A unique and sometimes frightening story with a surprising ending, this is another tale of the lengths to which people of color will go to pass for white to gain the benefits of whiteness. For one New England family this has succeeded quite well by sending a too dark daughter back South to live with relatives and never allowing her to come to the town where the rest of the family lives. It fails when a too dark child is born and the parents keep her with them. It is also a tale of gender identity and how rape and abuse can destroy and deform and of resilience in the face of endless obstacles. This is not an ordinary novel.
Book a Week-20: “Sankofa”, Chibundu Onuzo
After her mother dies, Anna searches through her mother’s belongings and discovers a hidden diary written by the African father she never knew and about whom her white mother, who never married, told her nearly nothing. She travels to Scotland to have the diary authenticated by an expert, researches, and discovers her father had to return to Africa, became a revolutionary, and then president (or dictator, depending on the source) of a small African nation. She also learns that he is still alive.
Leaving behind a daughter and white husband from whom she is separated, Anna decides to travel to Africa to find her father. Treated unequally as a biracial child in England, in Africa she is seen as “obroni”, white. Thus, the book addresses issues of racial identity, family acceptance (she does find her father) and belonging, and tells a tale of the adventures of a middle-aged woman in search of self.
One Book a Week-19: “The Round House”, Louise Erdrich
Winner of the National Book Award in 2012, and narrated by the 12-13 year old son of a tribal judge and a professional, tribal woman, this novel details the story of a family nearly destroyed by the brutal attack on the boy’s mother. Even after the identity of the attacker is known, he is set free because she will not tell or cannot recall where the attack occurred, whether on tribal land or just outside its boundary. This leads to the boy’s determined quest to obtain justice for his mother. This page turner perfectly illustrates the continual problem of justice for indigenous women who are 2-3 times more likely to be raped (and often killed in the process) than white women and with no one ever charged.
Given the seriousness of the novel, it is surprisingly funny at times with the antics of teen boys and other characters, including some colorful and interesting older tribal members and an ex-Marine priest. The reader will also learn a lot about Ojibwa culture. Once you start, you have to keep going in hopes that somehow justice will prevail in the end.
One Book a Week-18: “If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English”, Noor Naga
Identity politics remains at the heart of this unusual novel. Written in three parts, One portrays a “love” affair between an Egyptian American woman who has gone to Cairo to find her Egyptian self and an unemployed, revolution (as in Arab Spring) photographer who alternates between living in a rooftop shack and homelessness. Each vignette starts with a question and alternates between the voice of the woman and the man, expressing their viewpoints on life, love, and their situation. Part Two is the same except without the “headline” question. Part Three is a big surprise–a discussion, written as a play, a critique of the rest of the novel among the author, an instructor, and several “students”.
I loved this book in part because it enabled me to learn a lot about Egyptian cultures, but also because I found it thought provoking and intriguing.
One Book a Week-17: “Olive, Again”, Elizabeth Strout
Never having read the first book about Olive, the book that won the Pulitzer for Strout, I did not know what to expect. As I read, I often laughed out loud and then later thought, “What!” Olive is quite the character, sometimes almost blunt to the point of cruelty, sometimes unexpectedly considerate and kind, and always strongly opinionated about things I did not expect. She also has the ability to sometimes look at herself accurately and question herself, which would seem to be a good characteristic. Olive goes on in spite of numerous setbacks, mishaps, and illnesses, including the realities of old age. Strout’s portrayal of some of these realities seems stark, almost brutal. Yes, it’s accurate and she’s good at it, but I kept thinking, “Do I really want to read this?” If I get like this, they can just shoot me. But they won’t.
One Book a Week-16, “The Promise”, Damon Galgut
Winner of the 2021 Booker Prize, this novel illustrates the dismal consequences of colonialism and racism. South Africa before and after apartheid comes alive in this story about an Afrikaner family whose matriarch dies young enough to leave her husband with three children, only one of whom is old enough to be on his own. In her dying, she returns to her Jewish roots much to the horror of her husband and many others. Her youngest daughter overhears her dying wish which her husband promises to fulfill even though he has no intention of doing so. This remains an underlying thread, the promise which this daughter never forgets.
The difficult, often prejudiced and unequal, relations between the races underpins the actions of most of the characters, leading a few to greater humanity and kindness, but most into lives of loss, disappointment, and anger.
One Book a Week-15: “Oh, William”, Elizabeth Strout
Told from the point of view of the main character, Lucy, in first person, the simple language the author uses as Lucy tells her story, reflections, and anecdotes belies the deep knowledge of marriage, parenthood, the entire human condition underlying this novel. Two once married individuals go on a trip to Maine to learn about a relative one did not even know he had until he received the results of a casual DNA test, a gift he did not originally take all that seriously. They’ve been married and then divorced for years and have two daughters together. In spite of their best efforts to the contrary, they remain connected even when they find each other a mystery.
A rather simple story, written in plain language, holds the following piece of wisdom–Lucy’s words which end the novel:
“Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!
Except a little tiny bit we do. But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.
This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.”
National Poetry Month: 1: The Kingdom of Trees
An essence within the heart of trees
allows them to communicate
with other trees to
-aid each other when disturbed
-send secret signals, warnings to other trees
-express pain, sympathy.
The kingdom of trees now cries
worldwide in pain,
watching each other’s murders.
land laid naked, nature destroyed.
Note: I wrote this poem last year. It is published in the anthology, “Writing Through The Apocalypse, Pandemic Poetry and Prose”,
Editor: Marcia Meier
One Book a Week-13: Blue Desert, Celia Jeffries
As an ardent reader who prefers what are usually referred to as literary novels and serious non-fiction, few books impact me deeply and emotionally like this one has. As soon as I finished it, I reread parts of it several times, then sat silently stunned.
After her family moves to North Africa for her father’s work, an 18 year old British girl, rescued by a Taureg leader, is believed dead by her family until she resurfaces years later at a Catholic “home” run by nuns in North Africa. She re-enters British society, marries, leads a relatively “normal” life while keeping a secret for decades. When she receives a telegram, “Abu is dead”, everything changes. Her past comes rushing back in unexpected ways.
One Book a Week-12: The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris
The immeasurable horrors of slavery and the immediate years after come excruciatingly alive in this novel. Decent white people help recently freed brothers but at a terrible price. A “forbidden” romance between two Confederate soldiers highlights the destructiveness of class and hatred. Yet, in spite of the despair and cruelty, resilience, decency, and tenderness prevail in the end. Long listed for the Booker Prize, this detailed and beautifully written novel remains true to some of the most painful parts of US history.