Friday, February 7, 2014

#BlackBookReviews



In honor of Black History Month I have collected some book reviews written at GoodReads.com here at A Line A Day.  Each of these books was either written by a black author (but not all of them), prominently features black characters and issues pertinent to black life, or both.  Although I am a selective general practitioner who frowns upon over-categorization of literature by arbitrary criteria, I see nothing wrong with grouping titles together per theme when discussing them. You certainly don't need to be black to read and enjoy these novels.  In the end, readers are readers, books are books, stories are stories.  But some titles need extra spotlight shed on them to help garner the appreciation they richly deserve.  So I thought I would do my small part, because if you haven't read a single one of these books yet, you're most definitely missing out.



The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is especially near and dear to my heart. I don't suppose there are too many readers who are not already familiar with it. I wrote a blog post on Huck Finn in 2011 http://lineaday.blogspot.com/2011/01/... due to the decision to put out a new edition with all instances of "the N-word" omitted. The reason why this decision was made and the reason I was opposed, despite its good intent, says all that needs to be said about why this book is a classic. The brilliance of Twain's novel is that it shows how basically good people can be conditioned to have reprehensible attitudes and not even realize their wrong doing. We forgive Huck Finn's ignorant beliefs because we recognize that he is a good person at heart. This makes us wonder what sins by others in real life we should perhaps be more forgiving of, and which ones we ourselves may be unknowingly committing. How many of us would be willing to do what our conscience says is the right thing when society says such behavior will result in banishment to Hell?

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Black BettyBlack Betty by Walter Mosley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With Black Betty, Mosley delivers what you'd expect from an Easy Rawlins mystery if you came to it having already read a few others such as I had. The crime to be solved is made to seem convoluted but ultimately turns out to be relatively simple. Yet as with each book in this series it isn't really about the plot. It's about Easy's singular way of seeing and evaluating and dealing with the people he encounters along the way, his perspective on a period of time that seems both long ago and immediate. His character is further fleshed out with each novel, and going along for the ride with him on the particular case he's working on is always a pleasure. If you enjoy the writing of Raymond Chandler you'll probably enjoy that of Walter Mosley and vice versa, only with Mosley you get an added dose of social commentary, not to mention Easy's psychotically entertaining buddy, Mouse.

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Blind Man with a Pistol (Harlem Cycle, #8)Blind Man with a Pistol by Chester Himes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel by Chester Himes is basically an example of existentialism old school Harlem style. It may not be for everybody, certainly not for readers who want a clear cut answer at the end of their whodunnits, but I'm pretty sure Kafka and Camus would have approved of Blind Man with a Pistol. Who killed the pants-less man, why did that woman kill that guy, is any one person or organization behind the marches that quickly escalate into riots and looting? Questions such as these are asked, most are not answered definitively. Why not? Because Himes isn't really interested in providing a mystery to be solved. His goal is to make the point that most violence is like a blind man with a pistol, without aim, without strategy, without a point. Tragedies happen because people keep butting into each other. It's the way of the world. I especially liked the final chapter which stands apart from the rest of the book while also representing all that came before it. Personally I would have liked a little more cohesion to the plot, at least one case solved by deductive reasoning. That's a main reason one chooses to read a detective novel after all. But Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones are no ordinary detectives, or at least their situation as representatives of the law but also outsiders to it is unique for a crime novel. One could argue that it's actually a sociological and/or philosophical book masquerading as a cops and robbers tale. Coffin and Grave Digger walk the line between white and black worlds and sometimes you may wonder where their loyalty will lie, but the matter is never truly in doubt. They are honest men whose goal is to do their job as permitted to do it, and to keep alive. Sometimes this allows them to catch a few bad guys. Other times the bad guys have too much pull to be troubled much by the lowest guys in the legal totem pole. No matter. There's always another case to work on, another corpse on their beat, another reason why someone has to die, but never a particularly reasonable one. A blind man with a pistol doesn't really aim, he just points and fires and whoever gets hit goes down.

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The Bluest EyeThe Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel, by one of our finest writers, explores the thorny topic of what constitutes beauty, and how a woman is adversely affected when she does not fit the stereotypical profile. If society refuses to see your beauty, the logical conclusion is that you are ugly, and if so on the outside then probably on the inside as well. When you take such a false belief strongly to heart, at what point does the fault cease to belong exclusively to those who created and perpetuate the myth, and begin to fall on you for accepting it without questioning?

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CaucasiaCaucasia by Danzy Senna
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fine debut novel by a promising young author. This country has a very complicated relationship with race and Caucasia is one of the more intriguing examinations of this relationship that I've read to date. Most novels about race showcase how blacks feel about whites and vice versa. But for a biracial person a whole new layer of complexity is added to the equation, especially when the decision is made to pass as exclusively white. Caucasia is a fantastic book, one that readers who love action-filled plots can appreciate as will those looking for quieter introspection on social issues that were prominent in the 1970's setting of this novel and continue without full resolution to this day. It isn't easy to understand who you are from a cultural viewpoint when you happen to belong to both sides. Do the two halves negate each other, leaving a blank to be filled by the choices you make? Do they add up for a richer, fuller comprehension of the world than that possessed by those who see themselves strictly as either one or the other? Or do the halves merge to create a unique, borderline walking perspective?

