Monday, February 23, 2015

Native Son - Richard Wright

Well readers, I have been knocked back on my heels by a powerful classic book yet again. Before I started reading, I didn't read so much as the back of the book, so I had absolutely no idea what to expect going in. This turned out to be great, as the story took a turn I couldn't possibly have predicted. This relentless book maintains an almost unbearable tension and level of suspense throughout. I can't say I liked the main character particularly; for many reasons, I believe he isn't meant to be all that likable, he's meant to help the reader think through the author's main points - and this is very effective. The naturalistic use of language and description was skillful and made me feel I was right there in the story. In the final part of the book, one character gives a multi-page speech that is a scathing indictment of the entrenched racism in American society - I believe this speech should be required reading for everyone. All in all, this is a book that will linger in my mind and influence my thoughts for a long time. Highly recommended.

The particular edition I happened to read, which I found at the library, was made up of the original version of the book (which had been altered to remove some potentially offensive material before being offered as a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940), an introduction by Arnold Rampersad of Princeton, extensive notes, a biographical timeline, and some early criticism and Wright's responses to these critiques. This version also includes Wright's essay "How 'Bigger' Was Born," which provided a fascinating view into how the novel came to be, the inspirations, and insights into the process, which I enjoyed. I recommend this particular edition because all the other material is really relevant and adds to the reading experience.

I'm going to claim this book for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge, as Wright evidently wrote the book in Harlem in the last 1930s. The book is also #27 on the ALA's list of frequently challenged classics (the link doesn't specify, but I can guess some of the reasons, including a smattering of somewhat frank talk about sexuality).

Friday, February 20, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

What a luminous book. I found it captivating, and I liked the way the two main stories came together. The book did a wonderful job at showing how people get swept up in war. The description brought vivid images to my mind while I was reading - I could vividly picture the settings, characters, and events. The main characters were entirely sympathetic, and we are fairly clearly able to see their motivations - even if we don't necessarily agree with them. Recommended.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Ways of White Folks - Langston Hughes

Reader, if you can read even one of these beautiful, heartbreaking, witty, haunting stories without becoming deeply angry or deeply depressed (or both), you are a person more in control of their emotions than I could ever hope to be. This collection made me deliriously happy to be alive in the early part of the 21st century, because the progress we have made now, while still very much a work in progress, is at least a major improvement on the daily conditions of the lives of so many African American people at the time these stories were written (the 1930s). Like I always say though, it's so important to have these stories to show us how much things have changed, and to point out what still needs work.

Since the time that I discovered Hughes' poetry, I've been a fan, but I hadn't read his prose until I read his novel Not Without Laughter and Mule Bone, the play he co-wrote with Zora Neale Hurston last year and became even more of a fan. His writing is just so fluid and elegant, that even when the subject matter is unpleasant, as a reader it's impossible to stop reading. I have some other books for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge that are up next, or I'd be reading more - maybe later this year when I have made more of a dent in the TBR Pile. Highly Recommended.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen

The Dusky Literati recommended Nella Larsen to me for the Harlem Renaissance Reading Challenge, and I'm really glad she did - I really enjoyed Larsen's writing. This book is deceptively slender, which is a shame, as Larsen was a very talented writer. Because I tend to prefer novels to short stories, I must say I enjoyed the two novels, Quicksand and Passing, that are both included in this volume, a bit more than the stories, but only just. I wish I had read Larsen in college, as comparing the two novels would have made for a great thesis. I think both are really about security, and what one might give up to feel secure. I don't want to say more lest I provide spoilers, but I urge you to read for yourself, and then leave me a comment so we can discuss :) I see there is a biography called In Search of Nella Larsen that I need to add to my virtual TBR pile for future reading. Recommended.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - L. Frank Baum (spoilers?)

Disclaimer: I can't discuss this book without describing some aspects of it that could be construed as spoilers, so I'm mentioning this up front in case you'd prefer to avoid them. 

I somehow made it through childhood without reading this book, although of course I have seen the movie numerous times. Strangely, I seem to remember owning copies of Ozma of Oz and Tik-Tok of Oz as a child, but for some reason I didn't read this book, or the entire series - ? What a strange child I apparently was! In any case, I have now read this book and enjoyed it considerably.

The movie adaptation mainly follows the book, with notable exceptions that I assume were made to simplify the plot and create a bit more drama. It's too bad that some parts, such as the china/porcelain town and the hammerheads, were cut, but I can see why they were. Movie making is often about condensing a story into a set timeframe, and many of these incidents didn't really do much for the overall plot and were more like creative interludes. I suppose too it would have taxed the special effects department, which did a fantastic job on the movie considering that they had none of the computer-generated tricks we rely so heavily on today for special effects.

Something I really liked about the book was that the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all got a cool new life to lead after Dorothy left them to go back to Kansas. This was a nice detail that added closure to the story, where the movie left them hanging - we don't know what will happen to them.

