Category Archives: Oprah’s Book Club 2.0

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Vintage; 320 pages; $15.95).

One of my favorite novels from 2012 is now available in paperback.  Trust me–you’ll love it.

Reading Ayana Mathis’ epic debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I could not help but think of the poem “A Dream Deferred” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

and then run?

Does it stink like rotting meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?[1]

 

hattie paperbackHattie, Mathis’ central character, and her family left their home in Georgia as part of the African-American exodus to the North during the Great Migration. Six million blacks moved out of the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from around 1910 to 1970.

When their exodus began, slavery had long been abolished.  Yet, African-Americans were still very much bound.  Segregation, discrimination, and physical violence prompted blacks to hope for better lives in urban centers like Chicago and New York City.  Some may have had families in those cities; others set out with uncertainty, knowing no one but desperate for better lives.  The dreams of many were fulfilled as they found jobs and discovered new avenues open to them.  The dreams of others, as Hughes lyrically laments, were deferred.

Hattie belongs in the latter category. In 1925, she and her husband, August, live in Philadelphia, where they rent a house and where August works long hours.  Hattie gives birth to twins, Philadelphia and Jubliee, appellations “that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia…names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”

The names she chooses for her children are significant.  Philadelphia represents their new home, the city of Philadelphia.  Hattie has high hopes for her family’s future in this great city.  The name then carries with it all of Hattie’s optimisms and dreams.  The name Jubilee evokes echoes of the African-American Juneteenth celebrations that marked the end of slavery (the first celebration occurred June 19, 1865).  In the North, Hattie’s children are free and do not have to worry about seeing August beaten, as Hattie once saw happen to her own father.  In Philadelphia, Hattie is certain that her twins will have opportunities she did not have growing up in Georgia.

When the twins become ill with pneumonia at seven months old, Hattie’s world is shaken. She tries to lessen their cough with eucalyptus, but the plant is difficult to find in Philadelphia.  When Hattie finds the plant, she has to buy it.  This feels so wrong to her.  Back home in Georgia, a eucalyptus tree is located directly “across from Hattie’s house.”  Such a stark realization leaves her bitter–especially when she cannot save them.

What happens to a dream deferred?  For Hattie, losing the twins is earth-shattering.  She feels as if a part of her dies with Philadelphia and Jubilee.  Hattie and August go on to have other children, but Hattie is never the same after the tragedy.

For her other offspring to survive in this world, Hattie must harden herself so she can harden them.  If they are to survive, then Hattie must be a survivor.  She will hold them at arm’s length if it means they will reach adulthood.  She will close herself off from them if it means they will grow up.

Mathis then switches gears and focuses on what happens to Hattie’s eleven children and one grand-child, her twelve tribes.  When we meet each of Hattie’s progeny in wholly intimate chapters, they are all on the cusp of something: grappling with identity, homophobia, abuse, jealousy, and sickness.  Mathis also illustrates through these chapters how Hattie’s children see her as a cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful woman.   The structure of the chapters also allows us to see how things change as the years pass.  Although Hattie and August grow apart, she still stays with him, even after she has a baby by another man and runs away.  She feels bound to August and stays by his side through affairs and economic hardships.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie cuts to the quick.  Mathis employs incisive, gritty dialogue that lodges itself deep in the hearts and guts of readers.  She can be elegantly precise yet equally coarse and raw when necessary, showing an amazing range of talent.

For me, Mathis’ other characters pale next to Hattie.  The author provides fascinating windows into Hattie’s psyche through her twelve tribes.  We know what they do not.  We know why she is cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful.

ayana-mathis-AUTHORMathis is by no means using Hattie to represent all African-American women who left the South to make new lives in the North.  Instead, Mathis is re-presenting one possible story through the character of Hattie.  Mathis wants to show the gritty underbelly of a family who took part in the Great Migration with all the sufferings and ordeals such an epic journey would entail.

