Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity

Top Ten Tuesday is a Bookish meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

This week's topic is: Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity/Diverse Characters.

Today isn't even Tuesday--that was yesterday, but I'm still thinking about the topic and my list. It occurs to me that diverse characters are more important than ever, because through reading about characters of every hue and orientation, readers develop empathy, a quality that is sorely needed in this world. I almost didn't know where to begin--or end--with this list, but here are a few thoughts.

1. Jaqueline Woodson's beautiful memoir Brown Girl Dreaming will appeal to readers of all ages. The memoir is composed of a series of poems, and begins with Woodson's birth in Ohio, takes the reader to South Carolina, where Woodson witnessed both segregation and the resistance against Jim Crow practices. The author warmly conveys the love and nurturing she experienced from her family.

2. James Alan McPherson should be better known and better read. He is a Pulitzer-prize winning author of several books; his short story collections Elbow Room and Hue and Cry are essential reading.

3. Octavia Butler was a ground-breaking author in the genre of speculative fiction. A good place to begin is Parable of the Sower.

4. James Baldwin is one of the most brilliant Americans to ever put pen to paper. I recommend reading all of his books, the essays and the novels. His Giovanni's Room was way ahead of its time in its depiction of a love affair between two men. My favorite Baldwin novel is Another Country.

5. Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World, a book about black slave owners. His short story collections, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children are gorgeously written and endlessly compassionate looks at the lives of the urban poor in Washington, D.C.

6. I'm absolutely in love with Attica Locke's character Jay Porter, the protagonist of two thrillers, Black Water Rising and Pleasantville. Locke writes fast-paced, immersive thrillers with a social conscience.

7. Walter Mosley is best known for his crime fiction, although he's written in several genres. I find his books completely addictive. He's probably best known for his Easy Rawlins books, starting with Devil in a Blue Dress, which was made into a feature film starring Denzel Washington.

8. Another writer I find addictive is Sarah Waters. I love, love, loved Fingersmith, but I think Tipping the Velvet might be my favorite of her books. This historical romance about male impersonators and music-hall performers is completely enthralling.

9. Leslea Newman is probably most famous for her children's book Heather Has Two Mommies. She was scheduled to speak at the University of Wyoming for National Coming Out Day in October of 1998; she flew across the country and was present when the world was made aware of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was a student at the University. To this day, Newman carries a photo of Matthew Shepard in her wallet. Her book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, is a collection of poems in various voices.

10. Here's the thing: there are so many amazing writers out there telling stories that feature diverse characters. And so many of them are awesome. Keeping my list to ten is unrealistic. So here are a few writers to check out if you haven't already: Cynthia Bond, Natalie Baszile, Tayari Jones, Kiese Laymon, Celeste Ng, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Claudia Rankine, Jesmyn Ward, Ta Nehisi Coates, Junot Diaz.

Reading about all kinds of lives being lived in all kinds of neighborhoods and worlds is crucial for developing the ability to empathize with and understand others. And its a matter of life and death.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Oh Lord, this book.

Go Set a Watchman is bad. So much worse than I could have imagined.

But so very instructive.

It's a coming of age tale.... If, by "coming of age," you mean "how to grow up morally and emotionally by placing your feet solidly on top of an entire race....and how to justify it."

This is a book that you could say shouldn't have been published, but maybe it had to be. Maybe we, collectively, all Americans (and white folks, I'm talking about us), maybe we needed a good slap in the face. Maybe we needed to come face to face with just how big the lies are that we've been telling ourselves.

To Kill a Mockingbird was never America's defining book about race and justice. We just liked to think so. Atticus Finch, especially as played by Gregory Peck, played so well to white ideas of the gentleman, of the myth of individual nobility and justice.

Didn't you always, in your heart of hearts, suspect it wasn't true?

Shouldn't we have known that it was too easy, it couldn't be true.

It is not possible to live within the structure of white supremacy and structural racism as a white person and not benefit from the structure, thereby becoming complicit.

Go Set a Watchman is full of paternalism, racial superiority, bigotry.... in other words it's American.

