Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Cradle

Interesting little muse and character study coupled with a little mystery and chase around the Midwest.

The Cradle, a first novel by Patric Somerville, was a satisfying little morsel during a really rainy St. Louis week. The book has several little vignettes centered around a Civil War cradle that the protagonist's wife is sure will make everything complete. The completeness comes not in wood but in what life crafted for them in the end.

I read this almost in one sitting, drawn in by his use of multiple stories that interconnected. It subtly reminded me that we truly are only six degrees separated from other people. One does not experience their story without the paragraphs of this life touching the sentences of another's life.

Matt, in the end, did not bring home what sent him driving through rain and snow and meeting weird characters that populate any family. He ended up with something more and yet, I closed the book longing to know what happened to the other people who invaded my thoughts.

This little novel talked about children, in more ways than a children's novel ever could. It reminded me that every thing we do intersects and has implications for the future. We are all left wondering "why" and "what if" and "how about" at some point in our life. Decisions we make are not in a vacuum, they do affect lives and lives and lives.

The Cradle was more than a quest to find something to put a new baby to sleep, it was a quest to find the missing answers for a son put up for adoption, written during one war, given up during a previous generation's war. It was also the story of how the Boomers affected the lives of the Millennials even when they were still figuring out which way to go.

We can try to reinvent ourselves and rewrite the chapters of our story, but in the end, we are still left trying to answer the question of "why" and "what happened" and "which way to go" and "how do I do that."

I read this book thinking about choices I made in my previous years, my teenage and young twenties. Decisions that affect me now, even as I prepare to be a Me'Me' to my son's incubating children. There is a part of me that longs to have something from my infancy to pass on to this next generation, much like Matt wanted to give to his wife Marissa. Yet, what we pass on is often not concrete but fluid, living, and hopeful, just like the story left me.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thoughts From A True Bookie

I normally use this space to review books and will probably throw in thoughts on a few books I've read recently. Today, however, there is something on my mind about the whole Wal*Mart, Target, Amazon online price wars along with the whole Kindle, Nook, Alex e-reader electronic war. All the noise in the marketplace is really making me mad about the thing I love a lot - books, words, bookstores.

Now, I've talked in my blog, The Musings of a Latte Queen, before about my favorite bookseller, Pudd N'Head Books. Nikki recently celebrated the first birthday of the store. This is not an easy feat for any entrepreneur but even less easy for independent booksellers in this crowded and noisy landscape.

As an ex-marketing person, I completely understand the psychological war that the big guns are waging for the attention of fleeting readers. Most real book lovers do not look to the bestsellers list or chain stores for their literary fix. I certainly do not choose Wal*Mart first.

Yes, they, along with Target, Border's, Barnes & Noble, and even Sears (?) offer discounted books, those previously out-of-print, or new authors at reduced prices. I thoroughly enjoyed The Wednesday Sisters that I picked up at Target while shopping for toilet paper and paper towels. So I get the psychology of discounted prices for books tucked into the same cart with the Method dish soap and All laundry detergent. It is convenience for a nation that barely reads above the eighth grade level.

My angst, however, is that it will hurt the industry overall.

Wal*Mart is notorious for winning any price war (anyone remember the demise of the iconic FAO Schwartz back in 2003?) and it is bad business thinking to try to go after that behemoth on price. I almost laughed at the Huffington Post article that said once Amazon offered best sellers for $10, Wal*Mart countered with $9, then Target did $8.99 and then Wal*Mart responded with $8.98.

As if a true book lover will drive all the way over there to save a penny? It is on the heals of sharing cake with Nikki yesterday that I am just even more disgusted with the big blue box. Even if ordering online, that is just ridiculous. These stores do not value books the way I do, the way Pudd N'Head Books or Left Bank Books does. They would never ban together to bring in authors like Ron Currie, Jr. for a book reading. They would never email or call me with news of a new book in my favorite genre. They just don't get it.