Hattie’s dream of a new life did not go the way she had hoped it would.  Hattie’s was a dream deferred that festered, crusted over, and dried up.  Surely, Hattie would say her heart rotted and stank.  Perhaps she exploded from the pain.  Hattie had to survive so her children would.  What a heavy load she carried.  What a stunning literary achievement from Mathis as she chronicles one woman’s trials and tribulations.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie resonates with meaning and with beauty.

 


[1] Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

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Filed under book review, books, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, new in paperback, Oprah's Book Club 2.0, paperbacks

It’s a June Books Boon

Ah, June.  So good to see you again.  What’s that you have there, June?  Oh, you’ve brought some wondrous works of fiction.  Why thank you!

Let me tell you, dear readers–so many great novels are being released this month.  So we better get started now so we can have time to read them all!

Titles To Pick Up Now:

A resilient doctor risks everything to save the life of a hunted child, in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties constellationthat bind us together.  In his brilliant, haunting novel, Stegner Fellow and Whiting Award winner Anthony Marra transports us to a snow-covered village in Chechnya, where eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night, accusing him of aiding Chechen rebels. Across the road their lifelong neighbor and family friend Akhmed has also been watching, fearing the worst when the soldiers set fire to Havaa’s house. But when he finds her hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.  For the talented, tough-minded Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. And she has a deeply personal reason for caution: harboring these refugees could easily jeopardize the return of her missing sister. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weave together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

we need new names

 

 

Darling is only 10 years old, and yet she must navigate a fragile and violent world. In Zimbabwe, Darling and her friends steal guavas, try to get the baby out of young Chipo’s belly, and grasp at memories of Before. Before their homes were destroyed by paramilitary policemen, before the school closed, before the fathers left for dangerous jobs abroad.  But Darling has a chance to escape: she has an aunt in America. She travels to this new land in search of America’s famous abundance only to find that her options as an immigrant are perilously few. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut calls to mind the great storytellers of displacement and arrival who have come before her–from Zadie Smith to Monica Ali to J.M. Coetzee–while she tells a vivid, raw story all her own.

 

 

A novel about fear of the future—and the future of fear.  New York City, the near future: Mitchell Zukor, a gifted young mathematician, is hired by a mysterious new financial consulting firm, FutureWorld. The business operates out of an empty office in the Empire State Building; Mitchell is employee number two. He is asked to calculate worst-case scenarios in the most intricate detail, and his schemes are sold to corporations to indemnify them against any future disasters. This is the cutting edge of corporateodds irresponsibility, and business is booming.  As Mitchell immerses himself in the mathematics of catastrophe—ecological collapse, war games, natural disasters—he becomes obsessed by a culture’s fears. Yet he also loses touch with his last connection to reality: Elsa Bruner, a friend with her own apocalyptic secret, who has started a commune in Maine. Then, just as Mitchell’s predictions reach a nightmarish crescendo, an actual worst-case scenario overtakes Manhattan. Mitchell realizes he is uniquely prepared to profit. But at what cost?  At once an all-too-plausible literary thriller, an unexpected love story, and a philosophically searching inquiry into the nature of fear, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow poses the ultimate questions of imagination and civilization. The future is not quite what it used to be.

 

 

 

and the mountains echoed

 

An unforgettable novel about finding a lost piece of yourself in someone else.  Khaled Hosseini, the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, has written a new novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations.   In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most. 
Following its characters and the ramifications of their lives and choices and loves around the globe—from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos—the story expands gradually outward, becoming more emotionally complex and powerful with each turning page.

