Sunday, September 13, 2020

IN THE COUNTRY OF WOMEN

 

In the Country of Women 

 In the Country of Women, Susan Straight, Catapult, 2019, 358 pp

 Susan Straight is another one of my favorite authors. I have read all of her seven novels. This book is a memoir that almost reads like a novel.

She is a petite blonde whose novels feature an extended Black family in Rio Seco, CA (her fictional name for Riverside.) Many years ago when I read her first novel, I've Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, I along with others wondered what gave her the right to explore so deeply the life of a Black single mother.

Soon we learned that Susan Straight married into a Black family. In the Country of Women tells how she met and fell in love with her husband, how she grew up relatively poor with a Swiss immigrant mother, how she learned to read at the age of three, and how she became a writer shortly after she learned to read.

When she met Dwayne Sims, she found a huge extended family who accepted her unconditionally (after making sure she could cook.) Dwayne's mother provided the warmth that Susan's own mother was too embittered by life to give to her daughter.

I have a special affinity for girls who grow up reading every book they can get their hands on and then go on to write their own. Though Susan Straight is a decade younger than I, as kids we read all the same books!

Once she became an in-law to the Sims family and once she took a writing class with James Baldwin at Amherst College, she determined to research the history of both her family and the Sims. She also had three daughters with Dwayne and wanted to give them particularly the stories of all the strong women who came from Europe and the American south to California. Women who overcame incredible hardships and did whatever was needed to provide for and protect their children.

Hence the title: In the Country of Women. It is a beautiful, deeply emotional yet somehow lighthearted memoir. It is a gift to the world in which she proclaims the triumphs for which most women are left unthanked and unrecognized.

Most of all, it is a tribute to family, to taking care of your own as well as welcoming in those who are uncared for. It is full of hope. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

NIGHT. SLEEP. DEATH. THE STARS


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Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars, Joyce Carol Oates, Ecco, 2019, 787 pp
 
Note: This is one of the longest reviews I have written in a while. It is a plea for the benefits of reading outside one's comfort zone. I hope you understand.
 
I think it is safe to say that readers are divided into devoted fans of Joyce Carol Oates and those who would not read her, ever! Here is how I became fan.

I first read her one hot month in 1988 when I was stranded in Los Angeles due to a snafu in a training program I was attending. My accommodations were located across the street from a used bookstore with racks out on the sidewalk where battered paperbacks sold for a quarter.

I picked up Marya, A Life, only two years after its publication and already a 25 cent paperback. I lay on my bed in a sweltering room and read about Marya's terrible, gritty life having really no idea what I was reading. It was the most disturbing thing I had ever read. Not surprising because in those days I usually read trashy bestsellers.

By 1992, I was living permanently in LA and had embarked on an effort to branch out in my reading. I read Joyce Carol Oates's first novel, With Shuddering Fall. It was pretty gritty too. Her characters were fairly unrecognizable to me. Generally lower class whites, not mainstream in any way, violent and sometimes outright crazy. My mother told me she had tried reading Oates but found her books "weird."

I persevered, still eager in those days to rebel against my mother. I have read her first nine novels and some early short stories, then dropped her for several years. In 2013, I started again, reading whatever was her latest book. She is still weird in her own unique way, so I can only conclude that I have changed as a reader. I now count myself among her dedicated fans.
 
I have not read the recent bestsellers, How To Be An Antiracist or White Fragility, but I would say that Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars is JCO's answer to such conundrums from a literary viewpoint. 
 
The title is the last line of a Walt Whitman poem, "A Clear Midnight."
 
The novel is an intimate family tale concerning a white family in upstate New York. The father, a much-loved and well-to-do man in his community, pulls off the road one evening to intervene in what appears to be a scene of police harassment against a Black man. In the ensuing debacle, John Earle McClaren is beaten, tasered, and left by the police on the side of the road where he suffers a massive stroke. The dark skinned man being harassed is taken into custody.

McClaren dies in the hospital from a staph infection a couple weeks later. By that time in the story, his wife and five grown offspring have been introduced. It is clear they are not exactly the close and happy family they are perceived to be by the community.

The novel is long but I read it quickly, not wanting to look away. The family majorly fractures after the patriarch's death but she shows us the hairline fractures present from the beginning, though they had been held in stasis, in almost a hostage situation, by John Earle McClaren. His control was not ever physically brutal but it was absolute. Not his wife nor any one of his children were allowed to be who they really were nor to think for themselves.

JCO has always appeared to be prescient in her novels. She wrote this one a year before the more recent explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Listening to an interview with her about writing this novel, I realized again how attuned she is to the evils and upheavals of American culture. At this point in her life she is a privileged white woman but she came up in near poverty in the midst of small town violence. A favorite childhood book of hers was Alice In Wonderland.
 
She has written at least 56 novels! I feel her writing has become somewhat more accessible over the years but has never lost that bite, penetrating the human heart with all of its strengths and weaknesses, its fears and joys. In her novels I have found everyone I've ever known, the ones I was afraid to know, and myself.
 
I most loved Jessalyn McClaren, the widow of John and the mother of those five children. Her grief and her emergence from it, her tentative forays into life as her true self, are all so meticulously shown. Somehow we white people get to know ourselves through the book: our ridiculous assumptions about others, our reluctance to move outside our perceived safety zones, our ill-informed prejudices about people and our inherent fragility as the most powerful race on earth, no matter what our political stances are.

All of that is in Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. Read it at your own risk.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

SEPTEMBER READING GROUP UPDATE







My reading groups are on a roll. Lately every book is one I either already wanted to read or one I am happy to read. Still on Zoom though it may be possible to hope we can meet in person again someday soon.

Carol's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Bookie Babes:
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Tiny Book Club:
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How are your reading groups going? Have you had any good discussions lately? Have you read or discussed any of the above?


