Tag Archives: Sapphire

Top Ten Book Club Picks

I’ll admit, I’ve never been good about attending a book group. But I usually follow along, reading each selection in the quiet of my own home. So I’ve never before offered recommendations.

If I did, however, I would look for books that have a lot of complexity, so that there will be many angles to approach a discussion about the book. They also have to be memorable–the kind of books you can’t stop thinking about long after you’ve put them down.

10. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
This is a quintessential D.C. book (my review here); more than simply preserving familiar sights, Mengestu captures the feeling of a D.C. community caught between two worlds, which would in itself make for very interesting discussion. But the main character’s experience—as an immigrant, a man, an American— and his place in society also leaves a lot open to interpretation.

9. Push by Sapphire
Push is not an easy book to read or even talk about. But it’s totally worth it. Sapphire exposes the pain of abuse and neglect, but more importantly, she presents a strong black heroine who takes her own life into her hands. This book came highly recommended from many of my friends, and it is guaranteed to get a reaction from book-group readers.

8. Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson
In her memoir (my review here), Donna Johnson offers insight into the complexity of faith and why people choose to follow charismatic leaders, all without without being judgmental—a seemingly Herculean task that Johnson manages without even breaking into a literary sweat. Book group members will enjoy teasing out the complexity of the black-and-white world of big tent revivalists.

7. Faith by Jennifer Haigh
In Faith, Jennifer Haigh reveals an entangled world of secrets and beliefs, pain and joy, identity and desire, and the enduring ties of family and faith. She tackles a difficult topic, but she does so with grace and aplomb (my review here). This is a timely book that is sure to inspire a meaningful conversation.

6. Next to Love by Ellen Feldman
Next to Love is moving and beautiful, rich with the pain and the joys of vivid and believable men and women (my review here). The book delicately handles sweeping topics such as war, love, grief, and equality, which almost certainly lead to a great conversation.

5. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
Tatjana Soli paints a vivid picture of 1960s Vietnam in The Lotus Eaters (my review here), and her prose reflects the jarring hardness of war, the allure of obsession, and the tenderness of love in turns. I think Soli’s exploration of the emotional and physical effects of the war on all sides—Vietnamese and American, soldier and civilian—would elicit strong reactions from all ages.

4. The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier
Brockmeier’s characters are painfully insightful and wonderfully human, and I think readers from all walks of life will identify with some, if not all, of them. (I did.) The journal that passes from person to person makes them greater than they were—a brilliance greater than their loneliness and pain.

3. Camp Nine by Vivienne R. Schiffer
In Camp Nine, Vivienne Schiffer shows readers a hidden side of the Delta, when racial tensions cracked the surface of a small town’s placid surface (my review here). Schiffer expertly teases out various themes of family and history in a world where little is forgotten, and her portrayal of the vast chasms within its society in the forties is fantastic. I think I would’ve enjoyed the novel even more if I’d discussed it in a group; it’s a short book, but there is a lot at play in the story.

2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls’s account of her less-than-idyllic childhood is a must read, and I would love to get a group together to talk about this engaging memoir. Her story inspires pity and incredulity at some points and joy and optimism at others. This book was highly recommended by several women I know, and after I tore through it, I passed it on to other women, all of whom agree that Walls is a powerful storyteller. I’d love to hear a guy’s perspective, too.

1. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
This book covers so much ground–race, class, women’s rights, war—without feeling sluggish or heavy. As I described it in my review, “It’s as though Little House on the Prairie grew up and developed a racially and culturally aware conscience.” Weisgarber offers many topics for discussion while also crafting a thoroughly enjoyable story.

Creating this list makes me wish I were a more active part of a book club. What do you think–should I finally start taking attendance seriously?

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

I receive a very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links to Indiebound. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

Subscription Saturday: Bitch

Called the “feminist response to pop culture,” Bitch magazine is an excellent resource for progressive women and men, whether you identify with the “feminist” moniker or not. (But it helps if you do.) I began reading issue #52, the red issue.