 

One of the most powerful and impressive debuts Grove/Atlantic has ever published, The Blood of Heaven is an epic novel about the American frontier in the early days of the nineteenth century. Its twenty-six-year-old author, Kent Wascom, was awarded the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival Prize for fiction, and this first novel shows the kind of talent rarely seen in anythe blood of heaven novelist, no matter their age.  The Blood of Heaven is the story of Angel Woolsack, a preacher’s son, who flees the hardscrabble life of his itinerant father, falls in with a charismatic highwayman, then settles with his adopted brothers on the rough frontier of West Florida, where American settlers are carving their place out of lands held by the Spaniards and the French. The novel moves from the bordellos of Natchez, where Angel meets his love Red Kate to the Mississippi River plantations, where the brutal system of slave labor is creating fantastic wealth along with terrible suffering, and finally to the back rooms of New Orleans among schemers, dreamers, and would-be revolutionaries plotting to break away from the young United States and create a new country under the leadership of the renegade founding father Aaron Burr.  The Blood of Heaven is a remarkable portrait of a young man seizing his place in a violent new world, a moving love story, and a vivid tale of ambition and political machinations that brilliantly captures the energy and wildness of a young America where anything was possible. It is a startling debut.

Coming Soon:

May 30 from Putnam Adult. 

Memorial Day, 1938: New York socialite Lily Dane has just returned with her family to the idyllic oceanfront community of Seaview, Rhode Island, expecting another placid summer season among the familiar traditions and friendships that sustained her 

a hundred summers

after heartbreak.   That is, until Greenwalds decide to take up residence in Seaview.  Nick and Budgie Greenwald are an unwelcome specter from Lily’s past: her former best friend and her former fiancé, now recently married—an event that set off a wildfire of gossip among the elite of Seaview, who have summered together for generations. Budgie’s arrival to restore her family’s old house puts her once more in the center of the community’s social scene, and she insinuates herself back into Lily’s friendship with an overpowering talent for seduction…and an alluring acquaintance from their college days, Yankees pitcher Graham Pendleton. But the ties that bind Lily to Nick are too strong and intricate to ignore, and the two are drawn back into long-buried dreams, despite their uneasy secrets and many emotional obligations.   Under the scorching summer sun, the unexpected truth of Budgie and Nick’s marriage bubbles to the surface, and as a cataclysmic hurricane barrels unseen up the Atlantic and into New England, Lily and Nick must confront an emotional cyclone of their own, which will change their worlds forever.

 

June 3 from Liveright

last summer

Set on Cape Cod during one tumultuous summer, Elizabeth Kelly’s gothic family story will delight readers of The Family Fang and The Giant’s House.  The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, from the best-selling author ofApologize, Apologize!, introduces Riddle James Camperdown, the twelve-year-old daughter of the idealistic Camp and his manicured, razor-sharp wife, Greer. It’s 1972, and Riddle’s father is running for office from the family compound in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Between Camp’s desire to toughen her up and Greer’s demand for glamour, Riddle has her hands full juggling her eccentric parents. When she accidentally witnesses a crime close to home, her confusion and fear keep her silent. As the summer unfolds, the consequences of her silence multiply. Another mysterious and powerful family, the Devlins, slowly emerges as the keepers of astonishing secrets that could shatter the Camperdowns. As an old love triangle, bitter war wounds, and the struggle for status spiral out of control, Riddle can only watch, hoping for the courage to reveal the truth. The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is poised to become the summer’s uproarious and dramatic must-read.

June 4 from Riverhead

yonahlosseeA lush, sexy, evocative debut novel of family secrets and girls’-school rituals, set in the 1930s South.  It is 1930, the midst of the Great Depression. After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes. High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty, and girls’ friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family’s citrus farm—a world now partially shattered. As Thea grapples with her responsibility for the events of the past year that led her here, she finds herself enmeshed in a new order, one that will change her sense of what is possible for herself, her family, her country.  Weaving provocatively between home and school, the narrative powerfully unfurls the true story behind Thea’s expulsion from her family, but it isn’t long before the mystery of her past is rivaled by the question of how it will shape her future. Part scandalous love story, part heartbreaking family drama, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is an immersive, transporting page-turner—a vivid, propulsive novel about sex, love, family, money, class, home, and horses, all set against the ominous threat of the Depression—and the major debut of an important new writer.

