MIGRATIONS by Charlotte McConaghy
Taking place in the not so distant future when animals, fish and birds are all nearly gone, “Migrations” by Australian writer Charlotte McConaghy, is quiet, stark, haunting and true as it follows the journey of Franny Stone across oceans and continents. She is running from her demons and her past as she convinces the captain of a private shipping boat and his crew to follow the migration patterns of a near extinct bird that she is tracking. This against the backdrop of a fast-changing landscape and the strictly enforced new laws and environmental activists guarding it all.
Franny, a perpetual wanderer, has even seemingly left her husband, Niall, at the cost of this new adventure. However things were between them before her departure, he is constantly on her mind and she writes to him often. Through each letter, the reader gains insight into their relationship and his influence on her. With each port stop and avoided catastrophe at sea, there is an illumination into the fisherman and women on what is now Franny’s excursion.
Soon, the reader is swept up in learning about Franny's life through flashbacks, and each of her shipmates. With such interesting, fully-drawn characters, coupled with the backdrop of a depleted earth and environmental catastrophes, you will be completely absorbed. There is something quietly appealing about “Migrationsa.” The earth Franny inhabits is somewhat still and contemplative, making it a tender and beguiling read that will haunt you well beyond the final chapter.
Publishing Release Date: August 4, 2020
TRUE STORY by Kate Reed Petty
This is a trippy, page-turning thriller with a feminist theme that lives up to its buzz. I don’t care if that’s too many adjectives or descriptors because that’s what comes to mind while reading the book and in its completion. Navigating between time periods of 1999 and 2015, the reader comes to know the the characters, first as teen agers, through young adulthood. While still in high school when a group of soccer stars recount a story of alleged rape they committed against a classmate, the story takes on various shapes and forms throughout the school year through over the next decade among the possible perpetrators and the young woman allegedly victimized.
Alice Lovette who was wasted at the time of the said crime, has never really known what happened to her. Is it the actual crime or the not knowing that has informed her reclusive life all these years? As a ghost writer she tells other people’s stories, but her former classmate and friend, who is a documentary filmmaker, insists she tell her story regarding that fateful night. Author Kate Reed Petty drives the plot through different points of view, varied location and formats, including as a screenplay in some chapters. The result is not really knowing what is true, what is a lie, who’s right and who’s wrong. An unreliable narrator has never been so frustrating, yet delectable.
Publishing Release Date: August 4, 2020
STAKES IS HIGH by Mychal Denzel Smith
In a post-Trump era and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Mychal Denzel Smith succinctly and brilliantly weighs in on the ideals of what it is to be American, more specifically, Black in America. From the delusion of patriotism and equality, to the need of accountability by the likes of Bret Kavanaugh, Harvey Weinstein, and everybody’s favorite funny father, Bill Cosby, he is sounding an alarm.
For white viewers, there was absolution. You thought he was funny, maybe you even found her attractive, and the children relatable, so here was proof, definitively, that you had room for acceptance of black people after all. It had nothing to do with race- they rarely even mentioned it, so you never thought about it. For thirty minutes, a colorblind reality, wherein white people had no responsibility for black success or failure, was possible … So much so that it seemed impossible to imagine Bill committing heinous acts of violence on so many women, across so many years.
This isn’t the first time Smith has taken on iconic real-life social characters. In his nonfiction debut, “Invisible Man Got the Whole World Watching,” he examines his world as a young black man navigating life in the era of President Obama juxtaposed against the murder of Trayvon Martin. A superb and accessible social commentary, especially for millennials and Gen Zs. “Stakes is High” is immediate and relevant, solidifying Smith as a necessary voice of a generation.
Publishing Release Date: Sep. 2020
This sweet yet startling memoir starts with a deeply buried family secret. As such, the reader is immediately drawn in, and just as the real life family drama unfolds, so too does this compelling narrative. “The Cost of Our Lives” is told from the perspective of Linda González, who was sixteen at the time she and her two younger siblings met her half brother. This was no normal introduction because prior to that, they not only had ever met him, but they had never known of his existence. Along with the newly realized half brother, Miguel, came the discovery that while she and her siblings were born and raised in Southern California, her father had a whole other family in Mexico.
