On the surface, the protagonist of Alexandra Chang’s debut novel should be enthusiastic about her life and hopeful regarding her personal and professional future. She is a young millennial who is a smart, talented freelance tech journalist working for an online publication in San Francisco. Instead, she is dissatisfied with her job of which she continuously gets overlooked for raises and promotions contrary to her male counterparts. She is painfully aware that she is one of the few women in the industry overall and specifically at her job, a situation that brings its own brand of challenges and discomforts. Furthermore, as an Asian-American, she is one of only a a handful of minorities in the office.
After her latest attempt to secure full time status, and/or a raise, falls short of her expectations, she decides to quit and move with her grad student boyfriend, J, across the country to Upstate New York. There, she has a whole new set of challenges and adjustments. Not least of which is the constant inner questioning of being part of an interracial relationship, and the core of her identity as an Asian in a racist society. Throughout, she communicates with her mom of whom she is close, and runs away for a bit to visit her estranged father in China. The familia aspects of her story lend a soothing grace and humanity to an otherwise very angst-ridden character.
While “Days of Distraction” will have its strongest appeal with millennials, and the second half of the book is more engaging than the first half, there is an undeniable wit and bite to Chang’s style. It’s as quirky and self aware as it is self assured. Her observations of racial micro aggressions are refreshingly thoughtful, though provoking and not often seen in literary fiction
At the crowded coffee shop, a white woman who looks to be in her mid thirties asks if I mind sharing a table. I nod. … She is an extrovert, clearly, which brings it out in me. … When I mention what I’m doing, she lets out a yelp of recognition, as though we are two friends bumping into each other at a party of strangers. She’s a professor in the journalism department at the liberal arts college in town. … She says she’s found meaning in teaching. She asks if I have any interest in teaching. …
The the woman leans in toward mea and asks, “How do you like Ithica?” I want to be positive, so I say that overall it has been pretty nice. She leans further in, and looks like she’s about to tell me a secret. “How do you feel about the lack of Asians in town, though? The last time I visited California, I noticed there were so many Asians everywhere. I was like, wow! It was almost felt like traveling to a different country.” A significant shaking and bumping take place inside my brain and body. I can’t say I’m having thoughts, exactly, only reactions and feelings. Disgust. The sense of having been tricked. Distrust. A strong desire to escape.
In these days while we’re looking for some distraction, “Days of Distraction” is an entertaining option, with a message about race, family and identity.
You can get this book online at a local, independent bookstore - Buy Indie, Support Local! Below are a couple of retail suggestions:
Litarati Books (Ann Arbor, MI) - https://www.literatibookstore.com/
Books Are Magic (Brooklyn, NY) - https://www.booksaremagic.net/
On the surface, Ann Napolitano’s third recently released novel, “Dear Edward,” about a 12-year-old boy’s life after losing his entire family in a plane crash of which he was the sole survivor, could seem to be intense and depressing. Surprisingly and wonderfully it is anything but. The story is not about disaster and death, but rather about lives prior to death, and restoring hope and rebuilding a life in the face of insurmountable loss. Writing this is not a spoiler. The crash takes place at the onset of the novel and is referenced to on the book’s jacket. It isn’t a twist mid-way or story’s conclusion. It is the catalyst for a graceful and heartfelt story, with an endearing and memorable character. One morning, Edward, his brother and parents and 183 other passengers board a plane from New York to California. Before safely landing in LAX for their new life there, their plane crashes just outside of Denver, claiming the lives of everyone except young Edward. His survival story mystifies the nation as well as it does him.
While he and his aunt and uncle try to keep him out of the public eye, he tries navigate and justify his life without his family. The novel primarily focuses on Edward’s now seemingly simple suburban life in New Jersey with his “new family,” it reveals the complexity of grief and the role that a community, no matter how big or small, can help put the pieces together. Napolitano also gingerly weaves in the stories of some of the individual passengers through flashback chapters. With it, we see that there weren’t just victims onboard, but humans with lives leading up to that fateful excursion. The book covers six years, post-crash, straddling between Edward’s story - his internalized struggles, his relationships, his eventual contact with family members of the crash victims, his growth - and the passengers in lead up to the eventual disaster. The result is a richly layered story that is as sweetly sorrowful as it is hopeful and delightful.
