The Turner House (Flournoy)

Two signs that I am getting old:

  1. Childhood heroes are dying (see Prince, David Bowie).
  2. Events which I lived through are now being brought back to me through the arts (see Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, OJ’s trial, and the 2008 housing crisis).

It is the 2008 housing crisis that Flournoy takes up in her stunning debut novel, The Turner House. The Turner House is located in Detroit and the mother of the 13 children has finally – because of medical issues – had to move out. The family gathers to discuss what to do with the house and new vocabulary enters their lives — short-sell, foreclosure, etc.. There is a lot of discussion. The problem is that there are at least 2 plans. Some of the 13 children have remained in Detroit; others have scattered. The house has a history, particularly for Cha-Cha (Charles), the eldest. Something happened there when he was a child, something that needs a reckoning. Flournoy wisely lifts just a few of the siblings out of the crowd (the ones who remain), and she makes them so vivid that I think I’d know them if I saw them on the street. Naturally, the action centers around the house, the house they are all drawn back to – the one their mother knows she will never inhabit again.

Flournoy also takes us back in time to explain how the Turner family came to end up in Detroit, and the back-story is just as compelling as the contemporary one. Things are revealed, when they need to be, and Cha-Cha’s reckoning is both gripping and true.

Despite some occasional struggles with didactic dialogue, Flournoy’s writing is sublime. She glides between the specific and the general, between the present and the past, between the South and the North, and between the natural and the supernatural in a way that reminds me of Toni Morrison.

I cannot wait to see what she does next.

http://www.angelaflournoy.com/

Paradise (Morrison)

I am certain that I have little new to say about Morrison’s writing. When it’s good, it’s very good. When it’s not very good, it’s breathtakingly brilliant. The story, framed by an act of so many kinds of violence, is compelling, if familiar. An all-black town. A seeming utopia. (No one dies.) One generation becomes the next and the oven and its much debated inscription evolve. Things, quite simply, change. And when things change, someone / something must be to blame.

Morrison establishes her usual array of dichotomies. The founders and the followers. The dark-skinned blacks and the light-skinned ones. The town and its outskirts. Paradise and reality. Heaven and earth. And she has the majesty to pull this all off with a book that begins, “They shoot the white girl first” and only gets better.

To be fair, I probably couldn’t pass a test on this novel right now. With Morrison, I always find I am entering into a story in the middle, and that there are bits and pieces I’m expected to know. But I’m okay with that. The book, both in its broad strokes and its finer details, will resonate with me for a long time.

Between the World and Me (Coates)

When I went to the bookstore to buy this, the clerk apologized. She apologized for two reasons. First, she said, the book hadn’t been put out on display yet, so she’d need to get it from the back. Second, she was sorry to say that though it was short, it was still going to be $24.

I’ve finished it now, and I’d like to go back to that store and back to that clerk and explain that sometimes there are books that are so grounded in time and place, and at the same time defy time and place, that they are so very valuable, whatever the cost.

There is not much I can for certain about this book. I finished it in one sitting, and I will return to it again. And again. I know that Cornel West has criticized it and its author, and I don’t know enough about West or the criticism to offer an opinion there.

The book is compact, to be sure, but that is because Coates’ language is both precise and economic. He wastes no words; he has no words to waste nor time to waste them. He writes to his son here; that is the frame. But he writes to all of us, I think, even me, one who, to thinks he is white. His words are meant to be between the world and him. That implies privacy. And it implies a barrier.

Coates’ book, like the work of Hank Willis Thomas (http://www.hankwillisthomas.com/WORKS/Photographic-/6), is focused on the power of the black body. Who controls it? What has been and continues to be built on top of it? How much time must be spent on keeping it safe?

The job of a reviewer is normally to say whether a book is good or bad – worth reading or not. I don’t think to call it good is to do it justice. It is, as Toni Morrison says on the front cover, “required reading.” It will also require re-reading.

