The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Paperback, 216 pages
Published September 6th 2005 by Plume (first published June 1st 1970)

…his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud…The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

While I was not the biggest fan of Morrison’s style in this novel, I did fully appreciate the dagger-sharp insight that she brought to the color caste system that is so prevalent in African-American culture, even today. Her dialogue rang so true, I could hear it coming directly out of my mother’s mouth, my grandmother’s mouth, and those of all of the women who’ve ever filled our kitchens with raucous communal fun and glum communal tragedy alike. Her use of the Dick & Jane children’s books, used for decades to teach children to read (SEEMOTHERMOTHERISVERYNICEMOTHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANEMOTHERLAUGHS  LAUGHMOTHERLAUGHLA) created a chilling, ironic and staggering contrast between the lives of the whites and those of the blacks in this novel. Shirley Temple, Mary Jane candies, and Jean Harlow hairstyles – you’ll find the delicacy of all of them here, both in these characters’ reality and in metaphor. While the truth and injustices here were often sobering to read, they were filled with too much truth to rightfully deny or turn away from.

I could spend hours discussing this novel. I could quote from it all day, but I won’t do that, because the entire read was poignant and so crisply aware of the color line – the how and the why – that there is no one point that can overshadow another in the message that these words aimed to send. This novel is older than I am, and yet it still rings with such verity, with such biting truth and reality. With The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison cut open the existence of both internalized and externalized racism in America and laid it bare and exposed at our feet. For that, she deserves nothing but reverence and applause, so she will always have that from me.

Anyone who’s ever been in doubt of a color line in Black America should read this book. Anyone who’s ever questioned, “But why can’t I say those words when you say them all the time? But why do you still believe that racism exists? Why can’t you just get over it – the past is the past?” should read this book. In fact, just read this book anyway – how about that? 🙂 *****

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @Navidad Thelamour.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Doubleday, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Doubleday

I was really looking forward to this read! I had an interesting relationship with The Intuitionist, having read it in college and not quite grasped it then came back to it later and enjoyed it more. I love everything that Colson Whitehead is about (and I hope to read Zone One soon), but this particular foray into his work turned out to be a little less than a love affair for me.

The Underground Railroad starts on the Randall plantation in Georgia around 1812. This plantation is an amalgamation of every horror and tragedy you’ve ever heard of about slavery. Slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, even on display for the entertainment of guests sipping lemonade; attempts at fleeing from bondage or bucking the system are (often arbitrarily) met with public displays of execution, from being strung up and castrated to a good ole-fashioned tarring and feathering. Life on the plantation is as rough for women—who are used as breeders for more slaves, hence more money, and are constantly at the mercy of male appetites, both from those in the ivory tower and those in the fields—as it is for the laboring men. In the midst of it all, Cora, a stray who’s gained a bit of a scarlet letter because her mother fled the plantation and left her behind years back, starts her long journey to freedom one quiet night with nothing but a sack of unripe turnips, two companions and the North Star as their guide. But the untold horrors that she will face ahead of her on this trek will sometimes rival those that she left behind. With a bounty on her head and dreams of education and freedom beckoning her forward, she will stop through a slew of Southern states—all with their own systems of Southern justice and oppression—and find herself on Whitehead’s re-envisaged Underground Railroad.

Within these pages, you’ll embark on a re-imagined historical truth that could only be a creation of Colson Whitehead. Here, the Underground Railroad is—get this—an actual train (or a single, rickety locomotive, but you get the point), complete with a conductor. At times that term is more allegorical than actual, but even the conductors have their own pasts that, at times, ensnare Cora in their trap-like grasp. Human sterilization to control the growth of the Negro population (which, in some states, “problematically” rivals the numbers of the white population), blackface, and the Tuskegee Project are all touched on here, are all experienced by our heroine in some periphery of her journey.

Those are the goodie takeaways.