"Dear Edward" was January 2020 selection for the prestigious Book Passage (Corte Madera, CA) First Edition Club (FEC), which includes over 300 members. I recently had the opportunity give the author introduction at the related FEC book event in honor of Ms. Napolitano and “Dear Edward.” Just prior to the event, I sat down with her to discuss her literary achievement.
PF: Although “Dear Edward” is a work of fiction, it was inspired by a similar true story. Can you explain more about this inspiration?
AN: I became obsessed with a story that was in the news in 2010. There was a flight that was from South Africa bound for London and it crashed in Lybia. It was a full commercial flight made up mostly of Dutch citizens. There was only one survivor of the crash, a nine-year-old Dutch boy. Everyone, including his brother and parents had died instantly. I couldn’t read enough about it and him and had a hard time imagining how he could go forward and live. In setting out to write the novel, it was a matter of creating a set of circumstances in which that little boy could be okay in world that was kind enough to allow that rebuilding to happen.
PF: Beyond that particular real life tragedy, what sort of research did you do for the novel?
AN: I am a nervous flyer and I never thought I’d ever write about a plane crash. It’s really because I became obsessed with this story, and felt like it was one I had to tell. I didn’t know anything so I spoke to a career pilot and read numerous National Transportation Safety Board reports and black box recordings. I wanted to make sure that aspect of the novel was not sensationalized, but accurate and true. For Edward’s healing in the hospital, I did research recovery from that kind of trauma.
PF: Despite your attraction to the story and character, was there any hesitancy to broach a subject that included a plane crash? Was there a concern that readers might make assumptions and judgements before event reading?
AN: No, because I always assume no one is going to read what I write any way, it’s not going to sell. Given that, I could just write the story I wanted to tell, without thinking about the endgame or reader’s reactions. I wouldn’t want to read a book about a plane crash, so it had to not be about a plane crash in order for me to live in that world for eight years. Because everybody goes through challenging situations or sadness that feels impossible to overcome, so in that the themes are universal.
PN: What was the eight year writing journey for you like?
AN: I was immersed in it the whole time and it actually was the most joyful writing experience of my life even though I was in a place of trauma and sadness. I believe it’s because the people who step forward for Edward were so kind. That created a world of best intentions. Plus, writing is something I have to do any way. If I don’t write I get depressed. It’s sort of a mental health practice for me, so a long time ago I learned how to detach the results from the process. Those eight years with this book, I was doing what I have to do any way.
PN: What’s on your nightstand, what are you reading?
AN: Recent books I love include Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here,” and “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett.
PN: Who are the writers that influenced you, past or present?
AN: When I was younger it was Henry James and Raymond Carver’s short stories, and “The Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison.
PN: Do you ever re-read books? If so, who do you go back to?
AN: I don’t do a lot of re-reading, but recently I re-read “Crossing Safety” by Wallace Stegner, which is an amazing love story. I’ve read “Jane Eyer” many times, but that’s an exception.
“Dear Edward” is published by The Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Napolitano’s other novels are “A Good Hard Look” and “Within Arms Reach.” She is also the associate editor of “One Story” literary magazine. She received an MFA from New York University and has taught fiction writing at Brooklyn College. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.
This is one of the most unique novels you’ll ever read! It’s sparse, yet very rich and layered. Not just in its story and themes, but stylistically. A young nameless 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. The catalyst for the family vacation is more than just traditional rest and relaxation or fun and amusement. In addition to the fact that the father is collecting information and sound for a work project- he’s an audio documentarian- he and his wife are seriously considering this as their last time together as a couple, with their kids. Although they spend days on end in close quarters in the car, in hotel rooms and in the bed, they are in their separate worlds. When not lovingly tending to their children, they are in detached, finding solace in their own thoughts, work and concerns. This is especially true for the wife who is consumed with and personally touched by the immigration crisis unfolding at the Southwestern border. It is the ever present backdrop as news reports leap from news radio reports and seep into her consciousness and the boy and girl’s curiosity.