All in all, this is a sweet and imaginative book for children that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

This book has the distinction of being the first book that I read entirely on my cell phone. As the book is out of copyright, I was able to download a copy for free; the drawback, of course, is that there are no cool illustrations (I adore the art from the beginning of the 20th century, so it's a shame I wasn't able to see any original art that may be included with other editions of this book). I don't have a Kindle, so this is a nice way to always have a book or 2 on hand, and to take advantage of those times when I have to wait for something by doing something good for my brain instead of something more mindless. I still prefer actual paper books, and I probably always will, but having options is nice too.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man - James Weldon Johnson (spoilers?)

Disclaimer: I can't discuss this book without describing some aspects of it that could be construed as spoilers, so I'm mentioning this up front in case you'd prefer to avoid them. 

Came across this book while I was looking for books for the Harlem Renaissance Challenge, and as I love stories about people who live secret or double lives, I found this irresistible, and got it from the library as soon as I could.

Despite the title, this book is a novel, about the life and times of a light-skinned man of mixed race (his father is white and his mother has African heritage). I found the writing to be wonderfully clear and descriptive. The narrator describes his life, education, work, social life, and travels as a boy through young adulthood. He includes some experiences studying foreign languages, and has some great advice for language learners that I heartily agree with. He also shares my love for Paris and France, as well as some views on American society that are sadly still true now, more than 100 years after this book was originally published (sigh). I really liked the narrator, and I could have read volumes about him and his life, as well as his views on society.

One thing that initially threw me was that this book was not so much about him living life as some who could "pass for white;" it was more about the process of the narrator deciding, after traveling abroad and around the U.S., and witnessing a real horror, to do so. But this did not dampen my enjoyment of this book - in fact, it enhanced my emotional reactions to some of the scenes (the scene at the theater in Paris, for one).

I did some research and found out that the author was an accomplished musician, poet, diplomat, teacher, and writer, who wrote the lyrics for "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" as well as co-writing many popular Broadway tunes of the day. He was also head of the NAACP. I am so happy to have discovered his writing, and I will have to seek more of it out. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Strawberry Fields - Marina Lewycka

OK readers, this review is going to be all over the place.

First, this book is apparently called Two Caravans in the UK and some other places, just so you know in case you may have read it or seen it under that name.

Second: This book threw me for a loop. The description on the cover made it sound like a comedy, and I had enjoyed the author's first book, so I grabbed this book when I saw it at the library, expecting a fun, fast read.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

This book is actually a modern, European take on The Grapes of Wrath. To be sure, it is written in a style that is more lighthearted and less serious than that classic, but the basic message was the same: the world is full of people who are trying to profit by any means necessary, and if they have to literally abuse their fellow humans or some animals to do so, most will gladly do it with no apparent thought for the feelings of other living creatures/humans. This idea was seriously depressing to me. I got about halfway through the book and there was an incident depicted that was so awful (in my opinion) that I almost stopped reading entirely. Luckily my impulse to finish the book was rewarded, and the book wasn't as relentlessly negative (for me) in the second half.

Ultimately I would say I liked this book ok ... but it's not a book that I would read again.

And evidently UK book reviewers get "the good stuff" from their doctors, since I can only imagine that they must be under the influence of something or another to call this a hilarious comedy. ?????

Having said all this though, I would in fact read the author's next couple books, because I enjoy the writing, even if the subject matter was a bit darker than I expected.


Friday, February 6, 2015

Mac on the Road to Marseille - Christopher Ward

FTC Compliance Statement: I received a free, time-limited, electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.com in exchange for my honest review, which is provided below. I have not been compensated for this review and my opinion is my own.

I think I liked this book, the second in what appears to be a series (I certainly hope for more books!), even more than the first one. It was fun to meet new characters in addition to those we revisit from the first book. As much as I liked Mac and her first-person narration in the previous book, I liked the change in narration in this book, where we switch between Mac telling us the story and some third person narration concerning other characters. It's so nice to have a book with clever riddles and wordplay, and a smart and resourceful young woman as the main character. These books would make wonderful animated films. Recommended.

Singing to a Bulldog - Anson Williams

FTC Compliance Statement: I received a free, time-limited, electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.com in exchange for my honest review, which is provided below. I have not been compensated for this review and my opinion is my own.

Saw this book in a NetGalley email and I was unable to resist it. The subtitle, From "Happy Days" to Hollywood Director, and the Unlikely Mentor Who Got Me There, tells it all. I watched Happy Days as a kid, and I remember thinking the author's character was cuter than the other guys (no offense to them, of course), so I really wanted to hear more about his life in show business.

This book, a memoir in the form of a series of stories from the author's life, tells many fascinating tales of working with other celebrities. The stories are presented in chronological order, and each relates to a quote from the mentor mentioned in the subtitle. While this portion of the book veers dangerously close to what some call the "magical Negro" trope, the wisdom presented is sound. I found it to be a fun, enjoyable, fast read as I head into the weekend.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Gracefully Grayson - Ami Polonsky

What a lovely book. The author has created a character that is entirely sympathetic, and that allows the reader to have a glimpse of one trans* youngster's thoughts, feelings, and personal journey. I so wanted to hug Grayson and to slap a couple of the other characters. Recommended.

As a side note to the whole FTC thing, I heard of this book on NetGalley, but my request to read a free, temporary electronic copy of the book was turned down (Y U No Like Me Hyperion??). So I got this book after a lengthy wait on the hold list at my library. And I still gave it an honest review, so there.