June 11 from Thomas & Mercer

 

Booklist “Top 10” author Aric Davis returns with The Fort, a brutal coming-of-age tale forged with the lost innocence of Stephen King’s Stand by Me and the rich atmosphere of Dennis Lahane’s Gone Baby Gone.  In the waning summer days of 1987, Vietnam vet Matt Hooper abducts and kills nameless young women from the streets, replaying violent wargames he can’t escape.  In a twisted turn of events, he picks up sixteen-year-old neighborhood kid Molly Peterson and she goes missing–but this time, there are the fortwitnesses.  For high up in their makeshift fort, local boys Tim, Luke, and Scott spy a strange man in the woods with a gun to Molly’s back, and for the first time in their lives, experience evil lurking in their suburban backyards.  The boys seek help from Detective Richard Van Endel, but their story is taken as foolish make-believe, and their only choice is to shed their adolescence and track down Molly and the killer.  These aren’t childhood games anymore; they can never go back to the long days of summer.  The author of A Good and Useful Hurt and Nickel Plated, Aric Davis returns us to the days of his youth, when the ever present shadow of a violent war gave way to paradise lost.

 

 

 

 

June 11 from Knopf

engagements

From the New York Times best-selling author of Commencement and Maine comes a gorgeous, sprawling novel about marriage—about those who marry in a white heat of passion, those who marry for partnership and comfort, and those who live together, love each other, and have absolutely no intention of ruining it all with a wedding.  Evelyn has been married to her husband for forty years—forty years since he slipped off her first wedding ring and put his own in its place. Delphine has seen both sides of love—the ecstatic, glorious highs of seduction, and the bitter, spiteful fury that descends when it’s over. James, a paramedic who works the night shift, knows his wife’s family thinks she could have done better; while Kate, partnered with Dan for a decade, has seen every kind of wedding—beach weddings, backyard weddings, castle weddings—and has vowed never, ever, to have one of her own.   As these lives and marriages unfold in surprising ways, we meet Frances Gerety, a young advertising copywriter in 1947. Frances is working on the De Beers campaign and she needs a signature line, so, one night before bed, she scribbles a phrase on a scrap of paper: “A Diamond Is Forever.” And that line changes everything.  A rich, layered, exhilarating novel spanning nearly a hundred years, The Engagements captures four wholly unique marriages, while tracing the story of diamonds in America, and the way—for better or for worse—these glittering stones have come to symbolize our deepest hopes for everlasting love.

June 18 from Soho Press

in the house

 

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.  This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.

 

June 18 from Doubleday

A spectacularly original, vibrant, and spirited debut narrated by a shy, sensitive college student who, in her search for love and lovebirdfamily, must flee everything she knows.    Margie Fitzgerald has always had a soft spot for helpless creatures. Her warm heart breaks, her left ovary twinges, and Margie finds herself smitten with sympathy. This is how Margie falls in love with her Latin professor, a lonely widower and single father who trembles visibly in class. This is how Margie joins a band of ragtag student activists called H.E.A.R.T. (Humans Encouraging Animal Rights Today) in liberating lovebirds from their pet-store cages. And this is how Margie becomes involved in a plan so dangerous, so reckless, and so illegal, that she must flee her California college town, cut off contact with her dear old dad, and start fresh in a place unlike anywhere she has ever been. Introducing one of the most unforgettable heroines in recent fiction, The Lovebird is a novel about a girl who can’t abandon a lost cause, who loves animals, and who must travel to the loneliest place on earth to figure out where she really belongs.

 

 

June 18 from Soho Crime

Sequel to ROCK PAPER TIGER

Sequel to ROCK PAPER TIGER

Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe has a pretty good life in Beijing, representing the work of controversial dissident Chinese artist Zhang Jianli. Even though Zhang’s mysterious disappearance of over a year ago has her in the sights of the Chinese authorities. Even though her Born-Again mother has come for a visit and shows no signs of leaving. But when her mom takes up with “that nice Mr. Zhou next door,” Ellie decides that it’s time to get out of town—given her mother’s past bad choices of men, no good can come of this.  An old Army buddy, Dog Turner, gives her the perfect excuse. His unstable brother Jason has disappeared in picturesque Yangshuo, a famous tourist destination, and though Ellie knows it’s a long shot, she agrees to try to find him. At worst, she figures she’ll have a few days of fun in some gorgeous scenery.  But her plans for a relaxing vacation are immediately complicated when her mother and the new boyfriend tag along. And as soon as she starts asking questions about the missing Jason, Ellie realizes that she’s stumbled into a dangerous conspiracy that may or may not involve a sinister biotech company, eco-terrorists, an art-obsessed Chinese billionaire and lots of cats—one that will take her on a wild chase through some of China’s most beautiful—and most surreal—places.

