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.
In 1963, James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, a book about race in America. More than half a century later, Jesmyn Ward soberly reflects in her introduction, “It is as if we have reentered the past and are living in a second Nadir: It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era. There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s been estimated that an African American is now killed by police every two to three days.”
In The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, contributors including Edwidge Danticat, Kiese Laymon, Daniel José Older, Claudia Rankine, and Isabel Wilkerson pick up where Baldwin’s book left off. Most of the essays look to the past, several consider the present, and a couple look to the future. Considering we’re living in a period where it’s still considered radical to insist that black lives matter, the publication of this collection couldn’t be more timely.
In past blog posts, I’ve mentioned that I hate books written in epistolary format. And in each of those posts, I admitted that I enjoyed the epistolary-formatted book in question. I guess it’s time to grudgingly concede that, no, I probably don’t hate epistolary novels (but yes, I still do hate Dear Mr. Henshaw).
For her writing debut, actress Mary-Louise Parker — probably best known for her starring role as Nancy Botwin in Weeds — has released a memoir that’s presented as a series of letters to different men in her life. Her fierce love for her father is a big theme throughout the book, but she acknowledges men both real and symbolic who have nonetheless shaped the person she is. She doesn’t usually name names — the letters are addressed to people such as “Movement Teacher,” “Lifeline,” and “Future Man Who Loves My Daughter” — but whether she’s writing about specific or hypothetical interactions, a startling amount of her own history is revealed.
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel
Publisher/Year: Riverhead, 2013
What it is: A collection of eleven strange short stories related to the cycle of life. The stories are organized into four themes: birth, gestation, conception, and love.
Why I read it: Ausubel has been on my radar for a while now; I’m still dying to read her first book, No One Is Here Except All of Us. Since I’m a fan of short stories (especially weird ones), I wanted to give this a try.
What I thought: This was an uneven collection for me, but there’s no denying that Ausubel is an amazing writer. Many of the stories have elements of magical realism, but even the ones that don’t have something strange in them. Either way, they all illustrate various elements of human nature in unexpected ways. Some of my favorites were “Poppyseed,” about a couple who decides to subject their mentally disabled eight-year-old daughter to a hysterectomy (probably the most twisted story in the collection, but also the one with the most haunting impact on me); “Atria,” story with fantastical elements about a teen who claims she got pregnant as the result of a made-up rape rather than a one-time fling; and “Tributaries,” about a community of people who grow an extra arm every time they fall in love.
Would appeal to: Aimee Bender & Miranda July fans.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher/Year: Scribner, 2003 (Originally published in 1925)
What it is: Nick Carraway moves into a modest little house along the Long Island Sound for the summer and gets drawn in by his mysterious next-door neighbor, a self-made millionaire named Jay Gatsby who’s known for his lavish parties. Meanwhile, Gatsby is madly in love with Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan; the two have a history together. Daisy is already married, but Gatsby hopes his newfound wealth and dazzling success will be enough to win her back.
Why I read it: It’s been on my shelves forever and I never had to read it in high school, making me feel like one of the few people on Earth who had never read the book. Basically, I wanted to get to it before I saw Luhrmann’s movie.
What I thought: Meh. I know this is terrible, but this is one of those rare occasions where I liked the movie better (and why not dig myself deeper: I also think the cover is fugly). I know it’s a classic, plus green light symbolism and contemporarily-relevant themes and blah blah blah, but…*shrug*.
If you’re a fan, you might also like: The Great Lenore by J.M. Tohline, which draws inspiration from The Great Gatsby. I read it last year before having read Gatsby, and in retrospect, I appreciate elements of The Great Lenore much more now that I have a better frame of reference for it. (Also in retrospect? I like Lenore more than Gatsby. So there.)
Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture by Daniel Mendelsohn
Publisher/Year: New York Review Books, 2012
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
What it is: An eclectic collection of essays that analyzes everything from Greek mythology, to people’s endless fascination with memoirs, to the endless praise bestowed upon Mad Men.
Why I read it: I always enjoy Mendelsohn’s essays when I encounter them online, but I had never read a proper collection of them.
What I thought: I was tortured by The Iliad and The Odyssey not once but twice in high school and have been allergic to most Greek literature ever since (not counting philosophy). So those essays didn’t stand for me out as much as the rest of the book, but that has 100% to do with me and 0% to do with Mendelsohn. (However, ancient Greece is Mendelsohn’s particular area of expertise, so people who enjoy Greek literature would probably be in heaven.) I absolutely loved everything else. Having followed the media coverage of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man brouhaha, “Why She Fell” was definitely one one my favorite essays, as was “The Wizard” (about James Cameron’s Avatar). Another one I enjoyed was “Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar;” I had no idea about Wilde’s academic background and found this aspect of his history fascinating. The last two sections of the book — about literature and memoir — were fascinating and added tons of books to my to-read list. I particularly loved his review of Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone (which I read last year but never reviewed because every time I sat down to write, I just ended up going, “Oh, Jonathan…what are we going to do with you?”). Mendelsohn’s critiques are all intelligent, engaging, and eloquently written. It’s a beautiful collection.
Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America by Gustavo Arellano
Publisher/Year: Scribner, 2012
What it is: An exploration of Mexican food’s slow entry into the American mainstream. It also raises interesting questions about cultural appropriation and the definition of “authentic.”
Why I read it: I wanted to see what Arellano would say about the food of my people: Tex-Mex. (That, and I just like Arellano.)
What I thought: Taco USA is endlessly entertaining and will make you endlessly hungry. As with many other things in the history of this country, Mexican food has existed in the US as long as Mexicans have been here; it was just looked down upon as an exotic curiosity until someone (read: someone white and wealthy) was in a position to elevate its status and introduce it to the mainstream. Case in point: taco wagons and tamale carts manned by Mexicans? Dirty and cheap. Food trucks? Hipster gold. Arellano also argues that Mexico is such a diverse country and Mexican food is such a weird product of so many cultures that addressing authenticity is kind of pointless. In his book, if it’s been influenced in any way at all by Mexican culture, it’s Mexican food. Maybe not good Mexican food, but Mexican food nonetheless. One of my favorite aspects of the book was its exploration of the mass-marketing of various Mexican foods. Two words: canned tortillas (shudder). As for Tex-Mex? Mexicans in South Texas gave the world fajitas, and Mexicans in San Antonio gave the world chili. So stop denigrating Tex-Mex!