'When the door opens, so will the first of many secrets that crack our familia apart over the years, giving way to the liquid mantle layer underneath tectonic plates. Everything moves below the quiet crust until the plates crash into and rub against each other. These often silent and jarring interactions do serious damage over time. Two voices insinuate themselves into my head. One is my father’s- curt and low. The other is expansive and rapid-fire; it must be Miguel’s.'
“The Cost of Our Lives” is a complex and tender story of family, secrets and how such things carry over into adult life. It all inevitably contributed to González’s, personal life journey as a sister, daughter, and single mother. Beyond that we see this real life protagonist taking on challenges in other aspects of life- as a talented LatinX woman learning to tap into her creativity and profession.
González and I caught up recently to talk about her journey as an author and other projects, but with particular focus on her unique experience of writing a memoir that was thirteen years in the making. Below is our discussion:
PF: What inspired you to write a memoir, especially involving deep family secrets and issues? Was it a cathartic project for you to dive into, or more emotionally challenging because of the delicate family matters?
LG: I had been writing multiple non-fiction stories, particularly about my mother, because she was ill and it was a way for me to help process the impending challenges. I went to a weekend workshop where the teacher had encouraged me to think about the story that really bothered me. In that moment I thought of the story of my father having two families. That was the beginning of it and I was determined to follow that thread and see where it leads me, and thirteen years later it led to the completed book.
I didn’t think of it as being cathartic, but rather as something writers can relate to, which is this need for the truth. Somebody called it “escarbando,” meaning digging underneath. There’s always been a part of me that loved telling stories and pushing for the truth, and that is what kept me connected to this particular story. It was a healing discovery.
PF: Were you concerned about the reaction of your family to it, specifically your siblings? Did you feel you needed to let them know what you were working on and get their approval?
LG: I had enough good teachers that told me that you really cannot think about your family as you write the book or you will end up having them editing the book along the writing process. Once you do that, it is not your story, so early on I knew I had to write it the way I wanted to write it. I did end up interviewing many family members for it because I wanted to honor their voices. More than that, the truth about family lives in each of us and that was part of what I wanted to ensure got conveyed.
PF: Am I correct in assuming that writing memoir specifically is a very different process than writing other types of non-fiction?
LG: Yes, for several reasons. Firstly, I have really began to understand the art of memoir. It is telling the story, but in many ways, making it feel like a novel. It is literary in that sense of you’re really thinking about the metaphors, images, and structure is so important. Next, it is an especially challenging genre to work in, more so than most non-fiction because you are doing two things- telling a very intimate story while working as an editor making sure everything makes sense.
PF: You touched on the importance of structure for this sort of writing, and yours for this is not linear. Was that an original intent or did it just unfold that way organically?
LG: It was me getting advice and instruction, as well as a reflection of me maturing as a writer through the process. Those thirteen years was a tremendous growth period for me as a writer. I had to learn what good writing is and be willing to make changes to things I personally liked. If it doesn’t move the story forward, I had to let it go no matter how attached I was to an aspect of the story or how I wrote something.
PF: For new or young writers considering work in this genre, what advice would you give?
LG: I would advise that you ask yourself this: Of all the stories you can tell, because we all have a lifetime of stories, what is the one that burns in you? Think of the one that you not only have a lot of curiosity about, but the one that also terrorizes you on some level. That is the story that will have the suspense and interesting arc, and make you grow as a writer. That, and you have to write it without concern of how people, even family, will react.
PF: I know you took writing and memoir writing classes. Was that a good experience for you? Do you think any or all aspiring writers should do so at some point?
LG: I absolutely recommend that writers seek out feedback, especially at the beginning of a project. One of the most important skills a writer can have is to hear feedback and give it some space, and to even reject certain feedback, if doesn’t feel right for you and your project.
Gonzalez experience the benefits and pitfalls of a writing group interaction, specifically as to how an all-white class setting can be insensitive to the writing process of a person of color. “For me, I integrate Spanish in my writing. Any time I was in a workshop with white writers, there would always be this problem with the Spanish,” she describes. Despite the questions and negative feedback to incorporating Spanish in her writing, she stuck with her decision, knowing it was the best thing for her writing and her stories.
PF: How has it been for you as a writer during such chaos and uncertainty in the midst of the pandemic and ShelterInPlace?