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The Cutting SeasonThe Cutting Season by Attica Locke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love a good mystery. I was intrigued by the mystery within a mystery concept of this book. I may have liked it even more if the narrative went back and forth following the two connected storylines, alternating between the present and slave days, only not via time travel the way Octavia Butler wonderfully did it in Kindred. The fact that Attica Locke sticks to a single setting is by no means a flaw, and like Octavia, Attica is also an excellent writer. That said, I can't say that I was blown away by this novel. I was thoroughly sucked in to the story, but emerged from it wishing there had been a little more. A little more of what I'm not quite sure. Plausibility perhaps. Things wrapped themselves up a bit too neatly and swiftly for my liking. My favorite type of mystery is the kind that's solved due to brilliant deductive reasoning rather than things (like drunken confessions) falling into one's lap. I especially like when I'm given the same clues and information as the character(s) trying to solve the crime, so I have at least a fighting chance at figuring it out on my own. Deciphering between misleading and critical details is my favorite part of reading a mystery if the author plays fair. I found The Cutting Season to be no better than average in my personal scale of judging a whodunnit, but the quality of writing and depth of characterization was excellent, so I'll certainly give other books by Attica Locke a shot and I would not hesitate to recommend this one. What's a 3-star book to me may be a 5-star book to you, and vice versa.

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Disappearing ActsDisappearing Acts by Terry McMillan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Waiting to Exhale" received all of the acclaim and is the book that changed the face of publishing to a significant degree as the industry suddenly realized that African Americans read too, and sometimes even like to read about fictional characters who remind them of themselves. But in my opinion this is Ms. McMillan's strongest novel. It's easy to become immersed in her work, forgetting that you're reading and instead envisioning yourself as a fly on the wall eavedropping on lives that seem as real as those of your friends and neighbors.

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The Emperor of Ocean ParkThe Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The fact that this book explores university politics featuring east coast black upper-middle class characters made it stand out from the pack, but once you get over this facet (which I did pretty quickly), what you're left with is a well written and fairly intriguing mystery, more memorable than some I've read, less so than others. I suppose a book like this one is an antidote to the urban/hip hop/gangsta/etc. genre of "literature", not so much because it features black characters who are articulate, educated and well to do, but because it was written by someone who fits this description. Ultimately I could care less if the narrator of a novel I'm reading is a college professor or a drug dealing pimp. I only care that the story is absorbing and the characters ring true, and this book did a decent if not quite extraordinary job of accomplishing that feat.

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FreemanFreeman by Leonard Pitts Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

FREEMAN is a fantastic book. Readers will highly empathize with the well developed characters. History buffs fascinated by the Civil War time period will be enthralled. Those who take great interest in this nation's troublesome history of race relations will be deeply drawn in, and on numerous occasions will shake their head at the realization that centuries old truths stubbornly remain valid to this day. Those in eternal search for bittersweet love stories should immediately add Freeman to their reading list. The only bone I had to pick with it is that in order for certain events to go the way the author intended them to, there were a couple instances of characters leaving incriminating evidence lying conveniently around, allowing for trails that otherwise would have gone cold to remain hot. I temporarily felt the presence of Leonard Pitts Jr. directing the narrative when this happened. "No way she doesn't toss that newspaper in the fire immediately" I may have said aloud at one point near the end of this riveting story. This is probably the only thing keeping me from going with a 5-star review, but please don't let it prevent you from following up on my recommendation to read this wonderful novel. From its first sentence to the last, it packs a powerful emotional punch. Bravo to a job well done.

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Ghana Must GoGhana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A virtuoso performance. Taiye Selasi is an author to reckon with. Her prose is a lullaby, taking its sweet time drawing us into the lives of the characters who populate Ghana Must Go. The narrative flits among members of a fractured family, each of them nursing their specific heartaches. What they share along with the ties of blood is abandonment, which leads to separate paths. A return to Africa to bid farewell to the man who left them is what brings them back together. Along the way we learn their secrets and sources of pain. Scattered moments throughout their lives fit together to form the image of a family, one that has been broken, but not irreparably. The arrival of death signals an ending, as well as the opportunity for new beginnings.

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The Girl Who Fell from the SkyThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully crafted tale by Heidi Durrow. It is about a girl who is haunted by events that shaped her destiny early on without her having much say in the matter. Events that are only vaguely remembered and yet continue to form the fabric of each passing day. A father who has vanished without a trace. A mother who left this world in the splashiest of ways, taking her own life along with those of her other children by leaping from the roof of a building. There is a witness and a survivor, and this book is the latter's story, as well as an examination of race. She is her father's black daughter and also her mother's white daughter. As result her racial identity is both and neither, dependent on how one sees her, or how she chooses to see herself on any given day. She is trapped in a past that won't let go, facing the future with much trepidation, because she already knows that if she takes a leap she will do so without wings. But that does not mean she won't survive, because along with her blackness and her whiteness and her status as one who has been taken in upon being abandoned, like a broken winged bird, she is also a proven survivor. The narrative moves back and forth in time and is told from multiple perspectives, revealing the back story to readers a layer at a time, in as random a manner as the markings of heredity. It is filled with tragedy and longing and loneliness and confusion. Good intentions and poor decisions do battle and cancel each other out. Yet beneath it all there is muted hope that wings may one day sprout.

