Book Review: Dust Tracks on a Road

dust tracks on a roadDust Tracks on a Road
by Zora Neale Hurston
Autobiography/Memoir
300 pages
Originally Published 1942 (my copy published in the 90s, with a foreword by Maya Angelou.)

This is my last review specifically for Black History Month, though I still have some African American books to read and review – a book about the African Americans who have served in the White House kitchens, and a book about Southern Food Culture, among others.

Zora Neale Hurston’s most famous work is Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I read in high school – and hated. I also strongly disliked The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, and unfortunately I have blended the two in my mind so much that I can’t remember what I hated about which book. I think it was The Color Purple that was written in a strong vernacular, but I’m not positive of that. It was twenty years ago!

Anyway. So I knew I didn’t like her fiction, but memoirs can be very different from fiction so I thought I’d give this a go. I didn’t hate this. But I didn’t like it, either. Hurston rambles from one subject to the next, going into so much imaginative detail at times that I have to skip back to pick up the line of actual story again. She has some questionable ideas about racial discrimination, seeming to ignore the idea of institutional racism, and dismissing the notion that white people are responsible for what their ancestors did. Or at least that individuals – even individuals as closely related as grandchildren – could be held individually responsible for their slave-owning grandparents. She even trotted out the “I wasn’t even born then, how could I be responsible?” that is the cry of many white people today who deny their privilege.

Maya Angelou, in her foreword, mentions this briefly – that Hurston had lived through race riots, and Jim Crow, but doesn’t mention any unpleasant racial incidents in her book, which is very odd. She does mention one – but it’s perpetrated by a black man, when he comes into the barber shop/salon that Hurston worked at and demanded to be served. (Only white people were served at this particular shop, but the owner had another shop uptown that served black people.) Hurston largely takes a stand against the black customer, complaining that had they served him, the owner (another black man) would have been driven out of business, and all his black employees with him, so how dare the customer value equality over all those jobs? Which is a decent point, but ignores that it’s white people that would have wrongly put them out of business for the so-called crime.

I was very disappointed that Hurston never really talked about the Jim Crow era in her book. I would have liked to see that from her perspective. I do think I’d like to read more memoirs from that era, as Hurston makes it seem largely peaceful and happy. And I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.

It’s an interesting book, but it seems Hurston is at least a slightly unreliable narrator. So take that into account if you read it, and remember it was published in the 1940s, so the way she talks about the “primitive Negro” and the ease with which she tosses around the N word (including from white people) is a product of its time.

This is my PopSugar 2018 Challenge pick for the prompt “an author from a different ethnicity than you.”

From the cover of Dust Tracks on a Road:

First published in 1942 at the crest of her popularity as a writer, this is Zora Neale Hurston’s imaginative and exuberant account of her rise from childhood poverty in the rural South to a prominent place among the leading artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance. The very personal, perhaps larger-than-life portrait that Hurston paints of herself offers a rare, poignant, and often audacious glimpse of the public and private persona of a very public and private artist, writer, anthropologist, and champion of black heritage. Dust Tracks on a Road is a book full of the wit and wisdom of a proud and spirited woman who started off low and climbed high: “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

Book Review: The Last Black Unicorn

blackunicornThe Last Black Unicorn
by Tiffany Haddish
Comedy/Memoir
276 pages
Published December 2017

I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since I saw Haddish’s interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. This woman is HILARIOUS. Somehow I didn’t realize she was in the movie Girls Night until I read about it in her book – I really do need to see that movie. That aside, this book was pretty great. It’s written in her speaking style, so it’s not technically correct grammar, but it SOUNDS right, which is more important in a memoir, in my opinion. It’s supposed to show the author’s personality, and this does.

I don’t know that I’d put this on quite the same level as Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime, or Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy, but it’s not far behind them. Haddish talks about her childhood in the foster system and then raised by her grandmother, her string of no-good boyfriends, and her abusive marriage. She’s had a rough life, but somehow she’s come out of it with a gift for comedy and a grounded personality.

Her swamp tour with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith is one of the most hilarious stories in the book, and one of the few that is purely funny. Most of them are underscored with a serious issue that make me feel a little bad for laughing at them, but Haddish laughs at them, so how can you not? It’s an interesting conflict that leaves me with slightly mixed feelings about the book.

It’s a pretty quick, easy, fun read, and if you like Tiffany Haddish, it definitely shows what she’s gone through to get where she is now.

From the cover of The Last Black Unicorn:

From stand-up comedian, actress, and breakout star of Girls Trip, Tiffany Haddish, comes The Last Black Unicorn, a sidesplitting, hysterical, edgy, and unflinching collection of (extremely) personal essays, as fearless as the author herself.

