Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Twelve Years a Slave (the book)

Twelve Years a SlaveTwelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You know the story. Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he struggles to regain his freedom after twelve years. I wanted to read the book before seeing the movie. So many of my friends have said the movie was difficult to watch.

Of course there is violence and torture in the narrative of Solomon who has to take on the name of Platt to avoid further floggings. But beyond the descriptions of the vilest nature of slavery in these United States, we hear the voice of Solomon who sees his life as evidence against the myth that slaves are better off on the plantation.

As a side note, I remember the history books of my elementary school days during the years of Jim Crow, saying slaves were happy and sang a lot.

What is most fascinating for me about this book is its being published and achieving best seller status before it went into obscurity, only to be rediscovered in the 1960's. What a treasure this book is.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Men We Reaped

Men We Reaped: A MemoirMen We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title comes from a quote by Harriet Tubman, "We heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped."

Jesmyn Ward is becoming one of my favorite authors. This memoir was painful to read, but held together by her beautiful prose.

She tells the story of lost young men, her cousins and brother, growing up poor, black and male in Mississippi. Mississippi of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Mississippi of Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam."

She survived as the oldest girl of her parents, on the determination of her mother to get her out of the cycle of poverty, especially after her father left. A single mother can teach her daughter how to hold the family together, but she can't teach a son how to be a man. So many of the young men growing up in DeLisle, MS were lost, school drop-outs, caught up in a drug culture, or merely in the wrong place at the wrong time at two o'clock in the morning.

It's a mournful story, and the author still mourns the loss over thirteen years after those deaths.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord BirdThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I read the dedication for this book, "For Ma and Jade who loved a good whopper," I knew I was in for a wild ride.

I first read about John Brown in high school history, where he was barely mentioned as a fanatic abolitionist who waged a war to free the slaves. Since that time many books have been written about John Brown by African Americans who have made him more of a cult figure and reject the notion that a white man would have to be crazy to wage a war to free the slaves.

This book is historical fiction based on fictitious notes by Henry Shackleford who claimed to have been the only Negro to survive John Brown's raid on the Harper's Ferry arsenal in 1859. He claimed to have been able to do this by being dressed as a girl for over four years while he accompanied John Brown and his "army" through Kansas, Missouri, and with him to meet Frederick Douglass in Boston.

It's a wild shoot 'em up story, hilarious and unbelievable. A real whopper.

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Friday, July 26, 2013


AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really did like this book, and would have given it five stars if not for the rampant tongue-in-cheek by the author. There are so many themes in this book and so many characters with four-syllable Nigerian names, it made me wonder if the author just did a memory dump of all her experiences going back and forth between Nigeria and the US.

It's a story about first love and reclaiming one that was lost. And it's about hair, and race, and immigration, and war in Nigeria, and literature, and pop culture in the US and Nigeria, and Barack Obama...enough topics to make one's head spin. And there is the tongue-in-cheek that pops up throughout making me wonder if it's a put-down of African American culture or just a zinger to get our attention, so as to see ourselves from a new perspective.

In interviews, Adichie does say she understands where black Americans come from given our long history of slavery and Jim Crow laws, and she has come to appreciate what a black American means when he calls her "sister."

This was my first time reading one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novels, and I will be reading more of her work.

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