I love boutiques. There is something magical that happens when I walk into Nikki's store and she greets me with her smile and a new book. She reads, actually reads books, as does her staff. She has a children's book expert that has endeared herself to my eight-year-old daughter. They know us. She knows that my daughter is only in 2nd grade but reads like a 4th and 5th grader. She smiled understandably when my daughter gave up her last $3 to help pay for the second installment of The Doll People. Only a true booklover can understand the desire to curl up under a warm blanket and be transported away to a writer's imagination.

The book wars are all about business. Capitalism gone wrong as the huffpo article suggested. It is not about me, the avid reader. It is not about finding new talent, there are millions of up and coming writers who crave for a spot on a shelf, crowded out by the war for the "best sellers". Where on this list is Angel of Harlem or Let The Lion Eat Straw or even The Cradle that I'm reading right now? Who decides what is a "best seller" and why should we care?

Care because books hold knowledge. Variety. Introduction to new lands and protagonists that capture one's heart and live in the soul. Care because if the only place to buy books was Wal*Mart, we would all be in a real literary desert. Care because some things are really worth the $25 price for a hardcover, first edition novel. Think about the independent bookseller who is part of the fiber and fabric of a neighborhood. And the author who has poured her soul into the words on paper. What about the publisher who took a chance on an unknown for the benefit of a great story?

This is the time for real book lovers to stand up, even quasi readers. There is a place for customer service and personal shopping and listening to authors read their works and even giving up one's last $3 to purchase a book when you are only eight.

There is a lifelong affinity being developed in my daughters and I do not want the big boy stores crowding them out. Just like FAO Schwartz, some places are legendary and need to exist.

This book lover can not be swayed to a cheap imitation of literary delight!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"God Forms Our Blue Songs"

She rests with me, at times she is me. I am speaking of Abebe in the classic book, Let The Lion Eat Straw.

This wonderful treasure, celebrating its 30th anniversary, is by Professor Ebele Oseye. I think she came to my life at just the right time, to let me know, that tomorrow is still full of time.

Abebe lived the life of many black women of her time, and also of our time. Too often, the needs and wants of others can overshadow the needs and dreams of ones soul. Such is the life of Abebe.

She was blissfully happy in sandy,North Carolina eating boiled peanuts catching the old soul of her grandmother, not her grandmother. Her mother, up in the cold and rat infested north was hunting down a different life. Five years go by before the mother, Angela comes to get the little girl and her life with the midwife. She whisks her away to trains and dark streets, noise and indoor toilets, and her New York Daddy.

Arthur Lavoisier turned out to be the sunshine to radiate hope and promise and life to this girl. Her mother, Angela, was noticeably distant and emotionally cruel to her, despite her deep love. Perhaps her mother resented her daughter, or as often happens, the circumstances surrounding the conception of the daughter. Yet, it was not the daughter's cause.

The father showered her and protected her so his death upset her soul in ways that only came out when she named one of her future sons for this man, her father, yet, not her father. The soul love of the father protected her in her teenage years from what would be her mother's wrath. The piano followed her throughout her life, the reminder of that deep conviction and acceptance a father gives a daughter.

Angela wanted a very different life from the Brooklyn surrounding her daughter. She didn't allow her to date, kept her looking like a little girl, even in high school, and insisted that she attend the music conservatory. It was never to happen because "that country boy" took over Abebe's life with the deep and Paul Robeson-essence-of-his-voice. Their measurements found in the black and white keys, ended up entwining them for life.

Daniel Torch changed Abebe's life forever, and her mother never forgave her.

He married her and immediately she became pregnant. True to the soothsayer's message that her mother sought right after Daniel sang, Abebe did go down a very different path.

In the end, after journeying through her asthma attacks and her life as wife and mother, all along I kept hoping she would find that trace of her dream. She wrote a play that was performed, yet, circumstances never allowed her to write another one.

I could feel the longing of her heart along with the quiet acceptance of everything life brought her way. Her weariness settled on me like a blanket on this cold October day. She made me long to have the dreams that filled my young girl heart and to hear my father's strong voice again.

