Category Archives: books

Snow on the way

I might follow along with Roxane Gay’s reading list for the year. One book a month. I ordered the first one, which is getting a lot of buzz and I really wanted anyway. If this effort is like others, I’ll last until April.

I’ve finally attended to the minutiae involved in being able to borrow kindle books from my library. What a gift! Using the Libby app, I can reserve books and then they show up in my kindle reader without having to go anywhere! Black Futures looks like a beautiful coffee table book, though, so I ordered a copy. Here’s the full list in case you’re interested.

In other news, “we” are installing a gas fireplace. This old house’s current fireplace is very inefficient and sucks warm air out of the entire first floor. Plus, you know, because of the mess and effort, we just don’t have fires all that much. We already have gas in the house. I can’t wait to be able to start a fire with a click of a button. Don’t judge me!

By “we,” I mean my husband, of course. We save almost two grand this way.

I just discovered an Instagram group — @pariscollagecollective — that posts weekly image prompts. I may take part (again — will I last until late spring?) Here’s the first prompt for 2021.

I’ve put together one of my digital-collage slideshows (one minute, below), but I intend to work with paper this week. And then maybe, using a photo of the paper collage, create more layered exposures with the Diana app — my preferred method.

Some of my faves follow. Some of you will recognize collage images embedded from the Collage Challenge with Acey a year ago.

Snow to begin before sunset.

* tattooed torso is a dancer from recent remake of West Side Story and featured in the New York Times. Cloaked Egyptian and other smaller white cloaked figure from National Geographic. Cloth is my own. Virgin from photo I took in cathedral in Assisi. Black woman looking at lens, I don’t remember — but very possibly Vanity Fair.

4 books, 3 quotes, 1 moon

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Food memoir. Fascinating and well written. Partly of interest to me because she came of age roughly when I did and some of her stomping grounds overlap with mine (she went to Hampshire College for a year; I went to UMass Amherst). She is an unusual chef/restaurant owner for coming up through catering rather than working the line up to executive chef in someone else’s restaurant first. Hard working bad ass with crucial food experiences in Italy.

I also could relate personally, having been a lesser kind of bad ass who helped support herself from age 16 to 22 by working in restaurants. I’ve been a dishwasher, a salad girl, and a waitress in low and high end restaurants. Most memorable: kneeling to serve misonabe in huge clay pots in a tatami room for several summers. This was in a Japanese restaurant housed in a Victorian mansion at the intersection of Routes 20 and 22 in New Lebanon, New York. The kitchen was on the first floor and the tatami rooms were on the second floor. It was not for nothing that a customer once rudely referred to another waitress as a “stevedore.” (She was my height with rope-hard calves). But seriously, the teriyaki was served in iron skillets, the misonabes and yosenabes in eight inch diameter clay pots (with lids!) Put four of those on a tray, balance it on your shoulder, walk up a long, split stair case, lower the tray to a stand and then kneel to serve each and every one of those heavy, heavy dishes. Don’t forget to kick off your shoes!

You’d have strong calves, too!

⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book was a debut novel or I’d rate it lower. If I was a book reviewer, I’d try to discern why I found the writing a little disappointing — after all the author got me to turn more than 300 pages in less than a week — but I’ll offer only one thing. The unlikeable main character.

The main character doesn’t realize her husband has early onset Alzheimer’s for an excessively long time because of the ignorance of the times. Okay. But she tolerates his bad behavior for so long and surely she had to see he suffered from SOME KIND of mental illness? She also delays getting help for a ridiculously long time. So between that and her insufferable need to social climb out of her humble beginnings in Brooklyn, I disliked her quite a lot. Really good writing can make up for an unlikeable character, but here?

I also read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this week. There were interesting overlaps with Thomas’s book in terms of place and time and I see why it goes on many people’s top ten lists but it wouldn’t go on mine. For one thing, the trope about the poor girl in rags reading a book a week just made me roll my eyes. (The alcoholic Irish dad, also a trope I suppose, didn’t bother me at all. He was rendered with some affection and depth). For another thing, it’s a little repetitive. And predictable.