LG: Sometimes when there are crises we forget that writing is our anchor. In these times in terms of being a writer, I have kept reminding myself of my goals, pre-pandemic and questioning the best way to keep them alive during it. There were more challenges in writing initially because of all the distractions, and I gave myself permission to not write so I could figure out how to function and live. After some time, I got back to more of a rhythm. I thought of what the new structures that need to be in place in my life to continue my art.
PF: Who are the writer that have most influenced you?
LG: There was the era of black women writing in so many different ways, giving me examples of the way that writing can happen. Writers like, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde. Eventually, there were Latina writers that came into my life and had an impact. People like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez.
PF: What are some of the books that have influenced you, professionally and personally?
LG: Almost everything by Luis Alberto Urrea, books by Toni Morrison, especially “The Bluest Eye,” and Octavia Butler. Their books remind me that no matter what I write, it is all amazing and it is all possible. It is all part of this amazing cannon that we are creating together.
In addition to being a writer, Linda González, is a highly sought after life coach and speaker. You can get information about her services, as well as a copy of “The Cost of Our Lives” at her website, http://www.lindagonzalez.net/. Her next book offers simple, proven prosperity practices to address power dynamics faced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and other underrepresented communities. “Breaking Through Your Own Glass Ceiling” is due out soon.
- Triumph Over Life Transitions & Tap Into Your Creative Side -
Not only are taxes and death guarantees in life, change and transformation are as well. In one way or another, we are always evolving, but often encounter particularly pronounced times of a life shift, faced with major decisions to be made. Positive or challenging; intentional or unexpected, if you live long enough, you will experience this ... and hopefully learn and grow as a result. “The Butterfly Series” by Maria Ramos-Chertok addresses those moments, and then some. It is both practical and accessible; creative and inspiring as it easily guides the reader through weekly writing prompts on the journey through change, transition and transformation. Born from an actual hands-on workshop of the same name and developed by Ramos-Chertok, “the series is a writing and creative arts workshop for women who want to explore what’s next” (Ramos-Chertok). She developed it out of her own need. It’s the type of thing she was looking for herself when going though a life transition and facing major decisions.
The book, “The Butterfly Series” is set up as 52 thoughts and exercises for self-reflection. It is organized into four sections indicative of the stages of a butterfly- egg, larva, chrysalis, and taking flight. As such the reader is encouraged to journal, create, discuss or process these 52 weekly exercises in whatever way works best for them. On one side of the page/chapter is a thought provoking question, on the other, is a personal anecdote and ideas pertaining to the topic of the week. Although the workshop series is open to men as well as women, it tends to draw a predominately female participation. It is also a diverse group as Ramos-Chertok has made a commitment to herself that 50 per cent of those attending/participating, be women of color in order to move forward with a workshop. She feels that sort of diversity is not only being true to herself, but makes for a richer experience for all those involved.
I had a recent opportunity to discuss “The Butterfly Series” book and workshop with Ramos-Chertok.
PF: What do you see as the distinctions between change, transition and transformation?
MRC: I think that the three words have somewhat collapsed in the modern lexicon. People think they are one and the same, partly because transformation sounds so intriguing. I see them as different. Transition for me is something that happens over a period of time. A transition does include change, but it’s not immediate change, like a changed my clothes. When people are going through life changes, they don’t want to go through the transition because it will be a process. Often it’s a hard process, taking you through a rough spot in your emotional or spiritual journey.
In terms of transformation, I was given a meaningful explanation or definition by a former mentor of mine, Robert Gas: When you undergo a transformation, willingly or unwillingly, you never go back to the way you were. You have developed a whole new mindset or behaviors or world view that completely shifts the way you engage with yourself or others.
PF: What would you say is key to gearing up for a meaningful transformations or examples of?
MRC: I think there are a lot of ways that women, and I’m thinking specifically now of women of color, have internalized racism or sexism that has been apart of their upbringing. As a life coach, one of the things that I do is really try to examine with people I work with, how are you treating yourself and what is that voice inside your head saying? For many, there is a voice that’s not that nice. First, you need to identify that, then having a conversation to determine where that voice come from. An example of a transformation is that negative voice does not get to decide how worthy you are.
PF: Where did the idea for the book and workshop come from, and why did you create the butterfly metaphor to develop it?