My instinct is, as is so often the case when I read something powerful, to take it to school, to share it with my students. I know you can see the cliche coming, but that doesn’t make it less true. Most of my students (all of them, students of color) would not read the pages I offered them. Some, especially the young men, because they just don’t read; others because they can’t, at least not with the level of attention Coates’ words require. The schools have, at least until this point, failed them. But they show up – many of them, most of the time. So they have not been swallowed by the other form of education they experience – the streets. And that is what gets me going every morning.

It is a tangible thing, this book. I don’t mean to say that it’s because I don’t use an e-reader. I find that I am carrying this book with me. I need it by my side; we all do.

Recently, I had the great good fortune to see Mr. Coates in person (https://www.cityclub.org/events/between-the-world-and-me). With the cost of my ticket came a copy of his book and so I did as I always expected to do – I read it again. Much of what he said that night was familiar to me – from the book and his articles. His challenges: What if we destroyed the concept of whiteness? What if we stopped kicking the can down the road? — continue to resonate with me. I admired how he answered questions – particularly questions from students and particularly questions he knew he was not qualified to answer. He pointed to a phenomenon I’ve recognized before. When one author becomes successful, he becomes (and here he asked, despite the crowd of 700 or so, whether the cameras were turned off), the “head n—– in charge.” I was surprised to hear him say the word.

It was a question from an audience member that helped push me back into the book again. The audience member said that Coates had been criticized because his language in the book was too flowery for such a serious topic. That had not – as you may note above – been my first impression. (Around the same time, I was asked by a parent about teaching an AP class next year.) So this time, I read it with more of an eye on his writing, his carefully composed rhetoric and the diction throughout that established the parallel between that which is done to black bodies and that which is done to the earth.

The book tightened up for me. Coates said he wanted it to be short so it would pack a punch and it does. And now, after the second reading, I see a bit more clearly how it works. I hope the book comes out in paperback in time for me to use with my AP class – even if that class contains just one student.

John Crow’s Devil (James)

This novel defies classification, and that’s part of what makes it – as well as James’ other works – so stunning. In this, his first novel, James creates a kind of religious-western-u/dystopian-apocalyptic-genre-and-sexual-bending showdown. In the village of Gibbeah, it’s Apostle York vs. Pastor Bligh, or so it seems. One is tempted, as the person writing the blurb was, to reach for the magical realism of Marquez and its more grounded cousin found in Morrison, for comparison. There are birds – crows and devils. There is someone who dies by stepping on grass and someone else who is healed by acknowledging his own sexuality. And there is sex. A lot of it, and little of it romantic, and none for the faint of heart. (James, here as elsewhere, is not shy – no page breaks or coy euphemisms for him. The sex, and everything else in this book, is both brutal and honest.)

As always, James’ prose, particularly his dialogue, absolutely pops off the page. All the letters are familiar, but it seems like James just has access to a different alphabet. The imagery of what the Widow sees when she finally opens the Pastor’s door is both gorgeous and haunting. And the ending, the ending. I wanted it, but didn’t believe the story could find its way there, to a glimmer of hope, held by the one set of hands I really want to trust.

A completely stunning and most assuredly original novel. It’ll stay with you.

Men We Reaped (Ward)

This is an astonishing memoir. In precise and emotional prose, Ward tells the story of 5 young black men who died in the space of four years. Their stories – told in reverse chronological order – are intertwined with the story of her growing up. This structure works perfectly as it allows her to bring everything together around the death that remains most profoundly with her, that of her younger brother, Josh. At times a journalist and, at other times, a master stylist, Ward offers wisdom about the lives of young black men and women in the south, wisdom that is still reverberating in my head and reminded me of times of the power of Toni Morrison’s work.

Ward reveals much of herself here – her drinking, her sense of otherness, her sense of her inheritance, one that she both embraces and tries to resist. Her goal for the memoir is both simple and not. She says she wanted to write “the narrative that says: Hello. We are here. Listen” (251). And she has.

In the end, I wept because of Ward’s courage, and I wept because of her story. I wept because of the beauty and momentum of her writing, and I wept because there’s so little I can do to change things. In the end, I wept most of all because of things that I’ll never understand.

This book, like the marvelous and generally underappreciated Salvage the Bones, are both stunning. They are both necessary and true. Read them.