It’s a depiction of a very poor family at the turn of the century in Brooklyn. Mother who cleans houses. Father who sings for a penny when he can and drinks. A son and daughter who have to drop out of school to earn their two dollars a week to help support the family. The details about what a family in these dire financial straights might eat in a week with no money was particularly compelling and called to mind things I’d heard from my father’s childhood. He was born about ten years after this novel ends. Raised on Brooklyn/Queens line. Also Catholic.

The book runs right into 1918 and although there was a lot of mention of entering the war in 1917, there was only passing reference to the influenza epidemic. For obvious reasons, I hoped otherwise.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Last night I finished Where the Crawdads Sing. Read it almost in a sitting. I definitely see what all the fuss is about.

When writing a novel, sometimes you avoid certain books because you don’t want to be undermined by them or discouraged by them or maybe for less clear reasons. I still haven’t read Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd or The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, though both are on the shelf upstairs. I’d avoided Owens’s book, too, even though it’s set in North and not South Carolina, just because.

Well. It’s a compelling and beautifully crafted book.

  • Landscape descriptions of the low lands are stunning and evocative
  • Depictions of trauma imposed by physical abuse and abandonment are believable and consistent and drive the story in interesting ways
  • There is redemption and a surprise twist
  • It proves the power of an author depositing a dead body in an early chapter
  • Time flashing back and forth well done
  • Author made two of the central character’s saviors Black without turning them into completely secondary and non-dimensional figures
  • Nature is a character in the best possible way

Let me just note, too, the synchronicity between the NC novel and Hamilton’s food memoir. Both the female character in Crawdads and the real live author/chef of Blood, Bones, and Butter were the last of five children and abandoned by their mothers. We’re not talking about mere psychological abandonment — their mothers walked right out of their lives. Some of Hamilton’s teenage years have a feral quality to them — stealing cars, passing herself off as three years older to get work in a kitchen and then moving to NYC as a young teenager and getting into drugs.

ALL of the years of Owens’s female character have a feral quality to them. It is the defining quality of her life, in fact. Nature is her companion, her parent, her teacher, and her source of survival.

And now three quotes from conversation between Brene Brown and Tim Ferris in recent podcast:

Ninety percent of pathology is armor.

The replacement for armor is curiosity.

Lasting change has to be driven by self-acceptance.

It is cold here. Suitable for the Cold Moon.

Luster, a novel – mini review

A twenty-something gets fired from her job in NYC at around the same time she’s taken up with a much older married man.

Sound like something you’ve read before?

I don’t think so! SPOILERS FOLLOW

Our protagonist, Evie, first of all, is full of sharp and sometimes funny observations — especially about the people around her.

For example, at some point she realizes that the sole allure of an older man is that he’s survived long enough to pay a mortgage and an electric bill over a period of years.

After losing her job, our down-on-her-luck character gets evicted and ends up staying at her boyfriend’s house, arriving there while he is away to the surprise of his wife and then to his shock and dismay.

Huh?

An adopted Black teen-aged daughter plays into what follows.

Can’t say I particularly like or admire Evie, but since when is that required?

When I riffed about Hannah Tennant-Moore’s novel, Wreck and Order, HERE, I talked about how I’d rather read a female writer’s descriptions of sex that I cannot relate to (say, S&M) than be exposed for the umpteenth time to the predictable male fantasy version of sex. Well, that holds here.

When the boyfriend punches Evie, for instance, she asks him to do it again. She snoops around the couple’s house when it’s empty and acts the voyeur to the marriage, at least once to their lovemaking, which she secretly photographs. Evie is both exiled and episodically desired. Further, at times her tenancy, at least for the wife, seems predicated on Evie serving as a stand-in “Black person” for advice about the daughter.

It’s head-wagging, for sure.

But don’t let that stop you from reading this gem. The descriptions of how Evie saves the day with the Black daughter’s hair, alone, makes this story worth the ride. And it came as a surprise to me how fully rendered the wife, Rebecca, was. She eventually became interesting in her own right.