If you haven't read Go Set a Watchman yet, you probably should read it. I guess. Just be prepared: it is repulsive, disgusting, disillusioning. Not for what it tells us about Atticus Finch, but for what it tells us about ourselves and the lies we need to tell ourselves.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Problem With Atticus Finch

     The hullabaloo over Go Set a Watchman is unavoidable, and it is a book I will definitely be reading. But my interest is cultural as well as literary, and I guess I don't hold To Kill a Mockingbird in the kind of reverence that many others do. Yes, I have read the novel, half a dozen times. I've taught the novel in my high school classroom. But I certainly don't place this book, or any of its characters, on a pedestal.

     There are many things to admire in To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel offers one perspective on racism in the South. It exposes the casual racism and injustice that are still endemic. TKAM has humor, an unerring narrative voice, and great characters. And yes, Atticus Finch is an admirable man, an indelible character. Who can ever forget the scene where Atticus shoots a mad dog in the street, or the incredible grace and dignity which he displays in the courtroom. And his advice to Scout, to walk around in someone else's skin before judging them--these are all great moments.

     But TKAM and its characters have their limitations. And it has always troubled me that this most revered novel is often treated as the ultimate novel about racism.

     The trouble is that TKAM is written from the point of view of a white character, is written by a white author, and depicts the white world. TKAM is a great novel--I'm not disputing that. But is tells a very narrowly framed story (from a racial perspective). And much of what the novel is about (coming-of-age, family conflicts, education) exists outside the racial conflicts of the story.

     The trouble is that Atticus Finch is another variation on the white savior. The character of Tom Robinson is thinly constructed--he is present as more of a symbol than a fully developed human being.

     So if Atticus turns out to be more complicated, and more racist, in Go Set a Watchman, I won't be devastated. I'll be interested.

     I'll be interested in the moral complexities of writing about race in America. I'll be interested in the ways in which white writers evade or face those complexities.

     But I won't look to a single novel, or two novels, for an understanding of racism.

     And I'll definitely look to black writers to tell me about the experience and effects of racism in this great, flawed country of ours.

     I'll read James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Inside. Baldwin is a truth teller.

     I'll read Jesmyn Ward, especially her devastating memoir, Men We Reaped.
     I'll read Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric. If you want to know and understand the felt experience of racism in America, this volume is an excellent place to start.

     I'll read Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.

     I'll read Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose Between the World and Me was just published. And if you want your heart thoroughly broken, read his piece in the Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations."

     I'll read Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Alan McPherson, Ernest Gaines, Richard Wright, Nella Larson, Edward P. Jones.

     To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautifully written novel, but it is a narrow sliver of life. If TKAM moves readers, then good. If Atticus Finch inspires readers, then good. But there are truth tellers out there, and we should be reading them all.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Review: Queen Sugar

Queen Sugar
Natalie Baszile
paperback, 372 pages

     Queen Sugar is one of the best books I've read this year. My husband and I made a quick trip to Columbia, SC in May for the South Carolina Book Festival, and we happened to sit in a session on writing about place.....which led me to meet Natalie Baszile and purchase her novel Queen Sugar. I read so many reviews that it's unusual for me to actually discover a book or a writer that I've heard nothing about. It reminds me of the days when I used to browse the library shelves and bookstore shelves and find that perfect book for my life at the moment.

     Natalie Baszile brings together all the elements I look for in a novel: beautiful writing, a strong sense of place, well-written characters, and complexity. In Queen Sugar, Baszile tells a story that has enough twists and turns and narrative tension to keep the reader turning pages. Charley Bordelon is a woman on the threshold of a new life: recently widowed, she is coming out of a dark period of grief and depression. When her father passes away and leaves her an unexpected legacy, Charley and her daughter Micah leave their home in Los Angeles to move to Louisiana, where Charley's father has left her eight hundred acres of sugar cane land. Charley is definitely out of her comfort zone, but ready to change her life. She goes from teaching art in the inner city to farming sugar cane in Louisiana. Along the way she finds a strength she never knew she had.

