Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward*****

WheretheLineBleedsWard is a force to be reckoned with, a literary power house whose books everyone should read. I read the third book in this trilogy, the National Book Award winning Sing, Unburied, Sing last summer, and then I knew I had to read everything else she had ever written. When I saw that this title, the first in the same trilogy, was being released again and that review copies were available, it seemed like Christmas. Many thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. This book was released again last week and is now for sale.

Twins Christophe and Joshua are graduating from high school, exuberant and full of plans for the future. The sole source of tension, a longstanding one that is integral to their deepest senses of self, is whether their mother, Cille, will put in an appearance. She lives in Atlanta, but she might come home to see them walk. Then again, she might not. They assure each other that really, only Ma-mee matters. Ma-mee is their grandmother, but she is the one that raised them since they were tiny; in fact, their grandmother really wanted them, and their mother really didn’t.

When their graduation present arrives—a used but still nice car for the two of them to share—they snicker to one another and say this means Cille isn’t coming. She’s done with them for sure now, bought her way out of a personal appearance. But Joshua still hopes; Joshua still longs for her.

Their father, Samuel, lives locally, and it is at him their anger is unequivocally directed. Known as the Sandman, he is beneath the contempt of even the most humble local citizens, a meth addict with a mouth full of rotting teeth that will do anything, no matter how humiliating or unprincipled, for even the smallest sum of drug money. Samuel has never pitched in a dime to help Ma-mee raise them, but now that they are adults—at least officially—he has come sniffing around.  The twins’ rage toward him is measureless.

The thing that makes this story so visceral, so moving, and so deeply absorbing is the character development and the complexity of the relationships between and among the twins and the two women. Cille’s insensitivity makes me punch my pillow a couple of times. Can she not see how little food they have, despite their proud claim to be fine, just fine?  Every gesture, every word is weighted with meaning. No statement, no financial transaction, no arrival or departure is without weight. The blues festival Cille has planned to attend as part of her vacation—to which the twins are of course not invited—and the money carelessly dropped on a rental car could go so much farther to help her elderly mother, who is legally blind now, but instead she leaves Ma-mee to her eighteen year old sons to care for. They both assume they will be able to get jobs once they have high school diplomas; they have no police record, and they’re not too proud to apply at fast food outlets and other retail locations.

The best jobs to be had are on the docks, but not everyone can get one. Their cousin observes, “Everybody and they mama want a job at the pier and the shipyard. Everybody want a job down there can’t get one.”

And so  “reality [rolled] over them like an opaque fog…” Joshua, the lighter of the twins, is hired, but Christophe can’t get a job there or anywhere else.  And so a new division is born, and a new source of tension develops. Joshua feels guilty, apologetic, and yet as time goes on, as he sweats for long hours in the Mississippi summer sun carrying chicken guts and who knows what else, his brother absents himself and comes home high; he sleeps into the day, and sometimes shows up late to pick Joshua up from work.  He’s given in to his cousin’s invitation to deal drugs, and that puts everyone at risk.

Over and again, I can see that the twins are still children. Young men don’t grow up quickly anymore. They are children emotionally and developmentally until their mid-twenties, and yet this burden is Joshua and Christopher’s to carry; the choices they make are not the choices of criminals or saints, but the choices of children. Yet they carry the burdens of men, and they are aware this is because of the defection of their mother.

Ward’s more recent work is even better written than this one, and yet it’s harsher, too; I had to put it down from time to time, because it was getting dark out there. This story in contrast is one I could read for hours on end, and I did. There’s violence aplenty as well as tragedy, but this is a reality I can look at without flinching, and that’s worth a great deal too.

 

Highly recommended to those that love outstanding literary fiction, African-American fiction, Southern fiction, and family stories.

I Can’t Breathe, by Matt Taibbi*****

“Try to imagine a world where there isn’t a vast unspoken consensus that black men are inherently scary, and most of these police assaults would play in the media like spontaneous attacks of madness. Instead, they’re sold as battle scenes from an occupation story, where a quick trigger finger while patrolling the planet of a violent alien race is easy to understand.”

