Fresh out of college in the early 1970s, a naive and bright-eyed Jessica B. Harris began teaching French at Queens College in New York. A new wave of Black intelligentsia was forming, and though Harris was considered a little too young and bourgois for colleagues to fully embrace her, she did manage to develop a friendship with the undeniably cool Samuel Clemens Floyd III, an older, magnetic professor at the college.
That friendship turned into a years-long romance filled with food and travel and creativity, all made possible by Sam’s close friendship with “Jimmy” — James Baldwin. Harris was younger than Sam’s crowd of artists and literati, but as Sam’s girl, she was allowed entry into a world few ever got to see. In My Soul Looks Back, she recounts her years on this periphery of Black genius. Toni Morrison had written The Bluest Eye but was still an editor at Random House, Roots was about to be published, Nina Simone occasionally dropped in on Jimmy’s parties, and Dr. Angelou was still “Maya” (who also happened to be Sam’s former lover). Everyone was poised for greatness, and Harris was there on the outer edges. Just like at Queens College, she was the outsider, the young one, but there to witness everything nonetheless.
Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78. His relationship with her was always complicated, as was his grief over her death. This memoir, composed through 78 essays and 78 poems, teases out those complexities.
Alexie and his three siblings were raised by two alcoholic parents; they would throw crazy parties at their home where the very presence of some of their guests was potentially dangerous, and his mother in particular could get violent when drunk. Alexie recounts some alcohol-fueled scenes from their childhood that literally endangered their safety. After one particularly terrifying episode, his mother vowed that she would never drink again, and she kept that promise, a decision Alexie credits with being the reason he is still alive.
Be that as it may, Lillian was still far from perfect. She was a liar and an abusive woman; she and her son went through various levels of estrangement through the years. She was a terrible mother at times, and as an adult, he refers to himself as a terrible son. But he loved her nonetheless, and these emotional dichotomies are what make the book.
I’m doing Read Harder 2017. I would have read both of these books anyway, but it just so happens that they both work for Task 3 (read a book about books).
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch
Publisher/Year: Harper, 2011
What it is: After the sudden death of her older sister, a reeling Nina Sankovitch turns to books for solace. She and her sister frequently traded and discussed books, and on her forty-sixth birthday, Nina begins a literary journey and healing process: she’ll read one book a day for a year and write about every single one. This book is a memoir of that year.
Why I read it: Confession: I got this as an advance copy…6 years ago. I’d always been meaning to read it — when it came out, it was very popular in the book blogosphere — but I just never got around to it until this year.
What I thought: I read anywhere from 75-100 books a year depending on how hectic life gets. I think the most I ever read was 134. So I’m thoroughly impressed with anyone who can read more than that, and being able to read a book a day — and actually sticking with it — is just mind-blowing to me. The complete list at the end of the book is impressive. As for the book itself? It was just okay. She writes a lot about her family history, then ties in the books she read according to the theme of the chapter. It’s occasionally repetitive, and I would have liked more about the books themselves. She’s a lovely writer with beautiful sentences, but insight-wise, I wished she’d pushed it further. It all felt too tidy.
A little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. when the oral arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt were presented before the Supreme Court. I’m a clinic escort at one of the clinics that was central to the case, and after two frustrating years of political ping pong, it felt good to just stand outside the Supreme Court and rally with our people. In the midst of it all, I spotted Dr. Willie Parker nearby, at which point I fangirled hard and ran over to ask to take a selfie with him.
In the reproductive justice world, Dr. Parker has celebrity status. He’s an outspoken black abortion provider in the South, and after being featured in Dawn Porter’s documentary, Trapped — which, by the way, is on Netflix — he became an even more recognizable figure in the fight for abortion access. He’s also an outspoken Christian who applies his religious beliefs as a type of liberation theology towards reproductive justice. It’s a radically different take on what people imagine in regards to abortion clinics and religion (trust me: as a clinic escort, I see and hear the shaming, fire-and-brimstone versions of “Christianity” outside the clinic with relative frequency).
Ayelet Waldman suffered from severe mood swings for years. She went through a lot trying to get a diagnosis — she was even misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder for a few years — and she dutifully participated in therapy and tried almost every medication out there. That worked to varying degrees, but it was all taking a toll on her life and her marriage.
In the midst of this, Waldman heard about an experimental treatment in which people microdose with LSD. At about 10% of a typical dose, people who microdose don’t feel any of LSD’s trippy effects and instead begin to experience…nothing. The doses are too minuscule to cause any discernible mood alteration. And yet, the little research that does exist on microdosing points to its usefulness in treating mood disorders and illnesses like PTSD.
A Really Good Day is part memoir, part investigation on the LSD and drug laws in the United States. Waldman, a self-described nerd and chicken when it comes to breaking the law, chronicles the events that led to her finally receiving a little blue vial of diluted LSD in the mail from “Lewis Carroll.” As a former lawyer who often represented clients accused of drug-related offenses, Waldman had personal experiences with drug laws that gave her book some unique insights.