Now for my qualms. This novel would’ve been better served being written in first person, for Cora’s chapters at the very least. This is a harrowing journey, a terrifying trek into the unknown for a young woman who has never been outside of the confines of the Randall Plantation for her entire life. She’s never worked for her own wages, never bought her own new dress, never even been to see a doctor. We want to see, touch and taste every moment of what she feels. We want to quiver when she quivers and scream when she hurts. We want to experience these truths re-imagined for ourselves, because this is a remarkable journey set in a harrowing past that our country would rather keep hushed and obscured. To truly break us out of this—to truly immerse us in this and better make the point that he sought to make—we should’ve been squarely in Cora’s shoes, not watching her from above in a slightly removed, vaguely clinical 3rd person.

While Whitehead’s intellectualism serves his plots well, it doesn’t do the greatest wonders for soulful and immersive execution. Perhaps that comes down to being a matter of personal preference. I found his writing style, as was the case in his The Intuitionist as well, to be talented but, yes, just a tad by the way of clinician. And finesse—oh, finesse, thou art an allusive thing! Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of it here, and by that I mean that this was quite the bull-ride read: jerky and rough. I had to re-read several passages, because segues from one event to the next were often non-existent. Suddenly, you were in a saloon, or in the middle of an attack by rogue outlaws, then learning letters in a schoolhouse. Literally, a person could go from alive to dead in a single, four-sentence paragraph! Um, what?? (Shaking head vigorously.) What just happened now?

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Also, I could’ve done without the backstory chapters of the minor characters. Every single one of those “let-me-elaborate-on-this-(minor)-character’s-past-life” chapters could’ve been gutted from this manuscript—all except for one. And that one you’ll know when you read it.

Still, Colson Whitehead managed to touch on the justifications and absolutions that the antebellum South descriptionwhispered to themselves at night to justify their actions, biblical references that laid the way for Manifest Destiny and all the other gluttonous rationalizations that makes slavery possible, in any land, in any era. And for that, I applauded him.

The story itself was great—a truly epic adventure—but the pace at which it jerked, sometimes lullingly slow and others at whiplash-inducing speeds, turned me off. And, I have to say, any novel where I feel even the slightest urge to skim and skip ahead can never get 4 stars from me. But his work is definitely unique in its own right, and for that I would absolutely recommend this novel to anyone who has read the blurb and marked it as to-read, to anyone who’s already familiar with Whitehead’s talents and appreciated them, and for those who have yet to become familiar with them. I have a deep respect for this author; the style just didn’t work for me the way I’d hoped this time, and for that I award 3.5 stars ***

I Almost Forgot About You by Terry McMillan

 

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published June 7th 2016 by Crown

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Crown, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I Almost Forgot About You is the breakthrough new novel from Terry McMillan after her roughly 3-year hiatus from the shelves. A feel-good novel if ever I’ve read one, the writing is witty and flavorful, full of all the spice and sass, reminisces, failures and regrets, personal triumphs and lessons learned that make McMillan’s characters feel like your neighbor next door—like your mother/cousin/sister/aunt who you love to watch and look forward to gossiping with over peach cobbler. You know, the women in your life you can really relate to because they’ve been there/done that and lived to tell about it all. That’s who you’ll find within these pages.

It’s always evident that McMillan writes what she knows—that she’s lived it, felt it, cried it, laughed it all herself—because her characters are always life-sized. Not larger-than-life rock stars or spoiled and whiny heroines worried about what nail color to try next, but people you can really see yourself sitting down with for a cappuccino—or a Cosmopolitan. She’s grown with them, infusing her own hard-gained knowledge and life experiences into their worlds, sharing a little piece of herself every time she does so. I’ve always appreciated the ease and grace with which she portrays black women, her protagonists of choice, and I Almost Forgot About You was no exception. If you’re tired of the made-for-TV reality drama and the caricatures of black life, 50+ life and “over-the-hill” life that the media will readily hand you on a platter these days, you can turn here for an upbeat, spunky and humorously wise take on the same. Here you will find lively characters who could fill a room with their banter and who go through more than a few bottles of wine on their trek toward what’s next in their lives.

The dialogue and narrative were so realistic that I laughed out loud, for a moment thinking it must’ve been stolen from me and my own girlfriends! McMillan’s writing here was both tender and reflective without being overly emotional. It was a light and entertaining read that told a story worth reading, was peppered with uplifting phrases I wanted to jot down and that was devoid of the melodrama that “coming-of-age”/ “finding-yourself” mid-life crisis fiction can bring to the table these days. It was all the way real, pure and simple.

