Family history and the family dynamics of two merging black families are at the core of this completely enthralling novel. The two families, both living in Brooklyn, come from different social backgrounds. Woodson, known more for her works of fiction for young adults, steps into literary fiction for only the second time with “Red at the Bone,” and she does so with grace as well as unflinching grit. When 15-year-old Iris becomes pregnant, her middle class parents’ world is rocked. So too are the plans of Malcolm, her boyfriend and his single mom. How they all navigate this new territory, yet fully embrace the baby who becomes a lovely young girl, is true and beautiful. In some ways, young Malcolm is a better father than Iris a mother, but in their own way, the whole family pitches in to ensure Iris graduates and attends college, while giving Melody the best life possible. It may be more a matter of Malcolm enjoying and embracing fatherhood. He’s content to not go to college and to focus on an unambitious career, but respectable work that supports his daughter. Where he relishes his time with Melody, Iris loves at a distance and desires to complete her education.
While the family, including Malcolm’s mom, is proud to see Iris succeed in college as did her own parents, it ultimately cause a schism between she and her daughter. Iris jumps at the opportunity to go far from her daughter and her Brooklyn life of responsibilities and duties well beyond her young age. She selects a school out of state and sometimes doesn’t come home during breaks. Initially she seems to thrive at Oberlin, never acknowledging the life and daughter she left behind and embracing her studies. She even when she finds love with a female classmate, but eventually she cannot deny her home, her family and her history. In Iris’s absence, she and Melody grow apart while Melody’s bond with her father and grandparents deepens. In time though, the mother and daughter will find their way back to each other, and the journey there is a precious reading experience.
This is a sweet and welcome approach to a rare portrayal of a black family in contemporary literary fiction. Throughout the story and in both families separate and intertwining lives, Woodson’s prose is rich and lyrical and she tells the story from several points of view, switching back and forth like narrators on a great stage having their say. She paints fully drawn, intriguing characters, wonderfully and effectively alluring readers into the lives, past and present. Subtly and sometimes obviously, she dabbles the atmosphere with elements unique to black families and communities, such as seen early on in the story just before Melody prepares to descend the staircase of their home to her sweet sixteen, coming out party.
And in the room, there was the pink and the green of my grandmother’s sorority, the black and gold of my grandfather’s Alpha brothers- gray-haired and straight-backed, flashing gold capped teeth and baritone A-Phi A! As I made my entrance. High pitched calls of Skee-wee answering back to them. Another dream for me in their calling out to each other. “Of course you’re gonna pledge one day,” my grandmother said to me over and over again. When I was child, she surprised me once with a gift-wrapped hoodie, pale pink with My Grandmother is An AKA in bright green letters. “That’s just legacy, Melody,” she said. …Look back at me on that last day in May. Finally sixteen and the moment like a hand holding me out to the world. Rain giving way to a spectacular sun.
Reading “Red at the Bone” is like wrapping yourself in a warm, smooth shawl, with characters you can relate to, love or love to hate. and at less than 200 pages, you will want to experience it more than once.
In alphabetical order -
Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow - As a real-life thriller about how one journalist, along with the courageous women who came forward, took down sexual predators in the workplace, like Harvey Weinstein, this book lives up to the hype. A big part of the book is about Farrow’s investigation into the media mogul’s alleged sexual misconduct and rapes, but beyond that, it highlights how the powers that be tried to squelch the actual investigation and cover up for men behaving badly. Along the way, he and others were followed and threatened, but their story prevailed, launching a social movement. #metoo.
Furious Hours by Casey Cep - This is an incredible true crime thriller/courtroom drama of a murderous reverend in the Deep South in the 70s. Justice alluded him for many years, allowing him to get away with five murders, including two wives. While the reverend was in the courtroom, he was shot and killed by a relative of his last crime. Sitting in that very courtroom at that time was famed author, Harper Lee. This launched her into an investigation of the circumstances that led to that fateful day- the Reverend’s history, racial politics of the era, the murders and botched investigations. Although her research was never published, Cep delves into Lee’s findings and then some. It is fascinating!
