Monday, September 29, 2014

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Photo Credit:Amazon Author Page

From the inside flap: “Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port au Prince estate.

Whoa! This book is 370 pages and I read it in two days. It is relentless from paragraph one. I woke up at 8:30 a.m. and reached for it, only to remember that I had finished it just after 1:30 a.m. the same morning. Even if only for a weekend, this book ran my life. But it is not for the faint of heart.

The book opens with the kidnapping. Mireille describes the experience in detail. Throughout the book she recounts the brutality she experiences at the hands of her captors. Between these scenes, we learn about “the before.” Mireille’s “fairy tale” life with Michael is a love story being told amidst the horror of her current situation.

After only a few days in captivity, she realizes that if she continues to fight the men who are abusing her, they will beat and torture her to death. In order to return to her “fairy tale,” she reduces herself to “no one.” For thirteen days, she endures rapes and beatings. Mireille, a daddy’s girl, slowly loses love for her father who refuses to pay the ransom.

Sebastian, Mireille's father, started his own construction company in Port au Prince after working years in America, being the best at what he does, but getting less than he deserved. Her parents now live in Haiti where they built a home behind a secure wall, and under the protection of armed guards. Their wealth is the reason Mireille is a target.

This author stays focused. We aren’t introduced to random characters, and storylines don’t fall by the wayside. They are instead amplified by numerous parallels. Mireille gets her tenacity, strength, and stubbornness from her father. His tenacity, strength, and stubbornness are the reason she remains in captivity. Mirelle could never imagine living her life on the farm where her husband was raised. But after her release, it is where she begins to pull her life back together. 

I now know why the literary world has been going crazy about Roxane Gay. She’s won me over too. Immediately after finishing it, I read Ayiti, a collection of short stories by Gay. I’ve discovered that An Untamed State was one of the stories. I’m in awe of how authors can turn a few pages into an entire novel, but I guess every story is short when it begins. I will post the review on Ayiti soon.

"I lied because that lie cost me less than the truth would have cost him." 
An Untamed State

Also on Reading Has Purpose: Bad Feminist: Essays  and Ayiti by Roxane Gay

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sketches of a Small Town Circa 1940: A Memoir by Clifton K Meador, MD

Photo Credit:

I received a notification that review copies of this book were available. I saw that it was about a small town in Alabama, much like The Most They Ever Had by Rick Bragg. I requested it immediately and the author sent me a free copy for review.  

The author writes about growing up in segregated Greenville, Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s. Formerly a cotton farming town, Greenville is about 130 miles south of Birmingham. Generally, the books I read about this era are written by and/or about blacks. I opened this book knowing that Dr. Meador’s experiences would be much, much different than those of the individuals I’ve previously read about.

I expected to read some things I didn't care for but I almost quit this book at page 2 when the author writes, “In spring, there were aromas of fertilizer, of seeds, of metallic smells of plows and new rope and the peculiar odor of newly plowed dirt mixed with leather, and the distinctive odors of laboring black men.” 

So laboring black men have a distinctive odor? Which is different from fragrant laboring white men I suppose. Even little kids smell weird when they’ve been running around in the hot sun all evening. And to include this description of black men in a list of inanimate objects..... I proceeded, but with the side-eye.

Things get better when Meador begins to discuss the community churches and the different denominations. The Southern colloquialism begin to flow as he reminisces about Sunday dinners. Reading what happened “after the chicken got to frying good,” and how his friend Billy “cut [toy guns] out of wooden crates he found out back of the grocery store” made me smile. 

But part of the story just always seemed to be missing. Meador recalls how syphilis testing was mandatory for everyone in the state. To mention this with no mention of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment seemed like a glaring omission.  

I felt the same when the author writes, “The force of a fire hose is tremendous. It takes three men to control the nozzle. The water at full pressure will knock down a large man and spin him along the ground.”  I thought surely that this was foreshadowing. What followed was a comical series of events involving a well known member of the community. And it was funny. But there never was mention of those hoses being turned on individuals, which would come many years later. 

And then there is the part where the author writes, “In the 12 years I lived in Greenville, there were no shootings, no murders and no robberies, at least not in the white section of town. There were rumors of knife fights in the black sections, but I never heard of a murder, black or white.”
Facepalm Hand Gesture

It's not necessary to mention rumored fights in the black section of town, especially after gloating about the absence of shootings, murders, and robberies in the white section of town. 

Again, things got better. I loved the story of Miss B. A sickly woman who became a permanent addition to the church’s prayer list. Her condition vacillated between “just fine,” “wore out,” and “having a bad day” all conditions that I’ve been diagnosed having grown up in the South. In my family the prescription was usually to either “go lay down” or “go outside.” 

I could go on and on pointing out my likes and dislikes about this book. It has left me conflicted. But at the end of the day, Dr. Meador told his story for his children, grandchildren, and great granddaughter. And it reinforces the need for African Americans to tell our stories. Our history is in the stories. 

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Sketches of a Small Town Circa 1940:A Memoir on Amazon
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Monday, September 8, 2014

Author Event with Lauren Francis-Sharma

After missing three of her local book signings, I finally made it out to see Lauren Francis-Sharma discuss her debut novel, ‘Til the Well Runs Dry. I was glad that so many people came out and after the reading, there was no shortage of questions.

I managed to get in the first question and asked about the book’s pace. As I wrote in the review, this book is go,go, go. I wondered if this was intentional or if the book kind of took off after the writing started. She says it was intentional. She found herself picking up the pace when she thought things were slowing down. And she also took into consideration the type of book she’d want to read.

I’m usually hesitant to even ask questions. It must’ve been the Pumpkin Spice Latte I was drinking that had me feeling good enough to ask another. This time, I wanted a little insight into the editing process. We learned that the book was over 600 pages when Lauren handed it over to the editor. After about nine months, they got it down to the current 400 pages. She did have to tweak the ending a bit and change one of the book’s twists but in the end, this is pretty much the story she started with.

Lauren’s experience with her editor was quite different than the one Kiese Laymon described with his. Remembering the discussion at Laymon’s author event is what actually prompted me to ask the question. He felt like his editor wanted him to tell a different story, to make the story attractive to a more “mainstream” audience. He elaborated on that quite a bit, but back to Lauren……

From the time she started writing, it took nearly four years to get the book to the shelf. Creating a social media presence to help promote the book has been one of the most rewarding parts of the entire experience. The encouragement she’s received from fans has really kept her energized. I’m glad she said that because I don’t interact much with authors on social media. I’ll have to start doing that, especially for those whose books I’m recommending to anyone that will listen!

For the audio book lovers, it’s coming! Since much of the book is written in the local dialect, she wants to make sure that she chooses an individual that gets it right. She’s making a conscious effort to avoid offending Trinidadians. I wish people would have the same awareness when they select individuals to copy Southern dialect.

Of course any book can be read at anytime but, to me, something just screams summer read about this one. So if you’re looking to squeeze in one more book before the end of summer, you should at least check out the synopsis of ‘Til the Well Runs Dry before making your final selection!

Yours truly and Lauren

And I can’t end this post without saying that Lauren took a moment in the middle of her event to give Reading Has Purpose a shout out! It was completely unexpected and very much appreciated. 

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'Til the Well Runs Dry: A Novel on Amazon