 

June 25 from Redhook

universe

A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.   But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.   So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.

Paperback Releases

June 4 from Simon & Schuster

banyan

In her debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, fiction eerily mirrors Ratner’s reality, as she tells the visceral and achingly heartbreaking story of 7-year-old Raami, a member of the royal family and a child who should never have had to see the things she witnessed.  Raami’s story is loosely based on Ratner’s life.

Like Ratner, Raami holds on to her innocence as only a very young child can.  Raami transports herself away from the ugliness and violence around her by turning inward.  For a time, she does not speak.  She is in a world of her own making.  Ratner employs magical realism, and this literary device works well when one is telling a story from the point of view of a 7-year-old, especially one who has seen such horror.  –From my book review

Read my interview with Vaddey Ratner here.

 

June 18 from Simon & Schuster

green shoreIn a nod to her father’s birthplace, Natalie sets her story mostly in Greece and focuses on a dark period of the country’s history, one that is virtually unknown to most: the 1967 to 1974 military dictatorship.  This period in Greek history, quite honestly, was Greek to this reviewer.  Natalie Bakopoulos, though, takes this event and personalizes it.  In her novel, the political becomes personal, and the personal becomes political…Since Bakopoulos is part Greek, she is intimately aware of Greek history and tradition.  Her knowledge and familiarity with Greece make this story all the more authentic.  Early on in the novel, Eleni and the rest of the family celebrate Easter.  Each takes a dyed-red egg.  Bakopoulos writes, “As was tradition, they would each take a hard-boiled, bright red egg and hit it together with the adjacent person’s, first the pointed end and then the round.  The last one with an intact egg was destined to have good fortune for the rest of the year.”  Reading this description, I could not help but wonder if the family itself would be cracked and broken by novel’s end.  Bakopoulos’s use of this Greek tradition is clever foreshadowing.     –From my book review

June 18 from Back Bay Books

tigers

Klaussmann channels F. Scott Fitzgerald in her decades-spanning tale, which suspensefully and chillingly allows us to witness events as five different people see them, showing how much point of view matters in storytelling.   –From my blurb in Elle, December 2012

Read my full review here

**********************************************************************************************************************

What are you looking forward to reading in June?  I’d love to hear from you!

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Filed under author interviews, beach books, book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, coming of age, contemporary fiction, ELLE Magazine, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, mystery, Oprah's Book Club 2.0, Southern fiction, Southern writers, thriller, women's lit

Interview with Amy Brill, Author of The Movement of Stars

about-amy-200x300

Amy Brill, Author of The Movement of Stars

Jaime Boler: Thank you so much, Amy, for letting me ask you these questions.  The Movement of Stars is such a gorgeous novel, and I know readers of all ages will embrace your protagonist, Hannah Gardner Price.  You are a writer and producer and you previously worked for PBS and MTV.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Amy Brill: I did. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was a voracious reader from a very early age. For my 5th grade book-and-author luncheon I was Louisa May Alcott, so I guess I had a latent thing for the 19th century even then.

JB: Your Twitter profile says: “Turned 40, sold book, had baby in car!”  Please tell me more!

AB: Oh, well. You know. Second baby. Things just went faster than expected! If you’re really curious, I wrote about the birth-in-the-car for Redbook recently. You can read it here.  Or did you want to hear more about 40? It’s the new 30. I just cling to that.

JB: For those who do not know, The Movement of Stars is loosely based on the life of Maria Mitchell.  Who was Maria Mitchell?

