsis on this book and realized it was set in Haiti, it was a done deal.  But Gay has my dearest, Edwidge Danticat, to thank for that. Danticat has me fascinated with all things Haitian. 

Profiles in Courage by John F Kennedy
I was watching a documentary on JFK, when it was mentioned that this book won a Pulitzer Prize. I searched for it for a while and I finally found it at another one of my used bookstore escapes. Hopefully reading Profiles in Courage will remove the horrific image of his assassination which immediately comes to mind when I hear his name. I wish I had never seen the video. 

Author Image:

Anything else by James Baldwin
I’ve only read one book by James Baldwin. Shameful. In light of the situation in Ferguson, many have used his words to express how they feel. After reading The Fire Next Time and nearly underlining the entire book, I decided that it would be worth a re-read. But I think I’ll pick up another of his works first. I own several. 

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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A Rage in Harlem on Amazon
All by Himes on Amazon

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on Amazon
View all by Diaz on Amazon
An Untamed State on Amazon
All by Gay on Amazon

Profiles in Courage on Amazon
All by Kennedy on Amazon

View all by Baldwin on Amazon

Sunday, August 17, 2014

5 Memorable Memoirs That You May Have Missed

I love memoirs and autobiographies. I once heard someone say, “Our history is in those stories.” And it’s true. There are some memoirs that capture so much more than the life of person telling the story. I’ve decided to highlight a few books that do exactly that. Here are five memorable memoirs that you may have missed.

Photo Credit:
Brothers (& me) encompasses a range of events that any number of people will relate to. Countless black women will find their own experiences in Britt’s story and an equal number of black men will begin to understand where the “expectations” come from.  Follow the link to find my review on this memoir that beautifully lays out that no matter how painful, love equals giving. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Donna Britt’s older brother was shot to death by police in Gary, Indiana.

Photo Credit: Amazon Author Page
This was my first read of 2014 and I still haven’t been able to pull together the words to tell you why you should read this book. It was recommended to me last summer by Derrick Young, Co-Founder of Mahogany Books. I’ve received more book recommendations than I can even remember. But with the way that Derrick spoke about this book, I knew I’d actually read it.  

The Beautiful Struggle is one of those books that keeps you up past your bedtime. It’s about a young man growing up in Baltimore, his parents willing to do anything to keep him from becoming a statistic. This book, I adored it. And I now recommend it to every black man that I know. Although Coates has not written another book, he did not become a statistic (at least not a negative one), and he is still writing must-read work like his recently published article, The Case for Reparations.

You haven’t read anything like this. Janet Mock is a trans woman who knew from a very early age that even though she was born male, a boy, she was not. This is not a sob story. She tells her journey in the most compelling and entertaining way. When asked what is the mark she hopes to leave on the world? She responds, “To liberate young poor trans girls of color.” This book is a beautiful start and I was glad to hear that she is writing another. Follow the link to find my review of Redefining Realness.

Bill T. Jones Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger
The first time I recall seeing Bill T. Jones is when I came across his portrait in an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. He was one of several individuals whose image I saw there that I wanted to learn more about. After reading The Last Night on Earth, I concluded that Bill T. Jones is a man of much depth. He has lived such a full life and his memoir validates this well known affirmation: It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Dancer, choreographer, and co-founder of the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Bill T Jones is a living legend.

Aishah Rahman Photo Credit: Broadway Play Publishing Inc
Aishah Rahman, born Virginia Hughes, writes about growing up in Harlem in the 40’s and 50’s. Rahman spends her childhood in the care of an abusive foster mother and lives a life that no child should experience. In addition to exposing the failures of the foster care system, reading Chewed Water was like receiving a mini history lesson. Her memoir captures the contention between black Americans and blacks from other countries, rent parties, colorism, the Great Migration, and so much more. Rahman is currently a Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University.

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Brothers (and Me) on Amazon

The Beautiful Struggle on Amazon

Redefining Realness on Amazon

Last Night on Earth on Amazon

Chewed Water: A Memoir on Amazon

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