The story line was completely true-to-life in its twists and turns, never coming across as over-the-top or forced. However, it was also littered with events that happened off screen and were dropped like small bombs on the reader during dialogue in an, “oh did you know this happened?” sort of manner, leaving me feeling like I may have missed the path somewhere along the line and ended up at a surprise that was both delightful and a little jolting. Of course, this tactic was used to keep the read interesting, to keep the reader on their toes, but this wasn’t a need-to-be-on-toes kind of read; this was a cozy, hilarious, sanguine, fireplace-and-whole-bottle-of-red-wine read, so that really threw me off—not quite annoying me as a reader, but definitely knocking me off balance in a way that warranted a momentary frown.

But, that was honestly the only qualm that I had with this read, and it was a minor one. Terry hasn’t lost her touch, and I hope she never does, because I’ll always keep coming back for me and more. This one got an easy 4 stars ****

 

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published May 5th 2016 by Chatto & Windus
It is set for a US release in February 2017

I received a copy of The Woman Next Door from its publishers, Chatto and Windus, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino have been rivals for decades, though they’ve lived on the other side of a hedge from each other for all those years. In post-apartheid South Africa, one is black and one is white; what they have in common is their spunkiness in old age, that they’ve both been recently widowed and that they both feel a certain superiority from the successful careers they once had. They’ve become comfortable sniping at each from across the way, antagonizing each other over racial differences and otherwise at neighborhood meetings, but when unexpected life circumstances hit them both, will they be willing to set their differences aside and find friendship within each other?

I was really looking forward to reading this novel by Omotoso and had it on my to-read list before I knew that I could get in on NetGally. However, The Woman Next Door was a bit of a disappointment for me. For me, the conflict never came across as organic or authentic. The build-up of their long-time feud seemed rushed, superficial and underdeveloped. With this being the very foundation for the way that the novel unfolded, the novel never came together for me. It never grabbed me or moved me in any way. In fact, I found it difficult to even finish. The characters seemed to only be developed based on stories told to each other in dialogue and narrative passages that never delved deep enough into their background for me to feel that I knew them or to sympathize or identify with them. I found the writing to be threadbare, just enough to tell the story, but not enough to feel complete, certainly not enough to hold my attention as a reader.

With that in mind, I’m giving this novel 2 stars because there were elements of the plot that worked well and could have really made this novel a delight, but I can’t give Omotoso more than that because I honestly felt it wasn’t well executed at all. 2 stars **

Patches of Grey by Roy L. Pickering, Jr.

Published January 8th 2010 by M.U.D. House Books (first published January 8th 2009)

 

       “They all believed back then that love lasted forever. By now they surely knew…that forever was a treacherous myth, though probably a necessary one.”

This novel was given to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

       Patches of Grey by Roy Pickering is the emotional story of the Johnsons, a family from a Bronx tenement pre “rise of Obama.” If you love Sister Souljah, Sapphire and old-school Omar Tyree, this will be a great read for you. Tony, the eldest son and main character, yearns for more than his poor upbringing can provide for him and knows that he is smart enough to use his grades to get out. He is constantly ridiculed by his father, Lionel, a drunk and abusive man, and his younger brother, C.J., who is proud to have been just initiated into a local gang. Tony’s dreams of getting away, not to mention his once-coveted, now-won Caucasian girlfriend, put him at constant odds with his father and brother, while his mother and sister deal with their own emotional and physical turmoil dealt to them by the men in their lives. Over the course of a year, their lives are changed, tragedy strikes and Tony’s dreams of collegiate life and affluence thereafter may never be realized after all.

There were some truly lovely patches (no pun intended) of narrative prose in this one, but they were often overshadowed by the sheer amount of purple prose surrounding them. At times, it disoriented me, some of the sentences were so overwrought with it. There were too many metaphors and too much hyperbole, so the essence of these oft-lovely lines was often lost in the sheer quantity of them, as if the author wanted to slap on more and more lights, more and more decoration, when the tree itself would’ve sung beautifully. Enveloped within the metaphor-flooded prose was vernacular that sometimes hit the mark and sometimes did not. The transitions from narration to dialogue were often choppy and forced, trying to straddle two worlds unsuccessfully. There were moments when the author’s hand showed through glaringly, usually displayed as soap-box-worthy soliloquys on social injustice. There were also some editing issues here.

