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.
I know people don’t usually think in terms of non-fiction books for a good beach read, but why not? There are plenty of non-fiction books that read like a novel and/or can maintain a lightness, which is the preferred style for summer. I’ve selected a few for your consideration. Don’t think because they’re lighter, per say, that they lack in substance or likability.
HOT READS IN THE SUMMERTIME: Portable & Affordable
Although summer officially kicked off a couple weeks ago, there are still plenty of hot, long days left, with most people getting their vacation on. That will involve traveling far and way as well as lounging on local beaches for many. As such, I’ve compiled my now annual list of recommended titles for “Summer Reads,” and I’ve got something for everybody, so don’t think this is for the ladies who lunch … or rather lounge. I’ve got you covered for mixing up the genres too, including a mystery thriller and a dramedy) For the most part I’m keeping it light, regarding content and physically speaking (paperbacks rule!). That goes for both categories, fiction and non-fiction. There are a couple of exceptions as two of the novels have heavier story lines (“American Marriage” and “Washington Black”), and one is in hardback. Obviously, I thought these two were worth making an exception for, and you should too. Trust me on this.
Taking Up Space Has Never Tasted So Good
"Supper Club" is brash and delicious debut novel by Lara Williams, and an appropriate follow-up to her acclaimed short stories collection, "A Selfie as Big as the Ritz." At the center of this dark comedy is Roberta, who is somewhat awkward and shy. Like most women, she has always felt the need to not be seen or take up much space while navigating life and love, or the lack there of. She is on the threshold of thirty, friendless, and caught in between a lackluster job writing product descriptions for a fashion website and pursuing any semblance of personal and professional ambitions. The only thing more painfully boring than her current state of affairs, was her time in college ten years earlier. Enter new friend Stevie, an outgoing artist who quickly consumes Roberta’s world, igniting her to reach for more in life and to pursue her passion for food. Early on in their friendship that led to sharing a flat, Stevie spied out Roberta’s culinary skills coupled with her enjoyment in cooking. As such, Stevie encouraged Roberta to consider cooking professionally, and when one night artist friends of Stevie’s stopped by and were treated to a Roberta special dinner, they too endorsed the idea. Initially, Roberta balked at such a prospect, but soon enough, she comes around.
In bed I blinked at the dark while Stevie shuddered to sleep. I thought back on the evening. How perfect and imperfect it had been, both in equal measure. How nourishing it was to cook for people I actually liked. I thought of the mountain of washing-u[ I had to do. The removal of a Matchstick that hd been trodden into the carpet. I wanted more evenings like that. In the morning I woke up, and idea was already in my head.
“That’s what I want to do,” I told Stevie, shaking her shoulder. “What?” She asked hazily.
“I think I want to start, like, a supper club?” I said … “But kind of a wild one.”
And though I enjoyed cooking for Stevie, there was always a sense of deeply private communion to it. I liked the option to eat feverishly alone. But the thought of gathering people together and cooking for them felt plump with potential. A clan of my own that I could feed and nurture. An image of us, wild and hungry- and still expanding. The weight gain was Stevie’s idea. She wanted us to be living art projects.
Thus begins a unique collaboration of feasts and friends, a food club taking place in random and sometimes ill-gotten-access locales. Such a story deserves more than a traditional review. After getting an opportunity to meet the Manchester, England-based author while she was on a U.S. book tour, I followed up with a few questions about her quirky, funny, yet touching novel that is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a testament to female empowerment.
PF: Can you summarize the novel’s main character and what motivates her to co-create this unusual group? Please also expound on the group’s behavior during the meetings.
LW: Supper Club is split into two timelines, and we first meet Roberta at university, and then again, ten years later, when she comes up with the idea for Supper Club. I wanted to spend the first timeline exploring the different ways women are tacitly encouraged and rewarded for taking up little space, and through that, explore ideas about the female body and appetite. The idea driving the Supper Club is, what if you lean into what you want and more, what if you actively take up more space than that to which you feel entitled. I was also interested in the novel as a transgressive text, and what a transgressive novel might look like from a female perspective. Women’s bodies are so often used as the tools through which men transgress, in books such as American Psycho or A Clockwork Orange, and so part of the Supper Club is a reclamation. I would say there is a low-level dark comic voice which runs throughout the novel, and I was definitely interested in humor as a distancing strategy in parsing trauma.
PF: What drew you to create such a unique character? Or maybe she’s not so unusual. Do you see her as representing the angst of many young women of her generation?