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Half of a Yellow SunHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Extraordinary. We are in the presence of greatness with this author who has only just begun her journey. I could say more, so much more, but instead will end with what reviews of all truly great novels must state. READ THIS BOOK.

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HomeHome by Toni Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

– The divine Toni Morrison has been giving us shorter novels to enjoy lately. As with A Mercy, Home comes in at an unintimidating page count. But in this novel, in addition to brevity (it can easily be read over the course of a day if you have some spare time) we are also gifted with greater accessibility. Many non-book readers, and non literary fiction readers, steer clear of Toni Morrison because her exquisite use of language does not make for light reading. Her poetic verse can be challenging to those unable/unwilling to sit still and focus. If you have been avoiding her magnificent body of work for these reasons, avoid no more. Home is the book for you. Morrison’s prose, which remains as lush and eloquent as ever, is more straight forward here than in her previous books. Faithful fans will get their fill and I encourage new ones to jump on board. Just don’t expect a leisurely beach read. She has not gone quite that far. A synopsis comes easily, contained in one sentence. A veteran of the Korean War, haunted by blood soaked memories of his time there, returns to his hometown in Georgia to rescue his ailing sister. Along the way, Toni Morrison paints the backdrop of their lives. Cee has spent the majority of hers dependent on the kindness or lack of it displayed by those she encounters via circumstance. Frank comes back to save her life, but in order to claim and do something of worth with it, Cee realizes she must develop her own inner strength. Frank is wrestling too many demons to always reliably be her hero. Much has changed over the course of the years since Frank last set foot in the town where they were raised. Plenty remains more or less the same. Home is there to provide familiar comforts, even though our return to it is inevitably in the form of a different version of ourselves.

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Hunting in HarlemHunting in Harlem by Mat Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read, in part because of the intriguing premise (former convict turned politician turned budding real estate titan hires some ex-cons to assist in his master plan to transform Harlem into a Black Utopia by ridding it of undesirable elements) and in larger part because of the strong writing of Mat Johnson. The book is populated by colorful characters described in smile to laugh out loud fashion. Two of the three ex-cons are larger than life, so Johnson puts the narrative in the hands of the third since he is the straightest arrow and thus the character readers are most likely to identify with. Snowden ended up in prison basically by unfortunate accident whereas his two colleagues earned their sentences through actions caused by their volatile personalities. One is a brute who operates in brawn over brains fashion, the other an intellectual firebug. The three men start off their new jobs by moving furniture but quickly graduate to creating additional vacancies by killing tenants who are deemed unworthy of the new Harlem they are bringing about. This brings on moral dilemmas for two of the three men, but by then they are in so deep that rather than turning back it makes more sense to keep swimming until they reach the other side, if in fact there is one. Do the ends justify the means when it comes to revitalizing a community? How about when it comes to becoming a Best Selling author? Johnson asks these questions with addictive prose in Hunting in Harlem. I highly recommend it.

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The IntuitionistThe Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book seemingly belongs to a byogone era when writers more frequently used elaborate metaphors to make allegorical points about the human condition. Novels such as Catch-22 or The Invisible Man come to mind. The setting is the past (all clues point to mid 20th century New York), yet since it's a version of the past that differs substantially from reality, it also has a futuristic science fiction feel. The somewhat peculiar premise elevates (pun intended) the elevator to mythical status, it's potential literally unlimited, the key to reaching a future that can scarcely be imagined. The alternate universe plot provides us with a thrill ride as the main character (an elevator inspector, first African American woman to attain such an esteemed position) is on the run, trying to prove her good name after apparently being set up to look inept for political reasons, danger lurking at every turn. The imagined politics revolve around one faction that believes the best way to inspect an elevator is by physically examining it, and another that conducts inspections (at a higher success rate) via powers of intuition. If this sounds weird to you that's because it is, and no matter how deeply you may get pulled into the story, it still doesn't really cease to be weird. As with most thrillers, much is not as it first appears to be. Friends turn out be be foes in disguise and those perceived as enemies are not necessarily so. Among the featured cast of characters are ruthless businessmen, ambitious at all costs politicians, university professors and students, and the mob. If you're looking for a novel with action and suspense in it, you'll find a fair share in The Intuitionist. Yet truth be told, the story is neither historical nor science fiction nor action adventure mystery crime noir spy novel. These are merely elements that are used to make a pointed commentary on race in America and our onwards and upwards no matter what culture. Along the way the reader learns plenty of real and fabricated things about elevators and what makes them go. This is a peculiar book, not for everyone, but certainly interesting and compelling while also full of details both personal and technical that keep the narrative at a sure and steady pace rather than racing towards resolution of the mystery. This makes perfect sense since the mystery isn't really the point of the story, just a vehicle used by the author to make his points.