AB: She was the first professional female astronomer in America. She was born on Nantucket in 1818 into a large Quaker family, and was taught astronomy by her father, who calibrated the chronometers for the Nantucket whaling fleet. She had only a high school education, but she went on to discover a comet and become the founding professor of astronomy at Vassar College.

maria mitchell

JB: You first learned about Ms. Mitchell on a trip to Nantucket in 1996.  What about her captivated you so much that you wanted to write about her?

AB: I was taken by the idea of this young girl who was so dedicated to her passion that she spent night after night up on her roof, in every kind of weather, searching for something as elusive as a comet. I felt compelled to learn more, and more, and more, until I was so immersed in her life and times that I had to keep going.

JB: What prompted you to write about her?

AB: I didn’t want to write a straight biography, I wanted to write a novelized version of her life. It took many years of research and many dry, epistolary drafts before I understood that the story I really wanted to tell existed only in my head, and that Miss Mitchell and the “facts” of her life were only a leaping-off place, not a destination.

JB: How is Hannah Gardner Price different from Maria Mitchell?

AB: There’s certainly no indication that Maria Mitchell had any kind of relationship with a black whaler from the Azores, to begin with. Also, their family situations were entirely different. Hannah lives alone with her father, her twin brother being away on a whaleship. Maria Mitchell had a large family around her. And all of the secondary characters are invented, except the Bonds, the father-and-son team who ran the Harvard Observatory. They were real people and were friends with Maria and her father, though my version of those relationships is invented.

JB: What kind of research did you do for The Movement of Stars?

AB: I don’t think there’s any kind I didn’t do, short of navigating an actual whaleship across the Atlantic.

I think I read everything there is to read about 19th century astronomy, New England women and self-fashioning, Nantucket culture, Quakers, and whaling. I was assisted by the many archives and libraries I visited, from the Kendall Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum to the Maria Mitchell Association archives to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, where I was a visiting artist fellow in 2005.

JB: Hannah’s world is so small and fixed in place when the story begins.  She’s bound by her gender and her religion.  Everything changes for Hannah by the end of the book, and her world enlarges in so many different ways.  If Hannah were to spend one day in 2013, what would she say about women’s roles?  How far would she say we still have to go in the Twenty-First Century?

AB: She was hardcore in her beliefs and outspoken about equality for women. So I think she would be be thrilled that women now go to college, work in any field they like, and vote. But I think she’d be aghast that more women aren’t running for office to redress the issues that force families to shoulder the tremendous burden of incompatible work-life policy in the workplace, and to fight for adequate, subsidized childcare and family leave to enable women to actually achieve parity without sacrificing quality of family life. Wow, that was a mouthful.

JB: You set your story in Nantucket in the 1840s, an era and a locale that come to vivid life in The Movement of Stars.  How did you capture the sense of place so well?

AB: I spent a little time there, but mostly through careful research and deep enchantment with the place itself. In so many ways Nantucket today and Nantucket 200 years ago aren’t all that different.

JB: How difficult was it to get inside the Quaker mentality?  Was it hard to write using all those “thees” and “thous”?

AB: I can’t say I was inside the Quaker mentality; that particular, rigid moment in that Meeting was just an isolated sliver of what Quakerism was and is. As for thee and thou and thy and thus… well let’s just say there was a lot more of that in earlier drafts, and we can all be happy that most of them landed in the circular file, i.e. the wastebasket.

JB: What does the character of Isaac Martin do for Hannah?  And what does he add to the story?  How different would Hannah have been if he had not shown up at her door?  Would Hannah have accomplished all the things she did without Isaac?

AB: Isaac is fundamental to Hannah’s growth as a holistic human being, one who understands her own heart as well as her mind. She might have found her comet—she might not have—but she certainly wouldn’t have come to know her own desires, or found her own convictions along the way.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself while writing this story?

AB: So many things. I mean, I grew up alongside Hannah. When I started, I was 25, single, clueless. When I finished, I was 40, married, with a child (now two!). So I found my way to the same twin engines that fuel Hannah’s journey—love and discipline—right alongside her.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in The Movement of Stars?

