Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Summer Reading

Good morning.

I guess I'm back. I'm starting to blog in my head now while I'm driving. Seeing things through not just my eyes, but through my readers' eyes. Wanting to tell you things, to share my thoughts. And that's how it started two and a half years ago.

Let's pretend we're sitting down to coffee. I don't drink a lot of it these days, being focused on my body 24-7 and all. But this morning I had to go to have blood tests before I even woke up good, so I stopped at the local Waffle House for scrambled eggs with cheese, grits, and toast with apple butter (though, apparently, they didn't know I was coming because they had somehow inexplicably allowed themselves to run out of raisin bread). And of course, I had coffee. A cup and a half. With cream and the tiniest bit of sugar. Thinking to myself, "I'll take this nice high and go home to Blog Central."

So here I am, imagining myself at my little glass-topped table (which I rarely use except to hold red flowers) sitting across from you, rambling from topic to topic in my head, with no particular order to it all.

Did I mention I've been doing a lot of reading?

Reading is the cave into which I descend when I'm depressed or trying to muddle something through. I devour books when I'm going through a crisis and escape into them when I'm trying to re-group. And not just books, but magazines. Jet and The Sun are staples -- always. And I "have to" read the occasional "scientific" piece in this or that publication (usually as a result of assigning it to students to read, really more like assigning it to myself, since most of them won't read it and I must anyway.)

But today, I'm feeling intimate, wanting to "share." So here's a few things I read recently that you might want to check out (in no particular order):

1) The Beautiful Struggle: a father, two sons, and an unlikely road to manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Initially, this book hit my radar when M.Dot. wrote about it back in March. So when my daughter gave me a nice phat gift certificate to Amazon.com for Mother's Day (wotta girl!), tucked into the box with the dvd's and cd's and hummingbird feeder was this book. I scarfed it down too fast. And read almost the whole thing aloud (the sign that I'm entranced, that the words are crafted so beautifully that their sound becomes part of the experience for me). Coates is the son of the former Black Panther who founded Black Classics Press and raised his children in a sort of boot camp to implement Consciousness (a word Coates, the younger, has now taught me to capitalize). This remarkable piece of writing (M.Dot. said it was and she was MORE than right) is not just a "coming of age" story. It's a Coming of An Age story, a description of growing up poor, Black, and male in Baltimore that will (write this down now) eventually be called the sequel to Black Boy by Richard (the original man) Wright, who landed so hard on Western literature in the 20th Century, he came with a name warning us first what he was here to do.
"The words were all braggadocios, but when done with the recital, even though I was alone, I felt bigger. I'd walk outside, and my head was just a little higher, because if you do this right, if you claim to be that nigger enough, though you battle only your bedroom mirror, there is a part of you that believes. That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledged feared the streets. But the rhyme pad was a spell book -- it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of whom had your back. That summer, I knew...that when under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone."

2) The Tin Roof Blowdown and/or Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke. Even if you don't like detective thrillers, if you read fiction, you may find, as I have that Burke is a state of the art master of description. And his topic in The Tin Roof Blowdown and in the title story of his collection Jesus Out to Sea is New Orleans during and just after Katrina hit. Burke has the credentials to do this justice since his folks have lived in New Iberia (maybe 90-minutes from The Big Easy) since 1830-something and he has the horrifying clarity of vision and cajones to write it the way it really happened. If you've got the willingness to read on after he has systematically gutted all your gentle sensibilities, then take one of these to the beach. It'll give you something to think about the next time somebody mentions Mardi Gras or beignets or jazz or the night the levees broke.
"A hurricane is supposed to have a beginning and an end. It tears the earth up, fills the air with flying trees and bricks and animals and sometimes even people, makes you roll up into a ball under a table and pray till drops of blood pop on your brow, then it goes away and lets you clean up after it, like somebody pulled a big prank on the whole town. But this one didn't work that way. It's killing in stages.

I see a diapered black baby in a atree that's only a green smudge under the water's surface. I can smell my neighbors in their attic. The odor is like a rat that has drowned in a bucket of water inside a superheated garage. A white guy floating by on an inner tube has a battery-powered radio propped on his stomach and tells us snipers have shot a policeman in the head and killed two Fish and Wildlife officers...

'You guys got anything to eat up there?' the guy in the inner tube asks.