All in all, I found Patches of Grey to be an emotional narrative with a flawed message. There was a deep story here, one that often grabbed me and sometimes moved me, but in the end, I didn’t respect the characters. It’s not that the storyline was not wholly believable—it was—but I didn’t feel satisfied with the read because it yielded to the stereotypes, allowing them to win after all. If this was meant to be a cautionary tale, it didn’t go far enough with presenting its moral; it seemed to just concede defeat. There were hints towards the end that maybe things could be different in the future, but that wasn’t enough for me; I’m sorry to say that the hastily offered explanation in the final paragraphs felt like a cop-out to actually writing out a fully developed end to this story that would leave the characters well-rounded and, perhaps, whole. I can literally point out the moment that this novel lost me and my respect. Trust me, I hoped that it would be a plot twist that would right itself, a curve in the bend that the characters would bounce back from—or, at least, be educated on—but that never happened:

“It was not the decision to leave his gang which had doomed C.J., or even the choice to join in the first place. His fate had been determined the moment he was born a black male into a white world.”

While I was ecstatic to find that Pickering didn’t stoop to using easy bow-tie, happily-ever-after endings, the above quote does adequately summarize the faulty message of this story right up to the end: that in no way, shape or fashion were their circumstances any fault of their own doing, because of their own choices, not even a little. This novel allowed the characters to wallow, to not fight harder. Instead they surrendered, conceding defeat to society in a way that made them bitter, in a way that they could never recover from. The mother, Caren, believes, “…love is never granted free of charge. Once one’s heart was surrendered, it became subject to the whims of its captor. She complained little of its mistreatment because it had been her choice to give it away,” a beautiful line that really grabbed me, but simultaneously annoyed me because she, like some of the other characters, assumed that she had little choice in what happened in her own life. The moments that were supposed to function as absolution, as moments of strength and clarity for the characters, were too hastily done to stand up to the ravages of what the aforementioned phrases had done to them, and the reader.  There could’ve been so much more here. This was a surprising stance for a novel that seemed to shoot out of the gate with a purpose, a mission, a true message. Did we need happily ever afters? No. But is anything offered to the world by perpetuating stereotypes, by not adding anything to the diaspora dialogue? No.

In that way, this novel felt like regression. I gave this one 3 stars, keeping in mind what else is out there in this genre. ***

Brothers and Sisters by Bebe Moore Campbell

Paperback, 480 pages
Published January 6th 2009 by Berkley (first published 1994)

Bebe Moore Campbell’s Brothers and Sisters, originally published by Putnam in 1994* in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, is a true testament to what I wish we could see more of on bestseller lists today. Published during an era of growing racial tensions (though what era doesn’t have that?) and political outspokenness through hip-hop music, this novel brought to life the realities of being an educated and successful modern-day African American woman. Stereotypes were debunked and explored, and here Campbell helped to set new standards in literature for femininity and “blackness,” while also probing such sensitive topics as the church, the pros and troubles of racial solidarity and reaching across the racial line to find friendship. The characters that the late Campbell portrayed here were realistic and 3-dimensional; the tension that she painted in the air was palpable with the turn of every page, like a heartbeat pulsing throughout the chapters.

Brothers and Sisters was a read that featured relatable dialogue that easily flowed off the tip of the tongue; Campbell’s use of vernacular outside of the workplace and in the “mean streets” of LA beautifully contrasted with dialogue that went on within the walls of the workplace to create a masterful portrayal of what it is like to live in two worlds at the same time, from dealing with stress from the professional expectations of peers in a racist and sexist environment to simultaneously surviving in a world equally hostile outside of the workplace doors. Deceit, mistrust, racism, sexism, accusations of rape, love, dating, social and corporate ladders, competition and banding together to survive in hostile waters all play a role in this novel.