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John Henry DaysJohn Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Henry Days is written in an interesting narrative style. It shows us events through the lens of multiple characters, some repeatedly visited, others glimpsed just once or twice. A man named J. Sutter is the one most frequently observed, so I suppose he is technically the main character. But the true MC is a particular weekend in a particular town where an event possibly took place many years earlier, featuring a person who possibly existed. The event was a man defeating a machine at the feat of drilling a tunnel through mountain to allow the continuation of train tracks. The man of course, is John Henry. He is the stuff of legend regardless of whether he was ever one of flesh and blood, so a stamp has been created to commemorate him and a festival is taking place to mark the occasion. Colson Whitehead approaches this weekend from a wide variety of angles. Among the people involved in the build-up is a man researching the origins of a song written about John Henry, a man who collects railroad stamps, a woman who owns a hotel in the town where the festival is taking place, a man so obsessed with John Henry that he turned his home into a museum dedicated to him, that man's daughter, a journalist covering the events of the weekend, and John Henry himself. Hints are given throughout the book that just as the famous race ended in foretold tragedy, so will the commemoration. Whitehead has a beautiful way with words. If you're looking for a character driven novel where you'll deeply identify with and care for the protagonist, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a traditional beginning, middle, end style story rather than one which jumps back and forth in time and place, go find another book. But if you're interested in a distinctive approach to examination of a symbolic event, one that will be timely so long as people either resist, embrace, take advantage of, or become victims to the changes brought about by the march of progress, then I point you in the direction of John Henry Days. John took a last stand for human determination before it was replaced by mindless but more efficient machinery. Win or lose, his effort was in vain. He may as well have been battling death. We can postpone arrival of the Grim Reaper, but inevitably his date of arrival will be reached.

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KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent novel that wonderfully blends science fiction with literary fiction. The science fiction aspect is pretty spare for although the concept of time travel is critical to the narrative, the author does not go into much detail about it. It simply happens for reasons that are left unexplained physically (Why bother explaining the impossible anyway? Doesn't make it any more plausible) but make sufficient sense for the reader to easily accept. The main character (Dana, a black woman recently wed to a white man in 1976) needs to keep an ancestor (who is white) from dying on a few separate occasions throughout the course of his life in order to sustain the family lineage that will eventually lead to her. She doesn't need to keep Rufus (who she first meets as a boy) alive to a ripe old age, just long enough for him impregnate the woman who will give birth to the earliest relative that Dana was aware of having. The extremely unfortunate thing for Dana is that the time she is repeatedly transported back to is America's period of mass production by slavery. She has no control over when she'll be called back in time. Rufus summons her subconsciously and perhaps consciously as he grows older whenever he is in grave danger. Dana is able to return to 1976 only when her own life is in immediate peril, something that usually but not always is beyond her control. The amount of time she spends on the plantation does not match the length of time that she is whisked away from her real life. Months in the past correspond to the passage of a couple hours in 1976 on one trip. On another trip, two weeks in the present correspond to three months in the past. So the connection is arbitrary, which is fine, for as I said this book isn't really about H.G. Wells style time travel. It's about the kind of time travel that affects all of us, because reality dictates that what happened in the past impacts our present and shapes our future. And as we learn more about our past and discover what had previously been unknown or misunderstood, our present understanding of the world adapts and generates a different future than the one we were previously headed towards. Bravo to Octavia E. Butler, a fine writer indeed.

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The Known WorldThe Known World by Edward P. Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bravo, Edward P. Jones - Bravo! Finished this masterpiece with about 20 minutes left to go in the year 2013. Looking forward to quite a few more great reads in 2014 but they'll need to be magnificent to share a bookshelf with this one. Reading The Known World put me one step closer to my goal of reading all of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction award winners - http://lineaday.blogspot.com/2009/03/...

Is the question "how (morally) could there have been black slave owners who were formerly slaves themselves?" a predecessor to "why is black on black crime so prevalent?" or "why do some black people (Michael Jackson being an especially well known example) seem to be trying to escape their blackness by cloaking it in what is commonly accepted as whiteness?" or "is the survival Darwin spoke of primarily achieved by looking out for yourself, even if the most effective method of ascension is using your own people to reach and remain at the top?"

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The Last Days of Ptolemy GreyThe Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Simplicity is a powerful weapon, and often times less truly is more. The title of this book serves as partial synopsis. To flesh it out I will add that Ptolemy Grey is nearly 92 years of age and suffering from dementia that leaves him in a helpless state. He's at the sad stage where he won't even turn off his television or radio which simultaneously play 24/7 because he surely won't remember how to turn them back on. When the grandnephew who visits periodically to check on him is killed and a less good hearted relative replaces him, the final act of Ptolemy's life starts to undergo a transformation. He eventually finds himself with a new roommate who cleans up the pile of filth he lives in without messing with his sacred memories. In fact, his memory and faculties are restored by a doctor's experimental medicine. The medicine is sure to reduce the number of Ptolemy's remaining days but also makes them worth living, allowing him to put his affairs in order, to finish up plans that had been laid to rest, to administer justice as he sees fit, and to remember for awhile what it feels like to love and be loved. This is a beautiful story told by a master craftsman.

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A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This may be the most heart breaking book it has ever been my sad pleasure to read. A young man is in the wrong place at the wrong time, and due to his poor decision making on this one ill fated occasion, ends up wrongfully accused of murder and condemned to death row. Set during a time when race relations were strained and tilted heavily in favor of privileged whites at the expense of struggling blacks who were looked down upon (in other words, a time much worse and yet insufficiently different from today), the best that his lawyer can think up as a defense is to compare the defendant to a dumb hog. When this fails to prevent Jefferson from being convicted and sentenced to the electric chair, his godmother calls upon local grade school teacher Grant Wiggins. What she asks of Grant is both simple and seemingly impossible. Jefferson cannot escape an unfair verdict in an unjust world. But instead of pitifully accepting designation as a brute animal, maybe he can find a measure of dignity in his final days, allowing him to take his final steps with head held high like a man. Grant is a cynic and less than a true believer in what we're taught about God and an awaiting Heaven. It takes the bullying of his aunt to make him accept the ultimate teaching assignment. He does his best. Jefferson does his best. Readers may do their best in the end not to cry. Many will surely fail.