     Charley plunges into sugar cane farming as a complete outsider: she is female, African-American, and a native Californian, in a business that is run by white men. Charley and Micah move in with Miss Honey, Charley's grandmother, and immerse themselves in the culture and land of St. Josephine Parish, Louisiana. Baszile has done her research, and writes very convincingly about the intricacies of sugar cane farming. Charley encounters obstacle after obstacle, starting with her farm manager quitting as soon as she arrives in her fields.

     One of the most satisfying elements of Queen Sugar is the narrative structure. Real life is complicated and messy, and Baszile achieves a high level of realism and emotional complexity by drawing together several narrative strands. As Charley and Micah are settling in at Miss Honey's, Charley's half-brother Ralph Angel is heading toward Miss Honey's in a stolen rental car, accompanied by his son, Blue. Ralph is a damaged soul, the son of Charley's father by a troubled young woman. Charley, on the other hand, has been brought up with comfort, education, culture, security--everything Ralph Angel has been denied. Baszile steers away from easy stereotypes, writing each of her characters with compassion and insight. The relationship between Ralph Angel and Charley is tenuous, fraught with jealousy, envy, and sibling rivalry of Biblical proportions. But Baszile avoids making Ralph Angel either a scapegoat or a martyr.

     I was completely captivated by Queen Sugar. At times emotionally wrenching--this book brought me to tears more than once--Queen Sugar is resonant, immersive, and ultimately uplifting. There is even a romance, although Baszile keeps the focus primarily on Charley's journey of self-discovery and self-reliance. Highly recommended for anyone who loves good writing.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: Love May Fail

Love May Fail
Matthew Quick
hardcover, 416 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Love May Fail made me laugh as many times as it made me cry--and I stopped counting the sobs after about the fourth time.

    I absolutely adored this book.

    I didn't want to pick up another book for a while....because I didn't want this book to leave my heart and mind.

    When Portia Kane graduated from high school, her beloved English teacher gave her (and all his students) a card, the size of a driver's license, welcoming her to the "Human Race," and advising her to "make daring choices, work hard, enjoy the ride, and remember--you become exactly whomever you choose to be." So when Portia ends up eighteen years later, crouching in her own bedroom closet with a gun, it's safe to say that her life has not gone as planned. Instead of getting her degree in English and writing a novel, Portia has married a pornographer with a sex addiction and hasn't written a word in years.

     Love May Fail, by Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, takes the reader on a wild ride. I won't even attempt to summarize the plot of the novel; I'll just say that Love May Fail is as epically messy as real life, and filled with characters who are both deeply flawed and deeply lovable. When Portia catches her husband in flagrante delicto, she begins a quest--first to find, and then to save, her high school English teacher, Nate Vernon.

     I don't want to ruin this book for anyone by saying why Mr. Vernon (in Portia's mind) needs saving. I will tell you that he has a one-eyed poodle named Albert Camus.

     I will tell you that Portia's quest takes her from Florida, where she has lived in luxury, to South Jersey, where her mother, a hoarder, lives among piles of detritus and stacks of Diet Coke with Lime. There Portia rediscovers her love for heavy metal bands, meets a metal-head five-year-old named Tommy, and Tommy's former heroin-addict uncle, Chuck, a bartender and aspiring teacher. Along the way Portia encounters an unusual nun with a feisty attitude, and takes on tasks worthy of the term "Quixotic."

     Love May Fail is about the epic and disastrous ways in which we humans can screw up, but also about how basic decency and goodness can prevail. Love may fail, but author Matthew Quick succeeded in making me fall in love with his characters, and with their stories. It's not easy being a member of the human race. But Love May Fail is a funny, deeply generous, and ultimately beautiful look at the perils and pleasures of being human.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What Do You Read When You Are Feeling an Inconsolable Sorrow

     I could say that we need comfort, solace, and love right now. And I wouldn't be wrong. But we need something else; I need something else. I need truth.