AB: That’s like asking me to name my favorite child. Can’t do it.

JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

AB: I like to be outside, in the sun, preferably at the shore, making sand castles with my kids and throwing a Frisbee with my husband. Not at the same time, obviously.

JB: What are some of your favorite books and/or who are some of your favorite authors?

AB: I love Andrea Barrett, Ann Patchett, Shirley Hazzard. Of my contemporaries, Megan Mayhew Bergman and Elissa Schappell and Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent story collections all blew me away. I see a very female theme emerging here! Sorry, boys. I’ll shout you all out next time.

JB: What is your favorite book?

AB: I love [Ann Patchett’s] Bel Canto. Me and everyone else on earth. It wove a powerful spell.

JB: Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

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AB: My World Domination New England Tour will kick off right after Mother’s Day! I’ll be in Mystic, CT, Worcester, MA, Wellesley, MA, Portsmouth NH, Falmouth, MA, and Sandwich, MA, in May, and then Cohasset, MA, and Providence RI, in early June. Then in Concord, MA, and at the Nantucket Book Festival later in June! I’m probably forgetting some places, but it’s all on my website at http://www.amybrill.com/news-and-events/.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Movement of Stars?

AB: Lots of Kleenex. And a deeper understanding of the nature of human desire, in all its manifestations.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

AB: Always working. Articles, essays, a few short stories, and gnawing on ideas for another novel.

JB: Thanks, Amy, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with The Movement of Stars!

AB: Thanks so much for having me here. My pleasure.

Oprah.com has selected The Movement of Stars as part of its “5 Dreamy Historical Novels” for spring reading!

“These stories take you back to the age of calling cards, carriages and the occasional complex, believable “attachment” also known as love.”

Read more: http://www.oprah.com/book/The-Movement-of-Stars-by-Amy-Brill#ixzz2RPSGROku

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Book Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Knopf; 256 pages; $24.95).

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            Reading Ayana Mathis’ epic debut The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, I could not help but think of the poem “A Dream Deferred” by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

and then run?

Does it stink like rotting meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

 

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

 

Or does it explode?[1]

 

Hattie, Mathis’ central character, and her family left their home in Georgia as part of the African-American exodus to the North during the Great Migration. Six million blacks moved out of the rural South to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from around 1910 to 1970.

 

When their exodus began, slavery had long been abolished.  Yet, African-Americans were still very much bound.  Segregation, discrimination, and physical violence prompted blacks to hope for better lives in urban centers like Chicago and New York City.  Some may have had families in those cities; others set out with uncertainty, knowing no one but desperate for better lives.  The dreams of many were fulfilled as they found jobs and discovered new avenues open to them.  The dreams of others, as Hughes lyrically laments, were deferred.

 

Hattie belongs in the latter category. In 1925, she and her husband, August, live in Philadelphia, where they rent a house and where August works long hours.  Hattie gives birth to twins, Philadelphia and Jubliee, appellations “that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia…names of promise and of hope, reaching forward names, not looking back ones.”

The names she chooses for her children are significant.  Philadelphia represents their new home, the city of Philadelphia.  Hattie has high hopes for her family’s future in this great city.  The name then carries with it all of Hattie’s optimisms and dreams.  The name Jubilee evokes echoes of the African-American Juneteenth celebrations that marked the end of slavery (the first celebration occurred June 19, 1865).  In the North, Hattie’s children are free and do not have to worry about seeing August beaten, as Hattie once saw happen to her own father.  In Philadelphia, Hattie is certain that her twins will have opportunities she did not have growing up in Georgia.

 

When the twins become ill with pneumonia at seven months old, Hattie’s world is shaken. She tries to lessen their cough with eucalyptus, but the plant is difficult to find in Philadelphia.  When Hattie finds the plant, she has to buy it.  This feels so wrong to her.  Back home in Georgia, a eucalyptus tree is located directly “across from Hattie’s house.”  Such a stark realization leaves her bitter–especially when she cannot save them.