Here We Are by Aarti Namdev Shahani - In this moving memoir, Shahani gives a humane account of her family’s immigration from Casablanca to Queens, NY and their challenges in being undocumented and then documented. An addition to being an immigration story, it is also a coming-of-age story of a dutiful daughter who grew up to be an accomplished NPR journalist.
How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones - This is a gritty and raw coming-of-age memoir of Jones as he grew up in the South as black, gay man. Much of his youth he was in denial of or confusion about his sexual orientation, unable to comfortably come out to his mother who raised him on her own. Although he had hoped to go to New York for college, thinking he could be free to be himself, it did not happen. Finances dictated that he needed to take a scholarship at a school in Georgia. Throughout his life, the one constant was his attraction to reading and writing, and the deep love for his mother who came to accept him completely. “How We Fight” is both searing and beautiful.
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro - read full review here - http://www.paulafarmer.com/books-blog/inheritance-a-memoir-review
Maid by Stephanie Land - Although she had dreams of leaving her hometown and becoming a writer, Land ended up pregnant and her hopes temporarily dashed. She was poor, white and a young single mom, with no support from her dysfunctional parents. To make ends meet and support her child, she began working as a low paid maid. Along the way, she was the recipient of ridicule, judgement and rejection. All of which she channeled into a compassionate observation of how the overworked and underpaid in America are treated and overlooked.
She Said by Jodi Kanter & Megan Twohey -
Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison - It doesn't get much better than a collection of the wit, wisdom and truisms by the legendary writer and scholar, Toni Morrison. As her last published works, these short essays are imbued with her love for and mastery of language and sharing her thoughts on life, race and racism. All delivered in her signature style that we cherish and will miss dearly.
Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell - This straightforward, thoroughly thought out arguments of how we get it wrong and sometimes right in communicating and interpreting communications. Done in stand alone vignettes, Gladwell breaks down social situations of mixed signals and misunderstandings, such as the Amanda Knox investigation and trial. Each real-life example is utterly compelling and says so much about us as a society.
The Yellow House by Sarah Broom -
HONORABLE MENTION -
Blowout by Rachel Maddow
Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington
Moving Forward by Karine Jean Pierre
BUY INDIE, BUY LOCAL! You can (and should) get any of the titles above from an independent bookstore near you (or online)
In alphabetical order -
Cantoras by Carolina de Robertis - This is an achingly beautiful and tender story of a group of closeted queer women friends from a small town of Uruguay in the late 70s. For awhile, they escape to a remote beach area away from their hometown. Here they can be who they really are, love who they really love. Carolina’s prose is rich and full, and her characters are sure and steady, but victims of the era they live in and their circumstances. You’ll find yourself devouring the book and rooting for all of them throughout their journey.
Daisy Jones and the Six by TJ Reid - Read full review here - http://www.paulafarmer.com/books-blog/daisy-jones-the-six-book-review
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips - This superb combination of literary fiction and mystery about two abducted young girls in a remote area at the northeastern edge of Russia sneaks up on you. As the search begins and continues, we are introduced to several disperate characters that are in some way touched by the crime. Through this debut novelists writing, we are exposed to the sense of family and community. By the story’s end, it’s obvious why this book was a Pulitzer finalist.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Everisto won this year’s Booker Prize, centers around profoundly interesting characters that collectively display some of the Black experience in Britain. This is done from the voice of several characters, including Amma, an acclaimed playwright who unabashedly explores and embraces her lesbian identity. Like in real life, all the characters have challenges, but they and their stories are full of humor and humanity that makes this novel absolutely compelling.
Lost Children Archives by Valeria Luciselli - This is one of the most unique novels you’ll ever read. It’s sparce, yet very rich and layered. Not just in its story and themes, but stylistically. A young family, a blended family of four set out on a road trip across country during the summer. Going along the Appalachian route, they drive through Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas and beyond. Along the way, they make discoveries about these various locations, but also about themselves and each other.
It’s a journey story that covers themes such as childhood, marriage- the disintegration of it or maybe its rebirth, immigration issues, native american history, politics and injustices. But what I really love about it, is it’s a book that you not only read, but you hear, see and feel. So much of it is about sounds and observations. While you’re reading it, you want to look up maps or listen to certain songs, make a list of other books to read or re-read. You really feel like you’re in the car with this family experiencing what they are, like a book their reading or song listening to or oral history the father is sharing about Native Americans or seeing the Polaroids the son is taking.
Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead uncovers a little known stain on American history as we follow the detainment of a young teen black boy put in a juvenile facility in South Florida. Although Whitehead has changed the name of the facility and fictionalizes the characters, such a place did actually exist, and its horrific policies of abusing and sometimes killing and burying the inmates was only recently discovered. Whitehead uses masterful restraint in clearly drawing his protagonist, supporting characters and painful situations, yet you are deeply invested in everyone and each scenario throughout. Coming in at just under 200 pages, it is a quick, yet hugely satisfying read.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson - Family history and the family dynamics of two merging black families are at the core of this completely enthralling novel. The two families, both living in Brooklyn, come from different social backgrounds. Woodson, known more for her works of fiction for young adults, steps into literary fiction for only the second time with Red at the Bone, and she does so with grace and unflinching grit. When 15-year-old Iris becomes pregnant, her middle class parents’ world is rocked. So too are the plans of Malcolm, her boyfriend and his single mom. How they all navigate this new territory, yet fully embrace the baby who becomes a lovely young girl, is true and beautiful. In some ways, young Malcolm is a better father than Iris a mother, but in their own way, the whole family pitches in to ensure Iris graduates and continue both families history of succeeding through college, while giving Melody the best life possible.
This is a sweet and welcome approach to a rare portrayal of a black family in contemporary literary fiction. Throughout the story and in both families separate and intertwining lives, Woodson’s prose is rich and lyrical. She paints fully drawn, intriguing characters, wonderfully and effectively alluring readers into the lives, past and present. Subtly and sometimes obviously, she dabbles the atmosphere with elements unique to black families and communities. Reading “Red at the Bone” is like wrapping yourself in a warm, smooth shawl, with characters you can relate to, love or love to hate. and at less than 200 pages, you will want to experience it more than once.
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott - Read author interview and review here - http://www.paulafarmer.com/books-blog/lara-prescott-qa
The Water Dancer by Ta Nehisi Coates - Known for his powerful and halting works in non-fiction such as, “We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates jumps into the literary fiction pool with a stunning debut. The main character, Hiram Walker, is a young slave with little memory of his mother who died when he was a child. He discovers he has some sort of magical powers after almost drowning and being saved by an unknown entity. Although he initially is unable to tap into and harness his powers, there are those who feel they can. As such, they recruit him for work with the Underground Railroad. This begins his journey to freedom and to self discovery. It is not long, when he is willing to give it all up though as he is determined to secure the same freedom for the two women he cherishes- Thena, his chosen mother, and Sophia, a tortured woman he is in love with. “The Water Dancer” is a moving and complex story of slavery, freedom, love and determination. The elements of magical realism are a welcome surprise that elevate the story and effectively perpetuate the plot without overwhelming it. From the opening pages, the reader is entranced.
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha - In 2019, two Korean siblings, Miriam and Grace Park who are both in their twenties, and like many others their age, are grappling on a social level of the shooting of a black teen by a Los Angeles police officer. Personally, they have challenges within their family as Miram is estranged from her parents for some unknown reason, and leaving Grace who is a dutiful daughter, caught in between. At the same time in a very different part of LA, Ray Matthews and his young black family have just welcomed his cousin Ray back home after his release from prison. Not long after Ray’s release, another devastating crime takes place that causes both the Park and Matthews families to converge while grappling with events from twenty years earlier. This novel is immediate, explosive and disturbing, causing readers to look at violence and all the victims in ways not previously considered. With “Your House Will Pay,” Cha displays a rare talent for a debut novelist, ensuring a long future penning unforgettable fiction such as this.
SUPPORT INDIE, SUPPORT LOCAL! All the above books can be bought at an independent, local bookstore near you. Here are a few suggestion:
Book Passage - San Francisco/Corte Madera, Ca - bookpassage.com
Books are Magic - Brooklyn, NY
Parnassus Books - Nashville, Al