The trouble that many novels have in this genre is that they do not come off as authentic. The dialogue is stilted or unfittingly formal in areas where authenticity is needed or ragged in situations where a sophisticated touch is being attempted by the author. There is a finesse to portraying this double consciousness (for those W.E.B. DuBois followers), this world of African Americanism that is honestly a world within itself, and it is difficult to find an author who depicts this lifestyle—this social setting—accurately and with the tautness and stress that it carries with in real, everyday life. The beauty in which Campbell offered that to her readers here is to be applauded. Following Esther Jackson through a day in her world will bring you out the other side more conscious of societal pressures at play if you weren’t already, deeply entertained and honestly tickled by the thoughts that these characters think but don’t always say. This one is a read for anyone, because there’s something for everyone here if your mind is open.

Make no mistake: I love a good thriller, a thought-provoking character piece or the occasional humor-filled antics of chick lit with a verve and vigor that you can see in this blog, but it’s novels like this that I wish we could see more of in the spotlight today.  5 stars *****

 

*The cover used here is from the 2009 reprint publication of this novel by Berkley.

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter

 

Paperback, 672 pages
Published May 27th 2003 by Vintage (first published 2002)

 The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter hit the shelves with guns blazing over a decade ago, spurred by a multi-million-dollar book deal and rave reviews. His debut fiction novel, it stood out from the pack in that it’s written around the most highly educated of black society’s upper echelon and, more so, because it was written by a member of that very caste rather than by an outsider trying to immolate the nuances, prejudices, experiences and insights that could only be accurately and convincingly portrayed by one of their own. (Think Jhumpa Lahiri and Hanif Kureishi—this too can be considered a cultural exposé, imbedded within a brilliant thrill ride, in the same vein.) The demographic that Carter writes around really is a lesser-known, lesser-publicized world of its own that necessitates candid unmasking by a member of the tribe itself.

This novel was a combination of mystery and conspiracy thriller, complete with antagonists lurking in the dark, the hint of extramarital affairs, academic and political betrayal and the scent of conspiracy in the air. Was murder involved or natural death? Was The Judge wrongfully accused and disgraced or was he secretly deserving of his fate, the baddest of all bad guys behind closed political doors? This one also featured eloquently delivered, thoughtful prose that had the definite lilt of a law professor’s seriousness without being staid. Indeed, it was emotive where it needed to be while still offering those sharp references to societal issues—I am old enough to remember when few black women of her age wore their hair any other way, but nationalism turned out to be less an ideology than a fad being one of my personal favorites and certainly representative of his tone—that are jolting and appreciated for their wit, insight and stunning logical clarity.

Chess was at the center of this novel—a true Chess Master’s feast. It enveloped the plotline with an inventory of references that were brilliantly tied into the mystery and intrigue of the work, rather than simply being intellectual props for show. Carter even wove these allusions into his social commentary in way that was graceful and not ostentatious, though some might consider it mildly pretentious—and why not? He’s writing with a hint of pretentiousness that makes his voice his own. I appreciated that voice and found his method, his cadence of tone, to be thrilling in a new way. I love a great thriller with heart-quickening twists and turns as much as the next thriller junkie, but an author who can write in this genre while evoking serious social deliberation and eloquence of finesse? It’s a feat often tried but seldom achieved with greatness, and I was caught off guard by the magnitude of his writing, by the eloquence of innuendos and by the fact that he managed to uncover this “hidden” world to the masses while still making it feel like a secret. In fact, I’d venture to say that a reader who could follow his intention, and who appreciates a view into the inner workings of dirty American politics, would feel that they’d been let in on a secret. And who doesn’t love to be let in on a secret?

While this novel is easily one of my all-time favorites for the plotline that kept me guessing and the delivery that made me a fan, it isn’t without its own Achilles’ heel. The Emperor could definitely have stood up to a haircut in some places—snip a little here, shave a little there. While the word count itself was certainly not to be considered massive comparative to some, the style of writing and tendency towards verboseness of narrative at times made the novel feel more massive than it was, and the task of reading through the backstory of every minor character could be tedious. However, he is a master with creating characters; their voices were genuine and all their own, from hoity-toity “Lady Bugs” to self-entitled Trump-sound-alikes. With that in mind, yes, his editor definitely should have chopped it down a bit just to streamline this work, however would this then have been the cozy thriller that it was had they done so? I set aside the temptation towards docking this one a half star for the same reason that I did so with my last Stephen King review, because there’s no need to be petty. Five stars. *****