'Yeah, a whole fucking buffet. I had it catered from Galatoire's right before the storm,' Miles says to him."

3) The Angels of Morgan Hill by Donna VanLiere. I bought this book for $3 at a Books-a-Million and it kept me up all night. Admittedly, I thought it was a memoir and it turned out to be a novel, but the fact that I didn't realize it was a novel until AFTER I read it shows you how meticulous the detail is and how real the characters seem to be in this story about the coming of integration to a small town in eastern Tennessee in the late 1940's. The drama is gut-wrenching and the tension of almost ever-present violence forms a skeleton on which the poverty of the entire town hangs like tatters of clothing left over from a former life. If this is just supposed to be an inspiring read, I'm okay with it. Sometimes, I need to be inspired.
"'That little nigger boy livin' with you now?'

The words rang out in the stillness and a shiver ran down my spine. We all looked up the embankment and saw Beef and Clyde smiling at us from Beef's porch. Mama took hold of Milo's hand and threw up her other hand in a wave. 'Mornin'.' She appeared to hope that if she left Beef and Clyde alone they'd leave us alone.

'I don't think Lonnie'd be too happy knowing what's going on at his house,' Clyde said. Mama held tighter to Milo's hand and I grabbed John's, pulling him along. 'He wouldn't like that nigger smelling up the place.'

I felt my heart in my throat and ran to keep up with Mama.

'He's a pretty little nigger,' Beef yelled after us."

4) Respect in a World of Inequality by Richard Sennett. I have to begin by admitting that I've only read the first fifty pages of this one. And it's a totally different kind of read, being rather unapologetically sociological, but at least early on, Sennett manages to weave his early years in Cabrini Green in Chicago into a more over-arching consideration of the difficulties with trying to get past the cultural perspective of individualism that often leads us to determine that only certain people in the U.S. are worthy of respect. I don't know exactly whereall Sennett intends to take his readers yet, but I already want to know and think it will be worth the trip.
"Lack of respect, though less aggressive than an outright insult, can take an equally wounding form. No insult is offered another person, but neither is recognition extended; he or she is not seen -- as a full human being whose presence matters. When a society treats the mass of people in this way, singling out only a few for recognition, it creates a scarcity of respect, as though there were not enough of this precious substance to go around. Like many famines, this scarcity is man-made; unlike food, respect costs nothing. Why, then, should it be in short supply?"

5) Finally, I want to recommend a magazine, The Crisis, published by the N.A.A.C.P. The tricky part (or great part, depending on how you look at it) is that when you join the organization, you automatically get a subscription to the magazine for free (how cool is that?) At the risk of sounding as if I'm hawking memberships (not that I'd be ashamed to do that, you understand), I am SO impressed with the Spring 2008 issue of this 64-page magazine that I have to suggest that the magazine alone is worth the price of membership ($30 a year). It's super glossy, slickly produced with LOTS of strong photographs, well-crafted, intriguing articles, and the printed equivalent of dozens of sound bytes of interesting worthwhile information. So far, I've read a piece about a female jockey who went from being homeless to winning races, a fine interview with Tom Joyner (accompanied by a photo that is probably the best I've ever seen at expressing the soul of this man), an insightful consideration of Richard Wright's work, a grading of the members of the U.S. Congress based on their voting records on race-related issues, and an article on a new publishing house established by a former New York Times senior editor to bring out works by prisoners and ex-prisoners (see Think Outside the Cell). If you've never looked at The Crisis before or not recently, you might want to. I've been taking mine on the road around town, to read when I'm stuck in a waiting room or grabbing a bite of lunch.
"...[T]hough the elites of academia have claimed [Richard Wright] and indeed deconstructed and post-deconstructed him, he belongs in the end to the community. Bigger was electrocuted by the state, x-rayed by academia, given care and attention where academics can be most generous -- and yet, elusive still, he is alive and kicking out there, seeking answers to questions that are being asked manifold." (Julia Wright on her father's legacy; in "Native Son" by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, The Crisis, Spring 2008).

Now don't say I didn't tell you. ;^)


bubamarenya said...

Yay! I don't know why I read every word of this considering I am working on about five books right now but it was nice.
I also love The Sun. I got my first subscription when I was 18.

Changeseeker said...

Yep. The Sun is like nothing else out there.