From a design perspective, the creative and modern layout and adherence each issue’s theme are home runs. But the true triumph is the prose: it is smart without being esoteric, edgy without being offensive, mischievous without being crude.

I was first impressed by an examination of the sterile sexual phrase “get it in” on MTV’s Jersey Shore. At one point, Christine Seifert writes, “‘Getting it in’ is hardly different than finding yourself at an exclusive club, at which you can check in on Facebook using your iPhone.” This is feminism? I wondered. I just think this is smart and interesting analysis!

I then moved on to a piece by Avital Norman Nathan about gender stereotype-eschewing “princess boys.” I was surprised to learn that until the early twentieth century, the color pink was associated with men because it was seen as a diminutive of masculine reds. It was only when the mass production of clothing and toys caught on that the division in colors occurred. Manufacturers discovered that “the more you individualize items based on gender, the more products parents will feel compelled to buy.” So these boys are also bucking the consumer mentality that dominates our culture? Way to go, guys!

But by far, the best part of this edition of Bitch were the two big pieces on literature: “Uneasy A” by Erin Gilbert and “Sealing the Deal” by Jessica Jernigan. Both of these essays were fun, informative pieces that explored different feminist themes in literature. Gilbert looked at adultery and anger among women in books, while Jernigan introduced a fresh perspective on the wet and wild world of selkie romance novels. Even if I weren’t an enormous book nerd, I think I would have enjoyed their cutting analyses and relevant discussions of important topics through the lens of literature.

The only part of the magazine that I didn’t like was the positive review of Sapphire’s The Kid. I think I can say without qualification that I hated that book. But hey, you can’t win ‘em all. Aside from that minor bump in the road, Bitch magazine is a fantastic publication that I immediately subscribed to upon finishing this edition.

The Verdict

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Subscription Saturday is a way for me to keep track of the print and digital publications that I’ve been reading lately.

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August 2011 in Review

August 2011 Stats

Books in progress: 6
Books read: 7
Pages read: 2,382
Books reviewed: 6
Posts on book reviewing: 6
(includes features like In My Mailbox, Wordless Wednesday, and Top Ten Tuesday; reading challenges; and news)

August was a great month for me–I read several great books that I’m excited about reviewing, and I reviewed several books that I enjoyed a great deal.

I loved John McWhorter’s What Language Is and Noelle Hancock’s My Year with Eleanor. And I also enjoyed reading Northwest Corner by John Burnham Schwartz; Just My Type by Simon Garfield; and The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald.

To round out the month, Ruthie posted a guest review of Cakes from Scratch in Half the Time by Linda West Eckhardt that left me drooling. Why doesn’t she ever make cakes like that for me?

In addition, I was very pleased to have my review of Mark Hertsgaard’s Hot published on chinadialogue.net. I found the premise of the book slightly overwrought, but I enjoyed the challenge of fairly representing the research that went into the book.

Giveaways

I hosted two giveaways in August: Northwest Corner and What Language Is. Congratulations to the two winners!

Currently I’m giving away another book that I loved, The Rules of the Tunnel. Leave a comment on the review and you’ll be entered to win!

Looking Forward

August also brought with it a big change: Jack and I moved! He bought a house not far from where we were living before, but it is so much bigger than that apartment. We love it! (Even though the recent heavy rains showed us that the roof of the sunroom is in less than great shape–part of the ceiling collapsed.) Tink is very pleased with the new back yard, and the commute is much better for me. And I have a garden! I couldn’t be happier.

As if the big move weren’t enough, I’m also beginning grad school on Tuesday. I’m starting off with only one class (in nonfiction writing), but I have no idea how much it will require of me. Although my posts here may become less frequent, I’m hoping to incorporate some of the work from class in my posts. First up will be a list of my required reading!

July 2011 in Review

July 2011 Stats

Books in progress: 3
Books read: 5
Pages read: 1,557
Books reviewed: 8
Posts on book reviewing: 9
(includes features like In My Mailbox, Wordless Wednesday, and Top Ten Tuesday; reading challenges; and news)

I started the month off strong in terms of books read, but Sapphire’s The Kid dragged on and George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons tops 1,000 pages–I’m about halfway done with it. But I’ve begun posting more pieces related to book reviewing, which I’ve enjoyed and plan on keeping up!

