Category Archives: books

Rain, dream, and caution

Fell asleep to the sound of rain: lovely! Better yet, I slept til morning!

Dream fragment: I am reading a book called The Narrows. I woke with the words on my tongue. The Narrows. Rocked my spine a little before rising, as I do. The Narrows.

Right now I’m in a CVS parking lot, waiting. Out of an abundance of caution, I decided to get a post-trip Covid test. Travel went well enough but why worry?

Walking out to a world drenched by the night’s rain was a real treat! Ours is a June garden. After two weeks away, the lush tangle of it well and truly pleased. Pix later.

Waiting for results and lo! Found out that the American writer Ann Petry wrote a book called, The Narrows. I have only recently heard of her — maybe five months ago — when her novel The Street was recommended to me. I don’t remember hearing about The Narrows. Perhaps I should read it! Another exclamation point!

* test results: NEGATIVE

when rabbit holes are “work”

You may recall that my manuscript consultant suggested an epilogue. How about 1758? That’s the year Eliza and her husband, Charles Pinckney, return to South Carolina after a lengthy stay in England. Charles dies in July. Malaria claimed a lot of lives in colonial America.

Prior research had been pretty laser-focused on the years 1738 to 1744. With many historic tomes, in fact, I just stopped reading at 1745. I barely read Eliza’s letters after her marriage in ’44.

Well that’s not entirely true. I read them two or three times, but I didn’t MINE them and their footnotes for personal events and tone and history.

So I had to ask: what was Charles Town like fourteen years after my original narrative ended? Also, because one character flees to Philly, what was the City of Brotherly Love like in 1758?

Imagine my glee — yes glee! — to learn about an early abolitionist who published the very first unequivocal position against slavery in the western world! His name was Anthony Benezet and he was a Huguenot-turned Quaker. The Quakers adopted the proclamation in Philadelphia in 1758. *

I found a Library of Congress lecture by one of Benezet’s biographers, Maurice Jackson, and listened to it in its entirety (those of you who know me understand how rare that is).

Why isn’t he better known?

His pamphlet or Slave Almanac was later copied in large measure by better known abolitionist John Wesley and relied upon by the likes of Granville Sharp.

I noodled around Ben Franklin’s early career as a printer (he was out of the business by 1758) and his then equivocal stance on slavery — or at least his unwillingness to attach his name to those early anti-slavery pamphlets.

The other thing to know generally was that the French and Indian war was going on. It was the reason why Charles and Eliza Pinckney had returned to South Carolina. They wanted to secure or sell their properties.

Fun fact: the Join or Die flag originally referred to the necessity to cooperate in the fight against France and only later was coopted by the Revolutionaries battling Britain.

* The proclamation was approved at a Quaker Yearly meeting in 1758 but not printed until 1759.

In other news, the wisteria is blooming and I got my hair cut. New glasses ordered. All systems go!

And I’m making a tunic. Ha! I’ll let you know how it goes.

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.