     It is all to easy to call the massacre of nine worshipers at Emanuel AME church a senseless killing, or to pretend not to understand "where such hatred comes from."

    But that is a lie. Right now, more than anything, I need words of truth. What do you read when your country is being torn apart by a refusal to finally admit to and do the work of repairing the damage done by centuries of white supremacy? You have to read words of truth. Comfort and solace are stale crumbs compared to truth and justice.

     What do you read when you are feeling an inconsolable sorrow? You might begin with James Baldwin. You might begin with The Fire Next Time.

     The first essay in The Fire Next Time offers some hard truths. In "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emanciption," Baldwin talks about the brutal systematic racism that his father, uncle, brother, and nephew have encountered and continue to encounter. But worse, says Baldwin, is the innocence of whites who pretend the system doesn't exist:

" I know what the world has done to my brother, and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it."

     The crime that Baldwin accuses white America of is not knowing and not wanting to know of the destruction and devastation of black lives: "But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."

     Further, Baldwin tells his nephew: "The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it."

     Baldwin is as relevant today as he was in 1962. Reading his essays and fiction is like stepping into the bracing, cold air and the clear and glorious light of truth after stumbling in darkness.

"I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man's definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believe that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers--your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it."

     Baldwin is just one writer who tells the truths we need to face. His message still seems radical: He outlines the purposeful destruction of a people, and then he prescribes love and truth as the way forward.

     It is ironic that a cold-hearted, cold-blooded killer, who intended to start a "race war" should have instead inspired an outpouring of unity, grace, and love. The way forward is through truth, truths told with grace and lived out with love.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: Consumption

Heather Herrman
Hydra, 288 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     This was just one of those books that didn't work for me. Before I go into why I didn't enjoy Consumption, I'd like to talk about what the author, Heather Herrman did well, and why you might like this book more than I did.

     But first, a little bit about the plot: John and Erma are a married couple who are a bit down on their luck. John, an English professor, lost his job first. Then Erma lost her job as an advocate for abused women. So they are moving across the country, heading for Maine (a nod to Stephen King?), where John is going to work for Erma's relative. The couple are traveling with an old Honda and a moving van, accompanied by their dog, Maxie.

     Maxie is by far my favorite character in this book.

     Not that the human characters aren't well-written, because they are. But Maxie is a really well-drawn, individual dog, and she's integral to the plot.

     So John and Erma are having a tough time in their marriage and their lives, and it's about to get tougher because Erma's car dies along the highway in Montana. And as luck would have it, they break down right outside a town right out of a horror movie. At least, in terms of plot, this scenario reminded me of a horror movie, where you get that bad feeling early and often.

     Cavus, Montana, is a town built on evil, an evil that can't be entirely eradicated. According to the Native American tribe that tried to drive settlers away, no one should try to live in the area because of this ineradicable evil, which the author depicts as rising up from an abandoned mine.

     But for a town built right on top of evil, Cavus seems deceptively calm and welcoming. Sheriff Riley stops and helps the young couple, putting them up at his Aunt Bunny's. And John and Erma are incredibly lucky, because they are just in time for the annual Festival Day......

     Herrman establishes her main characters well, and puts them in an ominous situation. For a minute I thought the Festival was going to be some kind of Shirley Jackson, Lottery-esque event. Especially when the Festival was alluded to constantly by all the supernaturally cheerful small town characters. Instead the plot headed in a much more Stephen King-like direction. My problem with the book was two-fold: I didn't believe some of the plot details (mostly having to do with the Sheriff and his behavior), and there was just a little too much blood and gore for me (definitely a matter of taste). The gore just seems to be an element of the horror genre, and I'm not sure that horror fans would be put off at all.

     Herrman's plot is carefully crafted, and she is after much more than a simple scare-fest. She obviously put a lot of thought into the ideas of her book, as well as the overall shape of her book. The form that evil takes in her novel doesn't just come out of nowhere--there are cultural and social underpinnings to the form evil takes in the novel. So even though Consumption was not my dish, it may very well be the perfect meal for horror fans.