In their car, they play games and sing along to music, but on the radio, there is news about an "immigration crisis": thousands of kids trying to cross the southwestern border into the United States, but getting detained--or lost in the desert along the way
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. It is presented from several perspectives and voices, which would be a challenge to successfully pull off by most, but lands perfectly for Luiselli. While there are so many laudable aspects to this novel, one undeniable stand-out is that this is a book that you not only read, but you hear, see and feel. So much of it is about sounds, observations and empathy. It resonates with emotions although keeping the reader at a curious distance. While 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. This is a wholly unique novel to not just be read, but experienced.
Contrary to what Barnes and Nobel would have you believe, there is plenty of great literature by and about Black people (fiction and non-fiction; contemporary and older). There is no need to put “black face” on white classics. We Got This! Whether you are considering a big binge of numerous titles or just a sampling of several in honor of the month, or sprinkling out the diverse reads throughout the year, below are suggestions that will keep you busy, enthralled and wiser.
In alphabetical order by title:
The Bluest Eye (fiction) by Toni Morrison - The literary legend’s first novel, published in 1970 still holds up as one the greatest works of fiction. Giving us a window into, among other issues and characters Pecola, a 12-year-old girl who has dark complexion. Because of her complexion and features, she feels unattractive and unlovable, leading her to strongly desire being able to change her eye color to blue, like her white female counterparts. In addition to being a disturbing examination of obsessions over beauty and conformity, Morrison delves deep into the state of impoverished black community in the mid west. As in all her novels, she does not flinch from the harsh realities of and questions surrounding race, class and gender.
If you’ve read this before but it’s been a long time, it is so worth re-reading. If you’ve never read “The Bluest Eye,” you must!
Girl, Woman, Other ( fiction) by Bernardine Evaristo - This recent Booker Prize winner (Britain’s version of Pulitzer) is a unique read about several creative women expounding on the Black British experience. Coming from different perspectives and many voices, “Girl, Woman, Other” is a celebration of diversity.
Nickel Boys ( fiction) 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.
The Revisioners ( fiction) by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton - As follow- up to her highly acclaimed debut novel, “A Kind of Freedom,” this is a graceful and enthralling testament to the importance of family history and its influence in the to current generations. In the early part of the 20th century, Josephine, who knew of slavery as a child, is the proud owner of a farm in the South. Given the era and her location, this was no small feat. Throughout the process of developing her business and establishing her roots and credibility, she was met with resistance at every turn. Along the way and for better or worse, she reluctantly developed a relationship with her white female neighbor. A century later, Ava, a descendant of Josephine finds herself as a single mom without a job. As such, she seeks the shelter with her white grandmother, and issues ensue. “The Revisioners” successfully and very satisfactorily dives into the volatile relationships of women and family. It is a an absolute page-turner you’ll find hard to put down and hard pressed not to pass along to a friend. Not only do I recommend reading it for yourself, but I guarantee you'll be the hit of your book club if you throw this in the rotation.
The Water Dancer ( fiction) 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.
In 2019, two Korean siblings, Miriam and Grace Park who are both in their twenties, and like many others their age, they are grappling on a social level of the shooting of a black teen by a Los Angeles police officer. This is not new for Miriam, who is a bit of a vocal activist and challenges her sister to sympathize with victims, be a voice for the voiceless. Personally, they have challenges within their family as Miram is estranged from her parents for some unknown reason, leaving Grace who is a dutiful daughter, caught in between. At the same time in a very different part of LA, Shawn Matthews has just welcomed his cousin Ray back home to his young family 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 more than twenty years earlier when Shawn’s sister, Ava, had been shot and killed while shopping in a convenience store not far from their home. Shawn was in the store with his older sister at the time of the shooting, so not only did he lose his sibling of whom he was close, but he witnessed the volatile and controversial exchange between her and the store owner, and her horrific death.
Decades later the moment and the loss still haunts him, maybe even more so since he has a wife and toddler daughter. He also looked after his Ray’s wife and young teen children while Ray was imprisoned, giving him an impenetrable bond to the extended family. For many reasons the current crime that connects the Parks and Matthews families will rock their world, past and present. The reader is taken smoothly back forth to both crimes and time periods, easily connecting to each character and situation. Every motive, victim, perpetrator, situation is explained and experienced through third person perspective.