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Loving DayLoving Day by Mat Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mat Johnson has a very funny (as in comical) way of looking at the world, perhaps because he grew up with a fair number of people looking at him funny (as in odd). Is he black, is he white? The box you decide to put a person into upon introduction, the label you instantly apply to their existence, shapes the dynamics of the relationship you will have with them. If you're not sure of which box to go with, which label to use, then what is there to guide your first impression? If you're not sure what someone else is, how do you go about being yourself around them? We live in an identity obsessed culture. What are you? Who am I? We are comforted when we can tell at a glance whether someone is a star bellied sneetch or a starless sneetch. But when the truth about someone cannot be discerned by a glance at them, then either they need to forcefully declare what they identity as being, or else we'll do it for them. Loving Day is filled with indelible characters; a line-up of humorous situations; an entertaining blend of reality and unreality; a considerable amount of wry, insightful prose; great compassion; and a handful of ghosts. It is about figuring out that regardless of how clearly our stars can be recognized (thanks for helping me out with this review, Dr. Seuss), it doesn't change the fact that we're all just people put here to find other people to love. Preferably people who will love us in return for whatever the hell we are.

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Lucy (French Edition)Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucy is a teenage au pair from the West Indies who comes to an unnamed U.S. city (that appears to be New York) to work for a white family. She is self-absorbed, as are most nineteen-year-olds, presenting readers with a deeply personal, still maturing perspective on family, race, class, culture, preoccupation with sex, and the hazards of coming of age in a strange new world.

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The ManThe Man by Irving Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to read this book after learning of it when Collin Powell was thinking about running for President. Obtaining a copy proved to be a challenge in itself (this must have been before I was internet savvy), but after searching in a number of bookstores and libraries I finally found one in The Strand. With the book finally in my possession would it end up being worth my effort to obtain it? Fortunately it lived up to the hype. Now that Barack Obama is running for President this compelling novel has fondly been brought back to mind.

The first half of this review was written prior to Barack Obama's election to the highest office in the land. In case you haven't figured it out by now, this novel is a fictional account of the first black President. He isn't elected to the position, but rather, the president, vice president and some others ahead of him in line are killed and suddenly the United States finds itself having a black man in the oval office for the very first time, and that black man finds himself overwhelmed by an avalanche of responsibilities and pressure. But as one of my favorite expressions goes - "I may have been born yesterday but I stayed up all night". On the job training is often challenging, especially when it's the most difficult job in the world, especially when many are resentful of your ascendancy, condescending about your ability to be up to the task, or both. Then there's the matter of whether to run for re-election when his term is up.

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Middle PassageMiddle Passage by Charles R. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a wonderful, powerful, thought provoking, surprising read. The first two attributes are on account of Charles Johnson's mastery of the written word. His prose grips the reader from first sentence and doesn't let go for a second. It goes by so quickly that I found myself wishing it had been padded to last another 50 pages or more. Why was it surpising? Well, I expected it to focus primarily on the horrific middle passage in which people were enslaved and transported in barbaric fashion from Africa to America. And the bulk of this book does in fact describe such a voyage. But before we get to it we are introduced to the protagonist, a fascinating character who is a freed slave that ends up on the ship basically by accident as he flees to avoid a forced marriage to his impatient girlfriend, a seemingly mild mannered lady who has taken matrimonial matters into her own hands in rather brutish fashion. Once he is aboard ship and particularly once it has monstrously taken on cargo, which includes not only members of an ancient African tribe but also their god, the narrative is so intense and perilous and chock full of life and death double dealing on the unpredictable high seas, that the early part of the novel is mostly forgotten. But without giving too much away, as Middle Passage reaches its conclusion suddenly we are back in the world of the original cast of characters. The physically battered protagonist is much changed mentally and emotionally due to his adventurous ordeal. But he has one last dangerous set of circumstances to navigate before he can be fully saved. Ironically, being saved means opting for a degree of monogamy and commitment that his avoidance of got him into so much trouble in the first place. Freedom has an entirely different definition to him from beginning of the story to the end. So yes, this book as expected was about the atrocities of the slave trade. But slavery is more of a backdrop than focus of the action packed tale. What it ultimately ends up being about is the lengths a man goes to live a carefree existence, and what he must go through to learn that caring for people other than himself is a far superior way to live.

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Milk in My CoffeeMilk in My Coffee by Eric Jerome Dickey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Milk in My Coffee deals with a modern day interracial relationship, the point of view alternating between a black man and white woman. Had the setting not been contemporary, it may have dealt with lynch mobs and featured life and death drama. Instead it's about trying to make a relationship work, which is difficult enough when skin tones match, extra challenging sometimes when they don't.