Sunday, September 06, 2020

STARLING DAYS


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Starling Days, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, The Overlook Press, 2020, 289 pp
 
This novel was the April selection of the Nervous Breakdown Book Club. I hesitated to post my review since it was the least favorite of the books I read in August. It features a main character who suffers from depression and was hard for me to read at times but I decided to share what I got out of it because it was important to me.
 
Mina and Oscar have been a couple for many years and finally marry. Mina is a highly educated young woman who teaches and is working on a PhD in literature, specializing in Greek myths. Oscar works as a salesman for his Japanese father's liquor business.

On their wedding night, Mina attempts to end her life with pills. This we learn in the first chapter when Oscar is called by police to pick up Mina, whom they found at midnight leaning over the edge of the George Washington Bridge, known as a location for suicides.

Oscar decides to move them to London while he does some work there on his father's property, thinking a change of scene will be good for Mina. It does not help much, her depression has it in its grip, her meds are not working, and though Oscar tries to protect her he is becoming overwhelmed.

As the story goes on, it reveals the many early traumas of both. I liked the ways the author described each one's coping mechanisms but the choices both were making made me wonder if they would make it. I grew a little weary of being inside their heads and could not guess whether the ending would be happy or tragic.

I am not sorry I read Starling Days because it helped me understand a few things. I have always had an aversion to the subject of mental illness. It frightens me. After I finished the book I realized that I was raised to repress my own moods and occasional bouts of depression, to pretend I was fine, to keep up with life and family and work duties no matter how I felt. 

I guess I am fortunate to also have a strong, even sometimes happy side and to have never succumbed. Currently I have a friend who suffers from depression and have had to figure out how to relate to her when she is overcome. Buchanan's novel gave me insight into and more empathy for my friend.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

THE VANISHING HALF


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The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett, Riverhead Books, 2020, 460 pp
 
Two of my reading groups picked this novel for discussion in August, but what a difference in reaction between the two groups. One was unanimous in loving it, the other was a mixture of opinions. Personally I found it brilliant.
 
The story centers around a set of female twins, not necessarily identical but born on the same day from the same mother. Their family lived in a small Louisiana town where everyone is Black though extremely light skinned. The townspeople are careful never to marry a darker skinned person even though all the surrounding towns know they are of the Negro race.

The twins, Desiree and Stella, witness the brutal murder of their father, by a white man, at a young age. At sixteen, they run away together and manage to survive by depending on each other.

One day, Stella vanishes. From that point on the story is split into two, following Stella and Desiree separately. Stella has passed as white and married a successful white man. Desiree married and then left an abusive Black man whom she flees with her very dark skinned daughter and returns home.

The novel is an almost Shakespearean tale about identity, both racial and gender. It is not, as far as I am concerned, about whether or not the characters are likeable, but about what happens to individual identities as they live and grow in a world that disdains difference.

As these sisters and daughters and mothers long for each other through several decades, a majority of the characters do grow and change giving a hopeful aspect. Some do not, due to being either oblivious, hopelessly prejudiced or just plain evil. 

I was captivated on every page. Brit Bennett, I think, believes in love and family but is showing us how those aspects of life are also full of pain, separation and loss along with just enough redemption to keep life going.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

BOOKS READ IN AUGUST

 
 





August was just fine for me, despite all the upsetting stuff that is going on. I celebrated my birthday, for a week, as always. We had a mix of heat waves and lovely days in the 80s with some clouds. As has been my way during the pandemic I escaped into books and was rewarded with all kinds of stories that reminded me there have always been troubles mixed with joys.

Stats: 11 books read. 8 fiction. 8 written by women. 2 science fiction. 1 mythology. 1 nonfiction. 1 memoir. 2 historical novels.

Place I went: United States, England, Greenland, Germany.

Authors new to me: Steph Cha, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Judith Lindbergh, Markus Zusak.

Favorites: Night Sleep Death the Stars, In the Country of Women
Least favorite: Starling Days

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How did your August reading go? Favorites? Have you read any of these books?

Saturday, August 29, 2020

YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY

 


Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha, Ecco, 2019, 244 pp

 

I read this for my One Book At A Time reading group. It was my suggestion and we all found it amazing.

The story concerns racial tension in Los Angeles and is told from the viewpoints of two families, one African American, one Korean American.

In 1991, at the time of the Rodney King beating, a Korean American woman shot and killed Ava Matthews, an African American teenager who she thought was shoplifting in her pharmacy. The woman was charged with manslaughter but got off with no jail time.

Almost three decades later, the relatives of the Black victim and a daughter of the Korean family come into conflict again.

Grace Park was in the womb when her mother shot Ava Matthews. She grew up never knowing what her mother did. Now, thanks to her older sister, she does.

Shawn Matthews, brother of Ava, has served time in prison, as has his cousin Ray. Now they are both trying to live right but it's a struggle everyday.

When another shocking murder rocks Los Angeles, the families collide.

Steph Cha based her Ava Matthews on a real character and a real case from 1991. In fictionalizing the story she sought to show the tensions as well as the possibility for reconciliation between the two families.

Because the members of our reading group have all lived in the Los Angeles area for many years, we know of all these incidents, especially the Rodney King case, the resulting riots, and the tensions in South Central. For us, the novel brought a much deeper understanding of what life is like for such families, the trauma they carry, the resentments between them, the faulty working of law enforcement and the courts.

Perhaps for non-Angelenos, the impact would not hit so close to home but it would still give readers an accurate look behind the scenes of racial tension in any of our cities.

Steph Cha is Korean American, born in Korea Town, Los Angeles, in 1986. She has written a crime series featuring Juniper Song, a Korean American private investigator. Your House Will Pay is her fourth novel.