 

What happens to a dream deferred?  For Hattie, losing the twins is earth-shattering.  She feels as if a part of her dies with Philadelphia and Jubilee.  Hattie and August go on to have other children, but Hattie is never the same after the tragedy.

 

For her other offspring to survive in this world, Hattie must harden herself so she can harden them.  If they are to survive, then Hattie must be a survivor.  She will hold them at arm’s length if it means they will reach adulthood.  She will close herself off from them if it means they will grow up.

 

Mathis then switches gears and focuses on what happens to Hattie’s eleven children and one grand-child, her twelve tribes.  When we meet each of Hattie’s progeny in wholly intimate chapters, they are all on the cusp of something: grappling with identity, homophobia, abuse, jealousy, and sickness.  Mathis also illustrates through these chapters how Hattie’s children see her as a cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful woman.   The structure of the chapters also allows us to see how things change as the years pass.  Although Hattie and August grow apart, she still stays with him, even after she has a baby by another man and runs away.  She feels bound to August and stays by his side through affairs and economic hardships.  

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie cuts to the quick.  Mathis employs incisive, gritty dialogue that lodges itself deep in the hearts and guts of readers.  She can be elegantly precise yet equally coarse and raw when necessary, showing an amazing range of talent.

 

For me, Mathis’ other characters pale next to Hattie.  The author provides fascinating windows into Hattie’s psyche through her twelve tribes.  We know what they do not.  We know why she is cold, bitter, and sometimes hateful.

 

Mathis is by no means using Hattie to represent all African-American women who left the South to make new lives in the North.  Instead, Mathis is re-presenting one possible story through the character of Hattie.  Mathis wants to show the gritty underbelly of a family who took part in the Great Migration with all the sufferings and ordeals such an epic journey would entail.

 

Hattie’s dream of a new life did not go the way she had hoped it would.  Hattie’s was a dream deferred that festered, crusted over, and dried up.  Surely, Hattie would say her heart rotted and stank.  Perhaps she exploded from the pain.  Hattie had to survive so her children would.  What a heavy load she carried.  What a stunning literary achievement from Mathis as she chronicles one woman’s trials and tribulations.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie resonates with meaning and with beauty.

 

 


[1] Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

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Spotlight on The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

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Some of you may not believe this, but I used to read nothing but romance novels. Then, Oprah’s Book Club came along in 1996, and my reading tastes changed. Suddenly, the world of literary fiction was open to me. Oh, the things I had been missing!  I devoured SHE’S COME UNDONE by Wally Lamb; I read WHERE THE HEART IS by Billie Letts in one sitting.  The way  Barbara Kingsolver could tell a story fascinated me.  I soon learned that romance novelists had nothing on Bernhard Schlink–his THE READER was seductive and gripping.

I soon sought out other titles for myself and said goodbye to romance novels forever.  In 2010, Oprah ended her book club.  The news disappointed her fans, especially me. Earlier this year though, she launched the revamped Oprah’s Book Club 2.0, selecting as her first book WILD by Cheryl Strayed.

Oprah just announced her newest book club selection: THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE by Ayana Mathis.

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Ayana Mathis

Ayana Mathis

“A debut of extraordinary distinction: Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family.

In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented.  Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave.  She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage and the journey of a nation.

Beautiful and devastating, Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is wondrous from first to last—glorious, harrowing, unexpectedly uplifting, and blazing with life. An emotionally transfixing page-turner, a searing portrait of striving in the face of insurmountable adversity, an indelible encounter with the resilience of the human spirit and the driving force of the American dream, Mathis’s first novel heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.”–from Goodreads

Here’s what Oprah said about the book:

“The opening pages of Ayana’s debut took my breath away,” said Winfrey, OWN CEO, “I can’t remember when I read anything that moved me in quite this way, besides the work of Toni Morrison.”

Yes, Oprah compared Mathis to literary goddess Morrison. High praise, indeed!


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THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE sounds like a great book. Mathis is sure to be a bright literary talent.

I’m reading THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE. Who wants to read along with me?

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