MRC: The workshop I teach came before the book. I had reached a point in my career as an attorney where I had to embrace more creativity. I had always made more use of that linear, logical side of my brain, but the creative part of me was just dying underneath. I created a workshop that meets once a month for six months. Essentially, each session is divided into four parts, corresponding to the stages of a butterfly development. Elements of the workshops include free writing (egg stage), art exercises for the (larva stage), etc. Attendees are encouraged to ask themselves what do they want to pay attention to by the time they return for the next session. For many, it’s about an intention. There is accountability built into the “taking flight” last stage. When I wrote the book, it occurred to me that it makes sense to make the inquiries as four stages of a butterfly’s development.
Maria stresses to me and to those who attend her workshop, that they are not creating “to do” lists as that would actually counter productive to the process. It’s more about discovering where to focus your intention(s) to be for the next month.
PF: Speaking of life changes and/or transitions, the world is going through one collectively with the Corona virus and its impact. As a life coach, can you expound on how we can best navigate through this time and come out the other side with our wits, intentions and creativity in tact?
MRC: One of the things brought up in the book that is hardest for people when going through any sort of change is stillness, to just be without knowing. I have found in all the changes I have gone through in my life, I had to go into a period where I didn’t know what was going to come out on the other side. Those were scary times, but, being willing to sit through the unknown and not try to fix it or have answers, helped me experience what was next in a much more meaningful way. What’s going on now is that the world has to be still and has to deal with the natural trepidation of boredom and stillness.
This is a good opportunity to check in with yourself and say, “Okay, how have I been spending my time? Is how I’ve been spending my time meaningful? Are there things I want to do differently now, and are there people that I want to reach out to that maybe need me more?” It’s about taking stock, then taking the next step.
PF: What are some of the books/authors who have inspired you? What book or books do you like to recommend?
MRC: A nonfiction book that I'm so glad I finally got around to reading is “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo. I read it because I want to be able to refer it specifically to white people who want to (and should) enter the race conversation.
PF: What’s on your nightstand?
MRC: I just finished “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo. I loved it! I felt that she was able to successfully capture an inter-generational tale of connectedness and cause effect. I’m now listening to and enjoying “City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert. Also, a friend of mine, Ruth Bahar, like me is Latina and Jewish, has a book called “Lucky Broken Girl” that I really appreciated. She has a new soon-to-be-released book called “Letters From Cuba” that I’m so looking forward to reading.
Maria Ramos-Chertok lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. She has over twenty years of experience working with change and transition as an organizational development consultant, coach and trainer. She is the founder and facilitator of The Butterfly Series. For more information about the Series, go to www.thebutterflyseries.com
This is a poignant, yet undeniably fun romp through Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods in the late 60s. The characters and drama of James McBride's new novel, “Deacon King Kong” are as quirky as the title and fully-drawn and entertaining as his other books, maybe even more so. To be sure this is a multi-character driven book made up mostly of a black community, followed by Italian and Irish characters, with the title character driving the plot. It all starts when an elderly former church deacon commonly referred to as Sportcoat (aka, Deacon King Kong) shuffles into the plaza of a Brooklyn housing project and shoots Deems, a young drug dealer. Sportcoat is known for being a curmudgeon of a neighbor, often drunk and oddly carrying on conversations with his deceased wife, but never regarded as a gun-toten’ danger. All those looking on, are shocked and initially silent. They either have questions regarding the shooting, or they carefully crafted theories.
As the story unfolds, so too do the rich, often humorous layers of Sportcoat and the book’s entire cast of colorful characters. Some of them are church-goers, some gangsters, some are just innocent passersby, and even a couple of police detectives. Most of them have more than one name, and all of them overlap with each other and contribute to the novel’s unique rhythm. Although McBride doesn’t give much in the way of traditional demarkations of the period, the reader is always aware of the era. Much of this is due to McBride’s use of language, the obvious segregation, along with the racial and racist overtones. Despite the latter, there is a humanity to all the players, even the unlikable ones.
“Sportcoat ain’t hard to find,” she said. “He’s around. You wanna go get him, go ahead. It’s not gonna change nothing. Deems is still out there slinging poison like clockwork every day at the flagpole at noon. He hasn’t moved a peep toward bothering old Sportcoat, far as I know. Fact is, he’s more polite now than before. They say he’s changed a little. Even still, some folks send their children to buy drugs for ‘em. Imagine that? Sending a little child nine, ten years old, out to buy drugs. This projects was never that way. What are we doing wrong?”