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Native SonNative Son by Richard Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perhaps the most mesmerizing and powerful book ever written about race... perhaps the most mesmerizing and powerful book ever written about anything. Richard Wright created the gold standard when he gave us the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man in the 1930s who, in a momentary state of panic, kills a young white woman without meaning to do so. He goes on the run and refuses to take accountability for actions that he feels were forced upon him by an unjust world. Rather than giving us a main character cruelly and unfairly treated on account of his skin color and therefore automatically garnering the reader's sympathy, Wright gives us one who does the unforgivable and therefore invites scorn. Rather than being repentant, Bigger grows increasingly outraged that he was made to become what it was not his natural destiny to be. Do you sympathize with or loathe Bigger Thomas, see him as a cold-hearted killer or helpless victim? The answer that you give to this question is revealing. The very best novels are not commentaries but mirrors. My opinion that the courtroom scene at the end drags on a bit too long and is basically a monologue rather than a continuation of the riveting plot is the only thing that keeps me from awarding this masterpiece 5 stars. Not only a great novel, but an important one.

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NWNW by Zadie Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carrying this book around I learned that just about everyone has read and really loved White Teeth, Zadie Smith's debut novel. Some of her faithful devotees may be less enamored with NW. Not that it isn't skillfully written. But the very fragmented style Smith chose to present it in probably will not be everybody's cup of tea. The choppy format did not take away from my ability to again perceive that Smith is an exceptional talent, but this book's flow took some getting accustomed to for me personally. NW chronicles the lives of two women who grew up in the same neighborhood and are friends from childhood. They both go on to get married and keep secrets from their husbands. To say much more about the plot would bring me into spoiler territory, so I'll leave summarizing to others who are better at it. Instead I'll say that I liked if didn't quite love this book, and that I do recommend it, even if you read it only to end up saying that you preferred White Teeth. There is only room for one as your favorite, but plenty of room to fill on the bookshelf of your life.

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PleasantvillePleasantville by Attica Locke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Attica Locke's prose goes down nice and easy, and her well etched characters draw you into the mysteries they inhabit. This is the second one of Locke's novels that I've read. I look forward to the third and beyond, regardless of whether she brings us back to the same cast of main characters or introduces us to brand new ones.

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The Polished HoeThe Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The pace of the narrative mirrors that of the characters it is about - island time. If you're looking for brain candy or twists and turns every few pages that will keep you on the edge or your seat and cause you to speed through the reading process in a couple hours, this isn't the book for you. But it's pretty good if not quite great and I'd definitely recommend this novel to fans of well written literary fiction.

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RubyRuby by Cynthia Bond
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a devastating book, a relentless series of gut punches that batter the soul. The title character is put through a hell that the most evil of people would not wish upon their greatest enemy. What somehow fails to kill Ruby does manage to annihilate her spirit and make her incapable of respecting, much less loving herself. If you can't self love then another person has little chance of earning it. But despite the many horrors witnessed and cruelties visited upon Ruby, she has just enough strength to care for her spiritual children while living a shell of a life perched on the edge of madness. And this keeps her going. Her body is used and abused at the whim of men who take advantage because there is no resistance. But one man is different - a man whose love for Ruby gets him to stand up for her and himself rather than mutely accepting what is handed to him. Ephram shows Ruby that in spite of all that has been done to her and by her, she can still be viewed with tenderness, adoration even. But the world is harsh, atrocities abundant, the devil ever present, people judgmental when not being indifferent. So love is not a big enough miracle to save Ruby. Sometimes the only person who can save you is the one found in the mirror. This is not a gentle read, but it is a fantastic one.

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Sag HarborSag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Colson Whitehead is a wonderful writer. Although I wasn't a Sag Harbor summer kid myself, the author and I are about the same age so much of his reminiscing about his experiences as a 15 year old stirred similar memories I possess. Sag Harbor is a work of fiction, not a memoir, but it reads as much like the latter than as a novel, and no doubt it was largely inspired by the author's youthful days. Not a whole lot happens in Sag Harbor, basically a group of teenagers kill the abundance of time they have on hand, and I know plenty of readers would have a problem with this. I wouldn't have minded if the story had been more eventful, might have awarded it an extra star in this review if it was. After all, if you're writing a memoir about a period of time when nothing particularly earth shattering took place but it nonetheless was vivid in your thoughts because it was a critical period of your life, then you need to be true to what did and didn't happen. But if you're writing a novel, certainly you can feel free to throw in a little drama. Whitehead resists this temptation and simply gives us a first person tale about an introspective person on a summer vacation somewhere roughly in between the end of his childhood and beginning of his manhood. What does Benji think about as he makes his transition to becoming Ben? For the most part he reflects on his days up to that point for he knows they will soon be coming to an end, and he wonders what the future will hold for him. He holds memories that are both crystal clear and cloudy. As for his insight into tomorrow, like the rest of us he can only guess a little and hope a lot.

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Salvage the BonesSalvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Novelists like Jesmyn Ward don't come along very often. Only truly special writers can slip readers beneath the skin of a character, make them feel as if they are experiencing the events happening on page first hand. Reading Salvage the Bones one is drawn into the oppressive summer heat of Louisiana; aches with helpless desire; is burdened by a stifling sense of loss; vicariously goes through youthful yearning to be loved, even if only as much as a treasured pet. Prior to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the pace of the narrative is slow and steady. We wait for the inevitable devastation to arrive, knowing far more about what is to come than the family we're observing up close. A motherless girl lets the local boys take what they please from her until she meets one from who she wants something back. She is a lone woman in a world of men, and it is through her eyes that we pass idle time waiting, watching, remembering, wishing for what is plain will not be, settling for whatever she is able to grab hold of. This girl does not get placed on a pedestal like her brother's prized dog, but like China she is able to nurture when called upon, ready to fight tooth and nail for survival when necessary. Read this book. Then join me in the wait for Jesmyn Ward's next one.