Reading Challenges

I only read and reviewed one book–Push–this month for my Bookshelf ROWDOWN challenge, so I’ll have to step up the pace a little more next month. There were just so many new releases I wanted to get to this month!

Giveaways

I’m hosting a giveaway this month of two books I read and reviewed, The Storm at the Door and Next to Love. They both examine very different aspects of post-World War II society in the United States. The contest ends tonight at midnight EST, so leave a comment now on either entry and you’ll be entered to win!

Top Ten Tough Topics Tackled in Literature

This week, I’m highlighting some of my favorite works of fiction that address ten difficult social, cultural, and emotional issues. I’m sure I could think of many more books if I tried–”tough topics” are kind of my thing.

10. Bullying
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is an excellent story about one girl who has the chance to change her life–in seven days. Oliver manages to take a self-centered bully and make her a completely sympathetic character by the end.

And I’ve mentioned before how much I love Daphne’s Book by Mary Downing Hahn; Hahn’s story of two girls forming an unlikely friendship is timeless.

9. Autism
Two books about autistic boys, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier, take very unique views of what an autistic child’s world looks like, and both are very convincing in their own ways. Not much is known about autism, but these books are a reminder that “developmental” issues and genius are relative.

8. September 11, 2001
I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer in college, and it has stuck with me through the years. Oskar is an intrepid and smart narrator, and his efforts to cope with the loss of his father in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center are heartwarming and inspiring–and a tearjerker.

7. Poverty
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls manages to recount her rough childhood while avoiding any trace of self-pity. This book is a little dark at times, but I highly recommend it.

6. Aging
Anne Tyler effortlessly captures the minor details of a person that accumulate into who he or she is in her novels, and she does not fail me in Noah’s Compass. Liam, the main character, is confronted with an inevitable slide into old age, but the way he deals with it is charming and humorous.

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is, of course, a classic tale of aging. The old man faces his greatest challenge, and summons the courage to triumph over it despite his acknowledged weaknesses.

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis is a rather unconventional entry for this category, but I found the book’s reverse-chronological order a fascinating study of memory and one man’s backward look on his life.

5. Racism
Often contested for its handling of race and slavery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a humorous and satirical take on pre-Civil War society along the Mississippi River.

For a more modern exploration of African-American identity, struggles with racism, and the fight for civil rights, W. Ralph Eubanks’s Ever Is a Long Time is a fascinating read.

4. Addiction
I also mentioned recently that Go Ask Alice is one of my favorite books for its raw and unrelenting take on the rebellious life of a girl in the 1960s. It was recommended to a friend of mine going through rehab, and I can see why; the narrator’s battle with addiction feels very real in this fictionalized diary.

Addiction is just one of many serious topics to which Andre Dubus III turns his artistic genius in The House of Sand and Fog. Kathy, one of the main characters, finds herself returning to the addiction from which she had recently emerged when everything in her life seems to crumble. Yet Kathy inspires a great deal of empathy and even respect from her readers–a difficult but praiseworthy feat by Dubus.

3. Abduction
As abductions of young women sweep headlines–Jaycee Dugard‘s story is one of many in the past few years–I think we all crave insight into why such tragedies happen and how victims can survive them. And Emma Donoghue certainly delivers in Room, one of my favorite books ever.

But even fifteen years ago, I was fascinated with abduction stories. Caroline B. Cooney’s smart and courageous main character in The Face on the Milk Carton made a strong impression on me as a young reader–whenever I was scared that I, too, would be swept up by strangers (hey, I was only 11!), I just remembered how cool and level-headed Janie managed to be.

2. Rape
Push by Sapphire may now be considered a classic story of rape and incest. Sapphire handles these topics very well, pushing the reader right to the edge with graphic images and then pulling him or her back with Precious’s admirable determination and optimistic outlook.