Growing up in one of the poorest neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, Tiffany learned to survive by making people laugh. If she could do that, then her classmates would let her copy their homework, the other foster kids she lived with wouldn’t beat her up, and she might even get a boyfriend. Or at least she could make enough money—as the paid school mascot and in-demand Bar Mitzvah hype woman—to get her hair and nails done, so then she might get a boyfriend.

None of that worked (and she’s still single), but it allowed Tiffany to imagine a place for herself where she could do something she loved for a living: comedy.

Tiffany can’t avoid being funny—it’s just who she is, whether she’s plotting shocking, jaw-dropping revenge on an ex-boyfriend or learning how to handle her newfound fame despite still having a broke person’s mind-set. Finally poised to become a household name, she recounts with heart and humor how she came from nothing and nowhere to achieve her dreams by owning, sharing, and using her pain to heal others.

By turns hilarious, filthy, and brutally honest, The Last Black Unicorn shows the world who Tiffany Haddish really is—humble, grateful, down-to-earth, and funny as hell. And now, she’s ready to inspire others through the power of laughter.

Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone

childrenChildren of Blood and Bone
Tomi Adeyemi
Fantasy
600 pages
Release date March 6, 2018

Have you ever reached the end of a book and yelled “NOOOOO!!!”? Because I just did. Children of Blood and Bone ends on a HUGE cliffhanger, and I’m even more upset about that than I would be normally – I got this book as an advanced reader’s copy through Goodreads. So not only do I have to wait for the sequel to come out, THIS BOOK ISN’T EVEN OUT YET. *screams internally*

That massive frustration aside, I LOVED THIS BOOK. African-inspired fantasy novels are starting to crop up, along with other non-European based fantasy, and I’m loving it. (You can find Russian inspired fantasy that I’ve read previously here and here, and Jewish/Arab fantasy here.) Adeyemi is a Nigerian-American author, and this is her debut novel. It definitely shows some hallmarks of a debut novel – the dialogue is a bit stilted in places, and it’s a little bit formulaic – but the world building is excellent.

Children of Blood and Bone is a story of oppression, and the sparks of a rebellion. I assume the rest of the trilogy will deal with the actual rebellion, but given the cliffhanger it ends on, I’m not actually sure of that. When Zélie, the main character, was very young, magic failed, and the king, who was afraid of maji, took the opportunity to kill every maji in his kingdom before they could find a way to regain their powers. Since then, every person who could have become a maji as they grew (they’re marked by their white hair) has been treated as a second-class citizen. They’re forced into slums, used as slave labor, kicked around by nobility and guards, made to pay higher taxes, and forbidden to breed with the other classes. They don’t have magic – and they have no way to get it – but they’re treated as trash by the king that hates them, and accordingly by the rest of his subjects.

At the beginning of the book, a magical artifact resurfaces that restores magic to any diviner (potential maji) that touches it. This, of course, is not okay with the king, and most of the book is about the race to use the magical artifact while being chased by the king’s son and his guards who are trying to destroy it. The conflicted prince has secrets of his own, though, and as the book weaves through jungles, mountains, and seas, he wavers in his mission.

It’s always difficult to review books without giving too much away about the plot, so I won’t say much more about the events. I really enjoyed that they rode giant cats – leopanaires. Zélie and her allies ride a lion leopanaire, which is apparently somewhat unusual. Most of the guards ride leopards or cheetahs, while the royal family rides snow leopanaires. The magic is unique, the gods and religion are beautifully fleshed out, and overall I just really loved this world, and I’m very sad it will be so long before I can dive back into it.

This is also my “Book published in 2018” for the Popsugar Reading Challenge.

From the cover of Children of Blood and Bone:

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were targeted and killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leopanaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers – and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Book Review: The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Historical Fiction
369 pages
Published 2014

The Invention of Wings is one of my PopSugar Reading Challenge books, for the prompt “A Book from a Celebrity Book Club.” It was Oprah’s 3rd pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Oprah interviewed Sue Monk Kidd in the January 2014 issue of O Magazine.

I can definitely see why Oprah was so affected by this book; the two main characters are Sarah Grimké, an early abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and Hetty Handful, the slave gifted to her by her mother when she turned 11. In an afterword, Kidd explains that she did try to stay mostly historically accurate, and Handful was gifted to Sarah when she was 11, though she apparently died not long after. In Kidd’s book, however, Handful survives. Sarah and her younger sister, Angelina, were real people, and really did most of what is ascribed to them in the book, though Kidd passes a couple of their deeds from one sister to the other. The Grimkés were from Charleston, South Carolina, and born into an aristocratic, slave-owning family headed by a prestigious judge. Their abolitionist actions get them exiled from Charleston and from their church. Meanwhile, Hetty, her ownership having returned to Sarah’s mother, dreams of freedom and plots rebellions of her own.