LW: I don’t know if she necessarily represents any kind of generational angst, and that wasn’t really what I was trying to represent, so much as I was interested in the various ways women are socialised not to take up space, which I don’t think is a particularly generational thing, though is certainly still experienced.
PF: Besides being a character-driven novel, it’s also a fun food-themed story. How did you approach combining the characters, issues and food aspects?
LW: I wanted to include not exactly recipes, but sort of embodied or methodical experiences of following a recipe throughout the novel, or slightly protracted meditations on different types of food and what they might represent. Part of that was my interest in what it meant for me as an author to take up space on the page, and part of that is very much representative of Roberta and her state of mind at a given point.
PF: I hear you’re vegetarian. Was that a particular challenge for you to incorporate meat, etc. into the dinners?
LW: Yes, I have been vegetarian for over ten years, and it is something I feel strongly about, however, I also felt strongly the women of Supper Club needed to be eating meat. I am a big fan of the writer Carol J Adams and her work on gender and meat eating, it is quite a masculinity reinforcing practice. And thinking about the Supper Club as a transgressive text, meat eating felt important in that.
PF: From inception to completion, how long did this project take you? What was your writing routine?
LW: It probably took a few years, all in all, and had a few different iterations. I didn’t have a hugely strict writing routine, and I went from working full-time in marketing to being a freelance writer while writing it. And so to begin with I was writing on weekends and after work. But after going freelance I wrote a lot of it in Manchester Central Library’s reading room, which I actually sort of hated writing in as it’s deathly silent and any tiny movement reverberates around the room. It was really a space in which your movements are very contained, and you can take up very little space.
PF: D id you have any eating habits or favorite snacks and meals while working on Supper Club?
LW: I don’t really eat or snack when I’m writing. Maybe the occasional doughnut.
PF: Who are some writers that inspire you?
LW: A lot of writers I consider “influences” are probably writers who mainly write short fiction, writers such as Mary Gaitskill, ZZ Packer, Bobbie Anne Mason, Lorrie Moore.
PF: What are some of your favorite books?
LW: Some books that I have been thinking about and returning to a lot recently are The Answers by Catherine Lacey, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, and Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto.
PF: What’s on your nightstand?
LW: I’m currently reading The End Of The Story by Lydia Davis.
PF: What’s next for you- another novel, short story collection?
LW: I’m currently working on a new novel, and it’s a work of speculative fiction, which is not something I have written before.
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"Supper Club" is released on July 2nd. Buy it from an independent bookstore near you!
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From "The Beautiful No" to Oprah & the Beautiful Now
If you were an Oprah Winfrey Show viewer, or even if you were like me, only occasionally tuning in, you probably remember her long-time producer, Sheri Salata, who Oprah often referred to and gave credit to. Sheri was a fixture on camera for the behind-the-scenes footage during the countdown to the show’s conclusion. It was obvious she was an Oprah confidant and a producing guru, lovingly steering the #1 talk show in America. Many probably had the thought at one time or another, “How did she land that dream gig, and what was it like moving on from it?” Sheri answers those questions and many more in her recently released memoir, THE BEAUTIFUL NO AND OTHER TALES OF TRIAL, TRANSCENDENCE, AND TRANSFORMATION. It wasn’t easy getting that dream job that she ended up devoting her life to. She also didn’t start at the top there, working hard at several positions within Harpo Productions, and after 20 years, it was a major transformation to walk away and re-set her life on several levels. She recounts that pivotal time in her book while encouraging others to take stock of the past, present and most importantly, the future.
I’ve had a dream-come-true career but not a dream-come-true life. Will that be my whole story? What will be yours? Being someone’s faithful wife, someone’s excellent mother, or being someone’s devoted employee does not a a full life make. It’s not the whole dream. As I lift my eyes to the big, beautiful, expansive second half of life the is yet to be formed, I summon up the courage to take a good look at what I have created so far. It is time for a reckoning.
Most of the book does not focus on Sheri’s dream job and larger-than-life boss. The focus is on transitions and finding her footing post- all-consuming job while in the middle of her life. It’s some of what the many fans of her podcast hear regularly, and then some. I had the pleasure of recently meeting Sheri and the honor of moderating a book talk with her. Below is part of what we covered throughout the fan-filled (hers, not mine- ha) event.
PF: You mention that in looking back on your life, you realize you were born to be a producer. How so?
SS: Well, what it looked like to others was that I was very bossy and I had to be in control of every detail of everything, so my cast members of all of my early “productions” were my cousins. Once I got my first big break as an adult, it was in advertising as a secretary by my best friends fiancee. I wasn’t a very good secretary, but he taught me everything. And then I knew I was in the vicinity of what I thought I was supposed to be doing. It felt great and creative, and aligned with my talents. It felt like making something.