Another book about the devastating effects of rape that left a strong impression on me is We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s prose meanders at times–I remember sighing in frustration as she spends an entire chapter chronicling the contents of the family’s cluttered hall–but her attention to detail pays off as she describes that family’s hurt and rage at the violence that struck once and left an indelible mark.

1. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
There are several books about war and PTSD that immediately come to mind when I think about masterful attempts to address difficult subjects. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller are, of course, classics in this field. But more recently, War by Sebastian Junger and The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli have also proved to be stunning and delicate glimpses of the lasting effects of conflict.

What about you–what books do you think have handled difficult issues well?

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each Tuesday, bloggers create top ten lists about reading, writing, blogging, and more!

“The Kid” by Sapphire

Title: The Kid
Author: Sapphire
ISBN: 9781594203046
Pages: 384
Release date: July 5, 2011
Publisher: Penguin Press
Genre: Fiction
Format: ARC (Hardcover)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: 2 out of 5

Sapphire’s second work of fiction, The Kid, begins with the funeral of the protagonist of her first novel, Push (my review here). Precious’s son, Abdul, is nine years old, and in the wake of his mother’s death he faces a terrifying world completely alone.

Throughout the book, he is shuttled from one place to another: foster care; a school for orphaned boys; his great-grandmother’s ancient Harlem apartment; his middle-aged sugar-daddy’s upscale place; a downtown artist’s loft; and finally a mental hospital.

Abdul resolves to do whatever it takes to reach his dream of being a successful dancer, but the path to success is not easy. And just when it seems like he has made it, the side of him that he has kept hidden for too long takes over.

The Kid explores the line between victims and perpetrators and the sometimes self-perpetuating violence of rape. Patterns of sexuality as violence control Abdul’s life; he suffers abuse at the hands of his caregivers, and he begins inflicting abuse on other children.

It is impossible to separate his revenge fantasies from his actual life, and he insists that he only does bad things in his “dreams”; he can’t understand why he would be punished for that. Abdul blends reality and fantasy in a way that reminds me of Black Swan; in fact, he even references “Swan Lake” to describe himself at one point.

Identity is a central, if subtle, theme. While his mother, Precious, never let anyone call her by any other name, Abdul changes names like others change clothes. And just as Precious’s identity stood firm despite what others did to her, Abdul’s identity morphs with every name change.

When he is J.J., he is both a victim and a perpetrator of sexual violence. When he is Arthur or Martin, he uses sex for commercial gain. When he is Crazy Horse, he is a vengeful wild man. Abdul is so jealous of the life he could have had, he does not understand that he is choosing to become someone else–to lose himself–every time he gives up his name.

Furthermore, his sexual identity is tangled up in sexual violence. He despises homosexuality but he embraces it at the same time; the only way he knows how to survive is to offer himself to others, usually men.

He is never able to overcome the divide in his mind that threatens to overwhelm him, because he doesn’t really know who he is. His only goal in life is to find acclaim as a dancer–to be a “beautiful black boy” that everyone loves–but he sacrifices too much of himself to get there.

What impressed me more than Precious’s sense of self was her optimism; no matter what life threw at her, she kept going and reaching for a better life.

Abdul, on the other hand, rails against the injustices of his life. He believes that he would have been different–better–if his mother had lived, if he’d known his father, if he’d had more money like other kids, if, if, if.

He yearns for a “normal life,” and he questions why he “can’t just get a full deck like everybody else.” However, he never stops to think about the changes he has the power to make in order to better his life. Because he never accepts who he really is, he is never able to escape his enduring pain.

His dissociative behavior and strange internal dialogue are strong indicators of a schizophrenic antisocial personality disorder. A protagonist like that is hard to like. (Unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk.) As the book goes on, it becomes harder and harder to want to hear more about him; Abdul is increasingly and unrepentantly violent as his “dream” world and his real world begin to collide.

I only kept reading because of my obsessive desire to finish a book once I’ve started it. I needed to know what would happen to Abdul. But the ending was far from satisfactory; I really have no idea what happened to him or even who he really is, where his twisted “dreams” end and his life begins. And that’s probably the point–he doesn’t know either–but The Kid pushes this trope a little too far.