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,” novelist Step Cha deftly takes elements of an actual dark, violent moment in LA’s history and weaves into fictionalized narrative that is pivotal and without bias. Once you begin the story, you can’t put it down or look away. It is a compelling look at the history of violence in a family and throughout a community. It also shows that there is nothing black and white about such crimes and their victims, and there are no easy solutions. There is a particularly striking section toward the novel’s end when divergent communities grapple with the aftermath of violence and crime, and demand justice. There is an undeniable fervor building between the clashing groups when two of the younger members of the Matthews and Park household spy out an opportunity for a personal exchange hidden in plain sight from the crowd. Shawn had observed the exchange of the two, with the backdrop of electric atmosphere that exploded.
He remembered those six days of violence, fire and havoc wherever he looked, stumbling bodies and stunned, bleeding faces. He watched his city go up in flames, and under the sadness and rage, exhilaration of rampage, he recognized the sparkle of hope. Rebirth- that was the promise of destruction. The olive branch, the rainbow, the good men spared to rebuild the earth. But where was the new city? And who were the good men? Los Angeles, this ws supposed to be it. The end of the frontier, land of sunshine, promised land. Last stop for the immigrant, the refugee, the fugitive, the pioneer. It was Shawn’s home, where his mother and sister had lived and died. But he had left, and so had most of the people he knew. Chased out, priced out, native children living in exile. And he saw the fear and rancor here, in the ones who’d stayed. This city of good feeling, of tolerance and progress and loving thy neighbor, was also a city that shunned and starved and killed its own.
This type of powerful, searing prose is laced throughout the novel. Cha displays a rare and wonderful talent for a young, emerging writer, and “Your House” is an impressive and welcome transition from her usual noir fiction to literary fiction. Whatever genre she works in, it’s worth experiencing.
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
True Events of Unlikely Female Spies & Doctor Zhivago Inspire a Debut Novelist
They say inspiration can come from the most unlikeliest of places. For Lara Prescott, debut novelist of the recently released book, “The Secrets We Kept,” it was a room full of post-World War II typists working at the CIA in Washington DC. Gossipy, repressed, often bored, but always curious, these women, referred to as “the girls” by their male superiors, longed to make their dull responsibilities as challenging and exciting as their families assumed they were. Unbeknownst to the rest of the pool, two of the women managed to do just that. And thus began a writer's journey that would lead several intriguing story lines, based on actual historical situations, and memorable characters that cross over continents and alliances.
Throughout the novel, readers are taken from the typing pool at the CIA, to Boris Pasternak in the Soviet Union as he eagerly and painstakingly crafts the his now famous book, “Dr. Zhivago. While he takes it over the literary finish line, he, with the help of his mistress, they try to keep it out of the hands of Russian officials who hardly want it to see the light of day in Russia, let alone get translated and garner the international acclaim it eventually did. It isn’t long before the banned masterpiece is coveted by the CIA, determining its value far beyond entertainment. It was believed to be a love story with important political messages between the lines, and the CIA, with the help of two female agents, would go to great lengths to acquire it and launch its worldwide release. “The Secrets We Kept” uniquely and successfully ushers in a world of drama, love, international espionage, with a hint of bad-ass female power.
The men would arrive around ten. One by one, they’d pull us into their offices. We’d sit in small chairs pushed into the corners while they’d sit behind their large mahogany desks while speaking into the ceiling. We’d listen. We’d record … Sometimes they’d refer to us not by name but by hair color or body type: Blondie,, Red, Tits. We’d had our secret names for them, too: Grabber, Coffee Breath Teeth. They would call us girls, but we were not. We came to the Agency by way of Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith. We were the first daughters of our families to earn degrees. Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some could fly planes. Some of us could handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But all we were asked when interviewed was “Can you type?”
Several months ago, I had the opportunity to meet Texas-based writer, Lara Prescott while she was in the Bay Area promoting the novel. I just recently followed- up the initial connection with a phone interview on the heels of books release this month. Here is part of our conversation -
PF: The story crosses genres, including historical fiction, suspense and literary fiction. Did you plan that or did it happen organically as the story evolved in the writing process?