ICantBreathe
I received an advance review copy of I Can’t Breathe: A Killing On Bay Street, courtesy of Random House and Net Galley. I had expected this civil rights title to be a good read but also to be anticlimactic, coming out as it did just after publications by literary lions like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Angela Davis. I am surprised and gratified to see that Taibbi, a journalist for Rolling Stone, holds his own quite capably. The title is for sale, and if you care about justice and an end to cop violence in the US, then you should get it and read it.

Many readers will recognize the title, which constitutes Eric Gardner’s last words and became a rallying cry for protests that spanned the globe. Why would any cop, especially one not acting alone, find it necessary to put an elderly man, a large person but not a violent one, in a choke hold over what was, after all, a misdemeanor at most? Taibbi takes us down the terrible urban rabbit hole, deftly segueing from Garner’s story, the events that led up to his death and the legal and political fight that took place afterward, to the cop killings of others, and the bizarre, farcical prosecution that takes place in the unlikely event that a cop is ever charged with having unlawfully killed another person.

Though my own life is free from this type of harassment and though I benefit from White privilege and have done so since birth, I found it hard to breathe myself as I read Garner’s story, and the behind-the-scenes machinations that result in the maintenance of the status quo. And I trembled, and still do, for the Black men in my family.

I think many people over the age of 40 understand that the attacks we see publicized online, one by one, Black boys and men that have done either nothing wrong or committed a minor offense that most Caucasian people would never be stopped for, have been taking place for a very long time. What we didn’t have was proof; what we didn’t have was the long view that allows us to see into cities, rural areas, and small towns in America such as Ferguson, where Michael Brown was killed. And there’s one other thing: we didn’t have to look at it before if it wasn’t happening in our own community, our own neighborhood. Even those of us with racially mixed families didn’t see the scope of it. Some would prefer not to know.

Here’s Taibbi’s take on how it unspooled:

“The civil rights movement ended in a kind of negotiated compromise. Black Americans were granted legal equality, while white America was allowed to nurture and maintain an illusion of innocence, even as it continued to live in almost complete separation. Black America always saw the continuing schism, but white America has traditionally been free to ignore and be untroubled by it and to believe it had reached the “postracial” stage of its otherwise proud history. That was until cell phones and the internet came along. When the murder of Eric Garner hit the headlines, it at first seemed to lift the veil.”

Taibbi’s smooth narrative and expert pacing doesn’t make this any easy book to read; nothing can. If it’s easy, you’re not paying attention. But if we ignore Eric Gardner, Michael and Trayvon and Freddie and Sandra and all the rest, we are complicit in their deaths. Highly recommended, even at full jacket price.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby*****

wearenevermeetingGet out your plastic and go use the restroom, because this book will leave you holding your sides. Samantha Irby mines what ought to be old material but isn’t, at least not by the time she is done with it, and her edgy, plain-truth humor may leave you breathless by the time the last page is turned. My thanks go to Net Galley and Knopf Doubleday for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book has just been released and is available for purchase.

Much of the base level subject matter is eternal and well worn: needing to use the bathroom while stuck in traffic; dating; racism; attempting to lose weight. But Irby has a fresh take on everything. She refers to herself as “old”, and since at 36 she is the age of this blogger’s eldest child, I suspect that I am not her target audience. But so much of what she says is eternal, and her take on current social concerns such as cop violence and the horror of stumbling upon a bunch of white people in the hinterland performing a Civil War reenactment complete with Confederate flags is welcome and resonant. The thread in which she voices the horror of being away from a major urban center is one I share. I have not laughed at potty humor since I was twelve, but the essay containing the traffic jam bathroom emergency on the way home from the dorm made me laugh hard enough to shake the bed, and my husband—a silver-haired Japanese gentleman old enough for Social Security—laughed hard enough that he was doubled over. The passage where she discusses having squandered money on things she doesn’t need just to prove she can do it is just one instance where I laugh because I am surprised. What writer ever admits this? Irby does.

Other aspects of this wonderful collection of essays were more educational than resonant, but also good to read. Can Black women admit they have mental health issues and still be Black?