Sapphire seems to glory in the casual violence, the disappearing boundaries between pain and pleasure and between sanity and madness. And I get that–I like dark and gritty and uncertain. But she seems more intent on shocking readers with intensely graphic scenes than on inspiring any real emotion.

DeNeen Brown, in a review for The Washington Post, commented that “a sensitive reader may want to put the book down and turn away.” I do not consider myself a sensitive reader, but this book horrified and sickened me; I struggled to finish it, and I felt no closer to understanding Abdul after I’d turned the last page.

And to top it all off, you never find out what happened to Little Mongo, his older sister!

Interested? Read it for yourself! Buy The Kid from an independent bookstore or Amazon (Kindle edition).

I receive a very, very small commission when you purchase the book through the above links. Thank you for helping to support my site–and my book addiction!

Or check out what other reviewers on the tour have been saying:

July 5: “That’s Swell!”
July 11: Sarah Reads Too Much
July 12: Books From Bleh to Basically Amazing
July 14: Dreaming in Books
July 18: Wordsmithonia
July 19: All About {n}
July 21: Reviews By Lola
July 26: Tea Time with Marce
July 27: Take Me Away
July 28: Regular Rumination
August 2: BermudaOnion’s Weblog
Date TBD: Reads for Pleasure

“Push” by Sapphire

Title: Push
Author: Sapphire
ISBN: 9780679766759
Pages: 192
Release date: April 29, 1997
Publisher: Knopf
Genre: Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection
Rating: 4 out of 5

Precious Jones is an illiterate young black woman who has never left her native Harlem. She is pregnant with her second child, a product of rape. For her entire life, she’s been abused and overlooked: her parents have both used her sexually and violently; the school system has failed her; and she’s never had a friend, much less a boyfriend. Now, she’s been suspended from her middle school, and the only option her mother suggests is getting on welfare.

But Precious is not about to give up. She is determined to make her life–and, more importantly, the lives of her children–better. The only thing that scares her is becoming like her parents.

She enrolls in an alternative school, where she begins learning to read and write. Her teacher, Ms. Rain, is kind and supportive, and Precious flourishes in her classroom. Precious strives to be a person worth remembering, worth listening to, worth loving. She compares most of her life to a movie with vampires that act and talk and look like real people, but when their pictures are taken they are invisible:

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am–vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for. I wanna say I am somebody. . . . I talk loud but still I don’t exist.

Precious learns more at the alternative school than simply reading and writing; she learns how to change the direction of her life. Along the way, she meets scores of women who have suffered much as she has, and she finds strength as she struggles to find a better life.

At times, Precious’s honesty is brutal:

How cum I’m so young and feel so old. So young like I don’t know nuffin’, so old like I know everything. A girl have her father’s dick in her mouth know things the other girls don’t know but it’s not what you want to know.

This was not an easy book to read, even though it was short. It will keep you up at night thinking about everything Precious endured and overcame.

This book came highly recommended from many of my friends, in whom it doubtless provoked a strong reaction, but few could put into words exactly how it is so powerful and why I should read it. They tried, of course; I’d heard Push was brutal, brilliant, a must-read, incredibly depressing, and eye-opening. And all of that is true. But what I hadn’t heard is how optimistic a book it is.

The reality of Precious’s life will never go away. The things that were done to her, the injustices that she must suffer for the rest of her life, can never be erased. But despite all of that, Precious perseveres. She hopes, she dreams, she laughs. She is a lesson in optimism for anyone who has faced oppression and abuse.

Push is a powerful book. It exposes the pain of abuse and the injustice of public and social services, but more than that, it presents a strong black heroine who takes her own life into her hands, despite what has and will happen to her.

This was made into an award-winning movie, “Precious,” which I have not yet seen. What did you think–did you read the book or see the movie?

Push is the first of 25 books I’m reading for Bookshelf ROWDOWN! I plan to read an entire row of great but neglected books from my personal collection before July 1, 2012.

My Mailbox: Virginia Woolf, Daniel Woodrell, Nancy Pearl, Sapphire, and more!

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