LP: Towards the end of the first draft I could see there were all these different pieces coming together and different genres. At first it wasn’t super intentional but once I could see the different influences from my own reading coming on display with what I was writing.
PF: You obviously formulated great use and presentation of strong female characters, despite the suppressive era of which they lived. How did you approach those character developments, especially of the two leads, Irana and Sally?
LP: The first voice that came to me was the typists. I had been thinking about writing this story about the hidden story behind Dr. Zhivago , but I was pretty intimidated. As I was researching and going through a lot of redacted memos, I came across this voice of the typists. I kept thinking about the typists behind the memos. That sent me down a rabbit hole of researching the CIA, typing pools and the clerks. At first I saw them as a group, but then Sally and Irina emerged from that. Once I was writing their stories, I began research on Boris Pasternak and how his wife and mistress, no matter what, stood by his side. I knew if I only told the Wester/ CIA side of the story, it wouldn’t be complete. Pretty soon it was anchored by the strong female voices, but I wasn’t limited by it. In both stories- in the East and West- I was very interested in the women behind the men.
PF: Throughout the story, the reader is taken back and forth between story lines, between the characters of the CIA in the West, and those in Pasternak’s life. Did you write it that way, going back and forth?
LP: I wouldn’t say it was written as it appears now. Once I got the key players, I would write through their story lines and spend multiple months with each one. When I was in my Olga phase, I would stay there awhile, but then I would go to Sally, etc.
PF: You obviously spent much time devouring Dr. Zhivago, the book and the movie. Were you a fan before setting out on this project?
LP: Absolutely. I was raised with it because it was my mom’s favorite book, and for both my parents, it was one of their favorite movies (the David Lean version). I grew up watching the movie and then read the book in my teens. As a teenager I became obsessed with all the great Russian novelists. It’s changed the way I’ve read and perceived it over the years, but I definitely have a true love for the novel. I didn’t hear about the CIA connection until 2014 when Washington Post journalist, Peter Finn, did a FOIA request for these documents to be released by CIA. As a result, he wrote a non-fiction book call “The Zhivago Affair.” I read that and it inspired my process.
PF: Did you read and/or watch Dr. Zhivago during your writing process or did you feel that would distract?
LP: I read the novel while writing my book about three times just because with Boris, a lot of Uri Zhivago is kind of his counter. That help me to know how he viewed him. Plus, I wanted to figure out which parts of the book would have been state censored. As far as the movie while writing, I watched it twice. Once was while visiting family during the Christmas- that’s a beautiful and appropriate time of year to watch it. And then I watched it again when an old theater in Austin was showing it. That viewing was with a group of friends and after I sold the book to Knopf. That made for a particularly special experience.
PF: Is it true there was travel involved for your research process? You made connections abroad related to the book.
LP: The first place I went to was Russia. That was while writing the first draft. I went to Russia and outside of Russia where the writers’ colony took place and where Boris lived. It was absolutely inspiring to go to his house, to walk around the village where he lived, and to see his burial site in a local cemetery. I don’t speak Russian, so it was hard to navigate, but just to be in that atmosphere was effective.
I did also go to London. Oxford is where Boris’ family settled after leaving the Soviet Union- his father, mother and two sisters. Boris’ great niece still lives in the family house, Ann Pasternak. I got to meet her. As you can imagine, that was a special experience. Different parts of the family have varying views of Olga and elements of the Pasternak legacy.
PF: I noticed your name is spelled L-A-R-A, as opposed to more traditional American way of the spelling. Is that at all related to the story?
LP: Yes, I was named after Lara in the story. It’s funny, I always resented the way my name was spelled cause people were always mispronouncing it. Now it actually was a source of inspiration to investigate the story, ultimately write the novel, so I see it as a gift.
Currently, Lara is in the throes of an extensive book tour, but is still contemplating her next project. She told me she’s considering two ideas with one being a historical novel taking place in her hometown of Austin, while the other one is more contemporary. That being said, she is allowing herself space to enjoy the success of what’s going on now, and eventually maybe some downtime, but soon enough, she’ll decide on her next novel and focus on that.