I was a little wary going into this book; I’ve read a couple of Oprah’s picks before, and generally found them dry and uninteresting. This one, though, was very well written. The voices of both women came through clearly, as did some of the brutality of slavery. Kidd also wrote The Secret Life of Bees, which got a lot of attention. If it’s anything like this, I might have to finally read that as well.

(I know the author is white, but I thought, being about slavery and abolition, it would still qualify for Black History Month.)

From the cover of The Invention of Wings:

A triumphant story about the quest for freedom and empowerment, Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel presents the extraordinary journeys of two unforgettable women: Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early-nineteenth century Charleston, and Sarah, the Grimkés’ idealistic daughter. 

Inspired in part by the historic figure of abolitionist and suffragette Sarah Grimké, Kidd’s novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. The Invention of Wings follows these two women over the next thirty-five years as both strive for lives of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement, and the uneasy ways of love.

 

Book Review: Kindred

kindredKindred
Octavia Butler
Historical Fiction
306 pages
Published 2004

I’m not really sure where to start with this book. It’s in that category of “classics that everyone should read” and having finally read it, I agree. It’s really, really, really good. It’s a hard read at times – it takes you right into the antebellum south and the heart of slavery. It’s actually set in Maryland, which is a little jarring for me – in today’s political climate, Maryland isn’t really considered part of “the south” – it’s far more liberal than most of the south. A blue state, where those are all red. But it WAS a slave state. It is below the Mason-Dixon line, and reading the wiki, slavery was actually legal here longer than it was in the south. (Mostly because the Emancipation Proclamation only covered the Confederate States, not the slave-holding Union states of Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland. That’s screwed up. You can’t have slaves, but it’s totally cool that the people that fought for us still keep them?)

So Kindred is set mostly in pre-Civil War Maryland, with a few scenes in modern-day California. The mystery of how Dana time-travels is never explained – but it doesn’t really need to be. That’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is a modern-day black woman transplanted to the antebellum south and learning to understand slavery in a very intimate manner. Dana mentions a couple of times how easy it is to forget that she has another life – that’s she’s a free black woman from the future – because the way they keep slaves in line doesn’t give you time to think past the present. You work too hard to think of the future, and if you don’t, all you can think about is the pain from your punishment for not working hard enough.

The book is a very visceral portrayal of a somewhat pampered slave’s life – she’s not a field hand, her masters are what passes for “kind.” Dana’s fellow slaves live in fear of being sold down south to Mississippi – they know Maryland is better. As hard as some of the scenes are to read, the book explicitly says it could be harder.

The conflict Dana feels between rescuing her white, slave-owning ancestor again and again, and standing back and letting nature take its course (but dooming herself) is one of the central points of the book. It’s a moral quandary that she never really answers.

Ultimately, there’s no way to do this book justice in a review. I think it should be required high school reading. More than that, I think it should be required reading for white people. And if you haven’t read it yet, you should. I knew on an intellectual level what slaves went through – but this book doesn’t look at it from a distance. It doesn’t divorce the reader from the violence. It puts the reader right there in the dirt of the yard with the whip exploding across Dana’s back.

I think it took me so long to get around to this book because it IS a classic. And so many classics I was forced to read in school were boring and dry and hard to read. I’m starting to find that some are classics because they’re just that good. Good and necessary and written about critically important topics. Kindred is one of them.

From the cover of Kindred:

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.

Book Review: Born a Crime

bornacrimeBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Trevor Noah
Memoir
285 pages
Published 2016

I read this book, though I’d really like to listen to the audio book version. It’s narrated by Trevor Noah himself, and apparently very, very good. I totally believe that – the man is hilarious on The Daily Show. I still really enjoyed the stories Noah told, though I wish he’d gotten more into his journey as a comedian, and not just his childhood and teenage years.

Noah has an uncanny way of explaining background information that you need to know while not giving away the (actually somewhat obvious in hindsight) punchline. Even the background information is told in an extremely entertaining way – you can feel Noah’s everpresent grin through the pages. Even though the book begins (and sort of ends) on a sad note, the book itself is a happy, optimistic one. I didn’t laugh myself silly, like the next book I read (Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy), but I did have to giggle and read parts to my husband. (And he actually laughed at them, instead of looking at me like I was insane, which is what happened with Furiously Happy.)

I’ve been a fan of Trevor Noah’s since shortly after he took over The Daily Show, and this was an interesting peek at his background, and the very different culture he grew up in. I highly recommend this book.

Incidentally, I spotted someone reading Born A Crime at the Atlanta airport on the way home from Christmas vacation in my hometown, so this one knocks off the PopSugar category “book that was being read by a stranger in a public place”! This is also my first review for Black History Month.

From the cover of Born A Crime:

Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The stories collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.