Zadie Smith called the novel, “exacting, hilarious, and deadly.”

Brit Bennett wrote, “darkly funny, hilariously moving … a beautiful big-hearted story about intimacy and art that will astound and wound you.”

Did I mention Evie is a painter? I found the descriptions about her process less than convincing, but it fit well with her trying to get her life in focus and with being an observer to a family.

The last thing I’ll say is (and this might sound like a negative critique and I’m not sure it is): this reads like an MFA novel. Maybe someone else can tell me what I mean by that.

Am I stupider than before?

During a class that I took with Anne Lamott recently, she quoted Shirley Jackson, who famously said, “a confused reader is an antagonistic reader.”

Generally, when I can’t follow a novel, my first assumptions center around me: I’m too tired when reading, or I’m reading in short intervals that do the book a disservice, or I’m just stupider than I used to be.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik won all kinds of awards and I can see why. I bought it for my sister, once upon a time, because she really loved this kind of fiction and she’d sort of given up reading toward the end. I knew it might be the last book she ever read, so I did my research. Read reviews.

I generally can take or leave fantasy and horror, but this was good. There are interesting ideas about power, honor, gender, building alliances, and societal exclusions (in this case, the Jewish members of a town), set in a unique and well-realized world. Lots of magic.

But here’s my little gripe!

a confused reader is an antagonistic reader.

The author changed the point of view frequently and between multiple characters. The only demarcation of a shift in the POV was an abstract symbol and extra space between paragraphs.

Sometimes it took a couple of paragraphs to land in the scene.

It’s a longish novel, which gave me time to get annoyed. Why make the reader wade through even that small amount of text to figure out who’s talking when a simple heading would’ve pointed the way?

In any case. Point taken, Shirley Jackson!

Books, read and unread

“Wilkerson’s book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment.”

NY Times, review

“She observes that caste ‘is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.‘”

And:

“A caste system, she writes, is ‘an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.‘”

In an interview with Teri Gross, Wilkerson called caste the bones and race the skin. Class is the clothing and accessories.

Racism cannot completely capture all that is wrong in our society, she says.

She uses Nazism and the caste system in India to explore the American version.

In the interview, I learned how much the Aryans relied on early American studies in eugenics to develop their theories on race. Here in the States, the “one drop rule” was adopted in order to keep mixed race offspring enslaved. Interestingly, such a construct was deemed too extreme by the Germans.

The book doesn’t cover South Africa but in the interview Wilkerson briefly discusses how the fact that Blacks were in the majority in South Africa led to the creation of a third category ofcoloreds.” This was designed to keep Black Africans out of power. I wondered about that when reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood, which is by the way, a compelling and intimate look at the last days of apartheid.

I am still reading three important books on race, but Caste will be up next. I ordered it from an independent bookseller in the Bronx: The Lit. Bar. If you can afford the postage, I recommend that you do too. They raise money for other independent book stores.

Part of why I haven’t finished the non-fiction books on my night stand is because of my preference for fiction.

This novel looks at the issue of colorism through the lens of identical twins who are light enough to pass for white. One makes the decision to do so and vanishes from her twin’s life while the other makes an opposite decision by having a child with a very dark Black man. The idea of erasure and transformation is further explored through a transgender character.

Desiree and Stella Vignes were once inseparable, fleeing their small southern town to build a life together in New Orleans. But when Stella makes the decision to pass as white—disappearing from her sister’s life in order to pursue the “American Dream” of whiteness—the twins’ paths diverge, determining not just their own futures, but the futures of their daughters and their relationship to Black womanhood. As the sisters mature into mothers and their daughters into adulthood, each woman must confront her own relationship to her past, to family duty, and to her own autonomy.

From Taylor Crumpton’s Book of the Month review.

Lest you find me too serious, let me admit in closing that my new guilty pleasure is a reality show called, Blown Away. It’s a glass blowing competition that fills the void left by The Great British Baking Show.