The Writer’s Nightstand - Writers are readers, with either new reads their devouring, or books they love revisit. I asked Lara what’s on her nightstand?
LP: I recently finished “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips, and I’m reading “How We Fight for Our Lives,” a memoir by Saeed Jones. As far as the favorite I go back to is “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones. That book is a masterpiece. I also read his short story collection frequently. As far as what I’m looking forward to, that would be Ann Patchett’s new book, “The Dutch House.”
“The Secrets We Kept” has been translated into 28 languages and will be adapted for film by The Ink Factory and Marc Platt Productions. It is published by Knopf and available for purchase. It’s destined to be a favorite among booksellers and make the “Best Of” many literary lists for 2019. Please be encouraged to purchase it from your local independent bookstore in person or online. Below are a few indie store selections and their links.
Book Passage - San Francisco and Corte Madera, CA - https://www.bookpassage.com/
The Strand - New York City - https://www.strandbooks.com/
Books are Magic - Brooklyn, NY - https://www.booksaremagic.net/
Mahogany Books - Washington D.C. - https://www.mahoganybooks.com/
A Real House of Racist Horrors Make For Great Fiction
From the atrocities of slavery to the horrific realities of the Jim Crow South, award-winning author Colson Whitehead delivers a literary one-two powerful punch with his latest novel as follow-up to masterful book, "The Underground Railroad." This 2019 release is very different in style, structure and elements, but equally impressive book from a more contemporary era. “The Nickel Boys” takes place in Florida during the Jim Crow era. In it, he does a fictionalized version of the life of two boys in a reform school that is more about imprisonment and racism than actual reform or education. Although the name of the school has been changed, it did exist. And the real life recently revealed atrocities and murders took place there, served as inspiration for the novel. The main character, Elwood, who, after abandoned by his parents, spends most of his childhood with his grandmother in a predominantly black community of Tallahassee, Florida. Throughout his youth he is kind, quiet and obedient. He is also smart, which does not go unnoticed by one of his teachers, and his boss, the owner of a small tobacco shop. They, along with his grandmother, are thrilled that he gets an opportunity to accept a scholarship to attend a nearby black college a year or two ahead of the traditional timeline. In the months leading up to his departure, he follows the progress of the Civil Rights movement and its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is in awe of his teachings and social impact, and he is excited to be closer to “the action” when at college.
It is en route to the school that Elwood, and the readers, are reminded that life is not fair, especially for a young black man in the Jim Crow South. While hitching a ride to the college, he and the driver are stopped by police because they were black while driving a nice car. Despite Elwood's age and obvious innocence, they both end up arrested for car theft. Elwood was sentenced to several years in Nickel Academy- far from college and his dreams of academia, and even further from his grandmother, the only family he had. The harsh environment of Nickel Academy initially proves especially challenging for a sweet soul like Elwood. When he tries to do the “right thing” and help someone else, he is beaten and stored in solitary confinement. Upon release and after being befriended by classmate, Turner, he learns, for a period at least, to keep his head down and play by the rules. All the while, his hope for freedom and a better life, is through retrieving the teachings of Dr. King that he committed to memory, and obtaining freedom for his fellow inmates. As such, Elwood yearns to have the reform school exposed for what it really is.
King described “agape” as a divine love operating in the heart of man. A selfless love, an incandescent love, the highest there is. He called upon his Negro audience to cultivate that pure love for their oppressors, that it might carry them to the other side oft the struggle. Elwood tries to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now. The capacity to suffer. Elwood- all the Nickel boys- existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured.
Throughout the novel, which is a surprisingly brief 200 plus pages, Whitehead commands an assured voice. He has fully drawn characters whose psyche and circumstances you sympathize with, empathize for, and champion on. What is not expected, is a wonderful and welcome restraint of which Whitehead craftily incorporates throughout. He could have overwhelmed the reader with intensity and details- rightfully so, understandably so given the subject matter- and still have been appreciated and applauded. Instead, to his credit, Whitehead takes you right to the edge, without pushing you over. His prose and descriptions are nuanced, brief, yet impactful nonetheless. It is the combination of a writer operating at the top of his skills, along with a horrific history and rich fictionalized characters that make "The Nickel Boys" an inspired, essential read.