She seemed so sad as she said it, it was all Potts could do to stop himself from placing an arm around her right there, right behind the church in the shade under Jesus’s sad painted gaze, and saying, “Its’ all right. I got you.” Instead he said, “I’m speaking as a friend, miss. You- all of you- need to step back k and let us do our job here.”
From the projects to the docks, “Deacon King Kong” portrays wonderful characters and vivid scenarios and settings, making it as much comedy as it is crime mystery or drama … and all of it is enjoyable. Even when it maybe wraps up too nice and neat, it’s hard to find fault in it. In fact, at times like this, maybe the tidiness of it all is especially appreciated. it’s honest, it’s humorous and its wonderfully humane. There’s nothing wrong with that.
- RACE IN AMERICA & the LEAD UP to the 2020 ELECTION -
Believe it or not; like it or not, race and racism are integral to the 2020 presidential election. This not because, unlike in recent past elections, anyone of color is in the running for the high office, but instead because of the current president who has laced his campaign and presidency with divisiveness, hate and racism. In fact, Donal Trump basically launched his bid for presidency on racist rhetoric directed at the then president, Barak Obama. Several years prior to Trumps official campaign launch, he began a campaign of lies against Obama discrediting Obama’s American citizenship and demanding the release of his birth certificate. examination of his birth certificate. This was to denounce the first black president, and to set the tone for what would be the running theme of his campaign’s platform and ultimately, his presidency. He has gone on to publicly insult Muslims and degrade Latino and defend Neo-Nazis.
Given the political climate of the last three and a half years, in conjunction with political tactics by the Republican Party over many years, such as gerrymandering and voter suppression, the stage has been set for heated debates on topics. As such, the 2nd Annual “Race in America” special panel event at Book Passage made race and politics the focus of discussion. The event drew in nearly 200 people from the community and beyond. Before things got started, the energy and excitement in the room was palatable. People were and are eager to learn about the hard issues and discuss their everyday application. As the organizer and moderator I came to the platform, literally, armed with information and questions, but also with a normal mix of excitement, pride and nerves. I wanted a big turnout, not for myself, but for the panelists, for the community and for the important issues at hand. I wasn’t disappointed. The event featured a carefully curated and diverse panel of Bay Area writers and agents of change and moderated by journalist and Book Passage host Paula Farmer. Each of the panelists brought their unique insights and expertise to the discussion, which was invaluable. Aya with her roots in activism and determined demeanor, shook us to our core with blunt words of truth and power. Mimi Lok, as a writer with her work with the disenfranchised and marginalized communities, brought the human aspects of racism and the importance of hearing everyone’s stories. Brian Copeland, as always, brought the power of truth, mixed with humor, while the academic panelist, Ian Haney Lopez who is an expert on “coded racism in American politics,” laid out the basic negative elements that led to the current climate.
“Once Trump was elected, more analysis (of racist tactics by Republican political leaders) wasn’t enough. I connected with communications specialists with unions, with think tanks, and we ran a two year research project to respond to Trump’s scaremongering, his dog whistle messaging. We tested messages to promote racial fear, economic populism. We tested a new tactic of race-class approach. This is an approach that says the right has weaponized racism against all of us, and only when we come together across racial lines, do we have the political power to stand up to these economic elites, get the good policies we need but also repair the harm done in the name of racism to all of our communities.”
This strong opening statement was one of many. Each of the panelists had their own brand of passion, instilling the need for change that we all can contribute. If knowledge is power - and it is - listening to the podcast of this live event, will enlighten, inspire and weaponize.
Panelists included …
Brian Copeland - Author (“Not a Genuine Black Man”) and comedian Brian Copeland.
Aya de Leon - Author (“Side Chick Nation”), political and social justice blogger.
Mimi Lok - author (“Last of Her Name”), executive director and editor for Voice of Witness.
Ian Haney Lopez - author (“Merge Left”), UC Berkeley law professor and commentator on coded racism in American Politics.
To hear the vital and vibrant discussion, go to the podcast on LibroFM/audiobooks/5184389278178?
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.