PF: You took advice early on from a friend who told you, once you got your foot in the door at the Oprah Show, to keep your head down, do the work and you’ll be noticed. You don’t have to push yourself on someone, but rather your hard work and talent will have people taking notice.
SS: Well, when I started at my entry level role as a promo producer at the Oprah Show, 35-years-old, I’d had a string of not so great years. In fact, the day before I started I was totally broke and didn’t think I’d be able to pay my rent, and when I walked through those doors, I had enough experience, working other places to know that oh. My. God! This is amazing. Look at this coffee bar, and everything is free. There was a TV in my office that I was required to watch and look over as Oprah talked to people like Depak Chopra … and that was my job! I knew I won the Powerball, while the 21-year-olds were whining. I was there 15 years in different roles before being offered Executive Producer.
PF: But was it there or then that you noticed the power of stories, personally and professionally, that you reference in the book?
SS: True, but that came late. I didn’t necessarily have that wisdom then. It only was in the middle of life that I finally, really see how important the stories we tell ourselves. Why that makes all the difference. That voice that we have in our heads that repeats, and if you take a moment and listen to that voice, it is very shocking and sobering to hear how you talk to yourself, how you may have talked to yourself for many years. Most of my revelations have come at the end of that magical experience at Oprah.
I worked for Oprah for almost 21 years. I was in the promo department a really long time, and then they pulled me out from there. I really did take the advice of my former boss. I just put my head down, you give me a job, I’ll do it. Even more than that, because I was older, I had disappointments, I had felt like a failure so many times, that I knew what it was. I knew I was in the midst of something special. This was going to be more like a mission than a job. My favorite experience of the whole thing was that I was paid to build a spiritual life and exposed to new ideas. I needed to use story to make sense of these experiences, and the biggest one of all was you need to fire that voice in your head. You have achieved in spite of that. The second half of your life is going to very much depend on bringing in a new voice, and the number one quality of that new voice is tenderness and compassionate.
PF: How did that realization help you through that fateful transition from being married to a job you love, supporting your boss and your staff, to it all coming to a halt?
SS: I had this epiphany that I had manifested the career of my dreams, but not the life of my dreams. I sat with that and hunkered down with my best friend who was going through a similar situation but for different reasons. What we said to each other was that we believe it’s never too late to live the life of your dreams, but if not now when? If not now, maybe never. All of a sudden life looks very different. I call it the RECKONING, and you can either appreciate what you’ve accomplished and just coast, or you can look forward to or embrace the new paths.
PF: Where does the title come from? What is the beautiful no?
SS: I knew I wanted a job at the Oprah Show, but in trying to get there I thought I needed to land one last major job, no more of this freelance stuff. I thought if I could just get a big job at a big agency, making lots of money on huge brands, that’s going to be great. As such, I got an interview, felt I nailed it and celebrated way too early, last ten dollars is in the bank, I’m broke again cause I’ve been freelancing, so I’m waiting for my start date with the ad agency and it never comes. I get the fateful letter from HR saying I didn’t get the job. I go through the usual depression routine of hair in ponytail, sitting in front of TV eating potato chips, then a few days later I get a message from the Oprah Winfrey Show. After dusting off an old resume I had submitted years ago, they asked me to come in as a freelancer. Fast forward years later, I had a revelation of what would have happened if I had gotten that ad job I interviewed for. I never would have quit it- give up a full time, big pay ad job to freelance at Oprah?! I wouldn’t have done it cause I thought I needed security in my life at that time. I realized then, that was the best no I had ever gotten in my life.
PF: A true life lesson for anyone at any age, that there can be life after no, after rejections.
SS: Or maybe this. I’ll take it one step further. All no’s are beautiful! The real trick, the master here, in that moment even if you can’t see it yet, just say, “Okay, it’s going to be exciting to see how beautiful this is.”
PF: Through your podcast, do you and your friend and podcast co-host Nancy, have now regular events helping people navigate the middle of life like the one mentioned by an audience member?
SS: No, we’ve only done one so far. We wanted to help people, like us figure out how to up our game in the middle of life. It’s the only question we want to have.
For more about Sheri’s unique journey, life after Oprah and the exciting things going on with her now, buy her book from an independent bookstore, check out her website (thepillarlife.com), and listen to her podcast, The Nancy & Sheri Show.
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"The Beautiful No" is available at an independent bookstore near you or on their website.
Access the suggested link here: BOOK PASSAGE