This book is set in a time when most black women did not have the choice of a college education. Brooklyn was still packed with blacks from the south seeking better opportunities, trying to shed any traces of their "country" roots. Wanting to don an attire replete with sophistication, absent the stifling poverty, backbreaking menial work, and crushing racism that was thick like the smoke.

Written in poetic lyrics reminiscent of Toni Morrison's later work, A Mercy, this book is a must read. I finished it in a couple days and still relish the sweet muse. This was one cherished gift from a friend.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Soothing Sisterhoods

Some things just go down sweetly like the golden yummy of Black Madonna's honey. Such has been my recent morsel of fiction, The Wednesday Sisters. I really enjoyed the ensemble characters and frankly, did not expect to like it as much as I did. The story and the women have settled in my heart, much like the ensemble characters from Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees.

The setting of both books was during the tumultuous times of the 1960s. One was early in the decade and in the south, the other was later in the decade as its moonlight faded to the sunrise of the 1970s and in the far west. Each was set against the backdrop of history being made that ultimately shaped the women and in many ways, shaped my world today. Who would have known that the challenges women faced then could transcend their race? I never expected this, I entered the reading of The Wednesday Sisters as a prep for reading The Help later this fall.

I am like many black women in their mid-forties, not a feminist. I coin the phrase my elder sister and husband gave me, womanist. I am a firm believer in the possibilities of my gender, despite the continuing limitations that men attempt to place on us. My father never raised me to believe I could only fit into certain boxes, he made me take Algebra just as he made my brothers.

The women in both books developed these deep and lasting connections through the universal sorority. In The Secret Life of Bees, it was the Black Madonna and the girl, Lily, who found connection in the Boatright sisters and in The Wednesday Sisters, it was motherhood and a neighborhood park that connected these unrelated women. I found myself in all of them.

I think one thing that watered my palette for each book was that they were writers. Lily, the little girl struggling to overcome personal tragedy and find her voice. Frankie, Ally, Brett, Linda, Kath, all finding sense of their limitations through a sharing of words. Each of these women spoke to the known need of opening up our vulnerabilities for someone else, hidden from view much like Brett's scared hands, ensconced in white gloves, protecting from harsh criticism. The women all seemingly understood each's desire for more than the times would give.

August almost missed out on the love of her life through her defiant stance of not wanting to be boxed into the role marriage brought the women of Palo Alto. Brett should have been an astronaut, Linda secretly wanted to burn her bra and march with the burgeoning feminist movement, Frankie played tug-of-war with her own sense of inadequacies because she didn't have a college degree like the other women. In the 1960s, white women went to college to get a husband, black women, those who were able like August Boatright, went to college to get a future.

The five women of The Wednesday Sisters almost wanted me to shout at them for their sheltered world, their ease of life, even with husbands just beginning their careers, even despite Ally's secret Indian husband, these women did not have the life challenges of their contemporaries in The Secret Life of Bees. None of them had to worry about their sons being arrested in the movie theatre or simply shunned for the color of their skin. Yet, like them I did and do, they all feel like new friends, like women I understand.

Both books are ones I'd recommend to anyone who wanted something soothing and satisfying. Each lends itself to a book club discussion as issues of the Civil Rights Era and the Women's Movement stormed through all parts of America. The tomorrows these women could only hope for their sons and daughters was being shaped by their brave steps against conformity.

Kath probably never divorced Lee, despite her eventual successful career in publishing. Ally along with her finally-born children probably continued to get stares because of their multicultural family during a time such a thing was still illegal in the hearts, despite overturned laws. Frankie and Brett became the future shaping authors I hope to become. Linda took the veil off breast cancer and showed that a woman is more than her breasts and her hair. They will stay with me, just as the death of May hurt my heart, the strength of June as a business owner and woman who chose her freedom over a man, and the eventual understanding of August that she could both change the world and have love continue to stay with me long after the book was closed.

I love good books. Stories that I keep on my list to share with my girls when they reach each. Our lives can be shaped by the words of others, through the shared experiences of history and moments of testing. These stories are as clearly comforting as the organic white tea that warms my soul on a cold October evening.

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