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The Secret Life of BeesThe Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This infectious, sentimental book is primarily a coming-of-age story that focuses on mother-daughter relationships and dealing with the early loss of a loved one. But since it's set in the South in the 1960's when African Americans first received the right to vote, and it is a group of black women whom the lead character comes to stay with and learn valuable life lessons from, race also plays a prominent role in the plot. For readers not up to grappling with literary works as heavy as Bluest Eye or Native Son, a novel such as this one can serve as a primer. The message goes down easily with Monk's easily digestible style of writing, but that makes it no less important and may encourage readers to later check out novels with more substantial things to say about the ways we treat each other. Aside from matters of race, this book has insightful things to say about prematurely ended mother-daughter relationships that has endeared it to many.

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Silver SparrowSilver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Silver Sparrow is an excellent novel written in a sure handed manner by a very talented author. It tells the tale of a bigamist, a man living two separate lives, one out in the open and the other in its shadow. His first family is the result of youthful reckless behavior and following the directions of his mother to make things right. Family number two is formed by falling in love as a grown man, but perhaps one who has not matured very much. After all, a mark of adulthood is understanding you need to make choices, that holding onto one thing often comes at the expense of letting go of another, that if you don't make those choices to your best advantage eventually they will be made for you without allowing you much say in how things work out. This man is at the center of two families but the story focuses on the women in his life - his wives of unequal billing and primarily their daughters who had no say in how their dangerously connected families came about. Over the course of the narrative the half sisters learn that family is not so much a matter of blood, as one of choice of loyalty.

In addition to enjoying Silver Sparrow as a reader I found it to be a particularly interesting read because it addresses matters near and dear to my heart, issues I've examined in short stories, in my first novel Patches of Grey, and in my second yet to be published book, Matters of Convenience.

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The Star Side of Bird HillThe Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Home is more than where you live. It is where you are loved. It is the place you feel safe, where your fondest memories are created and stored. Home plays a major role in the creation of your identity. If another place was home, you would be a different version of yourself. The Star Side of Bird Hill is about two sisters, one a preteen and the other a little closer to the verge of womanhood, who are sent from Brooklyn to Barbados to spend a summer with their grandmother. This temporary arrangement is given permanence when their severely depressed mother kills herself. With their father out of the picture, having no parents in their lives means that home is suddenly redefined. But Bird Hill is not what they know nor what they have chosen. It is an idyllic prison cell. The children of Bird Hill are not their true friends. Their grandmother is an unbending woman with strange ways, not the adored woman who raised them. This is not to say that Brooklyn was paradise, for that was where their mother had been vanishing before their eyes by withdrawing into herself as depression took hold. Brooklyn is where their father abandoned them. Barbados is where he makes a surprise reappearance that is difficult to trust. Who they can have faith in is their stalwart grandmother, and she is rooted in an island they knew little of up until now. So Bird Hill is where they will finish becoming the women they are meant to be. Memories happy and sad, at least for the time being, must stay behind in Brooklyn. The new shape of home, including loved ones they have gained and those who have been lost, must be accepted no matter how reluctantly. Passage of time will construct that acceptance. This is a fine debut novel by Naomi Jackson, an author to keep an eye on.

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The Taste of SaltThe Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Taste of Salt chronicles the effects of alcoholism on an African American family. Liquor destroys a marriage that begins with much promise, its grip not loosening on the father until he has been sent off to make a new life for himself. Their son Tick becomes an alcoholic as well, remaining sober for long enough stretches to set up an enviable situation working on the training staff for a NBA team, but repeatedly losing his battle to take things "one day at a time" and having to start all over again. His sister, like their mother, is not cursed with alcoholism but with having alcoholics as her closest blood ties. Josie copes with the pain and embarrassment by being away from her family. She has a dream fulfilled job as a scientist who studies her beloved ocean far removed from Ohio where her parents and brother reside, and she is married to a good man who treats her with respect and tenderness. In this setting it seems she has escaped the hurt that her parents and brother must endure. But Josie has self destructive tendencies also. She may not need a drink to make it through the day, but her inability to reach true intimacy with the man who has opened his heart completely to her wreaks its own brand of havoc. To survive their separate yet connected hurts, Josie and her brother and parents need to forgive each other and themselves. In clean and easy to read prose, Martha Southgate shows us that not everybody in this often sad world is strong enough to do that.

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Things Fall Apart (The African Trilogy, #1)Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been meaning to get around to this book for years. It did not disappoint. Things Fall Apart is the story of an African man named Okonkwo. He is an important man in his tribe and lives the way he understands a man's life is meant to be lived. To compensate for the weaknesses of his father his main purpose is to demonstrate strength. In order to achieve a greater degree of success he figures he must be more ambitious, aggressive, and domineering. And this is what he pulls off. So long as his place is firmly established in a world that is familiar to him, one in which he understands the rules and what it takes to excel, all is well. But after Christian missionaries arrive in the village we learn that this is not the story of a man, but rather, the chronicle of a way of life that is destined to fall. Okonkwo's gods fail to measure up against the Christian God mainly because ancient ways are always overwhelmed by the march of modernity. The gun is mightier than the machete, science outmatches superstition, and what on the surface appears to be a more compassionate way of life triumphs over barbarism because biblical cruelty is more cleverly disguised. A fascinating novel indeed.