Her cover model represents the cat from hell, Helen Keller:

“’I know where they keep the euthanasia solution,’ I whispered into the downy fur on top of her head.”

Every book blogger knows the pressured feeling that comes with scooping up a galley right before publication. When I begin the book, all I want is to read it fast so I can review it in a timely manner; yet by the time I turn the final page, I am disappointed that we are done here.

Highly recommended to strong women with an offbeat sense of humor, and those that love them.

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison *****

godhelpthechildI’d been looking forward to reading this book, and I’d been dreading it. The fact that Morrison is such an outstanding writer makes the pain in her prose more tangible than most. One doesn’t feel the pain of a character; one feels the pain of a friend. And so even though I have three of her books I haven’t read yet sitting on my to-read stack, challenging me as if to ask why I had skipped them so many times when it was their turn, I still asked for this hot-off-the-presses title for Mother’s Day. When I opened it, my son (the eldest, the one who worries about me now and then) said gently, “So Mom…you know…have you read Toni Morrison? Because…” And I told him I had, and I knew, and that I would also read something light or funny during the time I read this one, to break up the horror.

Going into it with that level of caution, not unlike going out to pick flowers when I was seven, wanting the heavenly fragrance of the posies that grew in our California yard but not wanting to encounter the rattlesnakes that sometimes lay coiled in their vines, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Because although there is certainly plenty of pain to go around, our protagonist advocates for herself; she takes charge. I came away feeling as if there was more that was good in the world, and in people, than bad.

And when we go to the contest for best first lines, hers should be a contender, particularly when one considers context: “It‘s not my fault.” Lula Ann’s mother was horrified at the very sight of her newborn: “Midnight black, Sudanese black.” She and her husband were both light-skinned people, “What we call high yellow”.

“You should have seen my grandmother; she passed for white and never said another word to any of her children.”

It’s all there on that first page: betrayal, betrayal, betrayal, and in the case of Lula Ann’s parentage, betrayal suspected (by her father) and denied (by her mother) and a marriage undone.

I think of my own family; when I was born, everyone in my family, and all of the photographs carefully lined up of those that had gone before, were of the super-pale variety found on the British Isles and in Northern Europe. Turn us loose in the sun for twenty minutes without sunscreen and we look like a family of lobsters.

And yet, over the generations, we have chosen to marry and procreate with people of color. Then, since there were already Black and Asian children in the family, the family members that could not have children adopted two children, the first one white, the second Black. At family parties, the Black relatives all congregate for part of the festivities, then move out to rejoin the rest of us.

And I know it’s not at all the same as for Morrison’s fictional family, because Lula Ann’s parents didn’t have the choice to be all white, or to bring people of color into the family. My generation and the Caucasian members of subsequent generations have had the power to choose who would be in their immediate family; of course, our Black and Asian relatives also had a choice of who to marry, but they also had less power socially and economically, so again: not the same thing. They have none of the history, none of the rage that is inherent of being a son or daughter of a grandson or granddaughter of slaves.

Lula Ann is instructed to call her mother “Sweetness”. There’s deniability there. Her mother doesn’t want people to think…to think something is wrong.

She grows up, ironically, to become a model who is prized for her dark skin. She turns it into a brand, with help from a friend, and wears only white, using the name “Bride”. White clothing day in, day out, to emphasize her darkness. She owns a cosmetic brand but wears no cosmetics. She needs to appear pure in order to carry it off.

She has a man, until he finds out the secret that is buried in her past. Actually, he doesn’t know the whole thing, and that’s where the trouble begins.

Literary fiction often carries power and authority that nonfiction can’t convey, and so it is with God Help the Child. I suspect professors that teach African-American Studies are putting it on their required reading list, and that’s a great thing, because there is so much to think about packed into this slender volume.

If you don’t have this book, get it and read it. If you don’t have the money, go to your local library and put yourself on the waiting list. And if it is assigned to you to read for a class, please, please, don’t buy a paper to get out of reading it (and don’t copy this blog post and turn it in as if it were your own). Don’t read the Cliff Notes. Read the book. It is both accessible and potent. It may be the most important book you read all year, and you won’t forget it.