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To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A classic that needs no introduction. A white lawyer defends a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in the 1930's South. Readers see it all unfold through the eyes of his young daughter as she witnesses the worst and best that people are capable of. It's impossible not to be thoroughly absorbed by this story and admire its message that the quest for justice is always worth embarking on, regardless of the odds or possible consequences.

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TUMBLINGTUMBLING by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story of a uniquely formed African American family that takes place in Philadelphia during the 40's and 50's is a deeply moving one. The marriage of Herbie and Noon is made vulnerable by the fact that it is not consummated due to a dark secret in Noon's past. She escapes her demons through church and Herbie does likewise in nightclubs and in the arms of another woman, when she's around and when she'll have him, a woman named Ethel who is everything that his wife is not. Nevertheless Herbie and Noon come to raise two daughters just months apart in age who are left on their doorstep, Fannie as an infant and Liz later on at the age of 5. There are multiple mysteries to unravel from first page to last, many struggles for the family to endure mostly because of the secrets and lies and maintained silences between them. The reader comes to feel strongly for each of the vividly and skillfully etched main characters, rooting for them to find light at the end of their individual tunnels, pulling for them to remain together when fate seems determined to tear their world apart. What a wonderful novel from such a talented writer.

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Twelve Years a SlaveTwelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I suspect that the film adaptation, which I look forward to seeing after keeping a promise to myself to read the book first, will be more melodramatic and pull on heartstrings to greater effect and purpose than Solomon Northup's telling of his life story. Northup writes in somewhat stilted prose, his style academic rather than evocative like great novels or movies. He is not trying to draw out our tears. He is not attempting with every stroke of the pen to stir up emotions. Northup is simply telling us like it was - straight no chaser. No need to exaggerate the brutality or the tragedy, no reason to willfully demonize people whose monstrous acts and barbaric attitudes speak for themselves. Is the reader outraged, astounded that people could casually treat others in such a manner? Only if the reader has a soul. Northup doesn't use his words to move us the way his violin playing moved people. He is both impartial reporter and the subject of his piece of journalism. He doesn't ask us to feel sorry for him, or to hate his oppressors. What he does is recount what it was like for a man to suddenly find himself in bondage and servitude, endure it for over a decade, and then miraculously find himself free again with a most amazing and devastating tale to tell. He tells the truth in as unbiased a manner as possible and allows us judge it for ourselves. How did any man ever convince himself that it was okay to treat another this way? How did they ignore the humanity they surely saw in the brethren they stole from another continent? How was a single one of them able to look in a mirror? Twelve Years a Slave asks these questions but is unable to answer them, nor does it bother to try. Nothing can adequately answer them. The mystery of such heartlessness has not revealed itself over a couple hundred years. This is what our country was founded on, inalienable rights unevenly dispersed with extreme prejudice. This is what we need to atone for and move forward from. This is the stain that will never fade. Yet quite tellingly, those 12 years are not what made Solomon the extraordinary man that he was. Those 12 years happened to him but did not become him. Otherwise he probably would not have been able to write his book. The past brought us to this present, but it need not define any of us. In even the most suffocating circumstances, we have the freedom to do that for ourselves.

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The Warmest DecemberThe Warmest December by Bernice L. McFadden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Violent alcoholics beget violent alcoholics beget... Pretty much everybody in this beautifully written novel is in agony. They are each perpetrators and victims, the tormentors and the ones suffering from a brutal disease. The cycle appears to be endless, but Kenzie is fighting to break the pattern. This novel, which is told from her point of view, is filled with unfathomable cruelty that it seems nobody would be foolish enough to stick around and take. Surely fleeing for their lives is an option. But instead of running from barbaric cruelty they are each running from their own demons. These demons take on liquid form and exist in bottles obtained from bars and liquor stores. The reader pities them for their hopelessness, urges those being bullied to take a hint and act out of self preservation rather than inexplicable loyalty. But neither Kenzie nor her brother nor her mother listen to the reader, or to friends, or to each other, or to concerned strangers such as policemen sometimes called to the scene of the crime. The jaded officers know in advance that their advice will be ignored, for the story is a sadly common one. The thing about a cycle is that it's extremely difficult to locate an exit point. No matter where you are it looks the same. There are glimpses of small hope, moments of grace, occasions that provide a view of genuine happiness, but eventually the moment to suffer comes back around. As long as Kenzie is consumed with understandable hate, she suffers and requires destructive medication to deal with the pain. She cannot escape by running, but rather, by confronting and figuring out how to forgive. Easier said than done.

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Your Blues Ain't Like MineYour Blues Ain't Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The setting of this book progresses from the eve of integration in rural Mississippi to the present-day housing projects of Chicago. It begins with the shameful murder of an African-American teenage boy who unknowingly commits a taboo act by speaking in French to a white girl, and follows the boy's family, the family of the murderers, and other citizens of the small town for the next four decades. This novel takes on a lot — perhaps a bit more than it can effectively chew — but ultimately does a fine job of showing its title to be profoundly true. Everybody has the blues sometimes, but if society is set up to your advantage at my expense then your blues ain't like mine.

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